The findings highlight a particular problem with the collection of council tax debts given that 51% of bailiff visits experienced by the charity’s clients relate to council tax arrears.
Failing vulnerable customers
The research shows that many creditors are also seemingly not taking into account the wider vulnerabilities of people struggling with debt. Three in four (75%) of the charity’s clients identified themselves as vulnerable. Depression (47%) and ongoing mental health conditions (16%) are the most common forms.
Almost half (45%) of clients who identified themselves as vulnerable made their creditors aware of their condition. Despite being informed, firms did not take into account these vulnerabilities - 83% of those who made their creditors aware of their vulnerabilities said at least one creditor didn’t take this into account, while 35% said that none of them did.
Bailiff reforms aren’t working
The report highlights how people encountering bailiff action are often more vulnerable, that bailiff actions increase the stress experienced by people in debt, and that poor practice by bailiffs is still commonplace.
Almost 90% of those who’d been visited by bailiffs in the last two years identified as having vulnerability beyond financial difficulties, compared to 75% of all clients surveyed. Those clients visited by bailiffs overwhelmingly said that experience had increased their level of stress (86%).
Poor practice by bailiffs remains commonplace. Of those who’d had a bailiff visit, over half said that the fees added were excessive, 49% said they’d had an intimidating doorstep visit, and 48% said the bailiff refused to accept an affordable repayment offer.
The charity is calling on creditors across all sectors to ensure that people in financial difficulty can access affordable repayment plans and that they are not pressured into making payments that will deepen their existing financial problems.
Reform is needed
The charity is reiterating its call for an ‘extended breathing space’ scheme, where people who seek debt advice are given a period of six months to a year in which interest and charges are frozen and enforcement action is halted.
Other measures that the charity believes would improve the treatment of those with debt problems include:
- Ministry of Justice to re-evaluate the bailiff reforms to improve the treatment of vulnerable people and ensure that affordable repayment plans are available to help prevent debt problems from escalating
- Local and central government to commit to binding good practice standards that prioritise supporting households to financial recovery
Mike O’Connor, Chief Executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said:
“People fall into debt for a variety of reasons including unemployment, illness and relationship breakdown, but the way in which creditors treat people in difficulty can have a significant impact on how long it takes that person to recover. Ensuring that people in financial difficulty get the right support at the right time can make the difference between someone getting back on their feet or them being driven into deeper hardship.
“It’s important to note that there is good practice out there and 150,000 people are referred to StepChange Debt Charity by creditors every year. However, there is clearly some way to go before we have a fair and consistent approach to the treatment of people in debt and the Ministry of Justice, local and central government and creditors all have vital roles to play.”