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I, too, will be brief, as I wish to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair during the next debate.
I am pleased to be able to support a Bill that, in my view, takes our regulatory system in the right direction. However, the Bill does not deal only with the Bank of England. It also contains clauses relating to related personal finance matters, and I want to focus on those.
Last week, I met colleagues in the cross-party debt management working group to discuss the growing problem of consumer debt, which currently stands at 142% of overall household income. I believe that the Bill provides an opportunity to effect what would be a small legislative tweak to bring about an urgently needed change in the sector. The Minister gave me some hope that she was thinking along the same lines when, towards the end of her speech, she spoke of taking more action on behalf of consumers, but we shall have to see what happens in Committee.
Debt management is becoming an increasingly inefficient industry, and consumers are getting a bad deal more often. Some debt management schemes charge the debtor, while others are free to the debtor and charge the creditors. The quality of service offered by debt advisers varies greatly, as do the costs. As we know, most people, when they reach the point of desperation and realise that they have a problem and need help, do not sit down and research the sector in depth for 24 hours, but opt for the first helper who crosses their path. If it turns out to be a provider whom they must pay, that is often because they do not know that free help is available.
Free debt management plans, such as those offered by organisations such as PayPlan and Christians Against Poverty, may not be the solution for everyone, but their availability to those who can and want to repay their debts is important, and is becoming increasingly threatened. “Fairshare operators” such as those whom I have just mentioned have arrangements with creditors providing voluntary contributions that allow services to be provided for consumers without charge. Fairshare revenue, which is paid as a percentage of the debt repayments, has reduced as a consequence of a fall in consumers’ average disposable income, which has restricted the capacity to take on more economically viable cases. Those operators will ultimately have to reduce the number of new cases that they take on as funding become increasingly unsustainable.
Unless we correct the position, consumers who get themselves into difficulty will inevitably need to increase their use of providers who charge high fees for the same service, which may amount to up to half the debt repayment. If the plan provides for someone to pay £70 a month, a further £35 may have to be paid to the debt management plan company rather than reducing the debt. That significantly increases both the time and the cost involved in solving the problem. One solution would be the introduction of a new system—as the Minister knows, a small amendment has been tabled to this effect, which could perhaps be considered in Committee —whereby all debt advice operators must offer a sustainable debt management plan that is free to the consumer and funded by creditors at a lower cost than is the case at present.