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Bonkers Blog January 2016

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5 January - Bexley’s debtors were robbed. Everyone agrees on that but no general refund

If Councillor Maxine Fothergill has done what her colleagues reported it certainly suggests a lack of any sense of what is right or wrong and an absence of any conscience or common decency but I strangely feel no sense of shock. I must be becoming inured to such behaviour after six years of observing Bexley’s Conservatives closely.

If an estate agent has valued a property such that it becomes an absolute bargain that simply must be sold to a colleague or snapped up by the agent; well it wouldn’t be the first time I have heard such a story. Maybe Maxine Fothergill is just your average Tory and just your average estate agent.

On the other hand if a rogue trader charged £10,000 for replacing three cracked tiles on an old lady’s roof the police and Trading Services would undoubtedly take an interest, and the losses might be small by comparison with a shady property deal.

I still tend to think that Bexley council’s cover up is worse than what one councillor may have done. It makes everyone look bent. That is probably why I regard Bexley’s Parking Services use of bailiffs as being far more serious than anything Maxine Fothergill may have done although it is unlikely the subject will ever raise as much interest.

These people deliberately set out to extract money from the public over and above what was due.

The Local Government Ombudsman caught them out in 2012 but Bexley Council did nothing to ensure that the practice stopped. The senior management all get in the region of £100,000 a year for being ineffective.

JBWWhen JBW Group (the bailiffs) sold a car to cover a debt, the standard fees were doubled. The bailiff reduced the bid price by the amount of the auctioneer’s fee and when the debtor’s account was prepared it put that reduced amount in the ‘Plus’ column. The auctioneer’s fee was additionally put in the ‘Minus’ column. The fee was thereby levied twice, not just occasionally but every single time.

If a debtor settles his bill when the bailiff first calls an early closure fee becomes due, but not in any other circumstances. However the fee was added to every debtor’s account - every single time.

The taking away fees were incorrectly applied and very often the storage fees were exaggerated. Bexley Council knew about it but chose to do nothing to stop it.

The Finance and Legal Departments only began to take it seriously after my objection to the 2013/14 accounts. There is no excuse for Bexley Council ignoring the LGO’s report, in fact they did a deal with the LGO which was basically “you keep the lid on this and not go public and we will make sure it doesn’t happen again”.

But Bexley Council did nothing.

Following my complaint things changed. An internal report was highly critical of Bexley’s Parking Services Department, so critical that I am under legal restraint from telling you what was in it. Suffice to say they found much the same malpractice as had been suspected.

Ideally Bexley Council should have made the JBW Group refund all the overpayments but despite Bexley’s Finance and Legal Departments both concluding that the double charging was absolutely wrong the bailiff insisted they had interpreted the law correctly. Few would agree.

Grant ThorntonBexley Council was understandably reluctant to arrange refunds because the overpayments had gone into the bailiffs’ pockets not theirs.

The official excuse was that there would be no repayments because only a court could decide whether Bexley's Legal Department, Finance Department, their authorised auditor and pure common sense was right, or whether it was JBW. Having reached that conclusion it was perhaps right not to spend money on testing the theory before a judge. There are far too many stupid judges around.

In the circumstances the correct course may have been to part company with JBW Group bailiffs because that company argued that it should operate under different standards to those required by Bexley Council. It has certainly brought Bexley Council into further disrepute. Perhaps Bexley Council is far too attached to Capita. JBW is Capita by another name.

Grant Thornton, the Council’s auditor, was about as useful as the proverbial chocolate fireguard.

Their final letter agrees that the bailiffs had no great regard for honest practice and they identified the following problems…

• Different types of fees (attendance to levy, attendance to remove, levying distress and removal charges) were all charged or applied on the same day.
• There was evidence of [incorrect application of] multiple levies. i.e. where more than one PCN was actioned at the same time.
• Incorrect application of closing fees.
• Auction costs applied as a percentage of the sale fee in addition to the fee charged by the auctioneer.
• The fees for removal and storage and changing locks were not supported by the receipts.
• Debtors were not provided with a statement of costs when vehicles were sold contrary to the contract between the Council and the bailiff.

Just like Bexley Council they were unwilling to see the bailiff in court to ensure that Bexley’s debtors received recompense for being robbed; instead they have suggested that I should take JBW to court.

My view is that BiB’s role is to expose Bexley council’s wrong doing and heap as much embarrassment on them as possible and a court victory would probably increase the embarrassment factor only marginally. The local press which should take that role is usually unwilling to tackle Bexley’s malpractices and a court victory is far from being a certainty. Bexley Council has its ways of subverting the law and is not afraid to use them. So once again Bexley Council gets away with abusing not just its residents but potentially almost anyone who has parked a car in the borough.

Bexley Council has supposedly been sampling its bailiff’s accounts for at least the past six months, however if you had a bailiff problem before that and still have the paperwork it’s probably worth checking through it. Every case I have seen where a car was sold was overcharged by a minimum of £120.

I keep asking myself why Bexley Council let this happen for so long when on the face of it there was no benefit to anyone but the bailiff. I can think of three things.

• Unscrupulous bailiffs motivated by excessive and unjustified fees were more likely to chase debtors bringing indirect benefits to Bexley council.
• Money was exchanged in brown envelopes.
• Bexley Council management is incompetent and has no understanding of the systems they purport to operate.

I suspect it is the third. It takes brains and skill to run a long term criminal operation.

No council official lost their job, Capita continues to provide Bexley’s bailiff services but lots of ordinary people were robbed.

Note: For simplicity I have referred above to ‘my complaint’. In law that is true but all the hard work and knowledge of the system and what to look for was provided by Notomob.


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