18 Nov 2020 | Posted In Money advice news

Following speculation about the resumption of enforcement visits, Russell Hamblin-Boone, Chief Executive of the Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA), shares his thoughts and exclusive findings regarding current civil enforcement conduct and outcomes in a new report:

When the government implemented plans for a phased lifting of the lockdown restrictions, CIVEA recognised that it was not responsible to simply restart enforcement visits. Instead the CIVEA Post-lockdown Support Plan was developed to ensure the safety of all parties including Enforcement Agents (EAs) and the public, which all CIVEA members committed to implement. The result has been an industry-leading initiative that sets a successful template for future public debt recovery.

Understandably, there have been concerns raised that the coronavirus pandemic is affecting people who face enforcement, but comprehensive data from a variety of sources suggests that enforcement activity is not contributing to financial problems

Advance notice

Under leadership from CIVEA with support from the government, members implemented a pre-visit letter and vulnerability identification phase to ensure that all those in debt were aware of the restart of enforcement and what we were doing to ensure their safety. Anyone who had missed a payment or had been out of contact received a reconnection letter. To ensure consistency and prevent confusion, this involved a template letter plus individual follow up communication by texts, emails and calls. Firms used the standard form letter unless their council clients required an alteration. The letter aimed to engage with customers to understand how they have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis and respond as appropriate. Each case was offered support as appropriate, including signposting to the Money Advice Service and debt advice charities. Collectively over two million letters were sent out by CIVEA members to re-engage with people in debt.

As the Minister told us:

“I am grateful for the steps the enforcement industry has taken to adapt to these [COVID-19] changes, and for your commitment to ensuring the balance required between the needs of the creditor and debtor in enforcement proceedings.” (Alex Chalk MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, November 2020)

Safety first

The precautions that the industry has taken are stricter and more comprehensive than many other sectors where deliveries are made or tradesman enter people’s homes. For the safety of agents and those they visited, CIVEA made a voluntary commitment to contactless visits and to not to enter residential premises. The vast majority of visits since enforcement activity resumed post-lockdown, have been to enforce fines, traffic offences and other penalties that have been outstanding since before lockdown measures led to a suspension of activity. Most people have continued to meet their repayment plans throughout the coronavirus pandemic, indicating that payments are both fair and affordable. CIVEA members only visited individuals who had not engaged or communicated with their local authority despite being given numerous 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.

Debt relief

Around 48,000 enforcements were suspended as a result of people reporting COVID-19 infection or self-isolation, which is a testament of the pre-visit engagement work. Enforcement firms report that:

  • Less than one percent of people are claiming that financial difficulties prevent them paying their debts.
  • Half of all enforcement cases are resolved by agreeing repayment plans.
  • More people are paying off their debts early and increasing instalment payments.

A recent study by Experian was widely reported in the media and suggested that the average amount of debt has been reduced by almost £2,000 throughout the pandemic. It is well known that the furlough scheme benefited many people who were able to save money and clear existing debts. UK consumers have repaid a record £7.4bn of debt during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Responsible recovery

Encouragingly, feedback from enforcement firms across England and Wales suggests that people are generally respecting social distancing and understand that enforcement agents will not enter their homes. Complaint levels, which we report regularly to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), are very low at present indicating that the agents conduct is responsible and they are adhering to CIVEA guidelines and best practice. Enforcement firms are experienced at identifying indicators of vulnerability. If this is not identified until a visit takes place, agents immediately withdraw and the case is passed to welfare support teams.

All agents wear body-worn video cameras to ensure that they maintain high standards and treat people fairly and with respect. All complaints are reviewed using the video footage, as well as any other evidence. With such stringent measures in place, it is almost impossible for legitimate issues to be missed and many have welcomed the professionalism of the industry. On the rare occasions concerns are found to be legitimate, action is taken swiftly.

Council confidence

While councils have an enviable record for debt collection, it is testament to the industry that over 70 percent of local councils in England and Wales have instructed enforcement firms to recommence visits to recover council tax and court fines that were unpaid before the lockdown. The remainder are delayed by having staff on furlough as they make their offices COVID secure. During the suspension of enforcement visits, which began at the end of March and ran until the end of August, councils incurred £4.8 billion of extra costs and income losses. This has a significant impact on local services. Around 60% of council budgets are allocated to supporting vulnerable households.

Public support for bailiffs

YouGov survey, commissioned by CIVEA suggests that the public perception is that enforcement is appropriate and necessary. Key findings showed:

  • More than two-thirds of people surveyed believed some taxpayers will use the current health crisis to avoid paying their council tax, even though they can meet the payments.
  • 56% of those surveyed said they believe councils should use bailiffs to collect money from people who can but won’t pay.
  • Only 28% said they were against this, with the rest remaining unsure.

None of this is to say that people will not face financial hardship and vulnerable circumstances as a result of the pandemic. But the CIVEA Post-Lockdown Support Plan was devised to ensure those in need were identified as early as possible and that civil enforcement takes place in accordance with public health guidance. The enforcement sector is rightly proud of such a successful return to public debt recovery, which is so crucial to help councils maximise their revenue.

We can all agree how important it is, especially during a national health crisis, that support and help is provided to people with multiple debts. At the same time, reports and surveys from the public, enforcement firms and local authorities tell the same story that people are keen to make repayments and are paying off more debts than usual.

Enforcement agents are supporting the national effort to fund our local services. CIVEA agrees with calls for the government to extend the financial support it has provided, but we believe that local authorities can also help themselves. The evidence is beyond reproach that a further suspension of enforcement activity will only serve to restrict essential funding of millions of pounds. With latest figures showing high success, safe practices and low complaints, there is no logical reason to deny fair and appropriate debt recovery activities from taking place.

“I am grateful for the continuing cooperation and leadership shown by CIVEA at this difficult time.” (Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor, October 2020).

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