This woman’s story of being on the sharp-end of the council’s debt collection policies.
Beth is torn. On one hand she wants to put her name and face to the story she is about to tell, so that others can know they are not alone. On the other, she feels shame and stigma that some people feel when in debt, and with a career as a freelance teacher she doesn’t want to jeopardize any work opportunities. She says “I know it’s really stupid because I want to tell my story, but I can’t risk anything.”
Although she may feel like it, Beth (not her real name) is most definitely not alone in falling behind on council tax payments and ending up on the sharp end of Bristol City Council’s use of bailiff companies.
She is just one of 1,000 separate accounts outsourced by the council to private companies for enforcement every month.
Also like thousands of other self-employed people she doesn’t have much slack or a safety net financially. So, in summer 2017 she fell behind on council tax payments. She’s fallen behind on bills before, but this time it was different.
“Almost before I knew there was an issue, there were these really terrifying letters on my doorstep,” she tells the Cable. “It was really shocking, because it’s not from some massive company, it’s from the council.”
She quickly got set up on a payment plan with Bristow and Sutor, the bailiff firm most favoured by the council, which is connected to major Conservative Party donors. But then she got one of life’s curve balls; Her landlord decided to renovate the house and terminate the tenancy with one month’s notice.
“Everything I had set up, which is quite tight for money as it is, became undone; extortionate fees with CJ Hole estate agents for the new house, all the costs to move, all the new bills etc to get set up. The financial strain of it is a nightmare,” she says.
In the midst of moving Beth stopped making payments to the bailiffs, which is when things escalated. She knows it was an oversight, but says, “I had so many things on, it was just another thing to do that I couldn’t afford.”
Immediately after getting a letter demanding payment, she called them. “We had a legit reason and I wanted to restart payments. But they just said no. They wanted more than £700 in full, there and then.”
“The way he spoke to me was like something out of a movie. He told me that we has actually right near where I live, and could be there very quickly. It was very intimidating. I asked to set up a payment plan, but he said he needed to come round and list all my stuff.”
Having previously spoken to StepChange debt advice charity, Beth knew to not let the bailiff in the house, because once they are in they can begin listing property to seize.
“When he said ‘I can’t make any plan with you unless you let me in the house.’ I just thought, you just want to come into my house and intimidate me.”
Intimidation and bailiff’s power to grant or refuse affordable payment plans were blamed for the 2015 suicide of a 20 year old bike courier in London, subject of a BBC factual drama aired yesterday (Tuesday 29th of May).
But the bailiff was insistent and said that he was coming over. Her second hand laptop, bike and phone were the only things worth taking, but were essential for her work. “At that point I just freaked out. I just needed this cleared.” Beth says. She called her boyfriend, who reached out to family members to help pay off the debt later that day.
Beth ended up paying about 50% more than the original debt. The difference is £407 in enforcement charges by the council and fees pocketed by the bailiffs.
“I just don’t understand how our city council are doing this. Do they not know what’s going on? Have they just turned a blind eye? When I have fallen behind with other companies the difference is night and day. If EON can do it, why can’t our council?”
One of the reasons is that bailiffs aren’t independently regulated, something that debt advice charities have long called for.
With years of austerity, stagnated wages and rising living costs, Beth knows that her private experience is in the context of a wider public issue. “In general everyone is struggling right now, we’re all working and busting a gut to earn a living.”
Recounting the story over a cup of tea, she says the whole episode “is a really scary blur”. “You feel so ashamed and you don’t want to tell anyone. But I was I just thinking about all those people who don’t have friends and family to fall back on. It frightens me to think what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to pay…” she trails off.
The council were asked whether they believed sufficient safeguards were in place to prevent intimidation by bailiffs. They did not respond to the request within a three working day deadline.