Clause 58

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 20th March 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Enforcement agents

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment No. 120, in clause 58, page 44, line 2, leave out ‘certificate’ and insert ‘licence’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 110, in clause 59, page 44, line 21, leave out ‘certificate’ and insert ‘licence’.

Amendment No. 112, in clause 59, page 44, line 24, leave out ‘certificates’ and insert ‘licences’.

Amendment No. 113, in clause 59, page 44, line 28, leave out ‘certificates’ and insert ‘licences’.

Amendment No. 114, in clause 59, page 44, line 30, leave out ‘certificates’ and insert ‘licences’.

Amendment No. 115, in clause 59, page 44, line 32, leave out ‘certificates’ and insert ‘licences’.

Amendment No. 116, in clause 59, page 44, line 33, leave out ‘certificates’ and insert ‘licences’.

Amendment No. 117, in clause 59, page 44, line 34, leave out ‘certificate’ and insert ‘licence’.

Amendment No. 118, in clause 59, page 44, line 36, leave out ‘certificates’ and insert ‘licences’.

Amendment No. 119, in clause 59, page 44, line 39, leave out ‘certificate’ and insert ‘licence’.

Amendment No. 130, in clause 85, page 53, line 23, after ‘under’, insert

‘section [Licensing of enforcement agents, enforcement agency businesses and enforcement trade associations] or’.

New clause 3—Licensing of enforcement agents, enforcement agency business and enforcement trade associations

‘(1) Within one calendar year of the enactment of this Act the Secretary of State must lay draft regulations (the regulations) for the licensing of enforcement agents, enforcement agency businesses and enforcement trade associations before both Houses of Parliament.

(2) Before laying the regulations the Secretary of State must consult such enforcement trade associations and such  representatives of magistrates, enforcement agents, enforcement agency businesses, the credit industry, providers of advice about credit and other interested parties as he considers appropriate.

(3) The regulations shall establish an independent regulator (the regulator) to—

(a) license enforcement agents (other than those made exempt by section 55) and enforcement agency businesses and trade associations;

(b) establish standards by requirements for licensing, by codes of practice, by prescribed forms, by training requirements and by the inspection of licensed individuals and undertakings;

(c) investigate complaints made against licensed individuals and undertakings;

(d) impose financial and other requirements on licensed individuals and undertakings as a condition of licence or as a result of investigations made under paragraph (c) above; and

(e) do such other things as it is reasonably required to do properly to fulfil those functions.

(4) The regulations shall also establish a means of appeal for licensed individuals and undertakings against decisions taken by the regulator.

(5) The regulator may delegate such of its functions as it considers appropriate to trade associations that it has licensed.

(6) The regulator may require any government department that employs enforcement agents to co-operate in producing common standards for the conduct of enforcement agents and for dealing with complaints against them.

(7) The regulator shall each year lay a report before each House of Parliament on the operation of this Act.

(8) The regulations may make such amendments to other regulations or statutes as are reasonably consequent upon the regulations.

(9) On the first occasion that both Houses of Parliament approve the regulations—

(a) section 58 shall be amended by substituting the words “is licensed under section [Licensing of enforcement agents, enforcement agency businesses and enforcement trade associations]” for the words “acts under a certificate under section 59” in subsection (2)(a); and

(b) section 59 shall be repealed.’.

New clause 8—Commencement of Chapter 1 of Part 3

‘The provisions of Chapter 1 of Part 3 of this Act shall not come into force until a registration scheme for bailiffs and enforcement agents, enforcement agency businesses and enforcement trade associations has been set up and implemented in accordance with the provisions of the Private Security Industry Act 2001 or of this Act.’.

Amendment No. 160, in clause 143, page 110, line 3, at end insert—

‘(4A) No order may be made under this section to bring Chapter 1 of Part 3 into force unless the provisions of section [Commencement of Chapter 1 of Part 3] have been complied with.’.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

We will try to make some progress, because we are now debating an important part of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 120, 110, 112 to 119, 130 and 160 are consequential on the new clauses. They would remove the word “certificate” and insert “licence”, because obviously, under a system of independent regulation, the independent regulator issues licences. The Government have a choice of two new clauses. They can have either Conservative new clause 3 or   Liberal Democrat new clause 8, but let us not split hairs. Both the new clauses would do the job that they are intended to do.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the bailiff industry that there should be proper outside regulation. It is not just us—[Interruption.]

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. There is a certain hubbub developing from two Members in sedentary positions. I feel sure that they will want to desist so that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk can develop his argument.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Bercow, for protection from the hubbub emanating from that direction. It is never easy to develop an argument in the context of a substantial hubbub.

I shall try to be brief, because I do not want to go in great detail through all the arguments for regulation—they were discussed at some length in the other place and on Second Reading—but I should mention that a number of people have underlined the need for outside regulation, including the Enforcement Law Reform Group and the indomitable Mr. Philip Evans in representations. I hope that I did not see someone shaking their head at the name of Philip Evans. He has been most helpful in briefing Committee members.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, or Citizens Advice as it is now called, has lobbied MPs up and down the country to express its concern about the Bill’s provisions and its belief that in the context of giving bailiffs extra power, a system of outside regulation should be introduced. The Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, about which we have heard, has been helpful and assiduous in ensuring that we have been properly briefed on those aspects of the Bill affecting vulnerable people. The Enforcement Services Association and the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies also take the view that there should be outside regulation.

The original enforcement Green Paper argued strongly for independent outside regulation. That was endorsed by Professor J. Beatson, professor of public law at Cambridge university. He produced a report for the Lord Chancellor in 2000, on which I believe the Green Paper was partly based, in which he made it clear that he felt strongly that independent regulation of bailiffs was necessary. The arguments are strong if one considers the extra powers that bailiffs will be given. When the Minister joined the debate on the last group of amendments, she said that the extra powers are quite minimal and will concentrate around one key area, but I submit that they are considerable.

We are in a society in which more and more debt is building up. The amount of debt in private households in this country is now quite frightening. We hear day in and day out in our constituencies of families that get themselves into debt, go to loan sharks, try to pay off the debt using additional credit cards and get into a spiral of increasing debt. We all know of terrible examples of families that started off with quite a modest debt that became impossible.

Later in the Bill, we shall come to the proposed new arrangements to help people who end up in serious  debt. However, the problem is that in society when there is debt, creditors have the right to enforce and collect it. We could be talking about private individuals; debts could be owed to them. Debts may also be owed to corporate entities, companies or Departments. As debt builds up, so collections increase and the activities of the bailiffs—both Crown and private—also increase in a commensurate fashion.

In the next few years, more and more work will be done by bailiffs. We have talked at length about how only a small minority of bailiffs abuse the system and represent themselves, wrongly, as having powers that they do not have. Only a small minority will behave in an aggressive and intimidating fashion. Nevertheless, we all know that such things happen, and they happen because of human nature.

Although we certainly agree with the Minister that it is a good idea to codify the rights and powers of bailiffs in one place in the Bill, there is an overwhelming case for outside, independent regulation by a body that could lay down exactly what could and should not be done and was able to issue licences. Furthermore, as well as issuing licences, that body would have the power to take them away and discipline the bailiffs in question completely independently.

The Minister suggested that that role can be fulfilled by the Security Industry Authority. We understand that the SIA is not keen to take on that role; that has been reported to me by a number of the different organisations that I mentioned earlier. If the Minister says categorically that the SIA is happy to take on that role, I will be slightly more reassured.

The other important point is that the SIA will be regulating only private bailiffs, not Government bailiffs, the Crown agents. We propose an independent outside regulator to regulate all bailiffs. The arguments in favour of that approach are overwhelming. If we are going to give bailiffs more power, if their activities increase—as will inevitably happen in a society where debt is building up—and if we are to protect creditors, as we have to do in any market economy, I am afraid that there will be more examples of vulnerable people being oppressed and maltreated and more people will come to our surgeries complaining. That is why we need proper outside regulation.

I want to ask the Minister about one more important point. The Bill introduces a new certification procedure for bailiffs. I understand that Ministers have made it clear that the proposals will cover all private bailiffs. However, I gather that the proposals will not do that. The Enforcement Law Reform Group said:

“This could, in fact, exempt any bailiff the Lord Chancellor chooses but I expect it will be used to exempt county court bailiffs (who are civil servants) and the private bailiffs authorised to enforce High Court orders.”

Will the Minister clarify that point?

As legislators, it is vital that we should act in good faith and do all we can to help those in society who deserve extra protection. I would not like to go away from this Committee and the deliberations on this Bill without being able to sleep more quietly at night, knowing that, rather than having an SIA that will regulate only private bailiffs, we will have a proper system of overarching, overall regulation of the entire bailiff industry.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 5:45 pm, 20th March 2007

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship once more, Mr. Bercow, and I apologise for the hubbub, which was entirely the fault of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West.

I seek clarification as to whether the consultation on the regulation of enforcement agents is running in parallel with the Bill. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, the notion of the regulation being undertaken by the SIA seems to be the main idea that comes from that consultation, and I have considerable sympathy with what he said about proper, transparent and accountable regulation by an independent body. Can the Minister clarify whether there has been an overwhelming response to the effect that there should be a different form of independent body to deal with the vagaries of the bailiff system, and if so, whether that can be incorporated in legislation? I refer not to the primary legislation, which I hope will already have been enacted, but secondary legislation, to make the changes that give us an independent body to which bailiffs will be accountable.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I commend the attempts that have been made to link the implementation of this part of the legislation to a registration system. My new clause is far shorter than that of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, so it should commend itself doubly to the Committee.

I have a slightly philosophical dilemma, because I come from a tradition that wants as little regulation as possible. I would normally, therefore, resist the idea that we should give more powers to regulators—the state is already too oppressive rather than not oppressive enough. However, we are talking here about people who are empowered to interfere with people’s homes and property, and therefore with their civil liberties. It seems to me that, just as we have tight legislation concerning what the police can do in such circumstances, so we need a regulatory system that will ensure that others with such powers are controlled. That is how I square the political and philosophical circle.

First, this is an area in which, as we have discussed, the public need to know that, where possible, the people who have the power have a uniform. The Minister was positive about that on Second Reading. Secondly, I am sympathetic to the idea that there should be a limited number of categories. Constables should not fall under the regulator, because they have powers elsewhere and it would be inappropriate to suggest that they should be subject to further regulation. Further, because this is an enforcement mechanism, it is probably right to work on the basis that anybody who works for the courts does not need to be separately regulated. If the people working for the courts are not working properly, we are in trouble. If this service is to be contracted-out—as, increasingly, it is—it must be up to the Courts Service, and above it the Department for Constitutional Affairs, to ensure that those working on behalf of the courts system have a good reputation.

However, it seems reasonable that others should be regulated. In that case, it is easier to think in terms of people who work for Revenue and Customs as being in  the same system as others who are neither police constables nor working for the Courts Service. In any event, members of the public need to know that those in authority can be identified not just by a piece of paper but by their uniforms.

Lastly, on who should do the regulating, we already have a Security Industry Authority. My simple political principle suggests that it is better to use an agency that exists, as long as it is more or less appropriate or can be made so, than to create another organisation and therefore more bureaucracy, more cost and more management. Therefore, I think that the authority that we set up in 2001 is the right one. It has been going for only a few years. It may need to be modified. It may need to be rebranded slightly. It may need other changes. But let us use an agency that we have.

I obviously am sympathetic to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. I am glad that we will link the system, but I hope that the Minister can give us the assurance that there will not be this interim period. At the moment we are in the slightly muddled position that the Bill proposes one regime and then later down the track there will be another regulated regime. We do not need the interim stage. We could go from where we are to a regulated system. If there is no interim period, it will make the regulated system come more quickly because the pressure will be there to deliver it more quickly. Finally, could the Minister reconsider having no new interim arrangement and moving straight to regulation? What is the earliest date that Ministers believe that a new regulated system can apply to bailiffs, enforcement agents and the like?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

We intend to regulate this industry. The industry itself wants to be regulated and the stakeholders who have made representations to us, and almost all of those who have made representations to fellow members of the Committee, want regulation. And regulation there will be. There will be regulation as soon as it can possibly be put in place. It will regulate those who are not court or state employees. There are precious few complaints about them. Citizens Advice makes it very clear that it is private bailiffs about whom it complains and not court or state employees, who are, of course, subject to civil service codes, discipline and complaints procedures already. We think that that is sufficient.

I hope that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk is wrong to suggest that there will be an increase in bailiff activity. I hope that there is good power in part 5 that will help a lot of people to deal more adequately with their indebtedness than in the past. That will obviate the need for this type of action as much as possible.

The Government issued a joint consultancy partial regulatory impact assessment exploring the cost and impact of regulation and setting out the preferred option: that is the Security Industry Authority, which is an agency of the Home Office. I should reiterate that implementing the preferred option—in other words, regulation by the SIA—can be achieved through secondary legislation. What is required, as there is a structure in the Private Security Industry Act 2001, is to use secondary legislation to bring the bailiffs into that structure. There will be an affirmative order, which the Home Office intends to lay before the summer recess.

After the making of the affirmative order it will be for the Home Office and the SIA to take regulation forward toward implementation after consulting all the stakeholders. It is not appropriate to set, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk does, a time limit because it is more important to get it right for all parties. He can rely on us. We intend to move as quickly as we possibly can. We are committed to regulation. The interim solution, as it has been described by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, is important therefore in the meantime. There are provisions in the Bill that it is imperative to introduce very quickly. There must be a beefed up certification process to hold the fort for us until we can bring in the SIA.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Could the hon. and learned Lady help us with my question about the timetable? What are the earliest and the latest dates that the Government would expect the regulation under the SIA to be achieved?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I do not think that I can be as specific as that. The hon. Gentleman would not derive much assistance from the latest date and we are not clear about the earliest date. Let me make it very clear to the Committee that the political will is to do it as soon as at all possible. We want regulation, and regulation we intend to bring in.

I have referred to the interim solution and said how important it is. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, there is a significant difference between his amendment No. 160 and the amendment that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has moved. Amendment No. 160 would not allow any of the provisions of chapter 1 of part 3 to come into force until the regulatory scheme was in place. That is wholly undesirable, because chapter 1 introduces many valuable protections for debtors, including fixed times and dates when enforcement agents can call, limits to the methods of entry that they can use, exemption of goods from seizure, a single fee structure and new remedies when enforcement agents break the law. If amendment No. 160 were accepted, many of the things that we discussed this morning that we currently do not do and which urgently need to be brought into force would not come into force.

To give further reassurance, I shall repeat what I have already said. The only increased power is the one that I have committed the Government to not introducing until the full regulatory scheme is in force. The rest of the Bill is all supportive of the fair use of bailiff procedures and is intended to get rid of the anomalies and irregularities that have been much quoted to me today and which I accept occur.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggested that the SIA was not keen to take the task on. That is incorrect; furthermore, I have written to him to say so. He suggested the same on Second Reading, so I wrote to him afterwards to say,

“you suggested that the SIA was not keen to take on the work of licensing enforcement agents. That is not the case. It has long been the intention that the SIA would take on this work and the organisation is now in a position to do so.”

We must therefore hasten to get the SIA to do exactly that.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am very grateful to the Minister for explaining things so clearly. We on the Conservative Benches feel strongly about the issue and so hope to return to it on Report. We are concerned that the SIA will regulate only private bailiffs. We feel that our solution is better and would have more impact on protecting those who need protection. However, we are certainly grateful to the Minister for ensuring that those provisions in the Bill that create new powers will not be commenced until the SIA procedures come into place. That is a significant concession to those of us who have been arguing the case strongly for some time, and it is always good to go away with something. When the Minister reflects on this debate, I hope that she will appreciate that members of the Committee and those interested in the subject have worked hard together to try to improve the Bill. However, on the basis of what she has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment No. 121, in clause 58, page 44, line 5, at end insert—

‘(2A) Any individual acting as an enforcement agent must act in accordance with the regulations made under section 59.’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 111, in clause 58, page 44, line 17, at end insert—

‘(6A) The Secretary of State may by order permit a specified person or class of persons to use the style “bailiff” in connection with enforcement by taking control of goods.

(6B) A person is guilty of an offence if, knowingly or recklessly, he describes himself as a bailiff in connection with enforcement or by taking control of goods or with any other debt collection activities without being authorised to do so by subsection (6A).’.

No. 127, in clause 58, page 44, line 17, at end insert—

‘(6A) A person is guilty of an offence under this section if he knowingly or recklessly fails to comply with any regulation, code of practice or other requirement made in pursuance of the powers set out in section 59.’.

No. 106, in clause 59, page 44, line 26, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

No. 107, in clause 59, page 44, line 29, at end insert—

‘(ba) for requirements to be fulfilled before a certificate is issued, and the manner in which the meeting of those requirements is verified;

(bb) the training requirements of holders of certificates;

(bc) for rules to be followed by holders of certificates in the course of their business;

(bd) for the provision of information and identification to debtors;

(be) for the insurance to be carried by holders of certificates;

(bf) for the payment of compensation to injured parties;’.

No. 109, in clause 59, page 44, line 36, at end insert—

‘(3A) The Lord Chancellor shall by order provide for the regulation of individuals certified to act as an enforcement agent.

(3B) No order may be made under subsection (3A) unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I shall try to be brief. The amendment would insert proposed new subsection (2A), which says:

“Any individual acting as an enforcement agent must act in accordance with the regulations made under section 59”,

which is currently clause 59, “Certificates to act as an enforcement agent”. The amendment would tighten up clause 58.

Amendment No. 111 would insert proposed new subsection (6A), which says:

“The Secretary of State may by order permit a specified person or class of persons to use the style ‘bailiff’ in connection with enforcement by taking control of goods.”

Proposed new subsection (6B) in amendment No. 111 says:

“A person is guilty of an offence if, knowingly or recklessly, he describes himself as a bailiff in connection with enforcement or by taking control of goods or with any other debt collection activities”.

It is important that there should be an offence for people who represent themselves as bailiffs when in fact they are not. That might sound like a simple and straightforward point, but amendment No. 111 would add that extra protection.

Amendment No. 127 repeats proposed new subsection (6B), as set out in amendment No. 111, so I shall not read it out. It would create an offence for someone who knowingly or recklessly fails to comply with a regulation or code of practice. Amendment No. 106 would simply take out “may” and insert “shall”. I think that it is a consequential amendment, which is why it refers to clause 59. I think that amendment No. 107 is another consequential amendment to clause 59—I see the Clerk nodding. It would lay down a requirement for the proper training of certificate holders. It is quite complicated to keep track of things when one dodges from one clause to another, particularly when dealing with clause 58. Amendment No. 109 would insert the following:

“The Lord Chancellor shall by order provide for the regulation of individuals certified to act as an enforcement agent...No order may be made under subsection (3A) unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

The amendments are fairly simple and straightforward. They would add an extra layer of protection. We feel that they are worthy and well thought out. They may not be perfectly drafted, but I commend them as probing amendments.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 6:00 pm, 20th March 2007

In one sentence, I commend amendment No. 109 to the Minister, as it is important that Parliament should have the right to agree to the regulations as a matter of course, as they will raise important matters for the individuals and organisations concerned.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Amendment No. 121 mirrors an amendment tabled at the Grand Committee in the other place, and it closely resembles amendments that are to be discussed in the next group. I have already made clear the Government’s position on the certification of Crown employees. I do not believe it to be necessary, and if it is acceptable to the Committee, I shall give more detailed reasons in the later debate.

Amendment No. 111 mirrors an amendment moved on Report in the other place. The Bill gives the collective title of “enforcement agent” to all who take control of goods and sell them under a power in accordance with schedule 12. The term will apply to county court bailiffs, High Court enforcement officers, tax collectors, private bailiffs and anyone else who is certificated under the enhanced and extended regime of clause 59 when taking control of goods.

I am not entirely sure of the point of the amendment, unless it is a concern that people who now call themselves bailiffs will not be able to do so in future. Many who work in the industry like to use the job title of bailiff; they have got used to it. Let me clarify the matter: they can still call themselves bailiffs if that is their job title. The provision is not about changing titles. County court bailiffs will still be county court bailiffs, High Court enforcement officers will still have the same title, tax collectors will remain as such and so on, but collectively they will all be called enforcement agents when taking control of goods in accordance with schedule 12.

The amendment would also create a new offence if a person knowingly or recklessly describes himself as a bailiff in connection with enforcement by taking control of goods or engaging in other debt collection activities without being authorised to do so. As we are not creating a specific and separate category of enforcement agent called a bailiff, it follows that we do not need a separate offence to deal with those who describe themselves as bailiffs. I hope that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk will be satisfied that there is no need for those amendments.

In amendment No. 127, the hon. Gentleman proposes to make failure to comply with regulations about certification a criminal offence. We do not think that that is necessary. Application is made to a county court, and the contents of the application form will be sworn on oath before a judge. Examination of applicants on the details required by the judge is carried out under oath, so contravention of the process would amount to a contempt of court. That is an appropriate sanction for dealing with such a contravention.

Amendment No. 106 appears to stipulate the provisions that must be contained in regulations. The provisions in subsection (3) are an indicative list and set the minimum provisions, and I would prefer to maintain that flexibility.

The extra requirements in amendment No. 107 are not necessary. We have committed to putting many of them in regulations and much of their detail is in paragraph 194 of the policy statement, to which I have referred extensively. The provision of information to debtors is already contained specifically in paragraphs 7 and 28 of schedule 12, to which extensive reference has been made. The provision of identification by an enforcement agent to a debtor is covered in paragraph 26 of the same schedule.

Prescribing insurance requirements for individual agents may not be practical if bailiff companies employ many agents. Agents will have to provide a bond anyway as part of the certification process, and it will be used when appropriate to pay compensation to debtors who successfully complain about the actions of  an enforcement agent. Paragraph 194 of the detailed policy statement deals with that issue.

Amendment No. 109 is intended to regulate by order all agents who would be subject to certification under regulations under clause 59 and, on the final point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, proposes that such an order-making power should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I share the view of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place that the negative resolution procedure is appropriate for the purpose. I hope that hon. Members will feel able not to press the amendments.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment No. 122, in clause 58, page 44, line 6, leave out ‘one of these’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 123, in clause 58, page 44, line 8, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 124, in clause 58, page 44, line 9, leave out paragraph (c).

No. 125, in clause 58, page 44, line 11, leave out subsection (4).

No. 126, in clause 58, page 44, line 13, leave out subsection (5).

No. 156, in clause 59, page 44, line 31, at end insert—

‘(ca) for certificates of prescribed categories to be given to prescribed classes of person (including, but not limited to, officers of government departments and persons appointed under section 2(1) of the Courts Act 2003 (c. 39) (court officers, staff and services));’.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The amendments would improve the Bill and they make sense. Amendment No. 122 is purely a paving amendment. It would remove the words “one of these” from clause 58(3), which states:

“An individual is exempt if he acts in the course of his duty as one of these—

(a) a constable;

(b) an officer of Revenue and Customs;

(c) a person appointed under section 2(1) of the Courts Act 2003”.

Amendment No. 123 would remove paragraph (b), amendment No. 124 would remove paragraph (c) and amendment No. 125 would remove subsection (4), which states:

“An individual is exempt if he acts in the course of his duty as an officer of a government department.”

Amendment No. 126 would remove subsection (5), which states:

“For the purposes of an enforcement power conferred by a warrant, an individual is exempt if in relation to the warrant he is a civilian enforcement officer”.

We feel that there are too many exemptions. There are exemptions for officers of Revenue and Customs, but do they not have enough power already? There are  exemptions for Government officers, and again we believe that that extends the powers too far.

I wish to push the Minister on one particular point. The essence of the clause is to introduce a new certification procedure for bailiffs, and I return to a point that I made a moment ago. Twice now, Ministers have told hon. Members that the proposals will cover all private bailiffs, but I am not sure whether that is 100 per cent. correct. Clause 58(3)(c), which we would delete, exempts

“a person appointed under section 2(1) of the Courts Act 2003”.

That provision could, in fact, exempt any bailiff whom the Lord Chancellor chooses. I expect that it will be used to exempt county court bailiffs, who are civil servants, and private bailiffs authorised under the relevant paragraphs of schedule 12 to enforce High Court orders. I know that that is a technical, tricky point, but perhaps the Minister could put our minds at rest. In light of the fact that we are probing, will she give me some comfort that the clause does not require the improvement that I am suggesting?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Amendments Nos. 122 to 126 would mean that no enforcement agents except police constables would be exempted from the proposed enhanced and extended certification process. We believe that there is no need for Crown employees to be certificated under this new procedure, because they are already subject to suitable recruitment, training and disciplinary procedures in their position as civil servants. At present, the Department for Constitutional Affairs does not have control over the training, conduct and discipline of private enforcement agents, but it does have a very large amount of control over its own enforcement staff.

County court bailiffs, civilian enforcement officers and the magistrates court are subject to civil service recruitment. The civil service code governs their behaviour. They are subject to strict controls over their conduct, subject to discipline under the civil service discipline procedures and complaints against them can be made to the appropriate court manager. They are also subject to continued training and development provided by the Department, and they are now, of course, subject to compulsory criminal record checks. We can therefore insist that certain standards will be adhered to within our own Department, but we have no such power in respect of private sector and local authority enforcement agents; hence the need for compulsory certification for those sectors of the industry.

It is widely acknowledged that the private sector bailiffs are the source of most complaints about the activities of enforcement agents. Figures from Citizens Advice indicate that 93 or 94 per cent.—it was certainly more than 90 per cent.—of the complaints that it receives about the behaviour of bailiffs are about those employed in the private sector. Compulsory certification is therefore aimed at the sector that is in most need of regulation.

Although Crown-employed enforcement agents will be exempt from the new process, I want to reiterate what my noble Friend Baroness Ashton said in the other place on Third Reading. The Government are committed to ensuring a common set of standards and a common appearance across the enforcement industry.  

There is a footnote: the cost to the public purse of certificating all Crown employees and the application process, bearing in mind the £10,000 bond that every certificated bailiff must put forward, would be £22 million. Given that few complaints are made about those involved and that they are already closely tied to the civil service code, and although I accept that cost will not be determinative in any issues concerning the security of ordinary people, that is none the less another important point.

We are committed to ensuring common standards across the enforcement agencies, and I hope that those reassurances will empower the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk to seek leave to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I have a final point. I commented on how Ministers had told hon. Members that the proposals in clause 58 would cover all private bailiffs. Will the Minister elaborate a tiny bit more on that issue and on the point made about section 2(1) of the Courts Act 2003? Perhaps she could write to me.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I am happy to write if that is acceptable. I shall write to everyone on the Committee, because  clearly there is strong interest in the matter. If other issues arise from it, I am sure that we will find other opportunities to address them.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am very grateful to the Minister. I think that to talk about a strong interest on the part of the whole Committee could be exaggerating slightly, because quite a few hon. Members have decided to take an early evening off.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes, I would like to have gone to a higher place, but unfortunately I had to refuse.

In the light of the good will shown by the Minister in response to our probing amendments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 58 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Six o’clock till Thursday 22 March at Nine o’clock.