I am pleased that this Bill is focusing on the digital economy. However, I feel that some areas need strengthening in order to avoid unintended consequences and that there are missed opportunities.
I want first to talk about the data-sharing powers, and specifically the section of the Bill that enables public authorities to share data to make it easier for Government and public authorities to collect outstanding debts from individuals, particularly where the debt is owed to more than one public authority. Commercial creditors, and even the dreaded payday lenders, adhere to the Financial Conduct Authority standards, but there is no equivalent for public authorities. In a recent survey, StepChange found that bailiffs, local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions are the top three organisations that people felt treated them unfairly—worse than payday lenders—and that is because of a lack of binding standards and the complete variability of policies. The impact has been 60% of those people taking on more debt, including 21% taking on payday loans. People falling behind with their bills causes great stress, which we know leads to mental health issues and family problems. We need to look at the concept of a breathing space, which I shall say more about later. Problem debt weighs down individuals, families and the economy. It costs us all £8.3 billion. Surely that is a good reason to strengthen the Bill to improve the debt collection practices of public authority creditors, using the best practice available and aiming for consistency across the country.
The Bill mentions that fairness should be paramount in this regard, but there is no mention of the scope of the outline principles for debt collection. Surely there should be guidance as to what good practice looks like, and at least a reference to the standard financial statement and to public authorities auditing their collection and enforcement policies to ensure that they do not make things worse for financially vulnerable households. Also, public authorities will be required only to have “regard” to the code of practice, which is frankly not strong enough. There should be a requirement to comply and to embed decent principles of debt collection in policies and practices throughout public bodies. I appreciate that the Bill deals with only a limited range of circumstances in which data are shared, but there is a wider need for measures to include the provision of a breathing space. The Government are looking into this at the moment. We need to ensure that people’s debt problems are not made worse when they are doing the right thing and seeking advice.
Like Claire Perry, I welcome clause 77, which deals with nuisance calls. We have all had them, but people in debt are particularly vulnerable to the temptation of a quick fix. I would really like to see a ban on the unsolicited marketing of high-cost credit and on fee-charging debt management companies. There is a bit of Mr Micawber in all of us, and it is all too easy to believe that that phone call or text is the answer to our worries when too often it simply compounds them. Currently, one in eight people are called every day by a company offering high-risk financial products. A third of people already in debt receive more than five calls a week from people trying to sell them unsuitable products. This represents the ruthless targeting of the most vulnerable and it needs to be stopped.
We need to ensure that credit is taken out only after careful consideration. People need the time to carry out research to ensure that they are getting the best deal, rather than buying credit after a pressurised sales call that often promises far more than it can deliver. Direct marketing should be opt-in, not opt-out. The tick-boxes are often far too small for people to see. My mother would never be able to see them. They are easily missed and firms should be obliged to say which third parties they are passing our information to. It is our information, and we should know who it is being given to. I am pleased that the size of the fines is to be increased, but they have to be relevant to the size and turnover of the company and proportionate to the number of calls involved. The impact on consumers has not been considered enough. I would like to see a system of fines per calls made, and the possibility of making directors personally liable for these calls, because they are responsible for the conduct of their companies.
The Bill has missed the opportunity to protect consumers and UK businesses from the online sales of counterfeit goods, particularly dangerous electrical goods, 64% of which are bought online. Many measures could be taken, but the full extent of the online problem needs to be assessed, as does the cost to the economy. It is a growing problem—I think it has increased by 12% this year alone—and more than 1 million people in the UK have knowingly or unknowingly bought a counterfeit item. That is bad for business and for the consumer, and in the worst cases, it is a safety hazard. The Bill could provide an opportunity to reduce the opportunity for counterfeiters to sell through online portals, and I hope that this will be considered as it makes progress. We are all consumers; we are all vulnerable to sales calls; we have all had, or will have, income shocks; and we all buy goods online. We deserve the best protection possible. The Bill provides many opportunities to enhance that protection and I hope that they will be seized. I hope that the protection of the most vulnerable will not be overlooked.