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 Advertiser 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.
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.