It started with two £65 traffic fines, one for being in a bus lane a few minutes before the restrictions ended, the other for making a prohibited right turn. Within a matter of months, those two penalties had spiralled into a debt of more than £1,000 – and then the bailiffs swooped, clamping the motorbike that was essential to Jerome Rogers’ work as a courier delivering blood and other medical items to hospitals.
It ended with the 20-year-old taking his own life. Unravelling under the pressure of his mounting debt, and with his only way of earning money having been seized, he could clearly see no way out. Following the bailiff’s visit, he was found dead near his home in woods where he played as a child.
The case prompted calls for tougher regulation of the debt-collection industry, and is now the basis of a one-hour factual drama for BBC Three available from Tuesday (29 May) on BBC iPlayer.
As well as telling the devastating story of the death of a young man who had plans for the future, Killed By My Debt is a hard-hitting examination of the wider factors at play. It looks at the way the bailiff industry operates, and whether more needs to be done to crack down on “enforcement agents” (the official name for a bailiff) who are aggressively pursuing debts; the dangerous drawbacks of the “gig economy” and low-paying, unstable jobs; how cash-strapped councils are putting the squeeze on motorists via parking and traffic fines to ease financial pressures; and the growing numbers of young people finding themselves at the sharp end of Britain’s personal debt crisis, with all the consequences that entails.
Speaking to Guardian Money following a preview screening of the drama, Jerome’s brother Nat says of the bike clamping: “It should never have been seized. You take away someone’s hope of earning even a single penny. Moving forward, you’re taking away all their hope.”
He was referring to the fact that, by law, bailiffs can’t take vehicles, tools or computer equipment that someone needs for their job, or for study, which together are worth less than £1,350. As the Guardian reported in its coverage of Rogers’ inquest, debt collector firm Newlyn claimed the bike had been valued at £1,500-£2,000, and, on that basis, it was permitted to clamp it – but the family obtained a valuation from Honda that it was worth £400.
Nat said there were several other factors he believed contributed to his brother’s death, including the way the fees were allowed to escalate, and his belief that Newlyn should have done more to help Jerome set up an affordable repayment schedule. “The bailiff is not incentivised to set up a payment plan,” he says.
Jerome’s mother Tracey Rogers tells Money: “There’s no one to enforce repercussions. An independent regulation body is a must for the bailiff industry.”
The BBC Three drama tells how, in January 2015, Jerome (played by newcomer Chance Perdomo), then 19, got his first proper job as a self-employed courier for CitySprint, which doesn’t come out of this very well: Jerome’s induction seemed to involve a lot of verbal small print and baffling jargon.
And then there are all the costs he had to pick up, including £24 a week for a “courier pack” which presumably included the kit that he needed to do the job.
His take-home pay (earnings minus expenses) seemed to vary wildly: one week it was into three figures, another £63, another just £18. On top of that, he was also paying £73 a month to his mother’s partner who had bought him a new bike on a finance deal after his old one gave up the ghost.
So it’s perhaps no wonder that when he picked up two traffic fines from Camden council totalling £130, he didn’t – or couldn’t – deal with them. These escalated: soon he owed £390, which swelled to almost £800, then to £1,019. By now, Newlyn had become involved – and Jerome, who suffered from asthma, was getting more and more stressed.
The drama depicts the bailiff (played by Craig Parkinson, DI Matthew “Dot” Cottan in BBC’s Line of Duty) arriving at Jerome’s home in New Addington, Croydon, south London. The two then have a fairly heated conversation before the bailiff gives the young man half an hour to find £507 of what he owed. Jerome investigated payday loans online, but, in the end, his mother’s partner agreed to pay the £507.
Under pressure to clear the remaining £512, Jerome agreed to a payment plan – £128 a week for four weeks – though it was far from clear how he would afford that. Over the coming weeks he struggled to get work, and so couldn’t find the money to pay off the debt collectors. On 7 March, 2016 the bailiff returned and clamped his bike. Shortly after, he took his own life.
Newlyn is employed by local authorities to collect outstanding debts. It says: “We believe Newlyn acted appropriately and in accordance with best practice in our interactions with Mr Rogers.
“The coroner investigating Mr Rogers’s untimely death found that our enforcement agent, who had personal dealings with Mr Rogers, acted in a lawful and appropriate manner.
“However, we regret that the issue of debt may have contributed to the tragic circumstances and would like to reiterate our sympathy to the family of Mr Rogers.”
CitySprint says: “We were so very saddened to hear about Jerome’s death. All of us in the business were deeply affected by this news, especially those closest to him. Our thoughts remain with his family and friends.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com