The knock on the door often comes at six in the morning. If you answer, beware — you could end up in a debtors’ prison.
This is not a scene from Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. It is what is happening to dozens of people in the UK every year. The notorious Marshalsea Prison, where 12-year-old Dickens’ father was imprisoned in 1824 for an unpaid debt to a baker, has been demolished for more than a century. But the spirit of Marshalsea lives on through the use of bailiffs — especially by local authorities in England and Wales.
In the past financial year, local authorities took court action for imprisonment against 4,817 people, mostly for arrears of council tax. Of these, 62 people received a prison sentence because they failed to pay. Alistair Chisholm, who wrote about these shocking statistics in “I can’t believe we still do that”, an aptly named report for the Institute of Money Advisers, said: “The approach to council tax debts is completely out of step with the way other debts can be recovered. You can’t go to prison for failing to pay an electricity bill or your rent.”
A further report from The Money Advice Trust revealed that local authorities passed more than 2.3m debts to bailiffs in the same period — an increase of 14 per cent in two years. Council tax debts were behind 59 per cent of these cases.The rise has coincided with the reform of council tax benefit, meaning more people on low incomes are having to pay for the first time.
But it is not only local councils that are calling in the bailiffs. Private landlords are obtaining court orders in increasing numbers; so are the personal contract purchase ( PCP) companies whose bailiffs repossess vehicles bought on such plans, often lifting them from the street. Britons owe almost £19bn in unpaid utility bills, council tax and benefit overpayments according to Citizens Advice. It said it helped one person with “bailiff issues” every three minutes last year, and is calling for an independent regulator.
The knock on the door or letter threatening county court proceedings is often the crisis that propels people to seek debt advice — yet there is not enough free debt advice to go round. As the Financial Times recently reported, two of the UK’s biggest providers of free debt advice, PayPlan and StepChange are warning of a funding crisis as demand for debt advice is expected to increase by 200 per cent by early 2020.
At the same time, there are growing numbers of companies who have purchased bad debts for a few pennies in the pound and are often prepared to use more aggressive recovery tactics to get a return on their investment. Yet charities report that these “debt buyers” are unlikely to fund the voluntary levies that enable them to provide a free service.
The knowledge of debt advisers is vital because they offer the only real defence against unjust treatment by bailiffs who break the rules. I have experience of the distress this causes. When a family friend with teenaged children faced the threat of having their personal possessions removed on a Saturday morning without warning, I was asked whether the bailiffs could force their way into their home. No, they could not, I said. Do not answer the door.
Few people — let alone those in problem debt — know the rules or whom to ask for help. Bailiffs cannot usually enter your home without permission. However, if you agree to let them in they can take luxury items such as televisions or laptops to sell and clear the debt — unless these are the tools of your job, or owned by someone other than the debtor.
They cannot visit people’s homes before 6am or after 9pm, which is why the bailiffs often start at dawn. They know householders are off guard and at their most vulnerable in the early hours of the morning. The offices of likely creditors such as local councils will not be open for business. It is also long before debt counsellors are available to help. In the early hours, your chances of proving that you do not owe the money that the bailiffs claim you do are therefore very slim.
The average council tax debt that local authorities seek to recover is £2,213 — lower than the threshold for bankruptcy and much lower than the average credit card debt. Those imprisoned for council tax debt can be sentenced to up to three months, but they will still have to pay their debt when they have served their sentence.
Take the case of Melanie Woodcock, who was jailed for 81 days in 2016, even though she had paid £100 towards her council tax debt. She was released after 40 days when her lawyers managed to secure an emergency hearing.
In July, MPs on the Treasury select committee said debts to local authorities were often pursued overzealously, with routine recourse to bailiffs.
“The public sector should be leading by example in their treatment of the most financially vulnerable; but the current approach risks driving them into further difficulty,” the committee said, recommending that “uncompromising” local and central government debt collection practices should be reformed.
According to the independent Wyman Review, 1.1m people in the UK currently receive free debt advice. However, it is estimated that 7.2m more need debt advice but fail to get it.
The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute reports that more than half of those in serious debt have mental health problems. Its research has found that the actions of creditors, including bailiffs, is “a significant part of the causal pathway” from financial difficulty to mental health issues.
If Dickens were alive today, he would not be short of material.
Lindsay Cook is co-founder of consumer website MoneyFightClub.com and co-author of “Money Fight Club: Saving Money One Punch at a Time”, published by Harriman House. If you have a problem for the Money Mentor to look into, email email@example.com