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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aditya Chakrabortty

Can’t pay and they really do take it away: what happens when the bailiffs come knocking

Sharron Spice pictured in Edmonton, north London.
‘Within a few weeks of Sharron Spice’s parking tickets falling into a bailiff’s hands, her debt rises over 100%.’ Spice pictured in Edmonton, north London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

A distress signal came last week in the form of a tweet, terse and plain. “Guys pls help me,” it read and tagged me in, along with a few others. You may know its sender. Over the past year, Sharron Spice has been writing occasionally for the Guardian’s heat or eat diaries, detailing what it’s like to be poor in a rich country, to endure a cost of living crisis not for just a couple of years, but over decades. Now bailiffs had towed her car away. In a panic, she’d rung around local pounds, but got nowhere. Now night was falling. “My car is gone?! Where is it please? This is causing me distress, and severe anxiety”. In all the loneliness of social media, she was unravelling.

I knew that bruised sky, the river of cars running forever past her window, because her streets were once mine. She lives in the same nook of outer London where I was born and brought up: Edmonton. For those who imagine the capital flows with milk and honey, or avocado and sourdough, Edmonton is your rebuttal. Once full of light industry, today it has some of the most deprived areas in England.

What do you do when a neighbour’s in trouble? I offer to look into things. What turns up isn’t just a 20-year-old car, but a darker side of the economy rarely explored by the media and barely touched by ministers. Yet it is huge, and growing fast.

Because Spice is not alone. Since the cost of living crisis began, more than 2 million people have been contacted by a bailiff, while the big debt-enforcement companies are reporting record profits.

The media present rising prices as a passing squall for the middle class, brought on by Vlad ’n’ Liz and resulting in spiking mortgage rates and fewer trips to Waitrose. But beneath those headlines are millions of others for whom the problem isn’t rising prices, but falling incomes.

A new book called When Nothing Works shows which groups have enjoyed the biggest rise in take-home pay since the turn of the millennium. From Tony Blair to Boris Johnson, the authors discover one golden rule: the richer you are, the more money you’re given. The top tenth of society have seen a 25% jump in their pay. The bottom tenth – the people who live in places like Edmonton – have had only a 3% rise. Not much of a return for 20 years, as food bills and motoring costs have marched upwards – and no protection at all from the past couple of years’ surge in energy prices.

Spice falls right into that bottom tenth. She gets jobs that last only a few months, in the flexible labour market beloved of politicians, but which leaves her struggling to pay the bills. At the moment, she’s a youth worker with the local council, primarily dealing with teens who’ve got into trouble. “I think I can save them,” she says. “Open their eyes to uni or a job.” But she can’t save any money on two contracts, one of which is zero-hours and the other guaranteeing only nine hours’ pay a week.

‘Since the cost of living crisis began, more than 2 million Britons have been contacted by a bailiff.’ Photograph: AndreyPopov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

On to that financial setup, forever teetering on a cliff edge, drop two parking tickets. The sort of thing that might make others sigh, before pulling out a credit card. But for Spice, it’s another impossible claim when she’s behind on rent, the water, the electric, council tax. So, ostrich-like, she ignores the letters – until finally she ends up in the world of bailiffs. And that’s when the trouble really begins.

Heard about interest rates at 6%? That’s nothing: within a few weeks of Spice’s parking tickets falling into a bailiff’s hands, her debt rises over 100%. As a breakdown provided by the company shows, every move they make is chucked straight on her bill. A letter demanding payment costs her £75. A knock on the door from a company representative: another £235. Taking her car: an extra £110. Then there’s a daily storage charge, so that she pays £24 for every day she can’t drive. These were fees set by the government, using the industry’s sums. The result is that the firms chasing some of the poorest people in the country can rake in handsome profit margins.

One of Spice’s sisters has long Covid. “That car takes my sister to hospital,” she says. “That car picks up her kids from school and carries the shopping for their family. That car is my freedom, and now I don’t have any.” She has a history of anorexia and, when we meet, says she’s back down to one small meal, late at night. “Everything’s so out of control that I want to control what I eat.”

Want to see something out of control? Consider this: one of those parking tickets is from the very same council that employs her on a zero-hours contract to help its troubled young people. During the day, she is a low-paid key worker; at night, a problem debtor. That’s how broken our economy is. Meanwhile, the austerity years have allowed bailiffs a makeover: they now call themselves “enforcement agents” and some even star in their own TV series, Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away!, which is watched by millions.

The enforcement agents in Spice’s case are from a large corporation called CDER. A number of days after I write, a company director responds, pointing out that the necessary regulations have been observed. Looking over the letters, the debt-advice charity StepChange confirms they are right. Yet the regulations are almost nonexistent, making such minimal demands of bailiffs such as not knocking on your door in the middle of the night – or not entering a house if there’s only a child present. An independent oversight body is just setting up, but at full strength it will have a core team of just five. This is a state of affairs that cossets and enriches bailiffs at the expense of families who’ve fallen into debt. Poor people get a poor law.

Spice isn’t much of a spender, but she’d have been better off racking up a big credit card bill, because the protections there, for middle-class debt, would be much better. StepChange points out that as a charity, it is much more heavily regulated than the bailiffs with whom it deals.

A week after Spice’s crisis began, there’s good news. First, CDER say they will hold off selling the car and will wipe a few hundred pounds off their fees. While I am writing this, a friend lends her money to pay part of the debt and, exercising a bit of discretion, the CDER director agrees a deal. It has taken a week of hell and the intervention of a national newspaper to get this – a small break for a woman trying to make her way through an economy that is rigged against her. “A happy ending!” whoops Spice, before heading off to the pound. If only that were true, I think. If only it would end here. But being poor in Britain is so expensive it can drive you to ruin.

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist

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