Reflecting on 2020

Reflecting on 2020.

Welcome to our blog series, exploring the key topics being discussed in the enforcement industry. In our last blog of the year, we reflect on 2020 and how the enforcement industry has adapted, through ongoing development and in response to unique circumstances.

Like everyone else, CIVEA has seen the coronavirus crisis create challenges and opportunities in equal measure. As we look forward to a new year, we can reflect on lessons learned and appreciate the successes of a difficult twelve months.

Our response to the COVID-19 crisis was strengthened by the launch of an updated Code of Practice one year ago. Introduced in September 2019, the code of practice exceeds the statutory requirements and the National Standards to ensure individuals and firms operate to the highest standards, while supporting the integrity of taxation and judicial processes. We could not have predicted what was to come, but these new industry measures helped prepare the industry to work collectively and consistently. By acting quickly and decisively CIVEA members provided leadership to a diverse clientele of local authorities.

High-quality training was already a fundamental element of the code, so it was possible to quickly implement a comprehensive and bespoke training programme to over 1700 Enforcement Agents (EAs) in a 10-week period. Training covered donning and doffing PPE correctly, social distancing and contact with the public. We also uploaded two animations to the CIVEA website to explain what this training entailed and an explanation of the standard enforcement process. These videos, ‘COVID-19 Safe Working Practices’ and ‘CIVEA Guide To Enforcement’ are still available to view online.

Our code also promotes better communication with customers, which was employed by members to re-engage with people after a five-month hiatus on enforcement visits during the lockdown. During that suspension, 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 had a significant impact on local services. It became essential for enforcement activity to resume quickly, efficiently, appropriately and safely.

CIVEA recognized that it was not responsible to simply restart enforcement visits. Instead, the CIVEA Post-lockdown Support Plan was developed, to ensure the safety of members of the public, clients, customers and agents. The result was a groundbreaking initiative that set a template for future public debt recovery. Our members rolled out a re-connection and vulnerability identification phase to ensure that all those in debt were aware of the restart of enforcement and the precautions we were taking. This involved a template letter plus individual follow up communication by texts, emails and calls. The letter aimed to engage with customers to understand how they were affected by the COVID-19 crisis and to respond as appropriate. Collectively over two million letters were sent out by CIVEA members to people in debt.

Before enforcement resumed, there were understandable concerns about the ability of people to make payments. But industry figures show that most people continued to maintain their repayment plans, suggesting that payments are fair and affordable. A study by Experian widely reported in the media, suggested that the average amount of debt was reduced by almost £2,000 throughout the pandemic. The furlough scheme benefited many people who were able to save money and clear existing debts. UK consumers actually repaid a record £7.4bn of debt during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020.

The Government released updated guidelines on enforcement activitythree days before visits restarted, but CIVEA ensured this was communicated to all members and implemented. When enforcement visits did finally resume across the UK at the end of August, CIVEA made a voluntary commitment to contactless visits and to not to enter residential premises. In the months that followed, debts collected were mostly those incurred before the coronavirus pandemic.

Our policy was regularly reviewed in line with government and public health guidance, and it will continue to be during 2021. All engagement is contactless and for safety, agents are not entering people’s homes, but engaged on the doorstep. Body-worn cameras are mandatory and enforcement agents must comply with social distancing rules and use personal protection equipment. Anyone identified as being vulnerable is referred to the council and provided with additional support and help with their debts.

CIVEA members reported positive experiences across the industry after enforcement visits resumed, regardless of company size or location. We published a detailed report based on a survey of 21 enforcement firms and their field agents, which was originally prepared for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). This balanced, candid and first-hand account of the challenge enforcement agents faced provided unique insight into how resuming enforcement succeeded and helped us to refine our advice and approaches even further.

Reviewing these responses allowed us to identify where additional training or guidance was needed. For example, some reported that wearing face masks was causing communication issues, especially with those who did not have English as a first language. Our advice remains that face masks should be worn to protect the public where possible but, providing that two-metre social distancing is maintained, we decided that it was reasonable for masks to be removed if communication proved difficult. Some people wanted to make cash payments. Whilst online and card payments are the safest option and most people can pay this way, CIVEA advised that cash payment can be made safely where necessary. EAs were instructed to count cash wearing gloves, and then seal this in an envelope or bag for 72 hours, according to the prevailing Public Health England and Wales guidance.

Our members reported to us that the public were surprisingly appreciative of the extra precautions agents were taking and welcomed the opportunity to pay down their debts or set up repayment plans. A YouGov survey, commissioned by CIVEA, showed more than 80% of members of the public who were polled felt that council tax and fines would go unpaid if local councils could not use bailiffs to collect money from people who can pay but won’t. More than two-thirds of people surveyed believed some taxpayers would use the health crisis to avoid paying their council tax, even though they could meet the payments.

After months without enforcement visits and with additional pressure on their budgets, CIVEA members were able to reassure councils that our agents were able to recover outstanding debts safely and responsibly. Of over 370 councils that responded to our survey, more than 90% indicated they have now resumed enforcement visits. The situation remains dynamic considering the ongoing pandemic, but this is a welcome vote of confidence from local government. Councils will be facing extreme financial pressures in the year ahead and a resilient and resourceful civil enforcement sector is crucial.

The lesson for councils from the crisis is that enforcement activity is integral to the funding of local authorities, which need to provide support to their communities. We have worked closely with the Ministry of Justice throughout 2021 and regularly report to them with detailed data. We will continue to update CIVEA members on new policy and advise them on best practice as we continue to learn the lessons for 2021.

Enforcement activity supports local revenue collection and is an important feature of our social justice system. In 2021, CIVEA members will continue to drive up standards and build on our achievements that protect the most vulnerable members of society.

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