New Clause 2

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 22nd March 2007.

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‘All enforcement agents, both private and Crown employed, must at all times wear a uniform as prescribed by the Secretary of State.’.—[Mr. Ellwood.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to work under your tutelage today, Mrs. Humble. It has been interesting to be part of a major overhaul of the entire enforcement system, particularly with respect to bailiffs. It is well overdue, and we ask the Minister to consider going a step further.

The new clause would be a useful, radical and simple provision. The entire process is complex and confusing in law. The new clause is straightforward: it would require bailiffs to be given a uniform. That would not replace the ID that they are expected to carry, but work in addition to it. In researching the subject, I was interested to come across a BBC documentary on bailiffs. It included some undercover work, which showed the attitudes of people whose goods were taken away and of the bailiffs, who worked for private companies, many of whom were labelled as hired thugs. That does not do the industry any good whatsoever.

The new clause would put a more acceptable face on the work of the bailiffs. We see uniforms used in many walks of life, not only in the military, but in other security companies and in the NHS. A uniform shows a degree of authority; it shows status and helps to generate respect. That is exactly what is required of bailiffs, particularly those who work for councils, private bailiffs and so on. That is why we wish to introduce the new clause.

In rare circumstances, bailiffs operate in conditions in which they are not sure what to expect. There might be a requirement to wear additional protection, which could be part of the consideration of the uniform.

The new clause says that the Crown employee

‘must at all times wear a uniform as prescribed by the Secretary of State.’.

It would be fair to say, Mrs. Humble—this is no reflection whatsoever on your chairmanship—that the Bill has not been the sexiest one that has gone through the House. [Interruption.] It is not a Bill that immediately grabs the limelight. However, judging by the level of noise that that comment has generated, I am pleased to see that perhaps my thoughts on the Bill should be put into question. The way that the new clause is written provides an opportunity for the Minister to throw a little public limelight on to the Bill and on to the workings and proceedings of the Committee. The Minister might consider coming up with the first design of that uniform.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

Indeed. From what I hear in the tea rooms, the Minister is considered to be quite a trendy dresser; in fact, that is reflected in what she is wearing today.

This is a fantastic opportunity for us to showthe workings and proceedings of our Committee, regarding something that is perhaps considered light-hearted but is actually very serious. The new clause would be a simple but important addition to the legislation, and I certainly hope that the Government will view it sympathetically. We have developed it in consultation with those in the industry, who are also keen to see such a measure. I am also pleased to see that the Liberal Democrats are supporting it, and I certainly hope that the Minister will consider doing so.

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

We are indeed very supportive of the new clause, and the Minister indicated the other day that she was sympathetic to it, so we are hopeful that we will make some progress.

When we added our names to the new clause, Ihad not anticipated that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, with his military background, would see uniforms as the way of sexing up the Bill, but there we are. I understand now that that idea is compatible with his past and links his past with his present, and it may be an additional argument in favour of the new clause.

There is a strong case for this proposal. People often do not know who is at their door; people often claim to be people whom they are not, and people regularly allege that they have a right to enter a property. We often read in local papers all over the country that people pretend to have authority on behalf of a utility company, a bank or finance company. One way of minimising that risk is to ensure that people are in uniform. I remember that we had such a debate in another Committee, when we were considering legislation in relation to people who have a right to come into people’s homes.

I hope that the Minister is sympathetic to thenew clause. We do not pretend that the drafting is perfect, but it seems to be a perfectly good, sensible proposition, which is absolutely in accord with the public mood about how bailiffs and those in the enforcement agencies should conduct their business.I therefore hope that the Minister will give us a sympathetic response.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

I am someone on the Committee who has perhaps had a fairly unique experience in this area. When I was seven years old, my mother and my family were thrown out of our house by bailiffs. The bailiffs were all wearing bowler hats; that was their uniform then. It was a profoundly embarrassing experience. I remember that, even though I was only seven, I was profoundly embarrassed by it. We must counter all the discussion about uniforms with this consideration: if a group of uniformed bailiffs were to appear on an estate, it would make the process that much more difficult and oppressive for the family who were suffering it and much more terrifying for the children.

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

That is a terrible tale, and I can imagine that it is etched on my hon. Friend’s memory, not least because of the bowler hats, although I would have thought that it was generally a pretty awful experience. However, it is probably better to return to the level that we were at when the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East moved the new clause. I am pleased that he thinks that I am a trendy dresser; I shall probably go away for the weekend a happier woman for having received that compliment. I would be very pleased to design a uniform for anyone, really. He thinks that this is not a sexy Bill; all I can say is that he has not seen the rest of them.

My primary point is that the issue in the new clause is not one for the Bill. Opposition Members will understand why we could certainly never accept a new clause stating that both private and Crown employees must at all times wear the uniform—in bed or what? Clearly, a bit more thought must go into the whole thing. I accept completely in principle the need for proper identification of a bailiff to be made plain, at least—and following what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said, possibly at most—to the person who is being visited. We will design an identifier with a unique number on it so that there is no difficulty in knowing exactly who is coming to the door, their status and nature. The identifier will have a number; it will probably have a name too, but the number is important. We will ensure that people know who is coming to their door.

I can see the argument that the public would have increased confidence in enforcement if they saw people in uniform, and I am not unsympathetic to it. They would have increased confidence that the people empowered to do the work were regulated, as they would look more regulated if they were wearing uniform. Opposition Members who have had their ears close to the ground on submissions to the Committee will know that there are concerns about uniform: for instance, that it would make people an easy target. I have had it said to me that when fire officers go on to estates they are sometimes stoned, and bailiffs worry about what might happen to them if they were known to be going into particular areas and their presence were advertised by their uniform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury made the point that if somebody has to go through the humiliating process of having their goods taken away because of debt, out of respect it  ought to be done as discretely as possible. Uniform would militate against that. I am well aware of theneed for proper identification, as is my noble Friend Baroness Ashton, but we are not convinced that a uniform is the right form. We certainly would not state in the Bill that bailiffs should wear a uniform at all times.

There will be times when bailiffs want to have the protection of a stab vest or something of that kind when using their powers of forcible entry, so there may be occasions when it would be in everyone’s interest for us to prescribe that they should dress in a particular way, but there needs to be flexibility. The issue of how to identify bailiffs is very much in the Government’s mind, and we will return to the matter in regulations.I hope that that is sufficient reassurance to allow Opposition Members not to press the new clause.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 9:30 am, 22nd March 2007

I am grateful to the Minister for her sympathetic response and I am perfectly happy to accept the proposition that the matter be dealt with in regulations rather than in the Bill. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and I wish to add two reflections.

I am dealing at the moment with a case in which there is a dispute between a constituent of mine and a local authority—not our local authority—about the enforcement of liability. It arose, as it happens, from parking fines. One issue in dispute is whether the bailiffs came on the days when they say they came. My constituent says that on certain days he did not see them; he was in, they did not come to the door and nothing was put through the door. The bailiffs say that they came and that they called. It would be easier for that issue to be resolved if the bailiffs had been publicly identifiable, because other people would have seen them and there would be more evidence. People would remember that more clearly, as they would remember a police or fire officer or someone else in uniform coming, than when bailiffs have no uniform and come in civilian clothes, even if they had to present a number, name badge or warrant.

I reflected on the second point when I had a letter this week about another case that I am dealing with. A constituent, with my help and that of my constituency office team, has reached a satisfactory resolution with some bailiffs. Her remaining complaint is that they have added an excessive fee for

“attending with a view to removing goods”— a charge on top of the original liability order. My constituent is being charged a fee even though she had been trying to contact them to resolve matters and to prevent them coming round to the house. Her letter ends:

“I am enclosing the last letter I received from” the particular bailiffs’ company

“giving their version of events.”

The gentleman from the bailiffs

“fails to disclose in the letter my many attempts to get in touch with his firm to settle the debt but they refused to listen, insisting that the only option left was to call at my home to remove goods. I am sure you can appreciate that such tactics are commonly used by bailiffs to get more money out of people and that is what they have done in my case.”

Other important things follow as well—records of communications between people and bailiffs are often crucial. People often say that they have tried to leavea message, have left a message or have sent a letter.I ask the Minister to consider that, in the context of uniforms. I also understand the sensitivity of the example from personal experience of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. However, just a name badge or warrant is not sufficient, certainly for older people, people of less intelligence, people who do not have English as their first language or speak poor or no English, or people who are blind or with poor sight. We can all think of such people in every constituency in the land. We need to think of a way that makes the process acceptable to all parts of the community.

I also ask the Minister to reflect on the linked issue of how we can establish a system that traps the communications as efficiently as possible, before people ever come to the doorstep. Ideally, we do not want bailiffs coming to people’s doorsteps; the bailiffs should be able to do their business beforehand, by communication, by letter, by arrangements being made. We need to civilize the process a little.

My last point concerns the last bit of debate on this subject. I think that the local authorities should be able to help with this job more than they do. I am talking generally. Local authority and other debts are eventually passed over to the bailiffs—for example, council tax or other arrears. That is understandable.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Order. The final point of the hon. Gentleman is not part of our discussion on uniforms. Could he get back to uniforms or conclude his remarks?

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

Absolutely. I want to link my point to local authority people who are now out and about in uniform. I apologise if that was not obvious.

Local authorities, such as mine, often have neighbourhood wardens, who are in uniforms. We have just agreed, as a matter of policy, that all our housing department officials working on estates will have uniforms. That is a way of narrowing the responsibility for the local authority and trying to avoid bailiffs doing the job. The better course of action is to have, as part of the process, yes, the bailiffs when needed—in uniforms—but first, ideally, people who are always out and about on the estate. They are there for a different purpose than the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury suggested. They do not look like special, alien people coming on to the estate.

Could the Minister, her officials and their colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government reflect on how bailiffs and their uniforms can tie in with the increasing development of local authority personnel with uniforms? The public wish people in authority—those with powers over them or having an obligation in relation to their property or the goods in it—to be identifiable. I take the point that the first people who come do not come with a particular threat. Possibly some of the earlier work could be done by uniformed people who are employed by the local authority and out and about on the estates. Will the Minister reflect on that and respond to me in writing, having considered how we can combine such work with that done by local authorities and other Departments?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

Although we might not all agree entirely on the wording or, indeed, the principle of the new clause, it has been helpful in raising some of the challenging issues surrounding the mechanics of how bailiffs go about their duties. I thank the Minister for her reply and her concessions in agreeing on some of the issues that we have tried to highlight—in particular, identification.

Clearly, there is a thin line between respecting the concerns of the resident, as we heard from the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, and improving the status of the bailiff. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey just said, others, such as police community support officers, go about their daily business in uniform. In a coupleof estates in Bournemouth, members of volunteer organisations wear a sort of uniform—a pullover with an insignia and label, which is provided by the borough council to show that they are part of a team working together in a friendly manner. We must bear in mind also that in many cases where there is a concern that a visit might cause problems, bailiffs are often escorted by the police anyway. Carrying out such duties covertly can be a bit tricky. We cannot get away from the fact that they must be overt—that is the way forward.

We were hoping, however, for more of an agreement from the Minister. I wonder if, between now and Report, she will consider a compromise on a wording in order to improve the identification process, which is what we tried to achieve with the new clause. On that note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.