Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Well, as pointed up yesterday, the "Exposure" documentary on bailiffs was aired on ITV1. It is now available on the web. For the record, I thought the programme pulled its punches, its only real high spot being a bravura performance by Austin Mitchell, whose daughter had been caught out by a bailiff seeking to recover a fine of which she was totally unaware.

The worst of the programme was that it starting off on a false premise, declaring of the star of the programme, bailiff John Boast - who had worked for Rossendales for three years: "There are no laws governing how he conducts his business – only guidelines", intones the voice-over. Of course there are laws, not least the Fraud Act 2006 – but you never get a hint of that from the programme.

Boast was recorded by an undercover reporter working for Exposure. He applied for a job as a trainee … the post needs no formal qualifications, just personal and previous job references, giving no hint that the job of bailiff does require a formal "qualification", a certificate from a judge after an oral examination - a process which brings in a raft of additional laws.

With some irony, the egregious Boast complains of the debtors not respecting the law, yet himself gallops a coach and horse through the law, breaking almost every one you can imagine.

The programme was two weeks late in transmission, having sustained a major assault from the bailiff industry, trying to keep it off the air. And the effort during the programme was made to present Boast as a "rogue bailiff", as does the damage limitation after the event.

However, Boast's exposition of the economics of the industry tell the story. "The pen will make you money" he told his "trainee", advocating the very practice of "phantom visits" about which I have complained. Basically, if the bailiffs play it straight, they cannot make a decent living.

Here, one has a little sympathy for the people engaged. They have to make a living, and someone has to do the job ... we cannot have a situation where debts go unpaid and there is no enforcement. But then, the rationale is the same as any thief ... they need to make money, and obeying the law becomes optional.

What was also very interesting is the claim by Rossendale that they have very few complaints. But here, the system is designed to deter complaints. It is a closed loop which always refers you back to the bailiff about whom you wish to complain ... with results we saw with Boast's attitude, while the local authorities turn blind eyes.

Boast is working for Hounslow council which runs a good line in BS. It was "appalled by the allegations about John Boast" and "takes them very seriously". It says it has a "rigorous complaints procedure". It "continually reviews the provision of its bailiff services" and will be "looking to minimise the risks of any repeat behaviour".

As to Rossendales, Boast had worked three years for the company and had "visited" 7,000 premises, "yet we've never had a complaint about him". Right!

The great disappointment with programme though was its failure to mention the Fraud Act and the role of the police. And while the police have enough on their plate, the ultimate regulator has to be the constabulary, insofar as there are very clear breaches of the criminal code. Perhaps a jolt to the system will force the pace, and bring on the very necessary reform.

If, on the other hand, one has to rely on low-grade documentaries of the "Exposure" variety - a programme which buys into the "rogue baliff" meme and calls for "more regulation" – the public will remain as ill-informed as they ever have been. Why people think the "telly" will ever be able to do a worthwhile job is one of life's great mysteries.