Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Most councillors are committed to helping people, becoming embedded in their communities. Not just knocking on doors at election time, but speaking up on behalf of residents at meetings, and with officials when people face challenges and don’t know what to do. Even when they retire, or are ‘sacked’ by their electorate, they are often approached for help because they know, or are supposed to know, how to navigate ‘the system’.
Although a retired councillor for several years, I’ve been asked for advice on several occasions in recent months.
First, on a large sink hole in a residential area, affecting access to a retiree’s bungalow (and potentially affecting adjacent properties), which was ignored by the relevant authorities and local councillors. So, I emailed a Conservative Cabinet member at the County, and within 24 hours, officers were despatched to assess the situation; action was promised, but it still took a further four weeks of prompting to remedy the situation.
Dumping untreated effluent from moored barges at a popular riverside location, allowing tourists and their dogs unfamiliar with the area to be covered in smelly green slime at low tide, as they paddle, is another issue, prompting a local sailing club to warn members of ‘a serious health hazard’. Despite meetings, nothing was done because none of the various authorities is willing to take responsibility! Further intervention, at a higher level, is now in hand.
Debt collection is also a concern. A neighbour, who bought his property from a private landlord three years ago, and has lived there since, regularly receives letters, addressed to previous tenants, demanding payment for outstanding debts – many thousands of pounds in parking charges, university fees, bank loans, credit cards, mobile phone costs etc. Instead of merely marking them ‘unknown at this address’ and popping them back in the post box, only for new demands to be issued by the same claimant a week later, he now opens the letters and contacts the companies, explaining that the debtor/s are unknown to him and do not live at the address.
Since January, however, the Council’s Parking Services increased his stress, bombarding him with claims against a previous tenant. He initially phoned to explain the circumstances, only to receive another letter, then another, and another, despite Parking Services apologising and telling him to return the letters. However, when threatened with bailiffs, in desperation he asked me for help. I emailed the Chief Executive, copying to Parking Services and the local councillor. The CEO responded, assuring me that, following investigation, my neighbour’s address will be deleted from the case (which will be pursued) and he will receive a written apology. Thanks must go to the local (Labour) councillor for his support. Sadly, the day after these assurances, a further three parking notices, addressed to the former tenant, were received, for different offences in Ipswich; he must owe the council hundreds of pounds.
Citizens Advice claims to be receiving calls every three minutes from individuals desperate for help as household debt spirals out of control to £18.9 billion, about a third of which allegedly relates to council tax, parking fines and utilities. Accusing bailiffs of aggressive behaviour, Citizens Advice is now demanding an independent regulator, despite legislative changes in 2014, caps on interest rates, and Courts having to authorise enforcement to recover debt.
Following these revelations, BBC Radio 4 devoted a programme to the issues, inviting listeners to phone in; results were interesting, with local authorities, especially, criticised for using Collections services.
People were unaware that creditors, including local authorities chasing payments for council tax and parking fines, only refer cases to Collections agents after exhausting their own numerous attempts to recover monies. This includes offering repayment plans and even referring them to Citizens Advice; it was clear from callers that they didn’t understand why charges were added to the original debt after months of non-payment, or if repayment plans were broken by missing one or more payments without any communication.
The answer? To cover the additional costs of managing the whole process.
By far the majority of people are honest, but their circumstances can change: jobs lost, accidents or sickness, pregnancy, or increased caring demands, can quickly impact on income. When relationships break down, joint bank accounts may be emptied by one party, without the other’s knowledge, leaving them vulnerable to unexpected debt when Standing Orders are unpaid.
Pressures can also mean that financial problems go unnoticed before fear kicks in, in the wake of increasingly more threatening phone calls, emails, texts and letters, demanding payment. These threats are rarely intentionally ignored; people need help and encouragement to address their difficulties and find solutions.
Inevitably, sympathies lie with desperate borrowers, some of whom may be illiterate or unemployed, taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals and organisations. For example, encouraging the desperate to ‘rent’ essential equipment at extortionate rates, should be outlawed. Doorstep lenders can also be a last resort and must be held to account, as well as lenders which don’t do proper credit checks before making loans, letting customers build up unaffordable debt with numerous companies.
Responding to concerns, the Ministry of Justice is formally asking for evidence of Collections malpractice, enabling it to evaluate the need for further interventions, so it is time to condemn those businesses employing questionable – even bullying – tactics to recover funds. Local authorities – and councillors – have a role in helping to collate information for the Ministry, to ensure fairness for the taxpayer, and vulnerable debtors, in the event that public sector debt is written off.
Collections is especially sensitive to bad practices and, rightly or wrongly, can be accused of causing unwarranted distress or – at the extreme – homelessness. Given the alarming number of households at risk, this is an opportunity for the Credit Services Association, which represents 90 per cent of the industry and has a Code of Practice, to work with critics – and Government – to campaign for greater responsibility within the industry and amongst borrowers.
In the meantime, innocent victims, like my neighbour, should not be penalised and threatened.
But, his is not an isolated case. There must be thousands of similar cases, all over the country.
It is worrying that Parking Services get addresses from the DVLA, which isn’t always updated when tenants move, which leads me to suspect that cars which are the subject of similar unsuccessful claims are potentially untaxed and uninsured and, consequently, a danger to legitimate road users in the event of accidents.
With increased mobility as more people rent than buy, tracking people will become increasingly difficult, with creditors pursuing the wrong people to recover debt. Perhaps we need regional record offices to be notified when tenants move, providing their new address. Another cost to the taxpayer, with elements of Big Brother, but it could benefit our security, as well as legitimate creditors.