Backbench Business — High-cost Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 5th September 2013.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester 1:12 pm, 5th September 2013

It is a pleasure to follow the impassioned speech by Stella Creasy. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and Chris Evans on securing this very important debate. He took a sensible and non-partisan approach, and I appreciate that. There is cross-party consensus on the mood for taking action on payday lenders. Many Members from all parties came to this Chamber to support the private Member’s Bill on the subject introduced by Paul Blomfield—I would call him my hon. Friend—which I still hope can make some progress in forming Government policy.

Other Members have mentioned constituency cases. I have recently been particularly moved by a couple of cases in my own constituency. In one, someone had six separate loans from payday lenders, which clearly cannot be justified on the basis of seeing them through until payday, and they were being absolutely crippled by the interest. In another, a pensioner living on the basic pension got thousands of pounds in debt to payday lenders—a clear sign that some of these businesses are not looking at the affordability criteria. It is right that we should express our concern about such cases.

I am sorry that the Bill did not get voted on on Second Reading; a number of us were here to support it. In responding, the Minister expressed some understandable concerns on the part of the Government, which were shared by the previous Government, as regards not wanting to tie the hands of regulators. However, this House has been clear in its desire that regulators consider caps. It is very important that we give guidance to regulators about what we expect them to do. The Government are right to have launched investigations into the impact of advertising in the sector, but many of us are a little frustrated by the pace of action on that front and would like more to be done. The hon. Member for Islwyn made some good points about that.

We have to acknowledge that high-cost lending goes much wider than the payday loan industry. It also covers doorstep lenders and credit cards where they are not used appropriately; people can build up enormous amounts of high-cost debt through that sector. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there is also a large informal sector that we should be wary of encouraging or supporting. Many Members have noted that when banks generate overdraft charges they can raise the cost of borrowing to exceptionally high levels. His comment about moving people into mainstream banking was absolutely right, but we need to find tools to do that which protect them from such charges. In a recent discussion with Six Towns credit union, I was interested in a ring-fenced bank account that it was considering launching which would allow people, in effect, to set aside rent and energy bill payments and then only access money to spend on other things. Innovative financial products like that can help to move people towards mainstream finance.

We need to look at the overall level of debt. Any debt is high-cost if it is unaffordable. We still need to do more work on deleveraging the economy as a whole. Some progress has already been made on that front. It would be wrong for anyone to pretend that overall debt problems are greater now than they were in 2008, at the height of the boom. Credit Action produces monthly reports that show a significant decline. In July 2013, overall unsecured debt was £158 billion. That sounds an awful lot, but in 2008 it was £231 billion. In the 1980s, during the boom years under Lawson, household debt as a percentage of income rose from 70% to 80%. During the period when Mr Brown was Chancellor and Prime Minister, it rose from 80% to 170%. It is now falling back to 145%, but that is still too high. There is significant progress to be made on the level of debt as well as its quality.

On quality, we need tools to help people to access the better lenders and to ensure that customers are well informed on the real costs. As many Members have said, percentage rates do not tell the whole story: hidden costs and charges are important. We should pay tribute to the many financial advice services that work in the voluntary sector and the state sector to try to provide that information, including Citizens Advice, which we all know well in our constituencies. I am delighted that the Archbishop of Canterbury has entered this debate and offered support to the credit union movement and the voluntary sector in taking on the loan sharks. The Church can play a very important role in this, as Christians Against Poverty and many other religious groups already do.