‘Aggressive’ bailiffs should be held to account, says Bishop of St Albans

VULNERABLE people in grave financial difficulty should be free to make complaints, without fear, about the sometimes “aggressive and threatening” behaviour of bailiffs, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.

Dr Smith was backing an amendment to the Financial Services Bill introduced during a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday of last week. The amendment, from Baroness Meacher, would create a regulatory body to oversee the rules governing the behaviour of bailiffs and bailiff firms, which recuperate debts in the form of goods from people in financial difficulty.

Dr Smith said: “This amendment seeks to address an important concern: the fair treatment of people by enforcement agents who collect debts, often from vulnerable people who are in grave financial distress.”

Currently, any complaints regarding bailiffs were dealt with through the company or a trade association, before “possibly” being passed on to an ombudsman — an “arduous” and ineffective process, Dr Smith said.

He gave the example, provided by the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), of a single mother of two children — a foodbank user looking after her critically ill mother and living under police protection — whose abusive former partner had taken out £20,000-worth of debt in her name.

“When visited by a bailiff on account of a parking fine that had escalated, she attempted to contact CAP so that it could explain the situation to the bailiff. At this point, the bailiff became intimidating, aggressive, and threatening. That is a breach of rule 21 of the national guidelines, which states: ‘Enforcement agents must not act in a threatening manner when visiting the debtor.’”

This, Dr Smith said, was a common experience made more usual by the financial repercussions of the pandemic. “We need to get a balance of powers that allows enforcement officers to undertake their tasks while also protecting debtors and ensuring they have significant mechanisms to air complaints impartially and without fear.”

Dr Smith then moved his own amendment to the Bill, which, he said, “would mandate the providers of debit and credit accounts to offer opt-in gambling blockers to block gambling transactions”. “I believe in the positive difference that gambling blockers can make in reducing gambling harms and empowering individuals to control their own addictions.”

About 90 per cent of current accounts and 40 per cent of credit-card accounts now have gambling blockers, which allow customers to block their account or card from being used for gambling transactions. The remaining 60 per cent needed addressing urgently, he said, because, while the Gambling Commission had banned the use of credit cards for gambling purposes last April, “this is only enforceable on licensed operators.

“The lack of gambling blockers on credit accounts is particularly problematic as it can provide a back door for individuals suffering from gambling-related harms to use credit cards on unlicensed sites. This undermines the Gambling Commission’s own rules and unfairly benefits unlicensed operators.

“Even more worryingly, this blind spot provides a direct avenue for the expansion of harmful and addictive behaviour, and the accumulation of gambling debt that would not ordinarily be allowed.”

He continued: “Aside from their benefits in combating addiction and containing the unlicensed market, gambling blockers are an example of giving customers control over their own transactions.”

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