I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order is that nothing disorderly has occurred.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It was noticeable that the shouts for Aye were very loud and the numbers voting in favour were quite small. Am I right in thinking that the vote ought to go with the voice, as recommended by “Erskine May”?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct on that point, which is also not incompatible or inconsistent with my answer to the earlier point of order. The hon. Gentleman’s reference to “shouts” is correct: vote should follow voice. That is the well-established principle enunciated by “Erskine May”, which I exhort colleagues to follow.
I thank Members on both sides of the House for their encouragement and advice. The supporters of the Bill, with four Labour colleagues, five Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats, almost perfectly reflect the composition of the House. The Bill has the support of many other Members, some of whom are here today and many more who cannot be here. That sends two important messages. First, regardless of how far the Bill progresses, Members’ desire to see statutory regulation of payday lending will not go away. Secondly, there is a growing consensus—not only across party, but beyond this place—on what the key components of the regulation should be.
In preparing the Bill, I have drawn on the advice of Citizens Advice, the debt charity StepChange, the Centre for Responsible Credit, Which? and local debt advisers in my constituency. I am grateful for all their support. I have consulted Members from both sides of the House who are involved in the all-party groups on debt and personal financial, on financial education and on credit unions. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet those of us who have been involved in that process as we take it forward. The Bill reflects the common ground of all those groups and offers a consensus on how we should deal in an holistic way with the problems of payday lending. It recognises the important role that the Financial Conduct Authority has to play from April 2014. It deliberately does not seek to tie its hands with over-prescriptive detail, but aims to provide a positive direction of travel to the FCA on the key issues. I hope that that direction of travel is consistent with Government thinking.
I am sure that hon. Members will wish to make many positive points and suggestions, so it is important for the Bill to progress into Committee where they can be considered in more detail. I am sure I speak for all supporters of the Bill when I say that I am open to that debate and the consideration of any amendments that are tabled. Other Members wish to contribute, so I will briefly set the context for the Bill and summarise its main proposals.
We all know that payday moneylenders are making millions from loans aimed at some of the most vulnerable. They target the poor and make them poorer, pushing them into unaffordable and spiralling debt with exorbitant charges. It is not the intention of the Bill to close down payday lenders, because, sadly, there are few alternatives for many people. However, many of the practices our constituents have experienced are truly appalling. It is those practices that the Bill seeks to stop. We seek to learn from countries where payday lenders have been longer established—in particular the United States, the land of free enterprise—and where effective regulation is the norm.
The hon. Gentleman talks about exorbitant rates of interest. These loans tend to be of quite small amounts—a few hundred pounds—and for a very short period of time. How much does he think it is reasonable to charge in interest on a loan of £150 over two weeks?
One of the points I made a moment ago was that it would be inappropriate for us to be over-prescriptive. It is right for the FCA to make evidence-based decisions on details of that sort.
The point remains. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the amounts being charged at the moment are too high, he must have an idea in his own mind of a figure that would not be too high. I just wondered whether he could tell us how much interest on a typical £150 loan over two weeks he thinks would be sufficient to prevent him from introducing the Bill.
I think that most hon. Members would recognise that the annual percentage rate—I will come on to APR later—that Wonga charges, which has just gone up to approximately 5,500%, is entirely inappropriate.
Is it not a fact that loans are rarely £150 over a two-week period? The people accessing loans at high interest rates will have already been turned down elsewhere for credit with lower interest rates. A typical loan for Wonga et al is not £150 for just two weeks; the problem is that they roll over and over.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I intend to come on to the issue of rollovers later.
It is indeed. If we look across the United States and some other European countries where regulation is the norm, we see a variety of approaches to capping interest rates and capping the total cost of credit. That is also an issue to which I will return.
Is not the key issue affordability? I recently heard from a constituent who had to pay back £160 after borrowing £100 for a week. She could not afford the £100, and she certainly could not afford the £160.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Affordability is indeed at the centre of the Bill, and is an issue to which I will also return.
The average payday loan in Northern Ireland is about £270 over 14 days, on which I think approximately 55% interest is charged. The people who take out these loans are the most vulnerable in society and cannot afford to repay them. I welcome the Bill. There should be more regulation for these products.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. That is precisely the point that the Office of Fair Trading made recently. The suggestion is that the ideal customer for many companies is one who can afford to pay back the interest, but not the original loan. The debt is then rolled over and over. There is limited outlay for the company, which turns into a significant profit.
If I could make some progress, I want to address how the sector has grown in the UK. Back in 2004, it was worth only £100 million. By 2009, that had increased to £900 million and it is now estimated to be more than £2.2 billion. Between 7.4 million and 8.2 million new loans are estimated to have been taken out in 2011-12, causing serious debt problems across the UK. According to the OFT, approximately 2.7 million payday loans were given to people who could not afford to pay back on time, confirming many of the points that have been made. They make up a staggering one third of the total number.
The number of people needing debt support has exploded in the past year. The debt charity StepChange this week reported that during the first six months of 2013 it was contacted by 30,762 people—almost the same number as for the whole of 2012. The increase in average individual debt from payday loans has risen from £400 to £1,665 since 2011.
A series of damning reports in May underlined the urgent need for action. A survey by Citizens Advice found that payday lenders had broken 12 of their own 14 promises to reform the industry. Which? called for regulation to redress what it described as
“the imbalance of power between lenders and borrowers”
in a report that highlighted
“sky high fees and irresponsible lending practices”.
The Public Accounts Committee strongly criticised the OFT for failing to stop lenders targeting vulnerable people, highlighting its failure to hand out a single fine to any of the 72,000 firms in the market, and for only rarely revoking companies’ licences.
I commend my hon. Friend on how he is introducing the Bill. Does he share my view that a priority for the Government should be the creation of more alternatives
to payday lenders, particularly through measures to accelerate the expansion of the credit union sector in the UK?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. In my opening remarks, I mentioned that desperate people turned to payday lending because there were no alternatives; the need to develop those alternatives is a pressing issue, and one that I hope the Government will address. I did not think it could be considered within the scope of the Bill, but clearly it is very important. A number of credit unions are beginning to develop more imaginative products, while other financial institutions are also addressing the issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government could encourage the Post Office to get much more involved with credit unions by providing them with counter facilities and so on? Is he also aware that our former right hon. Friend, John Battle, is, at this moment, actively involved in doing just that in Leeds?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that has been discussed previously in the House. The role of post offices could be significant; and, yes, I am aware of John’s work in Leeds, which it might be useful to share more widely with Members; it is a very positive initiative.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the apparent contradiction on the part of some people who support legislation capping credit union interest—currently at 2% per month, although the Government propose to raise it to 3%—yet oppose any cap on the sort of predatory creditors his Bill tries to target?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and one that rankles with credit unions as they try to develop their support for people.
The first set of measures in the Bill relates to advertising and information. Citizens Advice recently published results from its payday loan survey on implementation of the sector’s own good practice customer charter. It found that 21% of respondents were not clear about total repayment costs. The Bill would therefore require lenders to display interest payable in cash terms, so that people knew and could compare the cost of borrowing in a consistent way to be determined by the FCA. The Bill would also require that lenders state all fees and charges—crucially including default charges—and the circumstances in which those charges would be invoked on loan applications, so that people were clear about what they were committing to.
Many organisations are tackling the promotion of payday lenders in their own way. I am delighted that on Wednesday the university of Sheffield announced that it was banning payday advertising from its campus, which the National Union of Students has called for nationally. Many football clubs have also taken a strong stand. I congratulate Millwall, Bolton Wanderers and, although all my life my heart has been on the other side of the city, Sheffield Wednesday on the stands that they have taken.
Some people would call for that.
My Bill does not go that far, but it would require that all advertising carries a health warning about the nature of these loans and signposts people to free and impartial debt advice, as an option before they proceed.
The OFT highlighted the problem of
“a pattern of advertising that emphasised speed and easy access to cash, at the expense of giving customers balanced information about the cost of lending, the risks if things go wrong and the consequences of non-payment.”
The Bill, therefore, would require that advertising complies with rules set and regulated by the FCA, which would be absolutely in line with Government thinking; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has already commissioned a study on advertising of payday loans, and the FCA is keen to look into it. The Bill does not prescribe the rules, but it states that there must be rules. The advertising code for gambling illustrates the sort of approach that might be adopted as well as a possible restriction on the sponsorship of certain activities.
The Advertising Standards Authority recently banned three text messages promoting loans to young people out clubbing. The Bill therefore would require texts and phone calls not to be used to promote high-cost credit. It would also require lenders properly to explain liability to guarantors, where loans asked for them, and the signing of consent forms; credit brokers to provide borrowers with the names and details of lenders; and lenders to disclose details of lead generators to the FCA.
Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley, the second set of issues covered by the Bill relate to affordability. Although most lenders claim to assess affordability, the OFT’s recent report said that
“the vast majority of those we inspected were unable to provide us with satisfactory proof that they applied such assessments.”
Citizens Advice found that only 36% of respondents were asked questions to check whether they could afford to pay back the loan. The Bill therefore would require lenders to assess the affordability of loans and introduce an affordability ceiling to be determined by the FCA, either based on credit repayment as a proportion of monthly income or on the total value of loans.
The Bill would also provide for the FCA to set a cap on default charges and the circumstances in which those charges could be applied. It would require lenders to share information with credit reference agencies as an interim measure, pending the establishment of a central real-time database requiring lenders to log details of loans and to seek information to ensure that they do not lend above the affordability ceiling determined by the FCA. It would also provide for a levy on the sector to run such a database, which would be a powerful tool to aid regulation and support evidence-based decision making.
As hon. Members have mentioned, we need to consider a cap on the total cost of credit, which Parliament has empowered the FCA to impose. The Bill does not seek a cap, but it would require the FCA to report on how it intended to exercise that power and to keep the issue under review. As mentioned, central to the concerns of spiralling debt is the issue of loans being rolled over. The OFT found that 28% of loans were rolled over at least once and that they accounted for 50% of lenders’
revenues. Furthermore, 19% of revenue comes from the 5% of loans rolled over four times or more; roll-overs are profitable business. As I mentioned earlier, the OFT said:
“Our evidence suggests that encouraging roll-overs is a deliberate commercial strategy of some firms”.
Is this roll-over issue not an example of predatory capitalism of the very worst kind?
It is indeed, and the Bill seeks to promote responsible capitalism of a better kind. It would also require the Financial Conduct Authority to determine a limit on roll-overs. We are not specifying at this stage what that limit should be, but looking for a solid, evidence-based decision.
The Bill also includes measures on debt collection, particularly with regard to continuous payment authorities. One case brought to me in Sheffield was of a single jobseeker’s allowance claimant who had obtained while working a payday loan from The Money Shop. Once out of work, he was unable to cover the £250 due from his bank account, but his bank told him that he could not stop the payment being made, which had deeply difficult consequences for him. Another case shared with me was of someone whose account was drained by a payday lender using a CPA, leaving him with no money for rent and facing eviction.
These are common problems, as other Members will be aware, so the Bill requires lenders to give customer three days’ notice of every CPA withdrawal and to ensure that customers are clear on their right to cancel CPAs. The Bill also has measures to ensure that lenders are not allowed to make charges for the administration of CPAs—a practice used by some—and includes a more general provision to allow the FCA to determine the circumstances under which CPAs should not be used, which might include cases where that would lead to essential bills going unpaid, which is an approach adopted in other countries.
As has been said, those who turn to payday lenders are often desperate. Before getting deeper into debt, they would benefit from advice, so the Bill seeks to promote debt support more effectively. It includes a number of triggers that would require lenders to signpost customers to free and impartial debt advice and, where a debt adviser is engaged, to require lenders to freeze charges and put in place an agreed payment plan. Some credit unions—including Birmingham’s Citysave credit union, which has launched a product to help people to pay off their payday loan debts over a 12-month period with a credit union loan—have found some payday lenders to be obstructive. The Bill therefore includes a provision for lenders to accept offers from third parties, specified by the FCA, to settle outstanding debts. The Bill also provides for the FCA to have the power to establish a new levy to support debt advice, about which I know Mr Walker will speak in more detail. Finally, the Bill requires the FCA to determine enforcement powers to be used in the case of breaches of the Bill.
I would like to conclude—and to give other Members the opportunity to contribute to the debate—with an example from Sheffield of someone caught by the problems that the Bill aims to tackle.
Before the hon. Gentleman gives his last example, can he say what he thinks the impact of his Bill would be on the number of people seeking payday loans if it were to become law?
As I said at the outset, the Bill does not seek to close down the sector, but I hope it would reduce the number of payday loans by signposting people towards debt advice, thereby opening them up to the kind of support that might lead them in other directions and prevent them from being caught in the spiral of debt. More importantly—others have made this point—by tackling roll-overs and other ways in which the industry makes unreasonable profits from unacceptable practices, the Bill will prevent those who turn to payday loans from being ripped off in the way that, frankly, they are at the moment.
Following on from that, if the hon. Gentleman’s Bill came into law, what effect does he think it would have on the number of people who borrow from those who employ more “agricultural” means of recovering the money?
That is an important point. It is one I have looked at in relation to the United States, where unregulated markets have been regulated. Where such regulation is introduced in the measured way that the Bill seeks, there is no evidence that people turn to the sort of illegal loan sharks about whom we should be very concerned.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill and other Members who have worked on the issue, including my hon. Friend Damian Hinds. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that often people are in such dire straits from taking out payday loans at massive credit rates that they turn to loan sharks and other disreputable creditors in order to pay back the first loan?
The hon. Lady makes an important point and she is absolutely right.
Let me conclude by giving an example from Sheffield of a single parent, not currently working but supporting three young children. She used various payday loans from different companies to pay household bills and found herself trapped in a spiral of debt. The Money Shop, for example, gave her three roll-overs at £30 a time. It used a CPA to withdraw money needed for essential household bills from her account and she subsequently fell behind with her rent. When she approached the companies, they were very unsympathetic. The Cheque Centre was at one point calling her five to seven times a day. She feels, as many Members of this House do, that payday loan companies prey on the most vulnerable, offering credit to those who have no realistic prospect of paying the money back. This House has a responsibility to ensure that that does not happen. That is why I commend the Bill to the House.
It is a great honour and a privilege to follow Paul Blomfield. I congratulate him on bringing the Bill to the Floor of the House and on securing the prized second position in the ballot. Of course, we on the Conservative Benches are delighted that our hon. Friend James Wharton got the gold medal position, but the hon. Gentleman has achieved a very worthwhile and useful silver.
The Bill is also timely, as we are in a period of rapid change in high-cost credit. We have had the OFT review—operators are losing their licences for the first time—and the Competition Commission referral. We have the new FCA regime, whereby, for the first time, it can impose a general cap, should it decide to do so.
The Bill is timely and current, but the issues are not new; they have just changed in their shape and manifestation.
My interest in high-cost credit started in 2003, when I did a research project for the Bow Group that looked at various issues affecting inner-city areas, one of which was debt. I ended up doing that research only because nobody else would do the bit on debt, but I discovered that it is a hugely complex, interesting and challenging area. Among the recommendations we made—Members should bear it in mind that this was back in 2003 and we published in 2004—were a complete overhaul of information and disclosure on high-cost credit, including replacing APR as the headline measure with a cash figure for how much people would have to pay back. We advocated “new model” credit unions, with a save-as-you-pay-back product, a slightly eased cap on the APR they could charge and a social ISA, as a way of bringing more capitalisation into the credit union sector from better-off consumers. Some of those things have now been done, by the previous Government and this Government. We have an opportunity to debate some of the others today, thanks to this Bill, and I hope that others may yet fight another day.
That period—2003 to 2004—was about two thirds of the way through what Which? in its recent report calls the credit feast of 1997 to 2007, when borrowing increased from £77 billion to £190 billion. I make that point not as a party political point but to negate a different party political point that is sometimes propagated—that the growth of payday lending, high-cost credit and sub-prime is somehow the result of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government. It is not; it is just that the different types of product on the market tend to evolve and change over time.
There is a great deal in the Bill. I suppose it is unlikely that anybody here would agree with every single part of it, but I think that every single part of it is worthy of consideration. I suspect that all or the vast majority of us would agree on some aspects—for example, that loans should be made only to people who can afford to pay them back, and that lending companies should not pretend to solve problems that they cannot solve, especially when they might well be creating newer and greater problems.
My hon. Friend puts the case in the context of the lender, but is it not also incumbent on the borrower not to borrow money that he or she cannot repay?
Of course it is; no one would deny that—well, perhaps some would, but I certainly would not. There is a big issue about individual responsibility, but this market is a complex one, and it can be difficult for people to find their way around the jungle of credit that is available. People who take these loans are often in very vulnerable circumstances, and I am afraid that the purchase decision—people can blame whoever they like—often ends up being made not on the product that is “right for me”, but the one that the person has just seen on the television or the person who came to the door.
I agree, and I shall come on to the point, albeit briefly, later.
The second issue on which I think the vast majority of us could agree is that the loan should get paid down within a reasonable period and not be left hanging over people who never get the loan reduced in size—and it gets even bigger for some.
My hon. Friend said he was concerned about people taking out these loans because they had just seen an advert, and my hon. Friend Mr Chope suggested that some people take out loans irresponsibly. Research by the university of Bristol personal finance research centre seems to suggest something different—that there were logical reasons why people took out these loans: convenience, having no or limited access to other sources of credit, and the customer service and reputation of the firms concerned.
And there are multiple other reasons why people take out credit products, many of which are just as rational. I shall come on to some of them later in my remarks, but there is ample evidence to show that many people taking out loans—and the same applies when they access a debt management plan—choose something that is inappropriate. Even where comparative, side-by-side, costings are available—to those of us who studied economics and believe in consumer sovereignty and rationality, this is difficult stuff to get our heads round—consumers often take the more expensive option.
Is the hon. Gentleman’s answer to the point from his hon. Friend Philip Davies that the very fact that these products are advertised in a mainstream way as being so convenient is one of the things that gives them the air of reputability, which encourages people to opt for them as a standard and acceptable form of borrowing?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That may well be part of it. There is a range of operators in this market, stretching from the big and well known
with very large ad spends—we can call them “reputable brands” if we like—through to quite iffy-looking companies at the other end of the scale. As in most markets, there is a range.
All these points—I am grateful to hon. Members of all parties for making them—bring me to the third point on which I think we should all be able to agree. Wherever people are on the political scale—whether they are a Milton Friedmanite free market economist or a socialist—they should agree that people should not have to go to excessive lengths to know that they are not being ripped off. There is, of course, a reasonable amount of due diligence that has to be applied when people make a purchase, take a loan or whatever, but they should not have to run around the block seven times to know that what they are taking out is reasonable value.
Those are the three things on which I hope we can broadly agree, and the debate largely revolves around how we achieve them. It is not always quite as straightforward as it appears. On occasion in this House and elsewhere, relatively simple solutions have been proposed that purport to deal with complex market issues in one big initiative. I suggest that that is rarely an adequate answer, as it is rather more complicated.
There are a number of rules of the road in the credit markets, and they have come into sharper focus for me as I have looked into this subject over the last few years. The first is that there are always unintended consequences—except when there are no consequences at all—of what regulatory authorities try to do. The second is that markets cannot be beaten unless something better is provided. The third is that where demand creates its own supply, supply creates its own demand. Let me explain in a little more detail what I mean in each of those cases.
On the unintended consequences, it is a beguiling and attractive prospect to say, “Let us just cap the amount of interest that lenders can charge on their loan products so that people will pay less and household budgets and benefits will go further.” The problem with a blunt and general APR cap is that companies find new products that slip outside the definition being regulated and new ways of making money that do not count as part of APR. To the extent that this cap, or something like it, is effective, its major impact is market exclusion, which inevitably means the most vulnerable and the poorest customers are those most likely to fall into the hands of illegal loan sharks and the sorts of people whose idea of a late payment penalty is a cigarette burn to the forearm.
When I say that there are sometimes no consequences at all, it can again be beguiling to think that we have done something clever, come up with an initiative, empowered consumers and so forth, but it turns out that no impact whatever was made. It is very easy for disclosures, warnings, signposting and so on to just become part of the wallpaper of life—like the bit at the bottom of the billboard chart that says “Your home may be at risk if you do not keep up your payments on a mortgage or other loan secured on it”. In the case of this market, hon. Members may recall from the previous Competition Commission inquiry that there was, for example, a lenders-compared website, which was meant to help consumers who might be home credit borrowers to compare the price of home credit providers against
credit unions and so forth. The problem, of course, is that nobody uses it. The regulatory authorities feel happy because they have provided something, but what they have provided actually does no good at all.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that part of the problem is the fact that one of the figures or statistics that people often ignore is that for APR? Does he share my concern that, in a poll of students, significant numbers thought that the higher the APR the better, showing how poorly this measure is understood?
My hon. Friend raises an important and telling point. It is, as he says, a problem affecting students, but I am afraid that it exists for many older folks as well. It highlights the fact that a cash number might be a more appropriate headline figure on which to explain the costs.
My second rule is that if the market is providing something that people want and it seems to fulfil a need, it cannot be get rid of unless something better is provided. Credit is a fact of modern life. During the year, people have ups and downs in their expenditures patterns—around Christmas, birthdays and back to school, as well as when unexpected things happen such as a car or a relationship breaking down. Credit is one of the means that everybody uses—or almost everybody, whatever their income level—to help smooth out those ups and downs. It can be entirely rational—the point raised by my hon. Friend Philip Davies—even to take out a payday loan at a 2,000% APR if in so doing someone avoids unauthorised overdraft charges by the bank, which might cost even more. When the market provides something that has a use, it will not be got rid of until something better is provided.
My third point is that although, as I said, the market will provide and supply will follow demand, it is also true that demand will follow supply—on that at least, Galbraith was right. Payday lending in the UK in recent years has not grown because it has suddenly become more difficult to get from one pay day to the next. People have always struggled to get from one to the next and to pay unauthorised overdraft charges to tide them over for a short period. The difference is the availability of payday lending—partly, Members may note, displaced from the United States, from where a number of operators have come as the regulatory environment in the US has become more difficult. That suggests that there is some efficacy in regulatory restrictions.
All of that tells us that individual simple and grand solutions will probably not create the whole answer. We need an integrated approach, and, as Mr Jones mentioned, we need financial education. That is one of three parts that have to constitute an integrated approach. The others are sensible regulation and disclosure and ensuring that there are alternatives to high-cost credit and to operators that we would rather people did not have to use.
To be fair to the Government, there is quite a strong story to tell on each of those points about action that has been taken and is being taken. Financial education is going to be in the national curriculum, and there will be a strengthening of mathematics in schools. On sensible regulation and disclosure, we have the new regime with
the Financial Conduct Authority, which has the potential to be tougher and more effective than regimes hitherto. Even at the end of the old regime, we are now seeing a sharper and tougher approach from the Office of Fair Trading.
Finally, on alternatives, I am proud of the Government’s support for the credit union sector. We could say the same of the previous Government’s support, although this Government have gone further and are seeking to help the credit unions—those in Great Britain, I should say for the benefit of Mark Durkan—be self-sustaining and a healthy sector, just as credit unions in Northern Ireland are, and at economic scale. There is also possibly more that could be done in exhorting the mainstream banks to live up to what they might do to ensure further financial inclusion and affordable credit.
Are the Government doing enough? I think it remains to be seen. To some extent they may be, and the new FCA regime could produce quite a dramatic change over time, with credit unions becoming bigger, offering an improved product range and so on. That will really make a difference, and with the lifting of the cap from 2% to 3% per calendar month, we will start to get into a zone in which short-term loans can take on parts of the payday lending market.
Big issues remain, however, and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned some of them. At the top of the list, of course, is the massive and visible growth in payday lending. One thing that has really made a difference to the public policy debate is that now that high-cost credit is on the side of buses a lot more people are paying attention to it than when it was only on daytime telly or on the back of tabloid newspapers. There are also issues to do with credit brokers and the Amigo model, which is a new model of credit whereby people get their mates to underwrite their loan, and then it turns out, lo and behold, to the surprise of that mate, that he or she gets stiffed for having to pay the loan later. We must also consider the behaviour of certain debt management companies, marketing practices and so on.
Through it all, we should not forget old-school credit. I have mentioned all the new flashy new things that are clearly visible on the radar of public policy makers and commentators, but home credit is an enormous sector that is largely invisible to most of us, because most of the time it is a door to door activity on streets and estates, using an agency network and without advertising. The leading operator of home credit claims to have one in 20 UK households as regular weekly customers. It is an enormous business.
I turn to specific aspects of the Bill. I will comment on them in the sequence of the customer journey, starting with advertising. This is tricky for me to say, as I believe in free markets—I am a Conservative MP and was a marketer before I came to the House—but at some point we have to face up to the fact that not only sharp practice, such as dodgy or unrealistic advertising, but the volume of advertising in the credit market makes a difference. The sheer ubiquity of messages about the ease of access to credit and the problems it will solve has an impact.
I am not about to advocate some sort of volume restriction on advertising, but we must have that point in the back of our mind. I understand that the Government
have commissioned some research on the effect of payday loan advertising on consumers, and that we will hear back on it in the autumn, to which I look forward. Without trying to restrict the total number of ads for credit, I think there are some things that everybody can agree are blatantly bad and should be stopped. One example, to which I think the hon. Gentleman alluded, was the £1,000 night out text that First Payday Loans sent to people. It purported to be from a friend and said, “I’m still out on the town and I just got £850 or £1,000, and you can too.” That is clearly bad practice in advertising.
I saw an advert on Sky News the other day for an instalment loan, not a payday loan. It said, “Quote this voucher code for 20% off”, and then in small letters on the screen, it said “20% off your first repayment.” There are 12 repayments, with 20% off the first one, so it is hardly a bargain. We need better enforcement on advertising, and the new regime can bring that.
More generally, as the OFT has said, there is too much emphasis on the speed and ease of getting credit. The terms of competition are, “We will do it faster than the other lot.” It is about fewer checks, less waiting time and so on.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for an enormous number of people who are going for such loans, it is extremely attractive not to have any face-to-face time? Often, they are intimidated by having conversations with a bank manager and so forth, and some of them are deeply embarrassed about the situation in which they find themselves. Being able to go online and spend 15 minutes getting a loan without any advice or any real time to think about it is an extremely attractive option.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. It is not necessarily even about face-to-face time; even not having to provide a physical signature makes a difference. We cannot logically explain why that is so—it just is. Each hurdle makes people reflect further on what they are doing, and as things become quicker online, that creates an added danger.
Some of the advertising and marketing styles of payday loan companies in particular, such as using cutesy cartoon characters, are to my mind not really appropriate to people possibly getting themselves into financial trouble.
I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. It puzzles me that payday lenders seem to be exempt from the normal rules of “know your client” and money laundering. They prevent any investment house from receiving money, and it seems strange that companies can lend money without being obliged to follow them.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a perceptive point.
I do not think that health warnings on advertising will solve every problem, but I do believe that there is a role for them. If we have health warnings on all sorts of other things now, it is reasonable that we have them on debt advertising.
We must also consider the representation of costs. APR is not a particularly helpful measure in many ways—once it goes past the first 1,000%, people start to think, “What difference does that make?” There is a
natural argument for saying that there should be a cash cost comparison instead. However, there is no perfect solution. The formula that Which? proposes of pounds per 30 days seems to deal with the immediate issue, which is the growth of payday loans. It does not necessarily help with the comparability of all products, however, and with any cash comparison—the amount-to-pay-back figure—there is still the issue of how to deal with behavioural charges, which are an additional way of making money out of the customer. Companies can in theory charge a relatively low headline payback rate in the knowledge that they will make more money from missed payments and various other behavioural penalties. We may in the end decide that a cash comparison is useful, but we will still need the representative APR figure, and we will also need to have a proper analysis and debate about which behavioural and other charges should be reflected within that.
On agencies and intermediaries, I support the Bill’s provisions on credit brokers, underwriters and guarantors, and the Amigo model, but there is something else we need to be aware of: as the online market develops even further, there is a tendency in every sector—I saw this in my old sector of hotels and travel—for intermediaries to come in, particularly on paid search, and intermediate, and there is a natural inflationary pressure in that process, which in the end only ever gets passed on to the consumers. Whereas the internet is supposed to make things cheaper for consumers, and comparisons easier and markets freer, it actually tends to concentrate power with other people and add other costs, a lot of which end up going to search engine providers.
Affordability and cost limits is another important issue. Two types of limit can be applied. One is a limit on the cost of the loan—on how much companies can charge to anybody. The other is a limit on affordability, or how much credit can be extended to an individual given their circumstances. Both of them are very complex, which is implicitly acknowledged by the fact that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central says in his Bill that the FCA would have to decide exactly how these things work.
There are big arguments against having a cost cap, because of all the unintended consequences that I have mentioned, but if there is to be a cost cap, it ought to reflect the actual cost structure of extending a loan. In principle there are three elements of cost in extending a loan. The first is the initiation cost, including customer acquisition and credit checks. The second is the actual cost of capital. The third is the risk element, which will vary by customer-type.
If we recognise that and want to reflect it in a limit on the amount of interest that can be charged, we should end up having two elements to the cost cap. One of them is to cover the initiation of the loan, and the second is to cover the cost of capital and risk factor. The figure here would be something like a cap of 15% of the capital as a one-off, plus 30% as an annual interest rate. Sub-prime and high-cost credit providers that offer a range of loans seem to follow that sort of formula.
My hon. Friend talked about assessing affordability and I just wondered whether he had any views about what information should be provided to the
lender in terms of bank statements, proof of income and so forth. If this was just done on a self-verification basis, people could say anything they wanted to make sure they got the loan.
As ever, my hon. Friend tees me up nicely for my next point, which is about affordability. This is different from the issue of an overall cost cap. People need a bank account to get a payday loan, and payday lenders will typically require proof that they have a pay day on which a regular amount of income comes in. The Bill proposes a single real-time database. For myself, I think that is a step too far. This would be a database of every loan that everybody in the country has, and to be effective it would need to cover not only payday loans, but credit card debt, mortgage debt, car debt and all sorts of other debt. There are massive worries in that, relating to privacy, civil liberties, the concentration of data and, of course, what happens when, inevitably at some point, it goes wrong. I do think we need to look at serious reform of the existing credit reference agency system, however. It does not seem to work as it should when people who are overstretched and who have had eight, nine or 10 lines of credit extended to them go to debt advice agencies.
Another issue is making sure the loan actually gets paid down over time. There is a big fashion for restricting roll-over. We need to be careful about that, however, because it deals with the immediate issue we happen to face in 2013. I remind Members that 10 years ago roll-over was something we understood only in the context of the national lottery and 20 years ago we understood it only in the context of “10 in the bed and the little one said”. In terms of loan products, it is a new thing, therefore, and I would rather we instead had a general duty to make sure the loan gets paid down over time. That should apply to instalment credit and revolving credit as well as to payday loans. A product that is advertised as a 30-day loan should, therefore, be paid down fully by 60 or 90 days, but the payback should start before that 60 or 90 day point is reached.
I had better not, as I am about to conclude.
On debt advice referral, I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central that signposting at points of risk is vital, but there are even simpler things we could do, such as making sure that when people are actively trying to signpost themselves to debt advice, they find it more easily. I am thinking in particular about internet search engines, where keywords can be purchased by commercial providers when we might prefer the search went immediately to not-for-profit organisations.
Finally, I want to talk very briefly about three issues that are not covered by the Bill, but which are closely related to it. I mentioned our not being able to beat something in the market until we come up with something better. The first issue relates to mainstream banks and the fact that part of the reason why payday loans are popular is because of the behavioural charges people incur at mainstream banks and the bounce charges. We need to work on that, and if possible remove the cause at source. There is no such thing as free banking; there is only banking which is paid for by different people in
different ways at different times. There is cross-subsidy from people with more complex, perhaps even chaotic, banking affairs to people who have simpler banking affairs—or to put it another way, banks make money out of people going overdrawn accidentally and being charged for it.
This is politically difficult, but people ought to cover the real economic cost of their current account. If that were the case, it would pave the way for a different type of bank account—a jam jar account, or budgeting account—which would make it much less likely that people would trip into debt.
I apologise, but I had better not.
The second issue is alternatives and credit unions. I have already said I strongly support what the Government are doing, and with the 3%, rather than 2%, a month cap there is now the possibility of lending in the short-term market, but we also need to look at the costs credit unions face and make sure that in respect of loan initiation—particularly with credit checks and so on—it is possible for them to operate in that short-term market effectively.
Thirdly, on savings, if everyone had a small cushion of resilience against the car breaking down or the little things in life that go wrong and push us over the edge, there would be less likelihood of credit being needed. [Interruption.] Mr Jones is shaking his head, and I wonder if he is saying to himself—or to me—that that was a naive thing to say.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but it is not a naive thing to say because we end up spending more, not less, by borrowing. I am not saying this is easy, but I am saying it is better to help people to build up that cushion, if at all possible. That is one of the things credit unions do; it is what the credit union movement is founded on.
I am afraid I cannot, because—[Interruption.] Go on then.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about credit unions, and I am actually a director of one. But the fact of the matter is that the people we are talking about are on low pay, intermittent pay or zero-hours contracts, which his party is in favour of, so they have no ability to save large sums. The Chancellor’s proposal on delaying the applications for jobseeker’s allowance for seven days will make it even worse for those people.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must say that he makes political rather than helpful points on this subject. I did not say that these people had the facility to save large amounts of money. As a director of a credit union, he will know that the whole credit union movement is based, initially, on helping people to save. Many credit unions will have a “save as you pay back” process, whereby even where someone borrows from them they will find that at the
conclusion of that loan they have a small savings pot, which will stand them in better stead for the future. If we move more towards budgeting-type banking—the so-called jam jar bank accounts—there will be the facility for small amounts of money to go, through payroll deduction, into a savings account. That has exactly the same effect, but at a cheaper rate, in terms of smoothing out the ups and downs of cost that people incur through the year.
In conclusion, I wish to congratulate, again, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, who has done a great service in bringing all these issues to the House. We have a new regime and we have a lot going on from the Government, so we have to see how that beds down, but I am sure that today’s debate will push that forward.
It is a great pleasure to rise to support the Bill, and to commend my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield for securing this Bill for debate and for the measured way in which he has sought cross-party support. I hope that the Government will use the opportunity of the Bill to allow us to take forward the sensible and measured approaches he has proposed.
Let us be in no doubt that we are here today because the regulatory controls in this country are weak and are failing to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. That is why the growth in the number of distressed borrowers is going through the roof. Despite the many warnings that came when the payday lending sector started to expand—Damian Hinds explained this in great depth—we have allowed a wild west gold rush to happen in the high-cost credit sector. It is no wonder that so many major US players have been so keen to invest tens of millions of pounds to achieve a significant market presence here. In 2010, five of the seven biggest payday loan companies in this country were controlled by a US company. Interestingly, some of those companies also operate in Florida, which now has one of the most tightly regulated high-cost credit sectors in the world. It has no roll-overs whatsoever, but according to figures that I have received this week from Veritec Solutions, which provides the regulatory system operated in Florida, there has been a substantial increase, year on year, in the high-cost credit sector in Florida. What it does not have, however, is a substantial proportion of highly distressed borrowers. That is why this Bill is important in putting forward the message about controlling the number of distressed borrowers.
This week, the StepChange Debt Charity reported that more than 30,000 people have contacted it for help with payday loan problems in the first half of this year alone—that is a 54% increase on the figure for the previous six months and is almost the same as the total for the whole of 2012. The charity found that the average payday loan owed in my constituency was more than £1,500. So we are not just talking about £50 here or there; these debts are becoming a marked part of the lives of people in loan distress.
I was interested to hear what Damian Hinds said about the rate of interest, but it actually includes the risk of roll-over loans. So if someone does not take out a roll-over loan, they are actually paying more than the market should be charging them. I am very pleased that we have the inquiry by the Competition Commission, and I hope that that is one of the factors it will examine.
I think that the economics work the other way round. Lenders make a lot more money on the roll-over loan than on the previous loan, in general.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but the lenders build the risk into the interest rate they charge, so that rate is probably higher than it should be. If we controlled roll-overs, we could also control the amount of APR that the lenders then charge.
The inquiry by the regulator found that companies were making up to 50% of their money from customers who extended or rolled over loans, or who incurred late payment charges. That suggests that this market is out of control. It said that borrowers using payday loans have
“poor credit histories, limited access to other forms of credit and/or a pressing need to borrow”.
The Government need to look at the role of our major banks and, in terms of the unsecured credit market, why so few options are available to many borrowers. This is about extending the market options, through not only credit unions, but our high street banks.
Self-regulation, as in the US previously, has not worked. The Citizens Advice survey since the introduction of the good practice customer charter showed that payday lenders are regularly and systematically breaking their own promises; they are still not making adequate affordability checks or giving proper advice if debtors get into difficulties. We need a real-time recording system, paid for by the industry, not by the Government. Such systems already operate in many other international sectors and there is no reason why these self-same companies could not offer to install such a system in this country without delay.
The watchdog has been criticised. The Public Accounts Committee found that it had been “ineffective” and “timid”, and that it has failed to identify risks of malpractice. I spoke recently to someone who has worked in the US high-cost credit sector and he was astonished at the regulator’s lack of concern over recent years. Frankly, this has been perceived as a peripheral problem affecting “little people” who could not cope with their weekly finances. But in the meantime, huge numbers of people have, since the financial crash, seen their household finances severely squeezed. The growth in food banks and in the number of people who are distressed is increasing week on week. At the end of February,
outstanding consumer unsecured credit lending in this country stood at £158 billion.
We have failed to invest enough in regulation. We have failed to control this sector properly. This Bill provides us with an opportunity to install proper regulation. I welcome the decision by the Government to move regulation to the Financial Conduct Authority, but that needs to happen sooner and it needs proper direction from Ministers. I am concerned that agencies such as Money Advice Service are still wasting time and money on useless adverts, one of which I watched last night, about mortgage advice—that sector is highly regulated and there is no sign of abuse in it—yet they are not actually tackling vulnerability. The Government cannot abdicate responsibility to a quango; they need to make it clear where those quangos’ priorities lie and that vulnerability has to be central to them.
I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to participate actively in the Bill to make sure that we can start to crack the problem, which is affecting every community in this country.
I very much thank Paul Blomfield for introducing his Bill and giving the House the opportunity to discuss this matter. We have heard some excellent speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and it is clear that this important issue affects people in every one of our constituencies. Although it is true that some people can take out a payday loan and have no problem with it, finding it a useful product, it is also true that many others have a very different experience indeed. We have heard some of the case studies; we heard about the experiences of individuals and the misery they have found themselves in as a result of a spiral of debt, much of which is not always helped by the payday loans and the behaviour of those in the industry.
I can certainly let the hon. Gentleman know that my intention is to make a speech of a reasonable length, and I am happy to take interventions and ensure that the House has the opportunity to question the Minister on these issues. I have to say that Friday is not my favourite day to be in the House because of some of the behaviour that is often on display.
I shall certainly address the points raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central. I appreciate the work that he has—
Proceedings interrupted (