Banks and credit card companies are exploiting obscure legal powers to seize the homes of thousands of people who cannot pay their credit card bills.
In some cases, people owing as little as £1,000 have been served with charging orders – the legal instrument enabling a creditor to order the sale of a property.
The practice has emerged days after Yvette Cooper, chief secretary to the Treasury, called on banks to do more to allow people to keep their homes.
According to the Ministry of Justice, 97,026 charging orders were granted by courts in England and Wales last year, a tenfold increase since 2000.
They allow financial institutions to order the sale of a property to pay off unsecured debts on credit cards, personal loans, store cards and car finance. Some will have been used only to threaten the debtor, or to levy a surcharge on the mortgage to recoup the debts.
Nationwide, the building society, and Northern Rock, which was nationalised earlier this year, are among the most aggressive in using the court orders.
Mark Sands, head of insolvency at KPMG, the accountancy firm, said: “The power of a charging order can come as a horrible shock to someone. When they took out the loan or the credit card, they were almost certainly not told that their home was at risk if they failed to keep up with repayments.”
The rate at which the courts have granted charging orders has increased sharply in the past two months, according to Citizens Advice, National Debt-line and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service. Last week a homeowner posted a message on a website saying a credit card company had launched a charging order against him for a debt of £1,000.
From next year banks will be given further arbitrary powers because they will no longer need to secure a county court judgment against a defaulting debtor. They will be able to move directly to seek a charging order after two or three months of missed payments.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: “No one should be allowed to lose their home simply because of a credit card debt. More needs to be done by the government to ensure that lenders simply do not act overzealously, and only take possession of properties as a last resort. The fact that banks can now kick people out of their homes for not keeping up with their unsecured debts is very worrying.”
Alex McDermott, social policy officer at Citizens Advice, said the government had presided over a hidden scandal, because homes repossessed in this way did not appear in the official statistics issued by the Council for Mortgage Lenders.
The Consumer Credit Counselling Service said Northern Rock and Nationwide were particularly aggressive.
Northern Rock confirmed it used charging orders where customers had missed payments on unsecured loans, saying: “Any application for a charging order on an unsecured loan is in strict accordance with the Consumer Credit Act.”
Northern Rock and Nationwide declined to discuss how many homes they had forced to be sold.