The resumption of enforcement visits to collect overdue, pre-coronavirus debt to local authorities has been handled successfully one month on, according to evidence from CIVEA, the principal trade association representing over 95% of civil enforcement agencies in England and Wales. The vast majority of visits in the past month have been to enforce fines, traffic offences and other penalties that have been outstanding since before lockdown measures led to a suspension of activity.
A report based on a survey of 21 enforcement firms and their field agents, which was originally devised for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), has now been published and shows generally consistent and positive experiences across the industry regardless of company size or location.
The implementation of new post-COVID-19 guidance and processes was expected to generate challenges for enforcement agents (EAs) acting on behalf of councils. But the CIVEA report provides insight into agents’ experiences and indicates that most feel protected and have found the public to be appreciative of the precautions put in place. This is backed up by low complaint levels.
Some key findings from the full report include:
- Enforcement agents feel that the industry measures put in place for safety are sufficient to protect them and the customer.
- People are respecting social distancing and understand that enforcement agents will not enter their homes.
- Wearing protective equipment and sanitising procedures after each visit are time-consuming but manageable.
- Out of 500 visits by one company, only 5 debtors reported symptoms of COVID-19 or were self-isolating.
- Most companies were able to report receiving no complaints since enforcement visits have resumed.
- There are mixed responses to the collection rates compared to pre-COVID levels. As expected, collection rates are lower than normal currently, but some people have saved money during lockdown and many EAs are finding visits are leading to settled debts or increased repayments.
Importantly, very few cases of COVID-19 patients, isolating or shielding, are being reported which suggests that efforts to make prior contact and encourage people to seek support have succeeded. In all cases where agents have encountered vulnerable people, additional support has been provided by dedicated welfare teams and referrals to council support services.
During the hiatus on bailiffs visiting properties, which began at the end of March and ran until the end of August, councils incurred £4.8bn of extra costs and income losses. Despite extra central Government funding, local authorities have warned the budget shortfall in England and Wales could top £7.4bn. Not addressing this shortfall would impact members of the community who need support from local authority services, at a time when they need it more than ever.
CIVEA members only visit debtors who have not engaged or communicated with their local authority despite being given opportunities to do so. Visits are only authorised when there is a genuine need and previous attempts to resolve debts by other forms of communication have failed.
A freedom of information (FOI) request recently discovered that 113 local authorities in England and Wales have already recommenced enforcement action for unpaid Council Tax since restriction were lifted on visits at the end of August. The same report went on to find that over £164.4million pounds has been successfully collected by Enforcement Agents on behalf of councils during the 2019/2020 financial year, with the average revenue collected per local authority equating to £1.053million pounds.
The number of local authorities recommencing enforcement visits is expected to increase in the coming weeks and months, as council offices are adapted for staff to return and councils are seeing the success of those who have already resumed activity.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, CIVEA Chief Executive Officer, says:
“Our report reflects positive and negative findings as it is an honest, first-hand insight into the challenges enforcement agents face currently. After five months without enforcement visits and additional pressure on their budgets, councils will be pleased to read that our agents are still able to recover outstanding debts safely and responsibly. Their job is not easy, especially under current restrictions, but this report clearly shows precautions are working well and that most people appreciate the protective measures we have implemented. Enforcement is not as effective without entering premises, especially where we are recovering court fines, but all agents are acting according to CIVEA guidelines. We are providing regular updates to the government.
“It is important for councils to be able to fund their frontline services and to address the deficits caused by the coronavirus pandemic, before the shortfalls get worse. The need to collect debts is important, but our members understand that sensitivity towards debtors and support for vulnerable people is equally important. By collecting from those who can afford to pay but won’t, councils can ensure funding remains in place to keep supporting members of the community who need their help most.”
The full CIVEA report on post-lockdown visits is available here: https://www.civea.co.uk/blog/civea-report-one-month-of-enforcement-visits