No one wants to fall into debt. No one wants a boot in their door. No one likes bailiffs. The use of bailiffs to tackle council tax arrears is a violent, humiliating, and unnecessary practice. That’s why ACORN Haringey is organising to end the council’s use of this cruel and bullying industry. With the support of Haringey Unison, Haringey Unite Community, Haringey Trades Council, and Haringey Claimant Justice, ACORN is calling on all renters and residents of the Borough to join us at 6 p.m. on the 17 July to march from Seven Sisters Station to Tottenham Town Hall where we will demand Haringey Council give bailiffs the boot.
In 2023 the use of bailiffs remains both malign and widespread. However, this practice is not universal. In 2018, Bristol City Council and Hammersmith and Fulham Council both made the decision to ‘Ban the Bailiffs’ and to end the use of ‘enforcement officers’ against those who have fallen into council tax arrears. ACORN Haringey has talked to councillors and officers at Hammersmith and Fulham about the alternative plan for debt collections, which now aims to work supportively with the community by offering far more flexible repayment schemes.
Council Tax collection rates in Hammersmith and Fulham remain similar to that in Haringey; however, whilst last year, 8148 residents were referred to bailiffs in Haringey, none were referred in Hammersmith and Fulham. There is little evidence to suggest that this institutionalised cruelty has any link with higher rates of council tax collection, so we must ask: why is this atrocious system still in place? And why has evidence of its ineffectiveness not led to a capital-wide or even national change?
Haringey Council are not entirely blind to the barbarism being carried out in their name. In 2018, they instituted a so-called ‘Ethical Debt Collection’ policy which aimed to protect the most vulnerable members of the Borough from the use of ‘enforcement agents.’ However, despite the council’s claim to have reduced the number of households referred to bailiffs by 67 percent since 2019/20, ACORN Haringey has discovered the true figure is closer to 22 percent and that the use of bailiffs actually increased in the last year.
Whilst the council maintains that the use of bailiffs is a necessary measure against wealthy members of the borough who simply choose not to pay their council tax, we find this to be an unlikely and uncommon scenario. Following the massive wave of precarity brought about by the cost of living crisis, any increase in the use of bailiffs is particularly unethical. Research by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute suggests that over half of those ‘in debt have mental health problems’, and amongst Step Change Debt Charity clients that had had contact with bailiffs, ‘57 percent said they had depression and 66 percent stress or anxiety,’
The alarming frequency of mental health problems amongst those in debt is only ever worsened by the dreadful arrival of the bailiff’s boot. This method of debt enforcement relies on a climate of anxiety, on what the late urbanist Mike Davis called an ‘Ecology of Fear.’ A mother from Bruce Grove informed described her experience:
Due to unforeseen circumstances and unfortunate family events, I fell behind on my council tax payments, leading to the council involving bailiffs. The moment I received notice from them, I was overwhelmed with a mix of emotions—fear, stress and helplessness. I didn’t know what to do, and no one at the council could explain to me what the next steps were. I felt like a sitting duck waiting for them to arrive. I hope nobody has to go through what I went through.
Dread, fear and intimidation are essential to the operation of the bailiff industry. There have been recent reports in London of bailiffs being arrested for carrying firearms during a ‘brutal attempt to illegally evict squatters’ and of bailiffs dressing up like police officers to gain access to people’s homes. Andy, a resident of the Haringey Ladder, informed ACORN of how when a bailiff used illegal force to enter his shared accommodation, he attempted to phone the police for help; receiving none, the bailiff then phoned the police on Andy to falsely claim he had been obstructed from entering the property. These so-called ‘enforcement officers’ are ‘disciplined at pushing the boundaries of the law’; their modus operandi is to use physical and psychological intimidation with little regard for legality or the wellbeing of those affected.
Another resident of the borough told us about the utterly unnecessary and belittling treatment his family received at the hands of bailiffs sent by Haringey Council:
The bailiffs arrived very early in the morning, demanding to speak to me. I wasn’t in, so my wife opened the door. She was very scared and thought that I would be arrested. They were very rude to her, which made me very angry. It was totally unnecessary. We could have paid back the two months we missed, just not a whole year at once.
There is an essential cruelty to how local authorities treat members of their own community as nothing but debtors, as problems to extract money from, rather than people with complex issues seeking compassion or support. Another local told ACORN of feeling, ‘like I was being attacked in my own home. The way the bailiffs spoke to me was terrifying. They made threats and used intimidation tactics that left me feeling really helpless.’
Our response to this institutionalised use of intimidation must be both anger and organisation: it must be to put an end to this helplessness; make a show of compassion amongst debtors; demonstrate an understanding of debt; and gather in such a way that we must be noticed. We must put an end to this privatised regime of harassment and dread. Join us on the 17 July—and let’s make our anger heard.