My Lords, I support Amendment 16, in the name of my noble friend Lady Meacher and others, and I remind the House of my association with the debt advice charity the Money Advice Trust.
Anyone who has been involved with debt policy knows that the issue of bailiff regulation is a long-standing concern. Bailiffs have significant powers, including being able to enter people’s homes and take possession of their goods. Unfortunately, despite plenty of good intentions and existing voluntary national standards and codes of practice intended to govern bailiff behaviour, widespread problems remain in practice. These include bailiffs misrepresenting their powers, the failure to offer affordable repayment plans, and unfair treatment of vulnerable people or people in vulnerable circumstances. As my noble friend Lady Meacher has outlined, independent oversight would be an enormous step forward in helping people in debt to cope with, manage and overcome their predicament without unnecessary and unjustifiable additional pressures.
Noble Lords will be aware of the promising discussions currently taking place between representatives of the debt advice sector and the enforcement industry, facilitated by the Centre for Social Justice, to explore the potential for an independent oversight body. The aim of such a body—which would be funded by the bailiff industry—would be to address these problems and to raise standards. For the first time, both the bailiff industry and the debt advice sector are agreed that, for such an oversight body to be effective in raising standards, it must have statutory underpinning.
The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Meacher and others provides an opportunity to do just this. Of course, there are challenges to the parliamentary timetable, and relevant Bills in which to include issues such as this can be few and far between. The perverse and worst-case scenario would be to have a fully developed and agreed proposal for an independent oversight body which could not be put in place because the Government did not have the necessary powers. If the Government miss the opportunity to take action in this Bill, meaningful change is likely to be delayed much longer, with harsh consequences for people in debt.
So would it not be better for the Government to be proactive now and to accept this amendment—or, at the very least, come back with a similar version of their own at Third Reading? We cannot escape the fact that, despite the welcome support that has been put in place, debt problems will increase as a result of the pandemic. More people may face the prospect of bailiffs at their door and it is only right that the industry is properly governed and regulated, as other debt collection companies are. The Government have previously stated that they want to see practice in this sector improved and regulation strengthened. This amendment gives them the opportunity to do so. I hope that the Minister will accept it, or commit to coming back at Third Reading with something just as good or better.