Why enforcement agents are essential to local services

CIVEA CEO, Russell Hamblin-Boone, updates magistrates on the current best practice for enforcement agents, which has evolved over the past years in the latest edition of Magistrates Magazine. The article is reproduced here.

Why enforcement agents are essential to local services

Enforcement is an ultimate option after local authorities have taken someone to court for non-payment of fines or taxes. Civil enforcement is a function of the social justice system and is not to be confused with private debt collection, which is a function of local government.

For many, the image of enforcement agents (previously bailiffs) comes from sensationalised portrayals on news reports and TV programmes, where it appears that the objective of enforcement is to seize and sell personal possessions. The reality is that enforcement work is much more complex and sophisticated, which involves tracing, profiling and assessing vulnerability.

Debt collection practice in the commercial sector is often held up as an exemplar for its engagement with the money advice sector, communication with customers, support for vulnerable people and affordability assessments for repayment plans. All of these practices can be seen in the enforcement industry and, as in private debt collection, have become integral to daily operations.

However, local taxation has clear legislation, case law and established best practice and is therefore regulated and audited and in the public spotlight. The same applies to civil enforcement of local taxation, which adheres to clear rules and guidelines on how to manage people in debt. It is essential that the equivalent of forbearance in local taxation does not prevent local authorities from recovering revenue due to the public purse.

When an enforcement company receives an instruction to collect unpaid fines after a Magistrates’ Court ruling, statutory fixed fees and charges are applied. The Compliance Stage is the first stage of enforcement and involves rigorous attempts to verify details and make contact with debtors to arrange payment. It can involve tracing, credit checking, DVLA licensing checks and communication through emails, texts, calls and letters. The fee structure is designed to encourage people to make contact at an early stage. Around half of debt is collected remotely at this stage without the need for a physical visit.

The subsequent Enforcement Visit stage is expensive for enforcement firms, which are required to employ agents, hire vehicles and operate sophisticated tracking and body-worn video cameras. The higher fees are applied at the later stages to reflect this, which increases the total amount of debt owed. A very small number of cases actually go to auction and on the occasions when this does happen, it is predominantly for vehicles, which are the most common high-value possessions. Complaints are sometimes made that agents threatened to forcefully gain access to a property when taking control under a magistrate’s warrant. This is not a threatening tactic but an explanation of the law. An agent acting on a Magistrates’ Court warrant has additional powers of entry if required, including the use of a locksmith.

CIVEA and its members are dedicated to providing a professional service that recovers much-needed funding for local authorities while protecting those in need of advice and additional support. According to the Local Government Association, councils are facing income losses of £9bn this year and a funding gap of £3bn. Therefore, it is vital that local councils are able to recover outstanding debt to pay for essential frontline services.

Typically, a Certified Enforcement Agent (previously known as bailiff) representing one of our member firms will be tasked with recovering unpaid Magistrates’ Court fines or council tax, business rates, parking fines, employment tribunal awards, child support payments, B2B or commercial rent arrears. An Enforcement Agent certificate is granted by the County Court and must be renewed every two years. To qualify, the agent must satisfy the court that they have a sufficient knowledge of the law and procedure evidenced by Level 2 or equivalent Training in the Taking Control of Goods Regulations. Each year our members receive over 3.5 million warrants and court orders.

We exist to ensure strict safeguards are in place to protect vulnerable people, while we diligently pursue those who wilfully refuse to pay. Enforcement agents are bound by the conditions of Schedule 21 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. However, in such a sensitive area of work, it is inevitable that there will be calls for tighter regulation.

In recent years, we have optimised how unpaid fines are collected by Enforcement Agents. We introduced a strengthened Code, which exceeds the statutory requirements and the National Standards. The accompanying compliance framework includes an independent audit of company policies and involves monitoring calls and observing agents in the field. All agents wear body-worn cameras to record enforcement visits. The video footage is constantly reviewed to monitor conduct and performance. Agents’ vehicles are often tracked by satellite and their phone use can be monitored and call centre calls are recorded. This high degree of close monitoring means that complaint levels are consistently very low.

Any complaints made against CIVEA members are usually resolved through our members’ own company complaints processes. However, anyone not satisfied with the outcome can take their case to CIVEA’s independent panel. This panel of experts, known as the Compliance, Adjudication and Review of Enforcement (CARE) Panel, was introduced to further improve the collection experience and ensures individuals and firms that are part of CIVEA undertake activities professionally and can be held to account. They will consider complaints by reviewing all the documentary evidence, call recordings and video footage, where appropriate

There will always be those who are uncomfortable that the Government uses the courts' process to recover debt, but civil enforcement is complex, highly specialised, and essential work to ensure that taxpayers do not subsidise non-payers. Despite every effort to contact people who may be vulnerable in advance, it is common for enforcement agents to be the first to identify those in need when they visit their homes. If agents encounter vulnerable people, enforcement action is suspended and they will refer that person for additional support to welfare teams and council support services. This is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic and any visit where a debtor indicates they are feeling unwell or self-isolating, is immediately ended.

The pandemic has placed additional pressure on the courts that were already struggling with a backlog of cases. The court service has responded with new facilities and working practices. The response from enforcement firms is no different. CIVEA took important steps to ensure that enforcement agents were able to resume after the lockdown without additional risks to themselves or the public.

In discussion with the government, CIVEA members implemented a ground-breaking Post-Lockdown Support Plan to ensure that enforcement activity taking place during the COVID-19 health crisis was safe and responsible, especially when engaging with vulnerable debtors. The result was an industry-leading initiative that sets a template for future public debt recovery.

The first stage of the Plan involved a re-connection letter and vulnerability identification phase to ensure that all those in debt were aware of the restart of enforcement and what to expect if an agent visited. A template letter plus individual follow up communication by texts, emails and calls was sent to all those who had missed their debt payments. 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 re-engage with people in debt.

We also provided mandatory CIVEA-approved training to 1700 agents in a ten week period. This bespoke course covered the effective use of PPE, social distancing and protecting the public. Every agent that meets the public now does so equipped with masks, gloves and other protective equipment, and is trained on the safe use of vehicle immobilisation equipment. Under no circumstances will agents enter a residential premises; so where goods are taking into control they are usually vehicles. All our policies continue to be regularly reviewed in line with the latest public health guidance.

Our members understand the need for sensitivity towards people in debt. Many people will continue to face vulnerable circumstances and uncertain financial situations. It is also true that a small minority will see the ongoing COVID-19 situation as an opportunity to attempt to avoid paying debts that they can afford to resolve. Fortunately, CIVEA members are trained to identify vulnerability and will look for proof that a debtor is not acting fraudulently.

CIVEA found broadly consistent and positive experiences across the industry after enforcement visits resumed last year. Our members reported that enforcement agents felt safe and knowledgeable about the changes to the collections process and that the public were surprisingly appreciative of the extra precautions they were taking, often welcoming the opportunity to pay down their debts or set up repayment plans. Around 90% of local authorities have indicated that they have resumed some form of enforcement visits. Our members were encouraged by the vote of confidence from the government that means enforcement agents can continue to support local authorities with responsible debt recovery procedures.

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