I’ve found myself in one of those brilliant predicaments which is only made possible by the many layers of incompetence, impotence and greed which modern society seems to be built upon.
Here’s how it started; at some point last year, my bank balance dipped below the overdraft limit. I say dipped because for a good few years I’ve stayed well within, if not usually contentedly above, that limit. All I can think is that month the mortgage payment and some other big bill went out on the same day and maybe some invoice I’d been expecting hadn’t been paid. I’m not fastidious with my account, but I’m somewhat on top of it usually. Anyway, that month, my council tax direct debit got declined. They claim they sent me a letter about this but I didn’t get it.
The first I heard about the situation was about 6 weeks ago when a bailiff knocked on my door from a company called Bristow & Sutor. He told me I had a debt over my council tax and that I could pay him on the spot. That seemed very dodgy to me. I’ve never met a bailiff before, I’ve seen them on TV and, as far as I knew, they turned up when you’d got yourself into serious debt on the never-never and were ordered by a court to recover money for another private individual or company. Call me naive, but I didn’t expect my own county council to send them without even having made a courtesy phone call to me or some kind of court case. The first I had heard of the debt at all was this chap at my front door. I told him I was not going to give him my debit card details but that I would phone the council direct and sort it out. He was fine with that and left.
I phoned the council and they told me I had missed two payments. I asked why I hadn’t been informed and was told that a letter should have been sent out. I queried how I had missed a second payment and she told me that once the card was declined, they canceled the direct debit arrangement. I asked why and she had no answer for that. So I paid the balance owing and paid up for the rest of the year too.
Then I got a letter from Bristow and Sutor telling me I owed them £42.50 for their visit. I phoned them, despite the note on their letterhead that ‘Calls provided by BT will be charged at up to 7 pence per minute at all times’ and, predictably, was kept on hold for a very, very long time. When I finally got through, I told them that it had been the council’s mistake, I’d paid in full and that if they wanted their £42.50 they could charge the people who had damn well sent them. I was told if I didn’t pay, the bailiffs would come again, this time for their own money and that visit would also cost be a further £42.50.
I phoned the council to make sure that they couldn’t call off Bristow & Sutor – it being somewhat their fault for cancelling my direct debit and for not having sufficiently warned me of the problem before bringing in bailiffs. They told me they had no control of B&S and certainly weren’t going to pay my fine.
So I struggled with that for a bit. Then I did what any normal modern lazy idiot would do. I said ‘fuck it’, phoned Bristow & Sutor, waited as they racked up money keeping me on hold, then paid their £42.50 with an extra charge for card transaction fee (which is something which should be looked at legally in itself)
I felt disappointed with myself for handing over £42.50 of my own money for no reason. But what happens? You try to contest it and you end up jumping through hoops, wasting hours and days and time which you could have better spent earning far more than £42.50. The risk of becoming one of those terrible modern martyrs who destroy their lives over a point of principle which, despite being absolutely correct, is just a piddling annoying fact of modern life which will give you an ulcer if dwelled upon. I call it Fuckhead Tax. I believe very much in general taxation – it’s not fun, but it’s right and needed. But for some reason, in society, we all have levied upon us a certain amount of money which goes directly to Fuckheads. Unfair bank charges, hidden fees, credit card transaction fees, all these unexpected charges which are for some reason legal, but reprehensibly unethical (the excellent stand-up Louis CK used to do a bit about these where he lamented the idea that it cost more money to have no money) So I paid it.
Then I got a bill from Bristow & Sutor. For £44.20. I phoned them up to query this. Once again, I was kept on hold for as long as humanly possible at the price of 7p per minute. They told me that I had indeed settled up but this was for a second visit. I told them I hadn’t had a second visit. They told me I had. It was a stand off. A stand off costing me 7p per minute. I asked them for a full detailed statement detailing my entire history with their company.
It arrived a few days later and took a while to decipher. The first and second visits were listed as having taken place on the same day as each other. The day I had, indeed, had a visit. So, I figure ‘ah, there’s the mistake, they’ve just accidentally double charged me for one visit’. It turns out, no. Because he was visiting about two missed payments, he was allowed technically (by ‘the chancellor of the exchequer’ according to one of their employees) to bill me twice. He visited once, he mentioned only one case, but was allowed, it seems, to charge for two. I sent a letter disputing this but have had no confirmation of receipt or response.
This morning I got a knock at the door from another bailiff. Of course he didn’t care about the situation and was just there ‘to do his job’. I told him it was ridiculous that I couldn’t talk to anyone about this he said ‘you can talk to me’ I said ‘are you authorised to waive the fee?’ he said ‘no’. So it was presumably more of a social gesture. He told me that if I didn’t pay him on the spot, not only would I be charged another £45 for the visit but he would be have to double that figure as he was required to ‘take the details of my car’. If I could find a job that paid be £45 for writing down a number plate and ‘busted up shitbag old estate car’, I’d probably go for it. Except I wouldn’t. Because I’m not a cunt.
So, I suddenly got this feeling that I haven’t felt for about 25 years since my scant experience of playground bullying. A man standing at my front door saying if I didn’t give him the money he wanted, he’d come back and I’d have to pay TRIPLE.
Now, I fully understand how I’m responsible for this. Had I been more alert, I could have made sure the direct debit payment for the council tax was OK. I just feel the response – a potential £200 and escalating fine along with harassment – is a disproportionate response for what probably legally counts as a crime but in the eyes of any human being is a simple mistake. But the processes put into place mean that nobody is accountable or able to rectify at any stage.
Why didn’t you tell me my payment hadn’t gone through? We should have.
Why did you cancel my direct debit to you? I’m not sure.
Why won’t you pay the Bristow & Sutor fine? We don’t do that.
Why don’t you ask the council for your payment? You’re liable.
Why are you charging me twice for something you barely did once? Because we can.
What if I want to complain? Then we triple the charge and you still have to deal with someone at the end of the phone who doesn’t care and will be charging you 7p a minute for the privilege.
I paid the man at the door the final £42.50 on the basis that all outstanding ANYTHING was settled. He asked me to sign the receipt. I told him I’ve never been asked to sign a receipt. I looked at it and the section he wanted me to sign said ‘I confirm that I have paid the money willingly on behalf of the defaulter and that under no circumstances will it be refunded’. I refused to sign.
Will I try and get my money back? Well, I’ll talk to my legal person. Realistically, no, I just want shot of it all.
Here’s the thing, though; that whole situation shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have been allowed to. The council should not be using private ‘civil enforcement agents’ – nasty, greedy, bullies. I feel the same about the private parking enforcement companies. Victimization, harassment and highly punitive structures for simple, demonstratively accidental transgressions shouldn’t be common practice. private companies should not be able to police and profit from these kind of situations. I genuinely would have preferred to have been visited by the police and been able to discuss the matter. If the council wants to send debt collectors, they should be the ones who have to pay them for their services. Why should a private company be authorized to visit me and charge me for the visits whilst not being able to actually discuss the matter they pertain to?
Why can I not invoice Bristow & Sutor for MY time? I’m a bloody freelancer!
How can this company legally be allowed to keep choosing to visit people’s houses and charge them an ever escalating fee for doing so?
Well, that’s that, isn’t it. I’ve had to pay a bunch of Fuckhead Tax to Fuckhead Bristow & Fuckhead Sutor. Usually my vote isn’t swayed by debating over taxes but I know I won’t be voting again for a government who has allowed the Fuckhead Tax to exponentially flourish.
I won’t be voting Tory, either.