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Pay a visit to the debtors.

Byline: By Beth Neil

Their reputation for being brutally ruthless goes before them. But, as UK debt spirals, what is it really like being a bailiff? Beth Neil reports

The curtains in the upstairs window twitch. But nobody answers the door. Whoever is inside does not want to face the music.

It's 7am and bailiffs Andy Jenkins and John Cousins are beginning their daily house calls in Chester-le-Street. It's late for them - they normally start at five.

John raps loudly on the door again, but still no reply. Andy peers through the front window.

They get into their big white van and drive to the back of the house. We get there just as the dog is let out and the back door slams shut.

"It's daft," laughs Andy. "We know she's in there, but we get a lot of that and there's not much we can do."

The woman in question is on Andy and John's hit list of regular calls. It's always the same silent response and they are getting a bit sick now.

"Our next step is to take the distress warrant to the courts and ask for an arrest warrant to be issued."

Andy and John are self employed but work for national firm TNC, sub-contracted by a magistrates' court. Although not threatening, physically they are burly and you know they can look after themselves.

"It's very rare anything turns violent," says Andy. "Not unless it's a young woman with a can of Pledge in her hand, who weighs about five stone. I got battered senseless by a girl in Darlington once."

What about excuses for non-payment? They've both heard some tall stories over the years.

"One woman said she was having her gall bladder removed every time we were due."

We press on through County Durham. Houses we call at are all occupied by people who haven't paid their fines - driving offences, no TV licence and so on. Anything issued by magistrates.

"We are the absolute last resort," explains John. "These people are given chance after chance to pay and then we are brought in."

"I think they're crazy," adds Andy. "We've all had fines for one reason or another, but you just pay them don't you? You lose sympathy after a while. I don't understand why they let it get this far."

An extra pounds 90 is added to the fine every time the bailiffs call. That's how they make their money. Once Andy made pounds 1,000 in one day after a series of successful visits, although he says this was a lucky one-off.

The pair claim non-payers think they are above the law and say these people have ignored countless warnings and failed to turn up for court appearances before bailiffs are called in.

But what about those whose debts are so out of control they don't know where to turn?

Chris Hurst, of Dudley, and his partner, Helen Williamson, fell behind in their council tax payments. Eventually, the pounds 34 debt escalated to pounds 152 as Chris and Helen's problems got out of control.

"It was a bailiff firm based in Manchester that came and their attitude was so arrogant," said Chris, who works for Gala bingo. "We were never offered any help to manage the debt and it got worse. It was very humiliating."

Every time the bailiffs came, more money was slapped on to what Chris, 25, and Helen, 26, owed.

"Legally, they're within their rights to do it, but morally it's wrong," said Chris. "Helen is a cleaner and so we are both in very low paid jobs. The bailiff firms are making lots of money from the poorest people in society.

"I don't think they wanted us to get out of the debt. It was in their interests if we didn't."

With some help from Chris's dad, the couple, who have a son Ryan, three, managed to clear the debt.

"We are still struggling, but I never want to go through anything like that again. I wish I had got professional advice on debt management then it might never have happened."

However, Andy and John are keen to dispel what they claim are myths about their profession. Personally, they prefer a more softly softly approach to people and it's very unusual for them to start removing possessions from houses. In the two years Andy's been on the job, he's only had to do it once.

"People confuse us with debt collectors who have a reputation for getting heavy-handed. We'd much rather talk to people and get things cleared up that way.

"We quite often get offered cups of tea and John's even had a thank you letter."

Nevertheless, they do, says Andy, quite often make use of wheel clamps that clatter round the back of their van.

"If we remove anything, it tends to be the car. We've got the right to clamp or tow away. They normally cough up when we threaten to take the car away."

I stifle a giggle at the irony as Andy's mobile starts ringing to the tune of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

As we tour around County Durham, a recurring pattern begins to emerge. All the houses have a Beware of the Dog sign. I ask John if it makes him nervous.

"No not at all. We both like dogs, so it's not a problem." But, as they make their way up another path to be greeted by the sound of three howling Alsatians, I'm happy to be sitting in the safety of the van.

We've been on the go now for an hour now and not one person has answered the door. On a run-down council estate in Leadgate, a neighbour steps outside to see who is hammering on the door. Andy and John give him the name of the man they're after.

"No, he's not lived here for a year," comes the reply. "It's a young lassie there now."

People have a tendency to move and not tell the authorities. But Andy and John make sure they are caught up with eventually.

"We run all sorts of checks to find out where they are and we track them through the courts or police."

John breaks off as he spots a small commotion in the back lane. Two policeman are struggling to arrest a man while his family do their best to stop them. We drive up the lane and Andy and John leap out. A woman who could be the suspect's mother is screaming blue murder at the policemen. Her language is peppered with swear words.

A huge mastiff dog runs back and forth as the family order it to attack the policemen.

"That's a pounds 600 dog," screeches the woman. Andy and John eventually get the situation under control, the young man is arrested and the family back off, still shrieking.

"It's in our interests to help out the police," says Andy. "We have to work together and we've taken a lot of work off the police so they can turn resources to fighting crime."

As we pull around to the street, the suspect's brother is standing at the front door. He chucks a mug of hot coffee at us which splatters all over the van. "Nice family," says John, unfazed by the whole thing. All in a day's work.

Keeping control of debt

A new report has warned the UK's debt problem is spiralling out of control.

The study, by the Citizen's Advice group, found more than a quarter of people are struggling to pay back their debts.

A rise in unemployment or interest rates could spark even more people being unable to meet debt repayments.

The report discovered:

* 26 per cent of people found it difficult to keep up with their bills from time to time

* 11 per cent admitted it was a constant struggle

* The average household debt has increased to pounds 6,900

* 670,000 people were helped by CAB with consumer credit debt problems last year

* 12 per cent only pay the minimum repayment on credit cards

* 6 per cent owe pounds 10,000 or more

* 12 per cent owe nearly pounds 2,000

Claire Bonas of Gateshead's Action for Debt said: "When people come to us it is normally because they feel they have nowhere else to turn. They are often very embarrassed and don't want to admit the extent of the debt.

"Sometimes it is like drawing teeth getting them to tell us the level of debt they are in. I want to encourage people to come forward before their debt gets outs of hand. We are here for free advice and support.

"Everybody's situation is different, but people don't get into debt just for the fun of it. People live to their means and then their circumstances might change. They might lose their job and just can't keep up with their repayments.

"There is always someone for people to turn to and they are not alone."

* For free debt management advice, call Action for Debt free on 0800 073 1055
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 8, 2003
Previous Article:Dispelling the myths.
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