Conservative party linked financiers are investing in the bailiffs profiting from Bristolians in debt.
Illustration: Rosie Carmichael
The bailiff firm most used by Bristol City Council to collect council tax debts is part-owned by a firm of financiers closely linked to – and major donors of – the Tory party, the Cable can reveal.
In September 2017, Sovereign Capital Partners LLP bought a controlling share in Bristow and Sutor, the national bailiff company most used by Bristol council to enforce council tax debts.
Sovereign Capital was founded in 2001 by Lord John Nash and Ryan Robson, both of whom have very close ties to the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. Robson has donated £270,000 to the party since 2003, while Nash and his wife Caroline have donated almost £300,000 since 2006.
Nash, also previously the chairman of private healthcare company Care UK, left Sovereign Capital in 2013 following his appointment as a Conservative life peer in the House of Lords and as a schools minister. Robson has stayed on with Sovereign Capital Partners LLP, though has resigned from his directorship of a conservative think tank set up by Ian Duncan Smith MP, the former head of the Department for Work and Pensions and architect of controversial welfare reforms such as Universal Credit.
For Sovereign Capital there’s a lot of money to made by investing in Bristow and Sutor. In the two years to January 2018, Bristol City Council has asked Bristow and Sutor to enforce council tax debts on 14,200 occasions, accounting for 57% of all bailiff use. From just these debts, Bristow and Sutor could generate up £4.4 million in fees added to the original debt. The fees are generated by charging £75 for receiving a letter through the door, and a further £235 when the bailiff knocks at it seven days later.
If each of the accounts go to the stage of goods being seized, another £110 will be added, meaning that Bristow and Sutor have the potential make up to £6 million in just two years from business provided to them by the council.
A professional debt advisor has spoken to the Cable about how the council is too quick to resort to bailiffs, who then add the large fees to the original debt. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “I’ve seen a £44 debt rapidly become £457 once court fees and bailiff fees are added to the total.”
As council tax is a ‘priority debt’ that must be paid back before all others, individuals often turn to payday loans and other forms of debt to stay above water but end up worse off in the long run, as Megan experienced in this story.
Responding to this information, Anny Cullum, an organiser with ACORN community union, said, “ACORN supports the Bristol Cable’s call for the council to stop using bailiffs to recover unpaid council tax. This practice further impoverishes citizens most acutely affected by austerity. It leaves an even more bitter taste in the mouth with the knowledge that Bristol Labour’s policy is actually financially benefiting prominent Conservative party donors who are supposed to be Labour’s real political enemies.
“We urge communities to come together to demand their local decision makers take a firm stand against government austerity, rather than the landing the brunt of the funding crisis at the doors of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet.”
Paul Goggin, Labour councillor for Hartcliffe and Withywood, wants to see the council find another way too. Goggin thinks that there is a appetite within the Bristol Labour party for a new approach.
“I appreciate that, due to the massive cuts to local government funding by successive governments, it’s important to collect monies from those who can afford to pay,” he says. “But sending in the ‘heavies’ with inflexible demands is ineffective, and doesn’t mesh with the Labour Party values of the current Bristol administration.”
The council did not respond when asked to comment on whether they would consider another approach to council tax bailiffs.