There have been calls of late for the Scottish government to reintroduce warrant sale-style procedures; these seem now to have found a sympathetic ear. The Accountant in Bankruptcy (AIB), a government agency that advises ministers on matters relating to debt law, has said it is prepared to consider how the replacement procedure that was introduced, known as Exceptional Attachment Orders, can be simplified and streamlined to allow more easy use.
The process of poindings and warrant sales, which allowed sheriff officers to enter people’s homes and remove their household possessions for sale, was abolished by the Scottish Parliament in 2002, after becoming synonymous with the poll tax campaign. Tommy Sheridan, who would later be elected to the Scottish Parliament and introduced a Private Member’s Bill that led to the abolition of the procedure, famously went to prison after disrupting the first attempt to hold one for the poll tax.
The AIB has also said it will consider whether the current procedure that was introduced, and requires a judge to authorise an order, could be removed. Sheriff officers could then threaten use of the procedure more easily against those who cannot pay their debts.
However, if the AIB position is adopted, this could well herald the return in Scotland to a Dickensian-style system of debt recovery laws that allows people to be threatened with humiliation and home intrusion, unless they can find the money to repay their debts, even if that means driving them into the hands of illegal and predatory money lenders. It was this legal abuse that led to poindings and warrant sales being abolished in the first place.
In 1999, for example, the year Mr Sheridan’s bill was introduced, there were 16,585 poindings (although thousands more were threatened), but only 110 warrant sales executed. The reason being, warrant sales themselves were never an effective method of debt recovery, whereas the threat of humiliation and home intrusion was. Even people who genuinely couldn’t afford to repay their debts would be panicked into a response where they would do anything to raise the money.
Sheriff officers know this and it is why some are now claiming the new procedure is no longer effective and needs to be made easier for them to use as a threat (there has been no exceptional attachment orders executed in Scotland since 2012).
Responding to a consultation carried out by the AIB, sheriff officers Scott & Co stated that, in their experience, the “proceeds of auction in most cases are very low due to the poor value of second-hand goods and tendency towards hi-spec electrical items being subject to finance agreements”.
The question then needs to be asked, why does the AIB believe it would now be appropriate to increase the use of such procedures, even when sheriff officers acknowledge they are likely to fail? The only logical reason is the hope that by issuing such threats to the poorest in society, more people will then seek advice for their debt problems. However, although some may well do so, many will struggle to find services or solutions that can assist them, with funding to local authority money advices services having been cut by 44 per cent in the last three years. More likely is many will become prisoners in their own home, fearful of every knock at the door, while suffering the stress and anxiety of believing their home will be invaded and their possessions seized with those of their family.
- Alan McIntosh is a senior money adviser writing in an independent capacity. This article first appeared in The Herald.