Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill - Enforcement by taking control of goods

27th June 2007

Brooks Newmark calls for a code of conduct for bailiffs and a list of basic items that enforcement officers cannot remove.

 

Enforcement by taking control of goods

Mr. Newmark: I am delighted to be able to return to this important if somewhat heterogeneous Bill, although I very much doubt that our deliberations will be among the top one or two stories on the news tonight. The Minister may look doubtful about that, but it is a shame because the Bill will have a considerable impact on those of our constituents unfortunate enough to find themselves in financial difficulty.

If anything is more stressful than moving house, it is probably the thought that someone may enter it to remove treasured possessions. The Opposition have been consistent in our appeals for a code of conduct that is transparent and accessible to members of the public, and on which they can rely when they are in difficulty with bailiffs. The poor, vulnerable and socially excluded are at particular risk, but a code of conduct or set of notional standards would bring universal benefits.

The slightly tenuous argument was advanced in Committee that bailiffs already have their own code of conduct, and that a Government code would be to no avail in dealing with the few bailiffs who have decided to ignore their own. However, national standards or a code of conduct set by the Government would ensure consistency and hold up a mirror to the whole enforcement profession, and that could not but be to the advantage of the public as a whole.

If that is not sufficient, proposed new paragraph (2) of amendment No. 13 makes it explicit that the code would not be a matter of whimsy, but that people would be expected to adhere to it. We are all aware of the sterling work of the citizens advice bureaux in assisting people who get into debt. Staff at the office covering Braintree, Witham and Halstead have written to me with their general concerns about the Bill, and specific examples of problems that they have encountered recently.

In one example, a client was being chased for a debt even though she thought that she was up to date with it. Indeed, it turned out that the debt was nearly 10 years old. That was unfortunate in itself, but her real concern was that the bailiff involved was demanding entry to her house and would not accept any payment terms whatsoever. The CAB client had offered to pay the debt over a period of six months, but the bailiff said that he could only accept three monthly instalments.

I know that such problems are all too common, and that is why I continue to believe that the Bill is missing an opportunity to set out, clearly and accessibly, the behaviour expected from bailiffs when dealing with the poor, vulnerable or socially excluded. Society and Government have a special responsibility to those people-an implicit responsibility that ought to be made explicit.

Requiring bailiffs to act proportionately would also be an attempt to legislate for common sense. The Minister has that quality in abundance, but unfortunately it is sometimes lacking in bailiffs, who can clock up hundreds of pounds of costs in order to get their hands on pennies.

The Minister places her trust in training as part of the beefed-up certification process, but training can still fall short of the mark, even when those participating in it have the best of intentions. In addition, the certification process will almost certainly be opaque to public scrutiny, whereas a code of conduct and minimum standards would be clearly understood by the enforcement profession and, more importantly, the public.

In Committee, there was some question over the secrecy of the bailiffs bible. The Minister keeps it under lock and key in her office because it concerns operations issues which, in her opinion, should not be made public. That is indicative of one of the problems with the Bill. There is a suspicion, or even just a perception, that a lot is going on behind closed doors in terms of available guidance, standards and training.

A code of conduct or recognisable national standards would go a long way towards dispelling that perception. The Minister has been kind enough to acknowledge that the predecessors to these amendments were all well intentioned, but suggested that they were unnecessary because the conduct of bailiffs would be well enough regulated by appropriate regulations. However, she hit the nail on the head when she said that she did not expect a debtor to read them and that there was no chance of that happening, but more chance that they might lead to national standards or a code of conduct that is clearly in the public domain. She has been steadfast in her position on that line of argument, but I hope that she will reconsider the position today.

I also wish to speak in support of amendment No. 12 on the need to provide in the Bill a list of items exempted from possessions that enforcement officers are able to remove. I do not in any way suggest that it is a full list. As we discussed in Committee, regardless of whether it is even possible to provide a full list, it is also inexpedient to do so because such a list would need to evolve over time. Nevertheless, a core list in the Bill and further exemptions spelled out by regulations are not mutually exclusive. If I am incorrect in that assumption, I hope that the Minister will correct me in her usual gracious way. My concern is that parts of the Bill are so skeletal that it is remarkable that they have not been seized upon by Damien Hirst as a candidate for diamond-plating.

I am grateful for the Ministry's detailed policy statement on delegated powers, but the fact that it reaches 65 pages on its own suggests either that it is the very model of detail or that there are an awful lot of delegated powers. In Committee, the Minister advanced two principal arguments for the Government's reliance on regulations, and I should like to challenge each of them. First, she said that it was necessary to preserve flexibility by not pinning the exemptions to a list on the face of the Bill. I quite agree with that, and I have no doubt that thorough consultation, which I hope the Government are committed to, will turn up some worthy exemptions that have not yet occurred to the Minister.

In the space of just a few minutes, members of the Committee thought of a number of potentially necessary additions to the list, but I do not think that anyone has suggested that a list appearing in schedule 12 need be exhaustive. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) does not seek to address matters like the prophesy of future technological advances, or to start listing all trade tools that might conceivably stand in the line of fire-wigs and gowns included. However, a list included in schedule 12 merely needs to cover some of the ground as an explicit indication of the Government's intentions, and one which has statutory authority.

That brings me to the second of the Minister's arguments, which was that the paucity of parliamentary time would make any list contained in the Bill entirely untenable because of the scant opportunity to amend it. But that perfectly reasonable objection could be overcome by the simple addition of a reference to any further regulations that the Minister should, from time to time, need to lay before Parliament. I assume that I am right in thinking that the Government would not envisage the need to come to Parliament to repeal the protection that the amendment offers to guide dogs. The Minister will be glad to hear that I shall not devote any further time to the potential inequity of canine repossession, but will she address one question that arose from my reading of the detailed policy statement?

Paragraphs 143 and 144 concern situations in which enforcement officers may take control of goods that would normally be exempted but that have a value beyond their common use and can therefore be easily replaced. The guidance gives the example of an antique dining table, which could easily be replaced by a utilitarian table in order to release some value. How does the Minister envisage that process operating in practice, given that enforcement officers will not be replacing like with like? That seems to be a recipe for confusion or even abuse.

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If the enforcement officers take the table and replace it, who meets the cost of the replacement until such a time as the original is sold, and what provision is made for the cost of the related logistics? Enforcement officers could spend a considerable sum on finding replacements for otherwise exempted items-for example, money would be spent on buying and transporting them-but the underlying debt might not be reduced at all by the whole process. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the complexity and the potential for abuse represented by the guidance. I do not wish to go any wider of the amendment, but I hope that she will reconsider the Government's position on the inclusion of a list in the schedule.

Finally, I deal with amendment No. 15 which relates to single women and children. I am conscious that the issue has already been addressed at some length, but I wish to make two points. First, it seems an entirely reasonable proposition that single women-by which I mean women on their own-should be dealt with by female enforcement officers. It is a well established principle that searches by police, Customs officers and security staff are sensitive to gender, because searches are invasive. Visits by bailiffs are similarly invasive and deserve to be treated with comparable sensitivity.

Secondly, on the issue of children under the age of 16, the amendment is necessary to reinforce the available protection. The Minister confirmed in Committee that there is something of a lacuna between the protection offered to children under 12 and that offered to children under 18. If the only person on the premises is under 12, the bailiff is required to withdraw, but if there is someone aged between 12 and 18 the bailiff is entitled to make inquiries before leaving. The protections deal only with situations in which a child is home alone and do not address the position of children who are otherwise subjected to a visit by a bailiff. I hope that the Minister will comment on that situation. I am conscious that she will argue that bailiffs will be trained in how to deal with children and other vulnerable people, but I just question whether that is enough.

 

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