How precautions facilitate essential activity.
Welcome to our blog series, exploring the key topics being discussed in the enforcement industry. Today we look at the enhanced safety precautions Enforcement Agents are taking and how this has given confidence to central and local government in the enforcement process.
On 20 January 2021, we were encouraged to receive support from the Rt Hon Robert Buckland MP, Secretary of State for Justice in a letter to CIVEA members. The letter also reiterated the advice for enforcement agents not to enter residential property during lockdown in England and Wales. Enforcement agents collecting on behalf of HM Courts and Tribunals Service have been designated essential workers. Enforcement is an integral part of the process that supports local authorities’ statutory duty to enforce court warrants and liability orders for unpaid debt. Local authorities are especially aware during the pandemic of the need to balance revenue collection with supporting vulnerable citizens. After all, 60 percent of councils’ budget is spent on adult social care and supporting vulnerable people locally.
CIVEA and its members understand the challenges for those in financial hardship and will always support customers who are vulnerable or are struggling to pay their debts. Our shared industry ambition always has been recuperating funds from those who can afford to pay but are making the choice not to.
Enforcement agents are often confused with debt collectors that work for private companies. But the role of enforcement is to implement the orders of a court to recover overdue debt owed to public bodies. The recovery of millions of pounds of lost revenue is important to fund critical services. In order to ensure fair treatment of people in debt, the enforcement process is designed to encourage early engagement to help people settle their debts in an affordable way. Around half of debt recovered by enforcement agents is collected through repayment plans. However, there will always be a need for enforcement visits. The experience of the lockdown has proved that many people welcome an agent visit to discuss how to clear their debt. An enforcement visit is frequently the first opportunity to identify that someone is vulnerable and in need of social welfare support.
Safety remains our number one priority and evidence suggests that the precautions enforcement firms have taken since returning to work have been successful. Our universally agreed re-connection letter and vulnerability identification phase ensured all of those in debt were aware of the restart of activity and what we were doing to ensure their safety. As a result of this filtering process, only between four and five percent of enforcement visits were halted because of people were self-isolating or ill with coronavirus. We voluntarily banned enforcement agents from entering residential properties before this became a legal requirement and this remains our policy in line with public health guidance. The same approach is applied to wearing and disposing of PPE, with mandatory, universal training requirements devised, implemented, and shared amongst all of our members before visits could resume.
To reassure government and local authorities CIVEA prepared a detailed report based on a survey of 21 enforcement firms and their field agents, which has helped us continue to update guidance and optimise processes. For example, advice on what to do if people are only able to pay in cash and how to help people who struggle to communicate with agents wearing masks. This has all been included in our latest training initiative, available to agents through an online portal, which is updated with the latest public health guidance and operations advice. The training has been supplemented with refresher training for agents on supporting vulnerable people. It includes advice on common techniques for identifying vulnerability, such as TEXAS and IDEA, and mental health limitations through BRUCE.
The confidence shown in enforcement activity by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is a result of monthly reports and statistics submitted by our members. These measures reassure government ministers, local authorities and the general public that enforcement activity remains safe, appropriate and necessary.
With the courts dealing with a backlog of cases and local authorities facing losses of £9 billion, according to the Local Government Association, it is critical to maintain the fundamental pillars of social justice. The first lockdown caused significant delays and financial shortfalls which need to be avoided as the restrictions are extended into 2021. The establishment of nightingale courts is helping to address the situation, but councils remain focused on administering and revenue teams have been reallocated. Enforcement is an integral part of this system and enforcement firms are helping to ensure a level of revenue.
The Government’s guidance, Working safely during COVID-19: enforcement agents (bailiffs) is available on Gov.uk and reflects the latest public health advice for England and Wales. CIVEA members continue to follow this guidance and the rules set out in the National Standards for Taking Control of Goods, ensuring all members act in accordance with relevant legislation.
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