Posted: Fri 15th Dec 2023

Alyn and Deeside MS leads Welsh Parliament debate calling for greater regulation of debt collectors in Wales

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Friday, Dec 15th, 2023

A backbencher led a debate on debt collection amid concerns that bad behaviour is the norm rather than the exception among bailiffs.

Jack Sargeant led a Senedd debate .

The Alyn and Deeside MS brought forward the proposal after The Times exposed British Gas debt collectors joking as they forced their way into the homes of vulnerable customers.

He said: “And the more I read about the behaviour of debt collectors and bailiffs, the more determined I became to do something.

Mr Sargeant told the chamber that a third of people contacted by bailiffs during the cost-of-living crisis have experienced behaviours that broke the rules.

“Many have faced intimidating behaviour,” he said. “For instance, a single mother was woken up at 6am, while it was still dark, by male bailiffs knocking on the door.

“Her children were scared and she became too anxious to sleep.”

‘Huge toll’

Mr Sargeant raised concerns about misinformation, citing the example of a company in Wales telling people they can be imprisoned, which has not been the case since 2019.

He said a widow’s car was clamped, stopping her getting to work in the ambulance service, despite her having paid off council tax debt with inheritance from her late husband.

He told MSs that half of people contacting Citizens Advice for help with debt collectors are in council tax arrears as he backed the charity’s calls for a statutory code of practice.

Mr Sargeant said: “Indebtedness and, in particular, the involvement of debt collectors and bailiffs, takes a huge toll on people’s physical and mental health.”

Mark Isherwood shared his concerns but warned that lawyers have advised that a bill to regulate debt collection and enforcement would be outside of the Senedd’s powers.

‘Unworkable’

The Conservative MS for North Wales argued a code of practice could only be voluntary, suggesting this would make the proposal unworkable.

Mr Isherwood highlighted an existing legal requirement for a debt collection agency to register and follow guidelines set out by the Financial Conduct Authority.

He said debt recovery that would be deemed harassment is not allowed, including entering a debtor’s home without consent or pressuring people to make payments they cannot afford. 

Sioned Williams warned that people have been pushed into Victorian levels of poverty.

The Plaid Cymru politician raised the equality committee’s report on unsustainable debt fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis which painted a bleak picture.

She said: “What is frustrating is that the urgent steps needed to prevent people from falling into the debt trap, outlined in our most important recommendations, haven’t been taken yet.”

The South Wales West MS backed Mr Sargeant’s motion, which called for a duty on public bodies to only use debt collectors that sign up to a code of conduct.

Mike Hedges told the chamber that people need support with underlying issues such as substance abuse and gambling addiction.

“Most end up in debt due to a catastrophic occurrence in their lives,” said the Labour MS for Swansea East, who raised concerns about lax background checks by debt collection firms.

‘Debt bonfire’

Jane Dodds, the Lib Dem leader in Wales, called for a “debt bonfire” which would see the Welsh Government buy bad debt and cancel it for the poorest people in Wales.

While agreeing with the motion’s principles, Jane Hutt said powers on the debt enforcement industry are not devolved as she called for more effective regulation at a UK level.

The social justice minister told MSs the Welsh Government has taken steps within its powers to ensure the collection of council tax arrears is managed in a just and sensitive way. 

Ms Hutt said: “All the local authorities have made a commitment to implement the council tax protocol for Wales, an important step to changing the culture of council tax enforcement.”

She added that ministers would abstain but Labour backbenchers would have a free vote on the member’s legislative proposal.

During plenary on Wednesday December 13, the motion was agreed with 27 for, 25 abstensions and none against.

 

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

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