Naked Politics Blogger
At the end of last month BBC 3 released a new drama which documented the true story of Jerome Rogers, a blood courier who at the age of 20, took his own life after two unpaid traffic fines worth £65 each spiralled into a debt worth over £1000. How this startling accumulation of debt could have occurred in the first place is terrifying, but it is even more frightening that Jerome felt so imprisoned in his debt and without people to turn to.
The Financial Times’ review of the drama suggests that one of the causes of Jerome’s suicide was his ‘stubborn pride’. While it is true that Jerome did have a supportive family who were willing to help him out, part of the drama shows Jerome listening in on his mum and step-dad as they discuss their financial worries after finding out how much Jerome has accrued in fines. Although they are willing to do everything they can for him, they too have their own financial problems, and it is largely Jerome’s recognition of this that prevents him from relying on them. He reasons that with his death, the burden of debt that he has brought to the family will be relieved.
These issues aren’t uncommon. The housing charity Shelter estimates that, in the event of a job loss, one in three working families in the UK are a month’s pay away from homelessness. For many families, any financial setbacks are setbacks to having a quality of life. In telling Jerome’s story, the BBC has highlighted a sad reality that many people across the UK face: precarious financial situations and no leeway or compassion from the authorities to help them through this.
Jerome was issued with two Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) – one for riding his motorcycle in a bus lane, and the other for taking a right turn in a no right turn zone. On the gov.uk website, it says that if a PCN is not paid within 28 days, you will get a charge certificate, demanding that the original fine plus 50% is paid within 14 days. After that period of time, a court order demanding payment will be issued and bailiffs will visit your home if you don’t pay or challenge the fine within 21 days. At no point does it say that a Penalty Charge Notice will accrue any more than the original fine plus 50%. A bailiff did visit Jerome’s house, but this was not until each fine had amounted to more than £500. When Camden Council referred the charge over to the bailiffs (a company called Newlyn) the matter of challenging the amount payable became impossible and although Jerome frantically tried to organise a payment plan, negotiating the money was not an option, with all sides demanding payment and referring him to other people every time he tried to ask for help.
Debt is something which can creep into people’s lives and suddenly overwhelm them. Debt charities are calling for reform to the bailiff system and this would be a positive first step, but we need to go further in understanding the effects of debt, particularly on young people. Young people are more likely to be in insecure or unstable work. More than half of all zero hours contract jobs are filled by those aged 18-34 and these lack real stability. There is no minimum time an individual will have to work and they offer no protections like sick leave. Young people are more likely to be in precarious financial or living situations, and they are likely to be afforded a lower minimum wage. This, compounded with the effects of higher living costs and stagnating wages that families face, means that it is high time to introduce some compassion into a system which is sadly lacking in any.
If one single person in a position of authority had compassionately examined Jerome’s case, they would have seen that he was not in debt because he was living outside his (limited) means, but because of some arbitrary accumulation of money that Jerome’s fear prevented him from addressing. When the bailiff clamped Jerome’s motorbike, he took away the only legitimate means by which Jerome could earn enough money to pay off those debts – and to what avail? It must have been clear that Jerome could not get the money he needed together, and by preventing him from working, there was no chance that Jerome could earn that money anytime soon.
Some rationality and thoughtfulness would not have gone amiss here, and that is true of many people’s cases. If families and young people are struggling, are heavy-handed enforcement officers and ever-accruing debts really the way to create a society where people can get out of debt? Surely we want to be a society where people can have a second chance; where people can pick themselves up and rebuild their lives.