SWINDON Council is taking steps to tighten control on bailiffs acting on its behalf after some were branded as “gangsters” – with an un-named senior Conservative councillor even forced to pay off a collector from his own pocket on a resident’s doorstep.
The Adver reported in September that a handful of debt collection companies were making a fortune despite their tactics having been criticised for unfairly penalising poor and vulnerable people.
Debt collectors recovered £170,000 in car parking fees alone between 2011 and 2012, of which they retained £100,000. But the companies have also recouped more than £1m in council tax every year since 2009, and retained an undisclosed share of the proceeds.
After the issue was raised by the Labour group at Thursday’s full council meeting, the authority commissioned a report to outline the circumstances in which bailiffs may be used and the measures that are being taken to ensure they act appropriately and lawfully.
Councillor Des Moffatt (Lab, Rodbourne Cheney), who highlighted the incident with the Tory councillor, said bailiffs were just not following the rules, adding that the use of debt collectors would rise when benefits reforms came into force in April next year, meaning almost everyone would pay at least 20 per of their council tax bill.
He said: “A long time ago I looked tenants in the eye and said if you don’t pay your rent somebody has to pay more rent, and the same applies to council tax, so I have no sympathy with the person who refuses.
“But what’s coming down the track to us is so dramatically unfair that it renders that unfairness almost irrelevant.
“People with no money aren’t going to be paying the 10 per cent, but the 20 per cent. And then you know they won’t be paying it in huge numbers.
“We will issue liability orders like confetti and then we’ll send bailiffs in and the bailiffs will act like gangsters.”
Coun Stan Pajak (Lib Dem, Eastcott) told the case of a resident whose £75 parking fine spiralled to a £175 debt due to bailiffs fees, adding that Swindon Council would not initially help, claiming the issue was with the bailiffs.
He said: “The truth is we as an authority should be using bailiffs as a last resort and only using good bailiffs.
“And hopefully this report will ensure that this does happen and we can actually believe we’re using bailiffs as a last resort in the best way possibly.”
The meeting also heard of other poor experiences with debt collectors, including that of a mother-of-three who was brow-beaten by a bailiff at 8.10am in front of neighbours, children and the school bus.
Coun Mark Edwards, the cabinet member for finance, said that in 2011/12 there were 5,200 instances of council debt referred to bailiffs, but the number of complaints was just 29.
He said: “I completely get what’s being said here but I do believe that with the processes and procedures we do have in the council that it takes a lot to get to the bailiffs.
“This is not done lightly. There’s a huge amount of work done behind the scenes to make sure it doesn’t get to that stage.”