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Personal Debt

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 28th February 2005.

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Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington 2:30 pm, 28th February 2005

If he will make a statement on his Department's strategy to assist people to manage personal debt.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The best way we can stop people getting into debt is to make sure that we help them get into work and increase their incomes, so the extra 2 million jobs that we have created and the rise in the national minimum wage announced last week, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already referred, are important in the over-indebtedness strategy. A joint Department of Trade and Industry and DWP action plan on over-indebtedness was published in July 2004, aimed at increasing levels of financial capability and access to affordable credit and encouraging a savings culture to avoid over-indebtedness.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

Admirably Churchillian though the Minister's attitude is—that the best way to stay out of debt is to earn more—in an age when gaining a credit card seems to have become a rite of passage and it is still possible, especially in working class communities, to borrow £500, repay £5,000 and still owe £10,000, can my hon. Friend tell us a bit more about what the Department could do to educate younger people to be as suspicious of strangers offering free money as they ought to be of those offering free sweets, free drugs or free anything?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the dangers, especially for young people, of finding oneself heavily in debt as a result of taking up offers that sometimes seem too tempting to refuse. The strategy to which I referred is cross-departmental and is intended both to increase education about financial resources and to ensure that affordable sources of credit are available in communities where, due to low income and financial exclusion, which we are seeking to address, people find that the only available sources of credit are very expensive and draw them further into debt. We are also working with agencies outside Government; as Members know, the Financial Services Authority has a financial inclusion strategy. We need to ensure that we address the problems faced by the relatively small minority of households that are in debt and for whom such debt can be extremely dangerous.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs

Does the Minister accept that the Government have created a society where it is easier to borrow than to save and where savings have almost halved since 1997? Is it any wonder that personal debt has spiralled out of control and pension savings, in particular, are hopelessly inadequate?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

No, I do not accept that. Part of the strategy, as I explained, is intended to encourage a culture of saving—a culture that was badly damaged during the 1980s. Most of us consider credit to be something that helps us to balance our income and expenditure over time. A small minority of people—those in the 7 per cent. of households who find that their debt is such that it can be considered as over-indebtedness—need additional support and assistance, but most people's level of credit is quite sustainable. Our policies of economic stability, full employment, low inflation and low interest rates have ensured that far fewer people find themselves heavily in debt than did when the Conservative party was running the show.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other advice agencies are often the first line of defence for vulnerable people who have got themselves into debt, yet in many areas, including my constituency, the grant reduction by local authorities and the end of regeneration programmes such as the single regeneration budget have caused budget cuts in those services, sometimes leading to long queues up the road of people waiting for advice, as at Paddington law centre. Will my hon. Friend liaise with his fellow Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor's Department to review the capacity of advice services to meet the needs of vulnerable people in personal debt?

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

I assure my hon. Friend that we are doing precisely that to ensure that the sources of advice are available. Of course, guidance is available to our own staff to identify those sources of advice for customers with debt problems. Since April, Jobcentre Plus personal advisers have been able to pay for the provision of debt advice, but we need to ensure that people are aware of the advice that is available and that we do everything possible to ensure that the agencies that provide that advice are sustainable.