A great deal of advice and help on debt problems is already provided free of charge by citizens advice bureaux. The National and Scottish Associations of Citizens Advice Bureaux are funded by my Department to the extent of £8·9 million in the current financial year. They have been encouraged to seek additional funding for money advice services from the finance industry, and two money advice support projects, one in the south-east and one in the north-west, are already under way as a result of private sector funding. I understand that agreement has also been reached on two more major schemes, which will be announced soon. I believe that this will be widely welcomed.
Does the Minister appreciate that there are vast increases in the numbers of people experiencing debt problems, and that there is an increase in the complexity of those debt problems? Does he accept that a large number of Government decisions, particularly the recent social security decisions and the way in which the Government are implementing them are placing increasing pressure on people and increasing the likelihood of their getting further into debt, particularly those on the lowest incomes? Does he accept that the finance that he provides is to associations that give national back-up, and not direct to the services? The Minister should accept responsibility for providing proper funding for advice services in view of the way in which the problem is likely to accelerate under present Government policy.
The funding of local citizens advice bureaux has always been a matter for local authorities. They know about local needs and it is for them to decide how to allocate money within their budgets.
As for debt increasing, of course there are people who get into trouble with debt, but there are far more people whose problems have been alleviated by having access to credit. The fact remains that the principal protection against getting into debt is for people to think carefully before doing so, and to look around carefully for the best terms. There are widely differing ranges of interest rates available, and if people were to look around more carefully the problem of getting into debt would be reduced.
The courts have the right to re-open a credit bargain if the case is made to them that the terms on which the bargain was made are extortionate. That power lies with the courts, and we are looking to see whether it could be extended to give the courts the right to re-open a bargain on their own motion without a plea being made by the plaintiff. We have yet to see whether that is practicable. I believe that the Government are doing enough. Our system of consumer credit regulation is based on making the maximum information that is sensible available to the potential debtors so that they can work out whether the commitments into which they are entering are within their capabilities. That is the best protection we can provide.
Does the Minister accept the view of the citizens advice bureaux and of every reputable consumer organisation that there is an element in the loans market that behaves in a totally unacceptable way and peddles its loans to those who are desperate or ignorant? Does he also accept that many people are simply unaware of the powers of the courts to set aside high levels of interest demanded by some of these loans sharks? Why will he not take on board the representations of those bodies and introduce tough new legislation to protect the consumers and the public interest?
I have announced today some improvements to the advertisement regulations to make more, clearer and simpler information available to people seeking credit. As for making further advice available, I believe that it is helpful for advice bureaux to seek funding from the finance industry. There is much to be said for the finance industry making that money available, because if more people are helped to pay off their debts, obviously that is in the commercial interests of the industry.