Taking Control of Goods (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

– in the House of Lords at 2:35 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Baroness Meacher:

Moved by Baroness Meacher

That this House regrets that the Taking Control of Goods (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/1288), laid before the House on 18 November 2021, fail to deal with the injustice to debtors from 2014 to the date guidance on the new Regulations took effect.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to move my Motion to Regret Statutory Instrument 1288—enforced in England and Wales—on taking control of goods. Today’s debate provides an opportunity to highlight the fact that since 2014, debtors have been wrongly charged VAT on the enforcement of debt repayments, when the tax should have been charged, of course, to the creditors involved. Enforcement officers are providing a service to creditors and—believe me—not to debtors.

The VAT chargeable is upon the service to creditors, and it is those creditors who should have paid. This issue and the inaction over seven years by both government and industry to clarify the situation was drawn to my attention by the organisation Just and the debt advice services. They focused on the impact of the incorrect charges on the most vulnerable in society and the injustice involved.

I emphasise at the start that the failure to sort out this injustice over the years was principally the responsibility of previous Ministers and industry. We are grateful that the Government are finally issuing this SI, which will ensure that the injustice does not continue into the future. The reason for this Motion to Regret is the failure of this SI to deal with seven years of injustice from 2014 to 2021, which has resulted in millions of pounds of incorrect charging. This debate provides an opportunity for the Minister to clarify steps that will be taken to resolve the VAT payment injustice once and for all and to ensure that debtors are repaid where they were incorrectly charged.

Before setting out why we believe the Government must take action on these misdirected demands, I want to explain why this injustice is so serious. Of course, the link between debt problems and mental health is well established. The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute estimates that people with money problems are three times more likely to commit suicide than those without debts. The stress associated with debt is a major contributor to depression and other mental health symptoms. Additionally, money issues often affect entire households, so parents, children, family members and friends are impacted by the damaging effects of debt, not just one individual.

Given that this Government have made protecting the vulnerable one of their primary objectives and so much work has been done by our society over the past few years to make mental health a more mainstream issue that people should take seriously, helping those with money issues should be an absolute priority. Given the cost-of-living crisis in the UK at the moment, it has arguably never been a more important time to discuss these issues.

Let me outline what has been going on. In the High Court enforcement sector, judgment debts for things such as unpaid utility bills are charged to debtors: the person in debt. The creditor—the company owed money —will employ a High Court enforcement officer to recover this money. This officer will ensure that the debtor pays the money owed and will charge the debtor fees for the enforcement action taken. That is not unreasonable, you would think. On top of these fees, High Court enforcement officers will charge VAT. This in itself is not an issue, as in 90% to 95% of cases the officers act on behalf of VAT-registered debt enforcement companies. But, as I have said, this VAT should be charged to the creditor, who can recover the VAT incurred from HMRC if the company is VAT registered.

However, since 2014, the regulations have been misinterpreted by industry and, if I may say so, have been unclear. Instead of charging the VAT or a VAT-equivalent fee to the creditors, this money has been charged to the debtors, as I have said. This means that the debtors, who are already financially vulnerable and face hefty fees—often unreasonably hefty fees, I should say—on top of their debts have also wrongly been charged hundreds of additional pounds. Industry estimates that about £120 million may have been taken incorrectly from vulnerable debtors. That is over £1 million a month—a lot of money from very vulnerable people.

This practice is clearly absolutely unacceptable; how has it been going on for seven years? It is clear from documents publicly available online that the High Court Enforcement Officers Association—the membership body that represents these officers and is authorised by the Ministry of Justice—raised this issue with the ministry as early as 2015, yet no action was taken either by industry or by government. Of course, that is the fault not of current Ministers but certainly of previous ones. I want to make clear that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, wrote to me and indicated that somehow the ministry had only just heard about this in 2019. In responding, the Minister might accept that 2015 is actually the date when the ministry knew about it.

The High Court Enforcement Officers Association, authorised by the MoJ, sought legal advice from Christopher Wilson QC to clarify the issue. Wilson, in his advice, said, “HMRC recognised in 2000 that debt enforcement was a service to creditors and they should issue VAT invoices only to creditors.” Nevertheless, Wilson’s findings were inconclusive, but his most important recommendation was that the High Court Enforcement Officers Association should take the advice of leading counsel on tax matters on the issue. Again, no further action was taken after this.

Four years went by without anything changing. The issue was never addressed and was kept quiet by both government and industry. For the Government, this was a problem they themselves had created by not providing clear guidance in the regulations. Perhaps Ministers at the time felt that any action was an admission of guilt and to do nothing was probably the safest option. The industry had a strong incentive to let sleeping dogs lie: debt enforcement companies appeared cheaper to creditors because they were not charging VAT on their fees. This made them comparable to a creditor using the Government’s own bailiff services, whereby VAT is not charged. They were benefiting from collecting the extra cash from debtors.

In 2019, a new entrant to the industry, an organisation called Just, sought advice from Melanie Hall QC, a tax specialist. It did this after reviewing the previous advice issued to the High Court Enforcement Officers Association by Christopher Wilson QC—something the association and the MoJ should have done four years earlier. This kick-started the process to resolve the issue. Hall’s guidance was clear that debtors should not be charged VAT or a fee equivalent to it. This guidance provided the opportunity for Just to engage the MoJ and for the Government to provide clarity and thereby correct the situation. After six months of campaigning from Just, parliamentarians and the debt advice sector, the MoJ published draft guidance privately—I emphasise “privately”—to key stakeholders in March 2020, clarifying that debtors should not be charged VAT or an equivalent fee where creditors are not VAT-registered. Although this guidance was not perfect, it resolved 90% to 95% of debt enforcement cases going forward where debtors would otherwise have been charged VAT incorrectly.

This was a momentous step in the right direction, though the guidance was issued only privately. Sadly, this was not the end of the story. It took the MoJ a further 19 months to publish this guidance. Covid-19 undoubtedly had an impact on MoJ resources, but the delay in publishing the guidance meant that more debtors overpaid on their debts, reducing their already depleted and no doubt minimal disposable income and potentially costing them an additional £19 million over those months.

After months of silence from the MoJ, Just decided that action needed to be taken and sought an application for direction from the Royal Courts of Justice. This meant taking the Government to court and allowing the court to clarify whether this practice should continue. The prospect of losing in court galvanised the Government. I want to emphasise this point: just four minutes before the judgment hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, the MoJ published its guidance and promised to lay a statutory instrument to clarify the existing regulations. I will leave it to noble Lords to consider whether we would be having this SI had there not been the court case.

That brings us to today. Statutory Instrument 1288 makes clear in Regulation 18(1) that

“where a creditor is VAT registered the enforcement agent may not recover from the debtor VAT or the sum equivalent to VAT on the fees or disbursements.”

I want to clarify that I warmly welcome the clarity provided by this statutory instrument. As I said, my reason for tabling a Motion to Regret to this SI concerns the failure of this crucial document to address the injustices of the past seven years. It is silent on the need for those who have been wrongly charged VAT on the activities of enforcement officers to be repaid. Surely, they should be.

This is especially important because the statute of limitations outlines that there is only a six-year window in which debtors could rightfully claim for this money to be returned to them. This inaction means that, sadly, for some debtors, it is already too late to get their money back. I want these vulnerable people to know that parliamentarians are aware of the injustice they have suffered. Even more importantly, I want to make sure that Ministers have considered what action they should take to ensure repayment of the money wrongly paid by debtors over the past seven years. I have already emphasised the importance of this money to the most vulnerable indebted families. A few hundred pounds could make the difference for someone’s children to eat three meals a day for the rest of the month or for a family to heat their home over the winter months. The sort of sums we are talking about can be really crucial for them. It may not be crucial to any of us, but for these families it really is.

I am not here today to frustrate the progress of this SI; the clarity it provides for the future is precious. But today is an opportunity to highlight what the Government need to do to ensure that debtors get their money back. I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, on 10 December, setting out the actions we believe the Government need to take, alongside the approval of SI 1288, to address the injustices of the past seven years. They are as follows. First, the Ministry of Justice should issue guidance to the High Court Enforcement Officers Association, advising it to write to all debtors who have been overcharged and inform them. At the very least, it is vital to make sure that debtors are made aware they may have overpaid. Secondly, the Ministry of Justice should conduct a full impact assessment to calculate the amount of VAT wrongly charged to debtors by the debt enforcement industry. In their Explanatory Note to the SI, the Government admitted that they had not conducted any such impact assessment. We need to know how much money is owed here. Thirdly, the Ministry of Justice should advise the High Court Enforcement Officers Association to set up a compensation fund for debtors. While the MoJ does not have the legal authority to force businesses to give back money they owe, showing leadership and using governmental influence to advise industry to voluntarily set up its own compensation arrangements is nevertheless surely the right thing to do.

It should not be up to debtors to seek a resolution through group litigation. Debt enforcement is probably something they could not possibly do in their situation. The debt enforcement companies should do what is right. I believe that if the Government ensure that all debtors are informed if they have been overcharged, and if the Government assess how much has been wrongfully overcharged to debtors, it brings everything into the public domain and repayment becomes more likely. These measures can be taken side by side with this SI and without statutory underpinning. I have outlined the historical issue, the injustice involved and the need for the Government to take actions to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are repaid the debts owed to them.

I want to thank all the Peers here today in the Chamber today to support the plight of debtors and to ensure that the money they have overpaid is rightfully returned. I also want to thank Peers who are unable to attend the debate but have expressed their strong support for this Motion and action to refund debtors. They include the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister of Burtersett, Lady Burt of Solihull and Lady Stern, and the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, Lord Laming, Lord Howarth and Lord Dholakia.

I know Ministers care about mental health; today, they have the opportunity to do something concrete to improve the mental health of those in greatest need. I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for writing to me. It seems the Government are unwilling to make commitments at this stage and want to await the outcome of the litigation. Nevertheless, I look forward to the Minister’s response today.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 2:45 pm, 13th January 2022

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in her very clear and lengthy exposition of the position. I applaud her efforts and seek to follow in her footsteps.

In his Written Statement on 18 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, James Cartlidge, said:

“While we take the view that the taking control of goods legislation when considered … with the common law position permits the recovery of VAT costs from debtors in this way, we have accepted … that this is an area where it would be beneficial to set out the position in regulations to put the matter beyond doubt.”—[Official Report, Commons, 18/11/21; col. 34WS.]

Well, they have done that, but some questions remain.

In enforcing a debt there are three parties: the judgment creditor, the judgment debtor and the enforcement agent. What this instrument does is permit the enforcement agent to recover from the judgment debtor a sum of money equivalent to VAT on his costs and expenses, even though the judgment creditor is not registered and therefore not liable to collect or account for VAT to the Treasury.

A number of questions arise. First, what if the enforcement agent is himself not registered for VAT? How does he account to the Treasury for a sum equivalent to VAT? Would he not just pocket it? What happens to that money? Secondly, when did the common law take cognisance of VAT? Perhaps the Minister will explain the meaning of Mr Cartlidge’s reference to the “common law position”? I find it difficult to comprehend why, if the judgment debtor would not have to pay VAT to the judgment creditor, the common law would force him to pay it to the tipstaff on behalf of the bailiff.

Section 90 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 gives power to the Lord Chancellor if he “considers it necessary or expedient” to make

“supplementary, incidental or consequential provision” or

“transitory, transitional or saving provision” by regulations. In Schedule 12—on which this instrument also depends—paragraph 13(3) deals with taking control of goods, paragraph 42 with the sale of goods, and paragraphs 50(4) and 50(7) with the application of the proceeds. How is there power to make this instrument, which, in effect, imposes taxation upon the judgment debtor which he would not have to pay if the judgment creditor were registered for VAT? It is arbitrary; it is luck, a matter of chance.

The Minister will appreciate that if you have worked, as I have, as a solicitor in a close mining community in north Wales—not dissimilar to Tredegar, I may say—there is always concern about the activities of bailiffs and their tactics. I include in that claiming fees for visits to the debtor which were never made, or where the knock on the door was particularly soft and a second visit follows. Clients are not aware or made aware of their ability to go to court to tax the bills for their expenses, and these are not inconsiderable sums. If it is council tax, parking fines, or a debt under £1,500, for example, it is £75 for a letter, a £235 fixed fee for a visit to your home and a £110 fixed fee for taking and selling your possessions. Over £1,500, there is an extra fee of 7.5% on each of the latter two stages. A High Court judgment of under £1,500 attracts fixed fees of £190 for a visit, £495 for failing to keep to an enforcement agreement and £525 for taking and selling your belongings. If it is over £1,500, 7.5% is added to the enforcement and sale fees.

We are about to face a period of inflation, high interest rates and a rise in the cost of living. This will be familiar to those of us who are old enough but not to the youngsters raising their families. I hope somebody judicially reviews this instrument because I do not think it is properly made and I very much hope it will come back to haunt what is left of this Government.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I support this Motion to Regret in the name of my noble friend Lady Meacher. The last thing needed by those trying to deal with a problem debt is an extra 20% charge on top of the collection costs in tax that should clearly have been levied on the creditors, not the debtors. It is surely a great injustice for debtors to have been charged VAT when they should not have been and to have to go to considerable lengths to recover money they have been falsely charged. It is certainly a matter of deep regret and the remedies proposed by my noble friend seem entirely justified.

Perhaps I could take this opportunity, on the subject of bailiffs, to note that there is considerable political and practitioner interest in bailiff reform. Will the Minister reaffirm the Government’s support for the enforcement conduct authority as organised by the Centre for Social Justice in partnership with both the bailiff sector and the debt advice sector? Impressive work has been done by the CSJ in securing agreement between those representing bailiffs and those providing debt advice, such as the charity StepChange. This now needs government to take matters forward and grant statutory powers to this new body to give it real teeth. Perhaps the Minister could comment.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I declare an interest. A close family member was supported by StepChange, and to say that its engagement and support were life-changing is an understatement.

This is an issue which has united parliamentarians from across both Houses and both sides of the House, as well as the advice sector. It is right that the matter is before us, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for giving us the opportunity to consider it today. I also join her in thanking Just for its briefing and, probably more importantly, for its campaigning on this issue. As she rightly said, I am not sure we would be here today if Just had not taken it as far as it had.

As we have heard, enforcement officers have been incorrectly charging VAT to debtors since 2014. The Government, I think, agree that debtors should not be paying the VAT and Ministers have confirmed this at the Dispatch Box previously. When the matter was raised in Parliament by my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara in 2019, the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, said on behalf of the Treasury that

“any VAT due is payable by the creditor who receives the service. The debtor is not required to pay the VAT.”

As Parliamentary Answers go, that is quite unequivocal. That should have instigated an immediate reset of VAT charging at that point. It would have been nice if the MoJ had listened to the Treasury then.

The SI deals with the charging of VAT and ensures that, going forward, High Court enforcement officers—HCEOs—do not charge debtors. That is to be welcomed. The move should be to the creditors. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we are concerned that the Government are not tackling the historic overcharging that has been taking place for at least the last seven years. The Government accept that debtors have been unfairly taxed, so can the Minister please explain why the Government are not committing to providing—as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has outlined—tax refunds or other systems to resolve this mischarge to debtors? There is an established principle when someone has been financially wronged: we saw it regarding PPI and heard it in the news this morning in a recommendation from the ombudsman about incorrect benefits payments. Why are the Government taking this position?

There may well be another simple solution. I look for a response from the Minister to this. It could possibly be dealt with as an administration task. The MoJ could order debt enforcement companies to return the VAT to the debtors who had overpaid it. The debt enforcement companies which are VAT registered would then reinvoice the creditors to return this money to them. The creditors could submit this VAT as a cost to HMRC. This means it would not cost the debt enforcement companies or the creditors any money. It would be a return through the VAT system directly from HMRC. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 3:00 pm, 13th January 2022

My Lords, what we have here is a very serious issue. We already know that, since 2014, debtors have been incorrectly charged VAT when it has been ruled that this should instead be charged to the creditor. Although the Ministry of Justice clarified in its March 2020 and November 2021 guidance that if the creditor is VAT-registered, debtors should not be charged VAT, it did not clarify the actions it would take to look into giving the money back. For this reason alone, I am supportive of the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to regret the taking control of goods statutory instrument.

Also, to put it simply, time is running out. Some noble Lords may be aware, but many will not, that there is only a six-year window in which debtors can rightfully claim for this money to be repaid. This means that many debtors, many of whom will not even be aware that this money belongs to them, have unjustly missed out on their opportunity to reclaim VAT. Therefore, the time for action is now. With every passing day of delay, more and more debtors will continue to miss out.

We have come out of a busy Christmas period, the time when many families’ budgets become overly stretched and more financially challenging. The truth is that it is expensive to be poor in this country at the moment. For the average poor family, the poverty premium—a horrible expression—means £490 extra to pay because of meters, being unable to buy in bulk and paying individually for things that other people could pay for in excess. For one in 10 people, that poverty premium is £780 a year. Will the Government ensure that the debt enforcement sector notifies all debtors who may have overpaid VAT? Will they conduct an impact assessment to understand exactly how much has been overpaid? Finally, will they ensure that the debt enforcement sector sets up a scheme to refund this money?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, whose Motion gave rise to it. The Motion highlights concern about whether debtors have been overcharged in respect of the VAT that attaches to the fees charged by High Court enforcement officers.

The statutory instrument before the House sets out how the VAT that attaches to enforcement agent fees should be collected. The burden of the noble Baroness’s Motion is to criticise the Government for not going further by applying that retrospectively. A number of noble Lords asked what we propose to do to provide compensation to debtors who were charged VAT wrongly prior to the date on which the instrument took effect. I will seek to explain why the use of “wrongly” is itself subject to question.

Let me set out the purpose of the SI and why we have decided that it is necessary to provide clarity and explain why it would not be possible or fair to legislate retrospectively in this area. We decided that it was necessary to legislate because in the summer of 2019—I accept that the issue was floating around earlier—we were made aware that there were dramatically diverging views and practices within the High Court enforcement industry about who the VAT on its fees should be collected from. We initially sought to provide clarity by working with HMRC to draft guidance about the correct approach.

With apologies to the House, I would point out gently to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that we must be careful when we talk about collecting VAT. There are two different issues here. The first is who is responsible for paying the VAT. The second is can you, as the creditor, recover through the enforcement agent a sum equivalent to the VAT. When the debtor pays that sum, the debtor is are not paying VAT; the debtor is paying a sum equivalent to VAT. That sounds like a legal technicality, but it is not; it is a fundamental distinction that it at the heart of this issue.

An important point to make is that neither the guidance nor the SI seeks to change underlying VAT law. In all circumstances, the creditor is liable for the VAT. That is because the creditor is the recipient of the service of the High Court enforcement officer. The guidance and the SI set out the circumstances in which a sum equivalent to the VAT charged to the creditor can be recovered from the judgment debtor as an enforcement cost. We designed that guidance to ensure careful and fair operation of the law so that creditors would not be out of pocket as a result of enforcement costs, while also ensuring that an amount equivalent to VAT was collected from debtors only in cases where the VAT represented a real cost to the creditor. In other words, an amount equivalent to VAT would be collected from the debtor only in cases where the creditor was not able to recover the VAT from HMRC as an input tax. If the creditor was able to recover the VAT from HMRC, the VAT would not be a real cost to the creditor and therefore a sum equivalent to the VAT should not be collected from the debtor.

In March 2020, we consulted interested parties about the draft guidance. Views remained mixed about whether VAT should ever be recovered from the debtor because the debtor was not the recipient of the service. We considered then, as we do now, that it is fair for the creditor to be able to recover the VAT as an enforcement cost in cases where it will represent a real cost to the creditor. That approach is in keeping with the overarching principle that the debtor is responsible for the costs of enforcement. Some consultees questioned the legal basis for our draft guidance. They noted that the regulations setting out the fees that High Court enforcement agents can recover from debtors do not refer to VAT, so we have accepted that it would be helpful to set out the position in legislation to put the matter beyond doubt. That is what this SI seeks to do.

We have listened to the feedback that we received about the draft guidance and taken on board the dangers that a system that is too complicated or nuanced will make it even more difficult for a debtor to understand whether they were paying the correct enforcement costs and, as a consequence, to know whether to challenge an account of the charges they are presented with. The feedback also highlighted how, in a very complicated system to address this issue, more mistakes are likely to be made.

We do not want that to happen. We want to try to have a simple and comprehensible but fair system. We therefore decided that this SI should allow an amount equivalent to the VAT to be recovered from the judgment debtor only in cases where the creditor is not VAT-registered and cannot therefore recover the VAT from HMRC. We think that approach is simple and properly supportable in principle. We think that it is right to allow creditors in those circumstances, although only those who are not VAT-registered, to recover an amount equivalent to the VAT from debtors as it would represent to them a cost of enforcement. We must remember that the creditors may themselves be suffering from financial vulnerability. For example, the creditor may be an individual who has lost their job, sued their employer and got an award of damages for wages. If we do not have this regulation, it is the creditor who will be out of pocket because they will have to pay the costs of enforcement. So I say with great respect that we cannot approach this matter a little simplistically by assuming that the debtor is always the small person, so to speak, and the creditor is always the grasping outfit. That is not the case.

We must also remember that under this SI an amount equivalent to VAT will not be recovered from the debtor in the vast majority of cases as most creditors will be VAT-registered. I should acknowledge that, as we set out in the Explanatory Memorandum, some VAT-registered creditors may make both taxable and exempt supplies. They will be able to recover only a proportion of the total VAT from HMRC. However, we think that putting them together with VAT-registered creditors is the appropriate policy option. We therefore think that this SI strikes the right balance to ensure that an amount equivalent to VAT is recovered from debtors only where it represents a real cost to the creditor.

I accept that we could have acted faster to clarify this matter. We consulted on draft guidance in March 2020. The work to finalise that guidance was delayed as a result of the department’s response to the pandemic. For example, in this area, we diverted resources and introduced legislative bans on enforcement action by enforcement agents in order to protect public health, so the coronavirus pandemic had an impact on this area as well.

I certainly do not want disagreements about what should have happened in the past to delay any further clarification of future practice, so I am grateful to the noble Baroness for amending the Motion to one of regret.

I understand the concerns expressed about whether in the past debtors have paid more than they should have done. I have great sympathy for the wish, expressed by a number of speakers, to ensure that debtors can have their concerns addressed in legislation. However, limits on retrospective legislation are an important safeguard in a just society as well as being a principle of the rule of law. There must be strong reasons to test those limits even where there is the power to do so. This issue is not one of those exceptional cases.

The issues raised in the Motion are largely matters of private law as between debtors, enforcement agents and creditors, and the interpretation of the legal position between those private parties is a matter for the courts. As we have heard, the issue is currently before the High Court in litigation. It is tempting but slightly inaccurate to say that the Government were taken to court, with all that implies. That case is in fact about a declaration being sought from the court as to what the law is. It is fair to say that there are widely divergent opinions on what the correct legal position prior to this SI in fact was.

To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, the common law position is simply this. My friend in the other place was not saying that the common law imposes VAT but that it is a basic principle of the common law that when you enforce a debt, you can recover the debt and the costs of enforcement of the debt. If VAT is to you a real cost of enforcement, an amount equivalent to that VAT is recoverable from the debtor. That ties in with basic principles of enforcement of debts, whether it is VAT or indeed your solicitor’s costs in bringing the matter to court and enforcement. To pick up another point, if the enforcement agent is not registered for VAT, they cannot charge VAT on their fees, so the point does not arise in the first place.

We do not think it would be appropriate to legislate for the past. I respectfully disagree with the noble Baroness when she assumes that debtors who paid VAT or a sum equivalent to VAT in the past were wrongly overcharged. That is a point of law which is in dispute. However, we think that debtors must pay the costs of enforcement of a judgment debt. At the same time, we want to ensure that debtors are fairly treated, not just in relation to the process of enforcement but to the costs of the process.

I do not want to give the House a history lesson, but if one goes back to the high sheriff and undersheriffs of days gone by, the predecessors of the High Court enforcement officers, there is an interesting analysis of whether VAT would or might have applied to their fees. Were they acting on behalf of the creditor or on behalf of the court? It is not always very easy to analyse.

VAT itself is not an uncomplex system, so it is easy to understand why successive Governments were perhaps less prescriptive than they might have been as to how it would impact on the fee rates. None the less, where VAT imposes an additional sum and that sum cannot be recovered by the creditor as an input tax, it is an enforcement cost and should be recoverable from the debtor. That said, given that the matter is seized by the High Court, obviously we will keep a close eye on that litigation. We will look at any findings of the court extremely carefully and will consider whether any further action in this area is necessary.

Before I sit down, I should pick up an important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, about the enforcement conduct authority. We are strongly supportive of the work that is being done by the Centre for Social Justice, in partnership with the enforcement and debt advice sectors, to set up an enforcement conduct authority to provide independent oversight of firms and to consider complaints. We believe that the proposed authority will make a real difference by raising standards in the industry to protect vulnerable debtors while improving the effectiveness of enforcement. We remain committed to reviewing the new body within two years of its operation and then deciding whether it is necessary to put it on a statutory footing.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, referred to PPI. With respect, I am not persuaded that this is a like-for-like issue. The point with PPI is that people were paying sums which they should not have paid and which went into the pockets of the insurance companies. What has happened here is that VAT has been paid, but there is no suggestion that the enforcement officers have not been remitting the VAT which they collected to HMRC. We should look at each issue on its own merits.

To pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, I accept that the normal limitation point in claims for restitution, which this would be, is six years. However, to say that “the money actually belongs to them”—“them” being the debtors—is, with respect, to beg the legal question which is at the heart of the earlier dispute.

I apologise for rattling through that. This area is not without its complexity. We have sought to make the position absolutely clear going forward, and as regards past cases, I hope that I have set out the Government’s position with clarity, even if, as I suspect, it may not meet entirely with the noble Baroness’s approval. None the less, I hope that I have set out the Government’s position.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 3:15 pm, 13th January 2022

My Lords, even before I thank the Minister, I owe the noble Lord, Lord Low, an apology. The Minister shot up rather quickly after the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Low, was planning to speak. I should have stood up and said something, and I apologise that I failed to do that.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

I thank the noble Lord.

I thank the Minister for his response. I will make just a few tiny points. The Minister made quite a play on how not all debtors have overpaid the VAT sum or equivalent. In fact, 95% of debtors have been in this position and have been improperly overcharged, so we have to bear in mind that the vast majority of debtors are in this position.

The Minister indicated that of course creditors can be in great poverty. I point out to the Minister and your Lordships that we know that the vast majority of these cases involve utility companies and local authorities, not your little man with thruppence ha’penny in his pocket. So I do not think we can buy that one.

I am glad that the Minister accepted—I think—that the ministry should have acted earlier. Most importantly, I thank him for saying that the Government will be keeping an eye on the legislative process. That is our one bit of assurance. I, like others, thank Just very much indeed for pursuing this issue on behalf of these very vulnerable people. We have to rely on the courts to make a sensible decision; let us see how they go.

I thank the Minister but also very much thank noble Lords who have stayed around for an inordinately long time, waiting for this debate. I beg leave to withdraw my regret Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Sitting suspended.