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New guidelines for local authorities and bailiffs

Commenting on the new rules for local authorities and bailiffs announced by the Department for Communities and Local Government, Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, said:
 
“Local authorities have been guilty of poor collections practices for many years and it has recently been getting worse, this guidance represents an opportunity to reverse this trend. Many of the points raised in the guidance reflect our strongest concerns around the practices of bailiffs. To ensure this guidance has a real impact it will need to be backed by close scrutiny of local authorities’ on-going practices, with the threat of sanctions when the guidance is broken.
 
“Our National Debtline service receives more calls from people in arrears with debts to their local authority than it does from people with payday loans, mortgage or rent arrears, or energy debts. Last year we spoke to over 40,000 people who were worried about debts owed to their local authority.
 
“These guidelines should help ensure people are protected from some of the worst practices and might help remove some of the incentives for local authorities to pass debts on to bailiffs too quickly.  
 
“There are of course many details to be ironed out as to how this guidance will be policed and how local authorities will be sanctioned for non-compliance.
 
“Bailiffs have an important role to play in collecting debts, mostly for local authorities. However the frequent poor practice we see in the industry tarnishes their reputation and weakens their ability to play a positive role in making sure debts are repaid fully and in a sustainable manner.”
 
Key points from the new guidance which will benefit consumers:
 
Local Authorities should also consider how they can best work with bill payers and their debt advisers in specific cases, using advisers both as a source of information and evidence. Local Authorities should be willing to negotiate payments at any point in the process and should work with bill payers to agree affordable and sustainable payment plans which ensure that the debt is paid off within a reasonable period. 
 
Local Authorities must ensure that bailiffs provide clear and accurate information about costs to the bill payer, including a breakdown of costs, outlining how much has been charged for the bailiff action.  It is inappropriate for authorities to receive extra payment or profit-sharing from the use of bailiffs and the charging of fees. Contracts should not involve rewards or penalties which incentivise the use of bailiffs where it would not otherwise be justified.
 
Local Authorities should remain prepared to deal directly with individuals at any point. It is perfectly within their gift to call action back from the bailiffs at any time and where there is a case to do so they should consider such action. 
 
Where bill payers get in contact with the Local Authority directly, concerns should be investigated properly, not simply referred back to the bailiff. Local Authorities should consider whether complaints, either formal or informal, from individuals and advice agencies, constitute evidence of problems with collection or enforcement with their bailiffs.
 
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