Debt clinics help Camden families but contract with collection firms extended

Camden Traffic warden in Church Row Hampstead

Camden Traffic warden in Church Row Hampstead - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Camden Council has renewed its deal with a three debt collection firms who were rebuked last year for “confusing and intimidating” letters to people who owed the town hall cash.

Hampstead Town councillor Maria Higson led calls in 2019 for changes to debt collection in Camden. P

Hampstead Town councillor Maria Higson led calls in 2019 for changes to debt collection in Camden. Picture: Archant - Credit: Maria Higson

The £1.19m deal with Newlyn PLC, Marston Holdings and Equita has been extended for a year after Camden admitted it hadn’t had time to look at tendering for the contract because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last year, Hampstead Town councillor Maria Higson criticised the council after residents approached her with problems over mounting debts. Some were left with the threat of bailiffs after unclear bills left them not knowing who to contact if they had difficulty paying. Earlier this month the Treasury told lenders not to send out “thuggish” warning letters and to make them easier to understand.

In response to coverage by the Ham&High and Cllr Higson’s pressure, the council introduced debt clinics. According to council figures, the council advised on 173 cases of debt between May 2019 and January 2020, with 35 people having alternative arrangements made or having their debts cancelled.

The sessions were paused at the start of the pandemic. However in a response to a written question from Cllr Higson at Camden’s full council meeting on October 12, finance chief Cllr Richard Olszewski said they had helped solve a number of “complex and long-standing” cases and confirmed that they would begin again when circumstances permit.

According to the council, 90% of fines are for businesses or residents from outside Camden. There has been a 13% drop in the use of bailiffs by the council since 2017/2018. The council stopped enforcing parking restrictions between March and September, with Cllr Olszewski saying it allowed the council to undergo a full review of its debt collection practises.

READ MORE: Camden Council to trial debt clinics after criticism over ‘intimidating’ parking fine letters

Cllr Higson said she will be examining the assistance given by the enforcement firms when the contract is negotiated next year.

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She said: “I am delighted that, following pressure from myself and the Ham&High, the council has undertaken a review of its debt management services, and that the debt clinics we proposed have been able to support some of the most vulnerable people in our borough. Whilst Camden is right to enforce debt appropriately, confusing letters and a lack of personal support led to unnecessary and heartbreaking situations for a small number of people. The changes will help to address these cases.

“The contract extension is a disappointing necessity of the times, but the full re-tendering next year will need to look closely at the support Camden’s enforcement agents are giving, which last year was found to be sorely lacking.”

A Camden Council spokesperson said: “The council is committed to ensuring income collection is fair and proportionate for all our residents and businesses and we will take every possible step to prevent debt escalations with early interventions to support our most vulnerable residents.