“(1) The Secretary of State must keep under review whether a prohibition on unsolicited direct marketing in relation to consumer financial products and services other than pensions would be appropriate.
(2) If the Secretary of State considers that such a prohibition would be appropriate, the Secretary of State may make regulations applying regulations made under section (Unsolicited direct marketing: pensions) to other consumer financial products and services (with or without modifications).
(3) In considering whether to make such regulations, the Secretary of State must take into account any advice received from the single financial guidance body under section 3(7)(b)(ii) (consumer protection function: advice on effect on consumers of unsolicited direct marketing).
(4) The regulations may—
(a) make different provision for different purposes;
(b) make different provision for different areas;
(c) make incidental, supplementary, consequential, transitional or saving provision.
(5) Regulations under this section are to be made by statutory instrument.
(6) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”—(John Glen.)
This new clause would give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations (subject to the affirmative procedure) banning unsolicited direct marketing in relation to consumer financial products and services other than pensions. It would come immediately after NC3
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 9—Unsolicited direct marketing: pensions (No. 2)—
‘(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations prohibiting unsolicited direct marketing relating to pensions.
(2) The regulations may—
(a) make provision about when a communication is to be, or is not to be, treated as unsolicited;
(b) make provision for exceptions to the prohibition;
(d) apply (with or without modifications) provisions of the data protection legislation or the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003/2426) (including, in particular, provisions relating to enforcement).
(3) The regulations may—
(a) make different provision for different purposes;
(b) make different provision for different areas;
(c) make incidental, supplementary, consequential, transitional or saving provision.
(4) Regulations under this section are to be made by statutory instrument.
(5) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(6) If before the end of June in any year the Secretary of State has not made regulations under this section (whether or not in that year), the Secretary of State must—
(a) publish a statement, by the end of July in that year, explaining why regulations have not been made and setting a timetable for making the regulations, and
(b) lay the statement before each House of Parliament.
This new clause inserts a new power for the Secretary of State to make regulations (subject to the affirmative procedure) banning unsolicited direct marketing relating to pensions. If the power is not exercised by June, the Secretary of State must explain to Parliament why not. This new clause would be inserted after Clause 24.
Amendment (a) to new clause 9, in subsection (1), leave out “may” and insert “must”.
Amendment (b) to new clause 9, in subsection (1), after “pensions” insert
“and prohibiting the use for commercial purposes of information obtained by means of such direct marketing”.
Amendment (c) to new clause 9, in subsection (2)(c), leave out “and on OFCOM” and insert
“, on Ofcom and on the Financial Conduct Authority”.
Amendment (d) to new clause 9, in subsection (2)(d), after “(S.I. 2003/2426)” insert
“or the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000”.
New clause 1—High-cost credit: advice to the Financial Conduct Authority—
“(1) In exercising its functions the single financial guidance body must have regard to the effect of high-cost credit card lending on consumer protection and must produce and publish an annual assessment of any consumer detriment.
(2) The assessment under subsection (1) shall in particular consider—
(a) what level of interest and fees constitute a high-cost credit card;
(b) information provided by high-cost credit card providers to customers, and whether such information allows customers to make informed financial decisions;
(c) the impact of high-cost credit lending on levels of personal debt, as well as any other factors that the single financial guidance body considers relevant.
(3) If the single financial guidance body considers it to be necessary for consumer protection it must advise the Financial Conduct Authority to impose a limit on the cost of specified types of credit.”
This new clause would require the single financial guidance body to consider the effect of high-cost lending using credit cards on consumer protection and produce an annual assessment of any consumer detriment from such high-cost lending.
New clause 2—Specific requirements as to the pensions guidance function: mid life reviews—
“(1) As part of its pensions guidance and money guidance functions, the single financial guidance body must provide targeted information and guidance for members of the public from the age of 50 to help them make decisions on their financial affairs.
(2) In particular, the information and guidance in subsection (1) shall include information and guidance on—
(a) increasing pension contributions in preparation for retirement,
(b) saving money in preparation for retirement, and
(c) career development and the impact of career development on financial matters including preparation for retirement.”
This new clause provides for the single financial guidance body to provide guidance to members of the public over the age of 50, to prepare them for retirement. These “mid life reviews” would provide guidance on pensions, savings, and career development.
New clause 6—Regulatory principles to be applied in respect of claims management services—
“(1) The FCA may make recommendations to the Secretary of State on regulatory principles to be applied to claims management services.
(2) The matters on which the FCA may make recommendations include, in relation to claims management services—
(a) the duties of authorised persons to act honestly, fairly and professionally in accordance with the best interests of consumers;
(b) the duties of authorised persons to manage conflicts of interest fairly, both between themselves and their clients, and between clients;
(c) other duties of authorised persons related to a duty of care towards their clients.
(3) If the FCA recommends that regulatory principles be applied to claims management services, the Secretary of State may by regulations impose such principles.
(4) The power to make regulations under subsection (3) is exercisable by statutory instrument; and an instrument containing such regulations is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(5) In this section, ‘authorised person’ has the same meaning as in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, and ‘authorised persons’ shall be construed accordingly.”
This new clause would allow the FCA to recommend that the Secretary of State introduces a duty of care which would require claims management services to act with the best interests of the customers in mind.
New clause 7—Assessment of public preparedness for income shocks—
“(1) As part of its strategic function, the single financial guidance body must from time to time publish an assessment of the ability of members of the public to plan for and address sudden reductions in income.
(2) An assessment under this section must consider the impact of the work of the single financial guidance body on the ability of members of the public to plan for and address sudden reductions in income.
New clause 8—Ban on unsolicited real-time direct approaches by, on behalf of, or for the benefit of companies carrying out claims management services and a ban on the use by claims management companies of data obtained by such methods—
“(1) The FCA must, as soon as they take responsibility for claim management companies, introduce bans on—
(a) unsolicited real-time direct approaches to members of the public carried out by whatever means, digital or otherwise, by, on behalf of, or for the benefit of companies carrying out claims management services or their agents or representatives, and
(a) the use for any purpose of any data by companies carrying out claims management services, their agents or representatives where they cannot demonstrate to the satisfaction of the FCA that this data does not arise from any unsolicited real-time direct approach to members of the public carried out by whatever means, digital or otherwise.
(2) The FCA must fix the appropriate penalties for breaches of subsection (1)(a) and (b) above.”
Amendment 31, in clause 2, page 2, line 17, at end insert—
“including information about the services offered by credit unions,”
This amendment adds to the objectives of the single financial guidance body the requirement to provide information about credit unions.
Amendment 39, page 2, line 23, leave out from “accordingly” to the end of line 24 and insert—
“(da) to ensure the needs of people in vulnerable circumstances, including but not exclusively—
(i) those who suffer long-term sickness or disability,
(iii) those on low incomes, and
(iv) recipients of benefits, are met and that resources are allocated in such a way as to allow specially trained advisers and guidance to be made available to them,”
This amendment would require that specially trained advisers and guidance are made available to people in vulnerable circumstances and would provide an indicative list of what vulnerable circumstances should include.
Amendment 40, page 2, line 36, at end insert—
“(4) The single financial guidance body must ensure it communicates to consumers using its services the difference between—
(a) provision of information,
(b) provision of guidance,
(c) provision of advice.”
This amendment would require the new body to ensure that consumers are made aware of the differences between ‘information’, ‘guidance’ and ‘advice’ so that they can specify what type of services they require from the new body.
Amendment 4, page 3, line 5, in clause 3, at end insert—
“(c) advice to the Financial Conduct Authority on matters relating to high-cost credit”.
Amendment 41, page 3, line 16, at end insert—
“(6A) As part of its money guidance function, the single financial guidance body must make available financial guidance on the use of alternative sources of retirement income, including housing wealth, to enable members of the public to make fully informed decisions about pensions and retirement income.”
This amendment would place a duty on the single financial guidance body to make available guidance on alternative sources of retirement income, such as equity release. This will provide a pathway for members of the public to consider their wider assets, particularly their housing wealth, to make effective decisions about their retirement income.
Government amendment 10, page 3, line 17, leave out subsection (7) and insert—
‘(7) The consumer protection function is—
(a) to notify the FCA where, in the exercise of its other functions, the single financial guidance body becomes aware of practices carried out by FCA- regulated persons (within the meaning of section 139A of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000) which it considers to be detrimental to consumers, and
(b) to consider the effect of unsolicited direct marketing on consumers of financial products and services, and, in particular—
(i) from time to time publish an assessment of whether unsolicited direct marketing is, or may be, having a detrimental effect on consumers, and
(ii) advise the Secretary of State whether to make regulations under section (Unsolicited direct marketing: other consumer financial products etc) (unsolicited direct marketing: other consumer financial products etc).”
This amendment makes changes to the consumer protection function to make it clearer exactly what it entails.
Amendment (a) to amendment 10, in paragraph (b)(i), leave out “from time to time” and insert
“at least once every two years”.
Amendment 34, page 3, line 34, at end insert—
“(aa) the capability of members of the public to plan for and address sudden reductions in income,”.
Amendment 1, page 3, line 39, at end insert—
“(11) In carrying out its strategic and other functions the single financial guidance body must make and publish an annual assessment of the level of different types of lending across the United Kingdom by district.
(12) The types of lending covered by the assessment in subsection (11) should include—
(a) high cost short term credit,
(b) hire purchase agreements,
(c) conditional sale agreements,
(d) open ended credit,
(e) other secured lending, and
(f) other unsecured lending.”
This amendment requires the single financial guidance body to carry out an annual assessment of the level of different types of lending in different geographical areas across the United Kingdom.
Government amendment 11.
Amendment 8, in clause 4, page 4, line 2, at end insert—
“(2A) The single financial guidance body must, within 12 months of the passing of this Act, advise the Secretary of State on how to most effectively implement bans on—
(a) cold-calling on behalf of, or for the benefit of companies carrying out claims management services or their agents or representatives, and
(b) the commercial use of any data by companies carrying out claims management services, their agents or representatives where they cannot demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that this data was not obtained by cold-calling.
(2B) In this section ‘claims management services’ has the same meaning as in section 419A of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.”
This amendment will require the Secretary of State to specifically ban cold-calling and the commercial use of data from cold-calling by claims management companies, in addition to any bans recommended by the single financial guidance body.
Amendment 9, page 4, line 4, leave out “may” and insert “must”.
This amendment will place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to institute bans on cold-calling on receipt of advice to do so from the single financial guidance body.
Amendment 42, in clause 10, page 7, line 22, at end insert
“and to whether the standards are proportionate”.
Probing amendment. The SFGB’s standards setting powers also need to be matched with principles of good regulation, ensuring that conditions are proportionate to the benefits they are expected to bring. This would bring the Bill (impacting charities) into line standards setting and enforcement powers granted to other bodies (impacting firms) such as those granted to the FCA.
Government amendments 12, 43, 25, 44, 26 45 and 46.
Amendment 2, in schedule 3, page 45, line 8, at end insert—
17A (1) Section 165 (regulators’ power to require information: authorised persons etc) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (4) after paragraph (b) insert—
(c) in relation to the exercise by the FCA of the powers conferred by subsections (1) and (3), information and documents reasonably required by the single financial guidance body in connection with the exercise by the body of its functions as set out in section 3 of the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018.”
This amendment extends the FCA’s power to require information from authorised persons to include information required by the single financial guidance body for carrying out its functions.
Government amendments 47, 48, 28 and 29.
It is a great pleasure finally—for the third time of asking, I believe—to have the opportunity to the start the Bill’s Report stage. I want to make a positive start to proceedings by covering new clauses 4 and 9, which will allow us to protect consumers from harmful cold calls by enabling us to lay before the House regulations to ban pensions cold calling and introduce bans for other forms of cold calling, if we consider it appropriate to do so.
As I have said previously, I want to ban pensions cold calling as soon as possible, given the profoundly damaging impact that pension scams can have on people’s lives. I have listened to the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee, which published a report before the turn of the year on preventing pension scams, as well as to the passionate calls that have been made across the House and in the other place to ban pensions cold calling. I am pleased to present new clause 9, which builds on and improves the clause proposed by the Committee. The Government’s new clause has a wide scope, which means that we can ban all pensions-related calls. Crucially, we do not need to wait for advice from the guidance body before we implement a ban, so we can make good on our commitment to ban pensions cold calling quickly. I hope that the fact that I will have to lay a statement before both Houses if we have not laid regulations before Parliament by June will reassure hon. Members on that point.
I turn to new clause 4. It is clear to me that, too often, significant consumer detriment arises because of cold calling. If we find evidence that people are experiencing detriment as a result of cold calling regarding consumer financial products, we will not hesitate to use this power to protect consumers.
I am pleased to be able to confirm the final part of our approach to protect consumers from cold calling by means of amendment 10. The amendment expands and improves on the consumer protection function. It gives the body powers to publish regular assessments of consumer detriment resulting from cold calling, and to advise the Secretary of State on where further bans should be implemented. The change clarifies the consumer protection function and gives the body a clear mandate to support the Government in preventing harm that results from cold calling. In fact, the Bill has been agenda-setting in relation to cold calling. The amendments that we are discussing will give the Government new powers to ban cold calling in some the areas that are the most pressing when it comes to protecting consumers.
I thank the Minister for giving way and commend him for the action that he has taken—I am very supportive of it. He has made a good case for banning cold calling in the pensions industry and some other financial industries. The clear case for doing so has been well made, but why will the Government not go further and ban cold calling outright?
I have tried to make clear that when we are setting up a new body, it is important that we take time to reflect on the evidence and that we take action in consultation with and alongside that body. I acknowledge the widespread concern that exists in other areas, and I think that the action we are taking gets the balance right when it comes to getting the evidence together and moving as quickly as possible when the case has been made.
The amendments that I have outlined are additional to the amendment that was made in Committee to introduce a ban on claims management cold calling, which will cover calls about claims on matters ranging from mis-sold payment protection insurance to holiday sickness and car accidents. That means that calls about PPI, whether we have been in a car accident or whether we were sick on holiday—we are all familiar with such calls—will be banned unless prior consent has been given to receiving them.
Having ensured that we can tackle cold calling effectively, we plan to remove the existing clause 4 by means of amendment 11. Amendments 12, 25, 26, 28, 29, 45 and 46 are minor and consequential to these changes. In particular, amendment 45 commences new clause 9 on Royal Assent to ensure that there is no unnecessary delay in making regulations, and amendments 44, 47 and 48 prepare the Bill for the new data protection legislation.
I wish to address the issues of pensions cold calling in new clause 9, wider cold calling in amendments 8 and 9, and the duty of care in new clause 6.
Let me start by saying what this Bill is about. In Committee, we heard the story of the Port Talbot shift supervisor who broke down and wept uncontrollably when he met the Pensions Advisory Service. He described how he had been conned into going down the wrong path on his pension, losing tens of thousands of pounds as a consequence. The reason why he wept, he said, was that all 20 on his shift followed his lead, and therefore they, like him, now faced a much bleaker future than would otherwise have been the case.
Pension cold calling is a blight on people up and down the UK. As the Minister has said, we all know the feeling of answering the phone to a number that we do not recognise and hearing that familiar phrase, “We believe that you have been in a car accident.” Indeed, I was heading over to one of the Bill Committee sittings when I received such a call, not having had one for some years. Someone said that they understood that I had been in a car accident. I said that, yes, I had been in an accident 38 years ago, and it was because somebody had run into the back of me. Since then, I have had two subsequent annoying cold calls, yet mine is but a minor problem. The more significant one is the 11 million pensioners who are targeted annually by cold callers. Fraudsters are making 250 million calls a year, which is equivalent to eight every second.
As the Minister knows, we have approached the cold-calling element of this Bill on a four-pronged basis: first, banning pensions cold calling; secondly, pushing for a total ban now on cold calling for claims management companies, thereby tackling the scourge of unsolicited claims head on; thirdly, banning the use of information obtained through cold calling; and, fourthly, ensuring that the strongest possible sanctions are put on those who break the ban, which means that they are struck off.
The Government’s commitment to ban pensions cold calling from June is a necessary and wholly welcome step. May I make the point—such points are not often made in the House—that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury have engaged with us, the wider community and the pensions industry? Their approach has been constructive. Together, we have come a very long way, but I hope that they will go just that little bit further. Our amendments would tighten the provisions around the ban and ensure that it is fit for purpose. The dual additions of making it an offence to use the information obtained through cold calling and conferring functions on to the Financial Conduct Authority would mean that the ban could be much tighter and more effective.
Although the original clause means that the “introducers” who tend to commit a lot of cold calling in cases such as the British Steel scandal would not be restricted, as they are not covered by the FCA, our amendment would restrict them. The move to ban the use of the information means that those firms which provide financial services and are covered by the FCA will be banned from using the information that the “introducers” gather. This slight shifting of the ban is designed to strengthen it further, as the FCA has much stronger powers than the Information Commissioner’s Office and can strike off members who contravene the rules. We therefore hope that Ministers will reflect further on this.
I now move on to cold calling more widely. A crucial issue on which the Minister has touched is the speed with which we now act. Cold calling has a negative impact for not only pensions, as many other industries that have been blighted by cold calling that creates serious consequences for innocent consumers. It is common for claims management companies to try to harvest cases for road traffic accidents and holiday sickness. Unfortunately, and extraordinarily, the UK has become the world leader for holiday sickness claims. The Association of British Travel Agents said that there were about 35,000 claims of holiday sickness in 2016, which represents a 500% rise since 2013. One in five Britons—19%, or around 9.5million people—has been approached about making a compensation claim for holiday sickness. Statistics from just one tour operator, in July and August, show that there were 750,000 travelling British customers, 800,000 Germans and 375,000 Scandinavians. The Scandinavians lodged 39 claims for holiday sickness and the Germans filed 114. The Brits put in just under 4,000 claims.
Data from Jet2 Holidays shows that the longest delay involving a holiday sickness claim was a striking 11 months from the date of alleged illness, while the shortest delay was two months. That equates to an average delay of 5.8 months. Furthermore, 50% of claims were brought more than three months after the person’s return from holiday. As a result, hoteliers in the markets affected are threatening significant price increases.
A total ban on cold calling would be likely to lead to a fall in the harvesting of false holiday sickness claims. Two recent cases that were taken to court show that the practice is not only improper and immoral, but unlawful, with one particular couple from Merseyside receiving a prison sentence. Deborah Briton was sentenced to nine months and her partner Paul Roberts for 15 months, not least because they had advertised what a good holiday they were having only then to be encouraged by a claims management company to submit a false claim when they got back home.
My hon. Friend referred to Jet2, which is headquartered in my constituency and has raised this issue with me on many occasions. It says that these vexatious claims are increasing the cost of flights and holidays for the rest of us. Is it not true that closing this loophole will effectively mean that we can all enjoy a holiday at a much more reasonable price?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When a reputable company such as Jet2 makes the point that the consequence of this practice might be price increases and a reluctance among some hoteliers to enter into agreements, it is clear that innocent holidaymakers will pay the price.
It is not just travel companies that are suffering due to the large number of cold calls. Around 51 million personal injury-related calls and texts are sent by regulated claims management companies each year. The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has long called for a ban on personal injury cold calls from CMCs, especially as solicitors themselves are already banned from cold calling. Ironically, only recently, the Justice Secretary said that there would be a “forthcoming ban on cold calling” when discussing personal injury claims. If the Justice Secretary believes that there is a forthcoming ban, why do we not act now and include it in this Bill? As Lord Sharkey said in the other place, the ban is necessary to deal with the “omnipresent” menace of cold calls. Baroness Altmann has said:
“People need protection from this nuisance now. They shouldn’t have to wait still more years for a ban....Direct approaches to people on their mobiles or home phones should have no place in the modern world of business.”
The Government, in the public interest, must accept the amendment to ban cold calls when this Bill passes.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent argument for banning such cold calls. Does he agree that the banning of cold calling by claims management companies for personal injury claims would be a far more effective method of reducing costs for insurance and personal injury than the Government’s proposals, which are currently being considered in the other place, to limit the injury compensation due to innocent victims, as well as to those who are not innocent?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are legal consequences for those who make unlawful claims, but there are also business consequences, which in this case knock on to the legal profession and its work. Looking at it from every angle, this is a menace that we need to bring to an end; the question is how soon we can do so.
We hope that the Government will accept our proposals, not least because the Conservative party said at the 2017 general election that it would
“consider a ban on companies cold calling people”.
This is the Government’s chance to keep at least that manifesto promise while protecting the public at the same time.
It is deeply welcome that the Government have taken the powers to ban cold calling for pensions. They have also indicated their support—indeed, the Minister did so earlier—for a wider ban, which our amendment calls for. We are not calling for a blanket ban, which the Minister believes could impinge on non-contentious issues such as doctor-patient calls. The situation is different when such an established relationship exists. We are talking about commercial companies that are pursuing a commercial advantage. All claims management companies should be banned from cold calling, so we urge the Government to set out in the Bill that they will stop the scourge of cold calls by claims management companies.
New clause 6—this is the only other provision to which I will speak—would introduce a duty of care by requiring claims management services to act in the best interests of customers, not least those who find themselves in a vulnerable situation. Due to the scope of the Bill, the new clause relates only to claims management services. However, although this change would be important, we believe that a duty of care is required across all financial service providers. Many consumers are forced to deal with financial providers when they are at their most vulnerable. Such people can include those who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses, including cancer. At present, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 requires that the FCA must have regard to
“the general principle that consumers should take responsibility for their decisions”.
Frankly, that is not good enough.
The Financial Services Consumer Panel told the Lords Financial Exclusion Committee that consumers could reasonably be expected to take responsibility for their decisions only if firms had exercised a duty of care towards them. It suggested that such a duty would oblige financial services providers to avoid conflicts of interest and act in the best interests of their customers. The panel proposed amending the law to require the FCA to make rules on a duty of care, arguing that the introduction of such a duty would lead to a much-needed cultural change in the banking sector and the financial sector more generally.
Let us look at just one example. The charity Macmillan Cancer Support has said that people affected by cancer tell it that they experience barriers to getting the support that they need from the banking sector. By 2020, one in two people will have cancer at some point in their lives. Four in five people with cancer are £570 a month worse off on average as a result of their diagnosis. For example, Christine was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009, but is still feeling the financial effects today. She said:
“The financial fall-out of cancer was huge—I went into my overdraft and had to take out a loan to pay it off. When I found out that my credit rating had suffered, it seemed unfair because I was trying my best to get back into work and to have money coming in…For people like me who want to go on living and working, it’s about having that short-term support and understanding. What would have been great was if I’d been able to have an honest conversation with my bank”.
A specific requirement therefore needs to be explicitly stated to ensure that all financial institutions do their best by the most vulnerable people in society. The strong evidence that has been presented by Macmillan clearly shows that a universal duty of care is required across financial services providers.
In the light of examples in which the principle of treating customers fairly is clearly failing customers, how has the FCA reassured Ministers that the current regulatory provisions are sufficient? Can the Minister provide further details on when the discussion paper to which he referred will be brought forward? I know that he is seized of the problem and wants progress to be made at the next stages. That is crucial and, once again, we want to get on with it, because we need to tackle the real problem that has been identified. What assurances can the Minister give that action will be taken to ensure the timely introduction of the duty of care following the outcome of the FCA’s consultation paper?
We strongly support amendments tabled by a number of hon. Members, led by my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas, that would ensure that banks and financial institutions take proper account of local and regional need, and do not let down local people, as is all too often the case now.
I will speak to amendment 41, which is in my name. My amendment is intended to make a point to the Minister, and I am utterly certain that I will get the assurance that I need in order to do nothing more than discuss it now.
I welcome the introduction of a single financial guidance body, as it should result in a simpler, smarter and smoother experience for the user, helping them to make informed financial decisions. However, we ought to use the opportunity of this Bill not only to ensure that we get the guidance bodies all in one place; we also need to recognise the different types of finance or retirement income that need to be signposted. Financial decision making can be complex, often requiring advice and support, particularly during events such as buying a first home, on retirement or following a bereavement.
I tabled this amendment because people ought to consider their finances in the round. In other words, all liquid and illiquid assets—cash and property—should be considered together. My amendment follows the lead of the noble Lady Greengross in the other place, asking the Government to ensure that this new guidance body highlights the full range of options available, so that its users get the best possible advice to help them to make informed choices about their finances and their futures.
The report published last month by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee describes equity release as one of the key tools available to those predominantly in later life. It ensures that older householders are able to pay for care costs or home improvements to give them the option to stay in the homes in which they have built lives and brought up their families. Equity release means that our constituents aged 55 and over who might be asset rich but cash poor can have the option of staying in their own homes by accessing the wealth that they have accrued in that home.
The Equity Release Council published a research paper last April called “Equity Release Rebooted”, in which it estimated that the average value of a defined contribution pension in 2012 to 2014 was £30,200, while over-55s in England possess approximately £1.8 trillion in housing wealth and more than 80% of over-65s own a home. For many, if not most people coming towards the position of making a decision about their retirement, their property is much their greatest asset. It must therefore be sensible for equity release to be signposted and to form at least part of any discussion about funding retirement and later life.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he not think, therefore, that there is considerable merit in new clause 2, which promotes the idea of specific guidance for people in mid-life so that they get proper and clear advice on some of the decisions that they may have to make?
I am sure that there is enormous merit in new clause 2, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to make the case further. There is obviously a common theme of making sure that people have the information about all their assets to enable them to make the best possible decision. We must make sure, in setting up the body in this Bill, that we do not have to come back to this later on because, in practice, we are not delivering the best advice to people about all the assets with which they have to plan.
The pensions advice allowance allows people to withdraw £500, tax-free, from their pension pots to pay for financial advice on their retirement, including on housing wealth, but some people will be unwilling or unable to use this facility. It is incumbent on the single financial guidance body to provide free, impartial guidance and to ensure that this encompasses housing wealth. It is likely that any signposting requirement would push consumers towards the Equity Release Council, the industry body for the equity release sector. Members of the Equity Release Council are committed to product standards and consumer safeguards.
The hon. Gentleman is making a salient point. Given that the range of interest rates for a number of companies that offer equity release is really quite considerable, does he agree that one of the advantages of the advice going through an independent body is that those who are offering better and lower interest rates for consumers are more likely to receive custom?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I agree. He will note the very distinguished role that his predecessor played in the whole business of promoting equity release. It ought to be a really major option given the construction of people’s resources and where they sit on the scale of property ownership in the UK. We need to be clear about how important an asset it is and how important it is to make sure that this industry has the opportunity to give the best possible service to people in their life plans.
Consumers must obtain qualified financial and independent legal advice before they confirm their decision to go ahead and purchase any equity release product. Guarantees include the right to remain in the property for life or until moving into long-term care. Another key safeguard provided by members of the Equity Release Council is the “no negative equity” guarantee, whereby the repayment of the loan is never greater than the value of the home.
A major reason why the single financial guidance body signpost should include housing wealth is the growth in the equity release sector. Homeowners released £3 billion worth of equity in 2017, with 37,000 new customers signing up for equity release products for the first time.
The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that this is about releasing equity. What people are actually doing is borrowing against the perceived wealth of the property.
They are not borrowing against the perceived wealth of the property—it is the actual wealth of the property. If someone is in a position of planning for their retirement and they do not have an adequate pension pot, and given the scale of the imbalance between people’s assets in property as opposed to the pension provision they have made, it is obvious that, in making the assessments for their retirement, they should consider accessing the wealth they have accrued that is in their home.
With 37,000 customers signing up for equity release products for the first time in 2017, the number of these products has also risen enormously over the last decade—by 225%—and 78 product options with the necessary range of flexibilities are now available. This can only improve and grow as the industry develops. Consumers utilise equity release for various reasons, such as paying off a mortgage, making adaptations to the home, boosting retirement income, or as a means of providing deposits to children and grandchildren to enable them to take their first step on the housing ladder. Equity release can help in meeting some of the challenges in social care and in housing.
We should be more ambitious, ensuring that the new body signposts solutions such as equity release to all those we represent who might really benefit from unlocking the main source of their wealth overall, which will be the equity in their home. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we are going to make a reality of that in practice through the guidance.
I rise to speak to amendments 39 and 40, which are in my name. I want to say at the outset that while Scottish National party Members have felt the need to bring back some elements from Committee, we do on the whole welcome and support the Bill. We just want to see some improvements, which we hope will help to protect consumers and those accessing financial products. It is a shame that on the third attempt to consider the Bill we may still not get time to consider the second group of amendments, and in particular those tabled by Frank Field, which we are keen to consider. However, I will proceed as quickly as possible so that we might get to the second group in good time.
First, amendment 39 would require that specially trained advisers and guidance are made available to people in vulnerable circumstances and would provide an indicative list of what “vulnerable circumstances” should include. It is positive that the Government decided to amend the Bill in the House of Lords to include a reference to the needs of vulnerable people within the functions of the new single financial guidance body. However, we feel that the Government should go further.
The amended version of the clause remains a little weak with regard to the inclusion of vulnerable people. Our amendment would make things more explicit and strengthen that objective by providing more detail as to who may fall into this remit, using the term “people in vulnerable circumstances”, which we think is more appropriate. The circumstances illustrated in our amendment can have a significant impact on people’s finances and long-term savings plans.
People in difficult financial circumstances may be more likely to use new pension freedoms, at a cost to their long-term pensions saving. Attractive as the pension freedoms may sound, it is clear that the Government have not put in place adequate safeguards for older people who are opting to free up funds, to ensure they will not end up in a desperate financial situation later. Those with less money are more vulnerable to economic shocks in their personal circumstances, as well as being potentially more vulnerable to scammers who give misleading or false advice for a fee, as we heard from the shadow Minister, Jack Dromey.
Being a carer or disabled can incur extra lifestyle costs. We want to ensure that the new body is as accessible as possible for all people, regardless of their circumstances. Specially trained advisers and resources must make up part of the new body, so that people can have confidence in its ability to support people in vulnerable circumstances.
The Minister said in Committee that our amendment was too prescriptive, but that does not really stand up. There is plenty in the Bill that is prescriptive and detailed. The new financial guidance body will be looking to the content of the Bill to understand what its objective and remit are. We are simply ensuring that the new body is absolutely clear that catering for those who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances should be a significant part of its remit. The wording of clause 2 makes that sound like an afterthought. That is an important discussion to be had alongside the duty of care, which I will come to later.
Amendment 40 would require the new body to ensure that consumers are made aware of the differences between information, guidance and advice, so that they can specify what type of services they require from it. In Committee, my hon. Friend Mhairi Black tabled an amendment that would require the new financial guidance body to define the meaning of those services. The Minister said that that would potentially duplicate available definitions set out in regulations, but he also seemed to think that we asked for a definition because it would be useful for the body itself. That was not our purpose. Our purpose was to ensure that consumers themselves understand what services they have access to. We are tabling this amendment with tweaked wording to make it clear that we are asking that the new financial guidance body communicates clearly what services it provides people with and what they can access.
Guidance, information and advice are very different things. People expecting advice on what route to take may be disappointed to receive various information only. Likewise, there may be issues around exactly what the body is allowed to advise and to what extent it is able to advise on options available. Through this amendment, we are simply highlighting how important it is to ensure that users understand what they are getting.
Government new clauses 4 and 9 give the Secretary of State power to ban cold calling related to pensions and other consumer financial products. The Government have also tabled amendments to bring forward commencement of those clauses. The SNP and the Scottish Government have campaigned hard on cold calling, so we are pleased to see those provisions in the Bill. It is a positive step that the Government have tabled amendments 45 and 46, which will speed up the process for putting in place the necessary regulations for banning cold calling. It is clear that consumers want action now.
On the Government’s amendments, there is a concern that the Government are treating claims management companies’ cold calling and pensions or financial products cold calling differently. In Committee, the Government introduced clause 34, banning cold calling for CMCs unless the consumer has given their consent. With the two amendments on pensions and financial advice cold calling, the Secretary of State is giving herself a get-out clause, to shirk responsibility for taking action. Cold calling is cold calling. Consumers simply do not want to be bothered by nuisance calls, as we have already heard from Stephen Kerr and my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson. Creating a complex framework around which providers are allowed to make these calls, on what types of product, under what circumstances, is over-complicating a very simple issue. People just want it to stop.
Will the Secretary of State, or the Minister who responds to the debate, explain why they think the need to ban CMCs’ cold calling is greater than the need to ban pensions or financial products cold calling? Tough action needs to be taken on this; otherwise, we risk creating loopholes that will allow cold callers to continue to operate.
I want to mention the duty of care amendment: new clause 6, tabled by Members on the Labour Front Bench. My colleagues spoke about it in detail on Second Reading, particularly my hon. Friend Ronnie Cowan, who sadly cannot be here today to speak on it again. Applying a duty of care to CMCs would be a positive step in ensuring that such companies remain accountable for their actions if they cause harm to consumers.
Ideally, all financial institutions should have the best interests of vulnerable consumers at the heart of their conduct, but we all know that that is not always the case, and the fact that the Financial Conduct Authority has agreed to bring forward a discussion paper on duty of care is really positive. Macmillan has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, and I thank its staff for the briefings that we received ahead of these debates. We hope that the Secretary of State and Ministers will give serious thought to this idea, as well as to our amendment on vulnerable persons, which ensures that the single financial guidance body expressly allocates resources for specialist support for people in vulnerable circumstances.
The SNP has long called for and campaigned for action on cold calling. Indeed, it was the subject of a ten-minute rule Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. We welcome the fact that there is to be progress in this regard, but this area of the Bill is becoming a bit of a guddle. That is why we would obviously prefer to see powers over this area devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so that we could take more robust action, such as was suggested by the Scottish Government’s action plan on nuisance calls. Indeed, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, has written to the UK Government many times, asking for them to take a tougher line on nuisance calls.
Nuisance callers blight our society and cause significant distress, particularly to the elderly and vulnerable people. Such harassment is unacceptable and must be stopped. Hopefully, in the time we have available, we will take the opportunity to make some necessary improvements to the Bill.
I shall restrict my observations to pensions cold calling and unsolicited marketing thereon.
Last year, I was pleased to play a part in the scrutiny of the Pension Schemes Act 2017. It was timely legislation to ensure that pension savers were adequately protected as they saved, during the working period of their life, by the regulation of master trusts, which had previously been rather worryingly lightly regulated—insufficiently so, when for many, their pension will be their primary asset in life.
I am pleased that this Bill will bring together the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise into a single financial guidance body, under the control of the FCA. I am further pleased to support the Government’s amendments, especially new clauses 4 and 9. It is right that the new clauses in the name of the Government allow the making of regulations to prevent cold calling and the sending of unsolicited direct marketing materials relating to pension savers. That is further strengthened in Government amendment 10.
At the core of what we shall hear in the House this afternoon is whether “may” should become “must”. That is at the core of an amendment tabled by Stephen Lloyd and Willingdon —amendment (a) to Government new clause 9. There is a case for healthy competition. That usually results in lower charges, and that can be—can be—good for consumers. It would be a draconian measure to ban advertising, to entirely ban direct marketing, because that could be banning choice. It is often good advice for pension savers who have accumulated a pension pot to move to a provider who may provide a better pension, perhaps at a lower cost, with lower charges. That decision now rests with pension providers. If they do not act sensibly, that “may” in Government new clause 9 will, in certain circumstances, become a “will.” That is an important power.
At the heart of any marketing prohibition lies the well-founded fear of scams. The amount likely to be saved by UK pension savers, each with their own personal defined-contribution pot, massively expanded by the successful roll-out of auto-enrolment, will in time be truly vast. There are currently 9.3 million people enrolled in workplace pensions. Where pension saving was once a rarity, particularly for the low-paid and the under-30s, it is thankfully now becoming the norm. A rough and ready calculation shows that in time the number of people enrolled in workplace pensions could well rise from 9.3 million to 15 million; I am sure that will be the appropriate figure in time. When we consider that from
The hon. Gentleman talks about a total pot in the trillions, but for the vast majority of people, particularly part-time workers, their pot, although better than nothing, will be relatively small. Does he agree that several groups are still excluded from auto-enrolment, and that the Government need to do something to bring them in?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. There is a wide debate—I have taken part in it—about whether the self-employed are playing a full role in getting pension provision. I think that there are measures that could be taken, perhaps using the national insurance system, to provide them with greater certainty. The primary purpose of the Bill is to ensure greater financial understanding among the general population. They need to know where to turn at the right time. I have confidence that the single financial guidance body will achieve just that.
I close with a suggestion that is probably best directed to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It has some relevance to the honest proposals put forward by Jack Dromey on mid-life reviews. Employees, as they work through their working lives, obviously have an employer. Employers are very well aware—possibly more than anybody else—of when an employee is approaching retirement. I am sure that most responsible employers will be keen to help. I recommend that the Secretary of State discuss amendments to the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 to allow employers to pay for advice, outside of any benefit-in-kind tax charge, so that advice can be provided to employees and paid for tax-free. That would extend a benefit-in-kind exemption similar to what we see when advice relating to settlement agreements, or payment for CV writing and recruitment advice upon redundancy, is duly paid for by an employer tax-free.
In my view, the Bill is fit for purpose and I very much support it.
I wish to speak to amendments (b), (c) and (d) to new clause 9, which stand in my name. As the House might know, they arise from the work that the Work and Pensions Committee did on miners’ pensions. For most people, decisions about moving pension capital are made towards the end of their lives, but miners had to decide where they should safely put their pension savings as a result of the change in the ownership of their industry.
Given the warning from Neil Gray that we may not get on to the second set of amendments, I should mention that I have some amendments in that group to raise with the pensions Minister. Perhaps I may address two points to the Economic Secretary, but first I thank both Ministers for the way they have engaged with the Work and Pensions Committee for our report and in our meetings. We are immensely grateful to them. On some issues, I have joined my Front-Bench spokesmen because we have been pushing the same measures and interests.
I wish to raise two points that I hope the Economic Secretary will say will be added to the Bill. First, not only should cold calling become unlawful, but any information that arises from it should not be used for commercial purposes—that is, in respect of pension savings. Secondly, would it not be sensible to use the opportunity presented by this Bill to add the Financial Conduct Authority to the list of bodies in the Government’s policing arm to counter activities that unlawfully undermine people’s pension savings by trying to persuade them to move their assets in one way or another?
In the interests of getting on to the second set of amendments, I conclude my comments.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the issues are of particular interest to me as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. I want to reflect on some of the evidence the Committee has heard in its inquiry into pension freedoms and choice, as it relates to some of the changes proposed in the Bill.
While I am extremely supportive of the work the Government have done to increase the freedom of our constituents in respect of their pension savings, it has undoubtedly created new challenges that must be addressed. I am pleased that the Bill has been brought forward as an opportunity to address them. The first challenge is advice. It was apparent from our sessions on the British Steel pension fund that those who find themselves needing to switch often struggle to get the advice they need. There were mixed experiences, with some people receiving very good local advice and others receiving very bad advice or none at all.
That issue certainly came up in our evidence. Those who saw our evidence sessions will know that there was quite a significant grilling of the FCA.
Those experiences show that some irrational decisions—often described as “emotional” decisions—were made in the moment. Sadly, those short-term decisions were not the best investment decisions for the longer term. Unfortunately, this vulnerability—the vulnerability of immediacy or a form of panic, one might say—allowed predatory vulture companies to take advantage of an emotionally charged situation, with people reinvesting their pension pots without the full, impartial advice that is needed. Those vultures exploited scheme holders, framing what they were doing as giving impartial advice, when it was nothing of the sort. Many people felt that they were not fully informed of the consequences of the complex investment decisions they were having to make.
The accessibility of free independent advice in such situations has, in some cases, been woefully limited. More generally, the often perplexing nature of pensions leaves many people making decisions about their investments that are not necessarily in their best interests. Evidence presented to the Select Committee by the Association of British Insurers from the FCA’s “Financial Advice Market Review: Baseline report” suggests that not even one in 10 UK adults—just 6%—had received regulated financial advice. Worryingly, 25% of people who needed advice about their finances did not access it.
There are a number of reasons why our constituents are not accessing the advice they need, but what has been demonstrated is that not enough people are currently accessing the free independent advice that is available. The Association of British Insurers suggested that although 44% of people who are approaching retirement had access to some sort of advice, only 10% used the Pensions Advisory Service and only 7% used Pension Wise. The lack of clear advice combined with confusion about who to trust for independent advice has made it too challenging for those making investment decisions. Not enough people are getting the advice that they need to make properly informed judgments.
Secondly, we also found that very limited numbers of people are making the active decision to shop around and switch providers. Often, the tendency of those changing schemes is to stick to the same provider, so switching—active consumerism—is another challenge. There are, of course, a number of reasons why people might find it difficult to switch providers, not least the lack of good information and advice about the choices available, as I just related. It is also a major barrier to consumer activity, so I am pleased that part of the Bill proposes to create a single guidance body. That will make it much clearer for our constituents to see where they can turn for the right advice to make informed decisions and manage their finances for the future.
My hon. Friend is giving an important speech. Some of the evidence that we received on the Work and Pensions Committee was from Citizens Advice, which suggested that 97% of the pension scams that had taken place in one year originated from unsolicited calls. Does he think that the measures that the Government are bringing forward in the Bill will go some way to combating that?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point; I agree that it is critical that we take action to stop cold calls, and I am about to come on to some of those points.
This change will also ensure that the advice that is available is joined-up and better suited to our constituents’ needs, ensuring that decisions are not made in isolation, but with consideration to the wider implications of investment decisions on an individual’s overall finances. Measures in the Bill will also ensure that people receive the appropriate advice as a matter of course and that they should opt out if they do not wish to receive such advice. I also hope that the commitment made by the Government and the industry to develop a pensions dashboard will be delivered, making it easier for our constituents to have access to the information that they need about their pension savings to make suitable decisions.
Thirdly, the Committee heard about the increasing number of pension scams that are being reported, with more people being actively deceived into making investments that are not in their best interests. It was suggested that many rogue companies are using cold calling to target people and to get them to invest without full thought of whether it is the right and best decision for them. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members have, like me, been contacted by constituents who have been continually badgered by cold calling. It is a real issue in Stoke-on-Trent South and I am sure that it is a challenge in other areas, too. Many of the people targeted by cold calling are elderly or vulnerable and are taken advantage of by those seeking to cheat our constituents out of their hard-earned life savings.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the pension freedoms that were introduced in 2015 were a fantastic opportunity for our constituents, they have led to an increase in rogue scammers and cold calling? That is why new clauses 9 and 4 are so important for the Bill.
I absolutely agree. That is why it is so important that this legislation is passed and that the Government have proposed these amendments. I am pleased that the Government have put measures in the Bill to ban the use of unsolicited marketing on pensions and financial products and services. It is a significant step towards preventing future abuses.
Of course, this legislation can never stop all scams being attempted—we cannot legislate away those who have nothing but contempt for legislation—but it does send a clear message not just to those conducting this behaviour, but to those who are at risk of being conned. By raising awareness of the challenge of scams, the Government can make more people wary of them. This will mean that those who are targeted can have the confidence that whenever they are cold-called by people trying to offer this sort of advice about their pensions or information about their investments, the calls are not legitimate but in fact illegal, and they should put the phone down. The Government are taking a balanced approach, acting if necessary to target where cold calling is most prolific and most damaging, such as in the area of pensions and financial products and services.
I support the Government’s efforts to encourage more people to take up advice at critical points in their life and to make the right investment decisions. I believe that the creation of a single body to give this guidance will make it much clearer where people can turn to for that independent financial advice, ensure they can get the more holistic advice they need, increase take-up and reduce the likelihood of people being successfully targeted by rogue companies. I also welcome the Government’s actions in proposing to take on unsolicited marketing and end the opportunities for rogue companies to target often vulnerable people through the use of cold calling. The Bill is in the consumer’s interest, because the Government are on the side of the hard-working saver, and it is for that reason that I am happy to support the Government’s amendments tonight.
I am delighted that we have finally got our time to debate the Bill; some people in Parliament might not be, but I believe that consumer protection is one of the most important things we can do in this place, because it speaks to the incremental unfairness that people face in life that individuals cannot face on their own but which together as a society we can tackle. In that sense, I rise to support amendments very much in vein, and one of their common themes is that they come from Co-operative as well as Labour MPs. The co-op movement has always been grounded in the values of consumer activism. I want to put on the record my support for amendments 31, 1 and 2, which my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas will be speaking to later, and for amendments in the next group, which I want to get to, in the name of my other Co-op colleague, my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, amendments 5, 6 and 7 on mental health and debt.
In particular, however, in speaking to my new clause 1 and amendment 4, on the FCA’s potential role in tackling the impact of high-cost credit on our society, I want to repeat my Cassandra impression on debt. The Bill is about the fair treatment of consumers. I urge the Minister and the Government, in my Cassandra-like way, to learn the lessons of the payday lending industry. I do not need to tell any Member that the nation is drowning in debt, as we all have seen in our constituency surgeries. We owe more as individuals than do the Government: total household debt in June 2016 was £1.23 trillion, which is more than the Government’s national debt.
Average UK unsecured debt is now £14,000 and will be £19,000 by the end of the Parliament. The number of people who have gone bankrupt in the last year has soared to its highest level since the financial crisis. The reasons are not rocket science: there is simply too much month at the end of their money. Research now shows that economic insecurity has become the new normal for at least 70% of the UK’s working population, who the RSA has described as “chronically broke” and that 32% of the UK’s workers—people who are earning a wage—have less than 500 quid in savings and 41% have less than a grand. It is little wonder that a third are desperately concerned about debt.
Unemployment rates might still be dropping, but we all know that the cost of living has not dropped, and personal debt has filled the vacuum. So, too, has that insecurity, with 1 million on zero-hours contracts and nearly 2 million people in temporary work—and that is even before we get on to those in self-employment. In my constituency, 15% of people are self-employed. These are people who cannot predict their incomes. It is little wonder that the high-cost credit industry has been preying on these people.
One in 10 UK adults say their incomes change significantly from month to month, and almost half say they have experienced at least one monthly drop in income, with the average monthly drop being £385. Who of us could afford to lose that much from our monthly budget without there being consequences? Nearly half those people were self-employed or in that insecure work, which makes budgeting, on which much of the Bill depends, so difficult, and more than half said that one reason they experienced problems was an unexpected expense—a quarter had had two unexpected expenses.
The costs that people face when the washing machine breaks down or the landlord puts the rent up cannot be planned for, but they are all too frequently an everyday part of life. It is little wonder that nearly 6 million households now spend more than 60% of their income on essential outgoings. They have little flexibility in their budgets to begin with, so when those unexpected costs come, of course they turn to borrowing.
We know that that is not the case for everyone. We know that there are very wealthy people whose incomes are about five times as much as those of the people in the bottom half of our income stratosphere. That is what the new clause and the amendment are about. There are people who can manage borrowing well within their budgets, but the reality of modern-day Britain is that there are many more people for whom borrowing in itself becomes the problem. We know that 25% of the UK’s lowest-income households are struggling with debt and experiencing that “chronically broke” feeling. It is little wonder that it causes so many health challenges.
It is not the traditional demons to which people who are struggling are now turning. We did make progress on payday lending—the so-called legal loan sharks—but that industry does not go away; it simply mutates. It simply finds new ways in which to prey on those people. The new clause and the amendment are about credit cards. I would wager that most Members have one credit card, if not two, in their pockets. Many of us may also have had that conversation with constituents who have come to us when they are about to be evicted because they cannot pay their rent and are behind with their costs. When we ask them, “Do you have any debt?” they say, “No.” When we ask, “Have you a credit card?” they say, “Of course.” Because credit cards are so ubiquitous in our society, we do not think of the danger that they can be.
That is why I tabled the new clause and the amendment. As the Minister knows, I am frustrated with the Financial Conduct Authority, which has been looking into credit cards but does not see the risk. This is where I become Cassandra, because the risk is all too obvious. Of course there are people for whom credit cards work well, but we know that a significant chunk of the British population are in persistent debt and that their credit cards are an integral part of that debt. They are paying about £2.50 in interest and charges for each £1 of their borrowing that they repay. That matters, because we stopped it happening in the payday lending industry by introducing a cap.
My simple question to the Minister is this. Why do we want to protect one group of consumers from that kind of persistent debt, but fail to learn the lessons when it comes to other types of product? The issue is not whether the credit involves a payday loan or a credit card; it is the credit itself, and the cost of the credit. I hope to convince the Minister of that.
When we look into consumer debt, we can already see just how damaging credit cards have been. At the end of 2016, consumer credit debt amounted to £236 billion, which is about 15% of total household debt, but it accounts for half the interest payments that are made each year. When the FCA conducted a survey of credit card debt, it found that 19% of consumers—one in five—paid just the interest rather than the repayment charges. What could be called “zombie debtors” had 5.1 million accounts. On average, it would take them more than 10 years to pay off their debt. They are stuck in debt because of their credit cards. Little wonder that 40% of adults say they sometimes struggle to make it to payday, and a third of them say that it is because they are making credit card repayments. Debt is breeding difficulty, and difficulty is breeding more debt for them and their communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such an impassioned speech about such a serious issue. I am sure that there are Members in all parts of the House who meet constituents in their surgeries and hear about their credit card debts, involving not just one card but, in some cases, two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight. It is the people with the most debt who are preyed on by those who give them access to additional cards, which only add to their burden.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is no surprise that she has done so much work on the link between debt and mental health issues.
We are already seeing in the credit card industry the same patterns that we saw in the payday lending industry. If we are honest, we must admit that it took us too long, as a House, to act in respect of that industry. So many of us saw people in our constituency surgeries who were losing their homes and people who were massively in debt because they had become stuck in payday loans that they were using to pay for basics such as rent and food. But when we did act, what a difference it made. Bringing in a cap on the cost of credit has led to an 86% reduction in the number of people going to citizens advice bureaux with problems caused by payday lending. So one question for us is what the consequences will be if we do not act on credit card lenders. The Minister may say to me that the credit card industry is completely different from the payday loan industry—that is what he said when we had an Adjournment debate about this—so let me try to convince him that the two are intertwined.
I see in my local community, as other Members may have seen, companies such as Vanquis, Aqua and Capital One—indeed, Vanquis is owned by Provident, which is a doorstep lending company—offering credit to people who have bad credit histories and driving them into the same level of debt as payday loans did. Indeed, the FCA’s data shows exactly that, which is why it is such a mystery to me that it does not choose to learn the lessons from the payday lending industry and act accordingly.
Someone who has an Aqua credit card with a monthly interest rate of 3.992%, has borrowed £1,000 and is only paying the minimum monthly payment will pay £480 in interest by the end of the first year. By the end of the second year, the figure will be nearly £1,000—as much as they borrowed, which is the cap that we have put on payday lending. By the end of the third year, bearing in mind that a big group of consumers get stuck in this way for 10 years, they will have paid back double what they owed. Such companies are targeting our communities in much the same way as the payday lending industry did. They are targeting people with insecure incomes, because they have seen a new market. As I said, this industry does not go away; it just mutates.
Citizens Advice’s recent research about insecure income shows us just how much of a problem there is. People with high levels of income volatility are also five times as likely as others to have accessed this form of high-cost credit to meet the essentials—to put food on their table, to put petrol in their car to get to work and to pay their rent. Those are not costs that they can cut back on but the costs of everyday living. People with volatile incomes are also more likely to be paying fees and charges on cards, as well as overdraft fees.
That is why it is frustrating that, from the get-go, the FCA ruled out capping the cost of credit on credit cards and so learning the lesson from payday lending. It thinks the answer is to ask people to pay back money earlier, as if they have the spare cash to do that. It is not a fair fight for individual consumers against credit card companies, just as it was not a fair fight against payday loan companies. That is why we should intervene to set a fair market and learn the lessons about capping.
My new clause 1 does something simple: it asks the new financial guidance and claims body to step in, because the FCA is not doing its job and looking after the interests of consumers. It is not recognising, as Cassandra does, the risk that is coming and acting to avoid it. It says that persistent debt is when somebody pays 100% in interest and charges on top of the amount to be repaid, but it is not applying its own rule to credit cards even though we have seen how effective it has been in the case of payday lending.
I ask the Economic Secretary to show the leadership that this issue needs and that I believe the House would support. If he says today that he will take a strong hand with the FCA and not let it wait years and years, watching our constituents get into consistent debt with credit cards, logbook loans or any other form of high-cost credit, he will have my backing. I have tabled my amendment and new clause to give him the opportunity to tell us that he gets it. The House does not want to wait another five or six years watching our constituents get into debt, as we did with payday lending. I am sure the Government would not want to be forced to cap the cost of credit, as we had to force them in that case, and I am sure that he is proud of the difference that capping the cost of credit for payday lending has made to millions of consumers in this country.
FCA data shows us that millions of credit card owners need our help and protection now, which is why I have tabled the new clause and amendment. I believe that there will be support for them, but I want to give the Economic Secretary the opportunity to do what I know he wants to do, which is to ensure that we do not leave it so long this time. I look forward to hearing what he says, and I hope that other Members will support my call, because frankly, there are too many people in our constituencies who need and deserve nothing less.
First, I should like to declare an interest as the current chair of the all-party parliamentary group on insurance and financial services. I welcome the Bill, because it will tackle some of the important issues that my constituents talk about. It includes a commitment to ban cold calling relating to pensions and to the creation of a single financial guidance body—an SFGB. I know that this approach also has the broad support of the insurance and financial services industry, but it is important that the SFGB should work with all stakeholders to fulfil its objective and of course ensure good consumer outcomes. With the Bill, we have an excellent opportunity to improve financial resilience by promoting early intervention to help to prepare people for income shocks and life events. These preparations include planning ahead for care and understanding the benefits of protection products such as income protection insurance, critical illness insurance and life insurance.
There is a lot in the Bill that I could talk about, but given the time constraints, I want specifically to speak against new clause 8, which seeks to put a duty on the Financial Conduct Authority to ban unsolicited direct approaches by claims management services. I agree with the Government that the Information Commissioner’s Office is best placed to implement any ban and that existing legislation means that data gained illegally is already restricted. However, I agree that there is an urgent need for reform relating to claims management companies.
Previously, there have been calls for the FCA to assume responsibility for CMCs, so the fact that the Government have taken action on this is to be warmly welcomed. The Association of British Insurers has stated:
“Confirmation of tougher regulation of claims management companies cannot come soon enough for people who are plagued by unsolicited calls and texts. Disreputable firms are fuelling a compensation culture that contributes to higher insurance costs for many.”
Last year alone, there was a total of 752 authorised personal injury CMCs, more than in any other claims sector, including PPI. Measures in the Bill will go some way towards tackling bad practice in the personal injury claims market, which has been costly for insurance companies, put up premiums for consumers and frequently delivered outcomes in which claimants’ interests were not put first.
Added to some of the measures in the forthcoming Civil Liability Bill, such as tackling the high frequency of whiplash claims, this Bill will help to ensure the success of the Government’s wider efforts to tackle these problem areas. It is therefore encouraging that the insurance industry has expressed confidence in the FCA’s more robust regulatory regime and its ability to properly oversee these firms, citing two significant benefits, both of which will play a vital role in addressing the problems associated with this sector.
First, a strong regime based on understanding the business models of individual CMCs will prevent firms that do not offer good value to consumers from operating. Secondly, personal accountability for senior managers of CMCs will ensure that when a firm struck off, its directors cannot simply resurface as a new CMC, as is currently happening. It is anticipated that, as a result of this change, consumers will be given more information about the services that CMCs offer and more transparency about the fee structure. It is therefore important that the improved regulation of CMCs should be implemented alongside the personal injury reform proposed in the Civil Liability Bill. It can only be good news for consumers when their interests are put above all others.
As I have said, this is an excellent Bill, but I would like to propose a couple of areas in which I think it could be strengthened, and I ask the Minister to take them into consideration when summing up. First, it would be useful if he clarified the exact scope of the services that the SFGB will provide for consumers. There is a great opportunity to look at how the Department for Work and Pensions could work with the financial services industry to make guidance a recognised norm and to look at ways to support interventions that could improve the retirement process, such as the introduction of a mid-life MOT.
Secondly, will the Minister provide a timeline for the introduction of the FSGB and tell us when the FCA will assume responsibility for CMCs? Swift action is necessary, particularly in relation to CMCs, given the drastic spike in claims relating to gastric illnesses by people who have been on holiday. It is no coincidence that this surge has coincided with CMCs preparing for the deadline for bringing PPI claims and the introduction of measures to tackle whiplash claim frequency.
The Opposition amendments to this part of the Bill are unnecessary. The Government are committed to banning cold calling in relation to pensions and by CMCs. Moreover, they and the SFGB will keep cold calling under review. If the Minister will give consideration in his summing up to the points I have made, I will have no hesitation in supporting the Government through the Bill’s remaining stages.
I rise to speak to the three amendments in my name. According to a recent Bank of England survey, the average level of household debt, excluding mortgages, is £8,000. While everybody should be able to access basic debt advice, people on low incomes with much higher levels of debt, at higher rates of interest, clearly need significant support. Unlike in the United States, it is difficult to work out with any certainty where such people are living in the UK, beyond relying on an individual to approach their local citizens advice bureau or another advice service.
At present, the new financial guidance body will not have access to data to allow for a detailed mapping of debt at a local level. Indeed, it will not have access to a full picture of the activity of banks and other lenders in our communities. There is no requirement on banks, payday lenders and other financial services providers to be fully transparent about the services in each of our constituencies—specifically where they lend, what rate they lend at, and the types of loan that they offer. Were that data available to public bodies, it would allow for the accurate mapping of who is lending and what is being loaned. Banks and other lenders do hold such data down to postcode level, and such data are released in the United States. Many British lenders that are active in the US are used to releasing that information, which allows public bodies to map the activities of banks and other lenders.
My amendments 1 and 2 would allow the single financial guidance body to facilitate the release of that information by lenders in an anonymised form so that we could know where debt is concentrated and what types of credit are used in different areas. That would allow for better, more strategic responses to the household debt crisis with which the House is familiar. The data would help to inform where to target the debt advice funding that the SFGB will dispense, encourage more engagement between mainstream lenders, and allow the community finance sector to scale up the provision of affordable credit in areas where there are specific problems. Indeed, such data would reveal market gaps and the communities excluded from mainstream credit.
Fair access to financial goods and services is a basic requirement for full engagement in modern society, but Thamesmead, an estate of 55,000 people in south-east London, has not been home to a mainstream bank branch for a long while. Charities report anecdotally that high-cost credit lenders such as doorstep or payday lenders are very active. More and more bank branches are being closed by the big banks, which is leaving whole communities, some in the poorest areas of our country, without a single mainstream bank branch. Thamesmead is not an isolated example.
At the same time, rumours persist that the big banks want to pull the plug on free cash machines. Which? has reported that over 200 communities in Britain already have poor ATM provision or no cash machines at all. The combination of a lack of access to cash machines and to mainstream bank branches could create the space for a much bigger increase in the activities of high-cost credit companies, doorstep or payday lenders or, worst of all, illegal loan sharks, as a response to the needs of people in such communities for short-term loans. We need to know where the other Thamesmeads are across the country so that charities, community banks and credit unions can be supported by the financial guidance body and other statutory bodies to target financial exclusion in such areas by signposting people to responsible financial providers.
In 2015, when considering this specific problem, the Financial Inclusion Commission, which was set up by the Government, argued for a much wider level of data disclosure to develop a greater understanding of the problem. It said specifically:
“If lenders were required to disclose data by postcode on credit applications and rejections, policymakers would be better able to understand the scale and shape of the low income credit gap.”
Since the financial crisis, banks and other lenders have withdrawn from higher-risk lending and raised the threshold for accessing mainstream credit. In turn, this has restricted the credit available to those with low credit scores, leaving them at the mercy of higher-cost lenders to bridge their income gap. Surely part of the long-term solution to the household debt crisis is to make it easier for low-cost credit providers and other alternatives.
It is true, as Ministers have previously suggested in Committee and in a letter to me, that there are other sources of data on debt. The Office for National Statistics and the Bank of England publish data on lending, but only at UK level—the data is not broken down by constituency or by area. StepChange, too, publishes some data on lending, as does the Money Advice Service, but the Minister might not be aware that it publishes only estimates of the number of people who are over-indebted.
I would not dream of criticising the Money Advice Service, but its data on lending does not go anywhere like far enough to meet the recommendations of the Financial Inclusion Commission. The Money Advice Service does not routinely collect information about the extent of debt problems at the most local level. Its last significant report was back in March 2016, and it set out estimates of the number of over-indebted households down to local authority level, not postcode level, which is what we need. The Money Advice Service data are estimates based on survey work, not actual individuals who take out loans.
I should be clear that some lending data is already released. The coalition Government, to their credit, required the British Bankers Association, which is now UK Finance, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders voluntarily to publish some data by postcode, primarily to try to tackle the challenges that small businesses were facing when accessing credit.
There are problems with the data. For example, it does not include high-cost, short-term credit—payday lenders. Additionally, it does not disclose lending levels or rates at postcode level. Some details of loan applications and credit providers’ registers are not released either, so a full picture of the level of lending at a postcode level has not yet been able to emerge.
At the moment, the data is released voluntarily. Legal underpinning is needed so that more statutory bodies working in this field can more easily negotiate improvements in data. Specifically in this context, for example, the single financial guidance body should be able better to negotiate the release of the data that it needs.
I say this gently to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who will be very helpful to me tomorrow, but efforts to re-engage the Treasury in getting UK Finance to improve the usefulness of the data its members release have not had much success recently. At the very least, I hope he will be willing to join me in meeting national groups operating in this field to hear their concerns about the data, and perhaps he might be willing to use his leverage to get at least small improvements in that area.
In the United States, the Community Reinvestment Act means that banks and other lenders have to report what they are lending, where to and at what rate. The disclosure requirements are critical as they enable independent, informed assessments of what the banks are doing. Crucially, they keep the banks honest. Before the CRA, access to credit was scarce in deprived areas, and that lack of access contributed to and prolonged the decline and deprivation in such communities.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but does he agree that the disclosure of such data would highlight the hotspots in communities such as the ones that we represent, and would therefore allow the Department for Work and Pensions to put in the necessary resources so that jobcentres and other advice bureaux can act as a preventive measure so that we do not see more of our constituents with little chance of getting out of the vicious circle of high-cost borrowing?
My hon. Friend makes a good point.
In the United States, federal banking regulators regularly assess how banks are meeting local credit needs. Their assessments affect the way in which the banks are allowed to expand, merge, do acquisitions and so on. Banks can get credits towards their assessments if they invest in community banks or credit unions. Not surprisingly, both the community banking movement and the credit union movement are in even better health in the US than they are here.
Santander, HSBC and Barclays all operate in the United States, where they release far more data on lending, down to postcode level, than they do here. So surely the questions for this House are: why are they not willing to do that here, too; and, as I believe, should they be forced to do so? Last October, Santander announced an $11 billion, five-year settlement on lending and community development in eastern parts of the United States, which is the market in which it operates. That represented a 50% increase in its Community Reinvestment Act-related activity. No such equivalent increase has been announced here in the UK. The Community Reinvestment Act has cross-party support in the US, being backed by Republicans and Democrats alike, including for its data disclosure requirements. If Ministers are not prepared to accept my amendments, I would wish, with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, to press amendment 1 to a Division. These amendments are not onerous. Banks and other lenders record this data, and although a little work would be needed so that the information could be released in a useful format, a similar system works particularly well in the United States. In turn, the disclosure of lending details could help the single financial guidance body to make more effective choices.
I shall deal briefly with amendment 31. One key challenge for the single financial guidance body will be, as we all know, to help those who need loans, for whatever reason, to access the cheapest products—those offered by credit unions fall into that category. Surely the SFGB should be mapping where credit unions exist and what further action can be taken to promote the take-up of their services by those who are most in need. Credit unions have very low administration costs. They simply do not have the megabucks of a major bank or a payday lender’s marketing department, so many of those who most need the support that credit unions can offer are often unaware of the services they provide. Surely another challenge for the House is to work out how we help credit unions to make more information available about the products on offer. I know that Ministers are sympathetic to efforts to expand the credit union sector, so I ask them to give specific attention to thinking about what further steps can be taken to help the credit union movement to expand and to support the SFGB in achieving that aim.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about credit unions. Does he agree that one key aspect of trying to promote them is improving their professionalism, IT and this information, and using the potential for workplace credit unions? Should we not try to bring this through the workplace and payroll?
I agree with that point, which is why it has been encouraging over the past 10 to 15 years to see Departments beginning to do their bit to encourage the workplace take-up of credit unions. I hope the Economic Secretary may be able to tell me that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will follow this trend soon, but the point about trying to increase professionalism is well made. Again, it would be good to hear commitments from Ministers that some of the problems that credit unions face due to poor regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority will be dealt with.
I apologise for intervening again, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was a director of a credit union in Staffordshire, but unfortunately it went under because the regulation from the FCA simply meant that it became unviable, because the authority did not understand the operating model. I therefore very much agree that the FCA has a big role to play, along with the Government, in making sure that credit unions are sustainable, because they offer a hope for constituents who would otherwise use high-cost lending.
My hon. Friend amplifies the point I was making. One last point to make is that there is a need for legislative change to allow credit unions, in particular, to offer loans for cars and—
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman comes to his last point, there seems to be a lack of understanding generally in the Chamber about what happens at this stage in a Bill. I cannot put a time limit on speeches; this is Report stage. We have two groups of amendments to go through, and we have until 6 o’clock. Many questions have been asked, and Members will expect the Minister to have some time to answer them.
If we go on as we have done for the last two hours, there will be no debate on the second group of amendments. It will not be up to me to explain to Luciana Berger why she does not get to make her speech on her amendment in the next group. Every minute that people take in this House takes away from another colleague. Of course, there are people who prefer to hear the sound of their own voice, who only want to hear their own arguments and who will not give time for others, but I am warning now that if speeches take more than three minutes, we will get to a stage whereby the second group of amendments will not be heard. I cannot stop Gareth Thomas finishing his speech—he can take as long as he likes, as far as the Chair is concerned—but I am sure that he will have a view to helping his colleagues.
You make a salient point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been sitting here for two hours, so I agreed with a lot of what you said.
I am glad that we are finally concluding our consideration of the Bill. I rise to speak to amendment (a) to new clause 9, as well to new clause 7, amendment (a) to amendment 10 and amendment 34. The Liberal Democrats welcome the amendments that the Government have tabled, but we believe that they do not go far enough.
The Bill as introduced in the other place had three major flaws. First, the single financial guidance body had no explicit function to protect consumers. Secondly, the Government missed an opportunity to ban cold calling by claims management companies, as they had promised to do in their manifesto. The ban should also have extended to other financial products. Thirdly, there were no safeguards to ensure that people received financial guidance before they accessed or transferred their pension benefits.
I pay tribute to my Liberal Democrat colleague in the other place, Lord Sharkey, whose amendments to the Bill paved the way for the concessions that we have today. I know that he and others from across the political divide have been lobbying Ministers intensely behind the scenes. It would have been nice if the concessions had come earlier in the proceedings, but there we go.
My support for the concessions is not absolute. In particular, under clause 34, claims management companies must act as though all UK phone numbers are registered with the Telephone Preference Service. As the House will be aware, however, the TPS has proven to be somewhat ineffectual. The Information Commissioner’s Office received more than 11,000 reports of cold calls from people on the TPS register last year. We believe that the Financial Conduct Authority has more teeth to enforce a ban on cold calling by claims management companies. For that reason, we support new clause 8, which would put Lord Sharkey’s amendments back into the Bill. The other amendments to new clause 9 would have a similar effect, allowing the FCA to police the ban on pensions cold calling.
Government new clause 9 allows Ministers to ban pensions cold calling and, if they do not, they must lay a statement before Parliament each year. Although I would love to name and shame Ministers every year until a ban comes into effect, I would rather that they just got on with it. Amendment (a) to the new clause would make it a legal requirement for the Government to ban cold calling, rather than just an optional extra.
New clause 4 allows the Government to ban cold calling in relation to any other financial services product after receiving advice from the SFGB. I welcome the amendment, but Lord Sharkey and I are worried that the SFGB’s duty to report on cold calling “from time to time” is too weak. I have tabled amendment (a) to amendment 10 to ask the SFGB to publish its report on cold calling at least every two years. This duty should not fall quietly by the wayside.
I also encourage the Government to accept amendment (b) to new clause 9, which was tabled by Frank Field. As my colleague, Lord Sharkey, pointed out in the other place, a ban on cold calling must also include a ban on the commercial use of data obtained by cold calling. This gives the Information Commissioner two bites at the cherry to punish companies flouting the ban.
I now turn to the two amendments that I tabled on income shocks. They would require the SFGB to improve the capability of the public to plan for sudden reductions in income. The issue was brought to my attention by the former Pensions Minister, Professor Steve Webb, and the Chartered Insurance Institute, to which I am very grateful. Too many people are unprepared for a sudden fall in income. The 2015 financial capability survey found that 26% of working-age adults have no savings to fall back on and that a further 29% have less than £1,000 saved. There are many reasons why income shocks could occur. Money Advice Service research from 2016 found that nearly three in four households receive an unexpected bill every year. One third of households have had to make an unexpected car repair or replacement, at a cost of £1,300 on average.
The “Improving Lives” Green Paper revealed that 1.8 million employees have a long-term sickness absence of four weeks or more in a year, yet statutory sick pay is worth less than three hours’ work a day on the national living wage. This problem is made worse because, as the FCA has noted, people with serious illnesses often have poor access to financial services, particularly insurance.
Amendments considered in the other place also touched on this issue. In response, the Government said that public preparedness for income shocks would be an aspect of the money guidance function. Although I welcome that commitment, I would like the Minister to go further. The Bill contains no specific direction for the body to improve preparedness for income shocks or any mechanism to measure the progress of the body in this regard.
The SFGB’s focus will be pulled in every direction. How will the Government convey to the SFGB the strategic priorities for the coming year, and how will Parliament and the public be able to scrutinise and evaluate that work? The Government have finally listened to the arguments made on these Benches and in the other place. I thank them for doing so, but they must now go the distance. They must take robust action to end the scourge of cold calling and protect millions of vulnerable people from sudden income shocks.
I apologise for missing the earlier part of the proceedings; I was chairing a debate in Westminster Hall.
I want briefly to voice my support for amendments 8 and 9, to which I have added my name, and also for new clause 8, in my name, which effectively repeats amendment 42 as proposed by Lord Sharkey in the other place. As Members will know, that amendment was withdrawn on the solid understanding of a promise by the Minister in the Lords who said that her officials were working through the detail of a ban on cold calling. She went on to say that the Government would bring forward amendments to this House to implement that ban. Plainly, they have not done so.
I am not quite sure why the Government have backtracked on what seemed to be such an obvious and solid promise. It might have seemed that focusing on the role of the Information Commissioner and Ofcom was the easy option, but, with all due respect to Craig Tracey, the kind of cold calling that innocent people are being subjected to every day is actually a cold, calculated business strategy; it is not only an issue about the misuse of personal data, important though that may be.
This Bill is supposed to be designed to ensure that people are protected and that the financial decisions that they make are taken after careful consideration and access to independent guidance. Why on earth are the Government reneging on their promise to eliminate cold calling for commercial purposes, the aim of which is to bounce people into decision making and deny them the time for proper, careful consideration and access to good guidance? New clauses 3 and 4 simply will not do the trick. People may well see them as a deception—an attempt by the Government to fool people into thinking that they are taking action when they are not really doing so at all. Everyone knows that it is a complete nuisance and underhand practice designed to entrap consumers.
Let me spell it out: I welcome the action that will be taken to try to protect those whose pension pots are the target of tricksters and speculators; but we also need to ban the claims management companies that phone people up to tell them about the accident that they have been involved in or the compensation they are entitled to for the tummy bug that wrecked their holiday. Those companies are nothing more than scam merchants, and this place should exist to expose them and put an end to their shoddy practices. Nothing else will convince the public that this Government are genuine when the Prime Minister talks about being on the side of the little person, rather than vested interests. We should demonstrate whose side we are on tonight. I want to hear the Minister say that he is going to put an end to this practice once and for all, and I hope that my own Front Benchers, having reflected on the situation, might indicate that they are willing to put further pressure on Ministers with regard to new clause 8.
I am here to support the amendments in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), which are complementary. I have also put my name to amendments 1, 2 and 31 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West.
Why do the poorest in our society have to pay more for the same services as the wealthiest? Why do they have to pay more for the same gas and electricity? Why do they have to pay more interest for the same loans? Why is credit more difficult to access and at much higher interest for the poorest in society? The structure of our society is such that growing inequality is in-built, because those with capital can further accrue it through cheap finance and lower costs, while those without capital cannot pursue their dreams through the high costs and limited availability of debt finance. Today we have an opportunity to make a small step in reversing that trend, casting light on the practices of high-cost credit providers and enshrining the duty to ensure that information about credit unions is provided by the single financial guidance body. The very mission of credit unions is to provide low-cost finance to people who are deemed high risk by traditional institutions, and they are owned by their own members.
Martin Luther King said:
“it is obvious that if a man is to redeem his spiritual and moral ‘lag,’ he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s’ of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.”
Today we have the opportunity to pass these most excellent amendments and make a step towards bridging that social and economic gulf, not just because it makes sense in terms of financial justice, but on a spiritual and moral level.
The United States acted 40 years ago on the spiritual and moral lag that Dr King talked about, by introducing the Community Reinvestment Act. The Act was established to ensure that banking needs were met and monitored in low-income neighbourhoods, which had seen a retreat of traditional banking services and rising interest—a situation that we have faced in this country for far too long. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West gave an excellent explanation of the Community Reinvestment Act, so I will not repeat it. The banks in America have responded to the Community Reinvestment Act by establishing plans to service those communities and ensure that their services are not restricted. Banks in the US with community investment plans not only commit capital at affordable rates for loans, but invest in community development.
The amendments are needed before we can implement a community reinvestment Act. Without the disclosure of financial data and a statutory duty to promote credit unions, we cannot achieve community reinvestment by the large banks. The amendments are a necessary but insufficient precursor to getting real financial justice for communities that struggle to access affordable credit, but today we can make the first step to ensuring financial justice and legislating for a full community reinvestment Act. I hope that the Treasury Bench takes on board these excellent amendments and responds to them in kind.
I want to speak briefly to new clause 2. While I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you have many years to go before you reach your own mid-life point, I am sure you will understand that we could all use a bit of advice at times—even though those of us with six decades or so behind us think it our duty to pass on pearls of wisdom to the younger generation.
There is plenty of talk about young people and their finances—about how they can manage their cash and get on the property ladder, which is of course impossible for many these days. This Bill does something to help young people, and I am pleased about that, but what it fails to do is help those in the mid-life stage—people who may have saved a bit, joined a pension scheme, or bought an ISA or two. More importantly, it does nothing to help those who have done none of those things and simply do not know who or where to turn to when planning their later life.
Although some excellent initiatives have passed through this House, such as Labour’s policy of auto-enrolment into workplace pensions, there have been a number of failures, not least around the issue of ’50s-born women and their state pension age, which was extended by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition by several years, condemning many such people to poverty when they should have been enjoying retirement. We could have hoped that the experience of thousands of women left facing difficulty and uncertainty would act as a salutary lesson to everyone else that they cannot really depend on Governments to deliver the security they need in retirement, but need to find ways to make provision for themselves.
People are now looking at their expected pension provision, if they have any, and then panicking about how they are going to afford to live when they retire, or are faced with the reality that they will have to work beyond retirement age in order to make ends meet. We also have people who have lived their lives just getting by—who have never been able to buy their own home and now do not know how they will afford their rent once they retire. Uncertainty is very much the name of the game in the 21st century, so we have a responsibility in Parliament to make provision to ensure that everyone, whether they can afford it or not, is able to work out how they will live when they are no longer receiving a wage. This new clause to provide targeted information to people from the age of 50 delivers that.
We all know that people can now expect to have several jobs throughout their career, and redundancy, zero-hours contracts and insecure work are clouds hanging over millions of people every day. Some people in their 50s find that they need to retrain for another role, but many do not know where to begin or where to get to the facts. This body, backed by the right promotional campaigns, including multimedia, could be a lifeline for those who ignore their money problems. I am, however, concerned about the capacity of the new body. We need to guarantee that it can expand if we are to reach many more people with guidance. I am yet to be convinced that that capacity will be there. I hope that the Minister will say something about how it can expand. I also hope that he can extend its services to provide the mid-life advice that people need.
I, too, want to support my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). I hope that the FCA will look speedily at the total cap on the rent-to-own sector, with its inflated prices for goods and roll-up charges.
I am pleased that the Bill aims to ensure that members of the public can access good-quality, free-to-client impartial financial guidance, pensions advice and debt advice. Clauses 10 and 11, which relate to my amendment 42, require the single financial guidance body to set and enforce standards across the debt advice partners it commissions. I think that everyone agrees that the body will have to have regard to standards of practice for the organisations it commissions, but the respective roles of the single financial guidance body and the FCA should not create uncertainty. There may have to be additional requirements for organisations that it commissions.
However, an independent report to the Debt Advice Steering Group run by the Money Advice Service says that the quality assurance process for the larger debt advice charities should be authorised by the FCA. The concern is that any such new and additional requirements from the single financial guidance body should not replicate the requirements faced by the debt advice organisations from their regulator, the FCA. Having had a contract from the Legal Aid Board where we had three auditors in at one time, I was tempted just to throw the files into the middle of the room and say “Fight over them.” The auditing ought to be in the same capacity, and it should be done under one audit that covers all if there are the same requirements.
The body’s standard-setting powers also need to be matched with principles of good regulation, and conditions ought to be proportionate to the benefits they will bring. Amendment 42 would make that plain. Ensuring that the new body’s standard-setting powers have regard to proportionality would smooth its functioning, guarantee assurance and stop the uncertainty as to whether the FCA or the single financial guidance body has primacy.
I want to speak to amendments 8 and 9, which, unlike new clause 4, would lead to an outright ban on cold calling by claims management companies.
Claims management companies make and send around 51 million personal injury-related calls and texts each year. Such calls are not only a nuisance; they exploit vulnerable people. It is worth reiterating that solicitors are already banned from cold calling in personal injury claims, but the fact that claims management companies are not risks bringing the sector into disrepute. Cold calling can generate the false perception that obtaining compensation is easy, even where there is no injury. It can put pressure on people to pursue unmeritorious or, at the worst, fraudulent claims, which they otherwise may not do. It may never have been someone’s intention to make a claim, but if they receive a text promising them thousands of pounds, it might seem very tempting.
There is an important context. The Government are proposing to reform compensation rules for whiplash claims and to increase the small claims limit in road traffic accidents from £1,000 to £5,000, and in public liability and employers’ liability claims from £1,000 to £2,000. The Government say that that is to cut down on fraudulent claims and to bring down insurance premiums. However, many, including myself, are concerned that that will have a significant impact on access to justice, with people not being able to access proper legal advice in such claims.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a total ban on cold calling, including from claims management companies, would be a much more proportionate response to insurance industry claims of fraud within claims management, and that that should be looked at before any action that will impact on innocent victims of road traffic accidents and employer injuries?
I absolutely agree. Surely a better solution to this issue is to have an outright ban on cold calling in personal injury claims by claims management companies, which is exactly what amendments 8 and 9 would do.
New clause 4 gives the single financial guidance body the ability to advise the Government if it considers a ban on cold calling by CMCs to be necessary. If the Government receive such advice, the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to impose such a ban. However, the Bill does not compel the single financial guidance body to give such advice in relation to cold calling; nor are the Government required to act if they receive advice.
Although the Government have promised decisive action from the outset, I am concerned that the Bill is filled with ifs, buts and maybes and still falls far short of a ban on cold calling. Amendment 8 would commit the single financial guidance body to advise on how best to implement a ban within 12 months of the Bill being passed, and amendment 9 would require the Government to act outright and impose the ban. A ban on cold calling commands support from over two thirds of the population. We must respond to that and strengthen the Bill by agreeing to amendments 8 and 9, to see through a complete and necessary ban on cold calling.
I am acutely conscious of the need not only to get on to the second group of amendments but to respond to the amendments in the first group. I will do my best to address all of them, and I will give myself five minutes to do so.
I will start with new clause 7 and amendment 34, tabled by Stephen Lloyd. The body is already expected to develop a national strategy to improve people’s financial capability, including ensuring that consumers improve their financial resilience, so the Government believe that the amendments are not necessary.
On amendment 39, tabled by Neil Gray, the Bill already explicitly states that one of the body’s objectives is to support people in vulnerable circumstances when exercising its functions. That was agreed after discussion in the Lords. The Government think that for the body to have specially trained advisers and guidance risks being too prescriptive on the face of the Bill. Defining “vulnerable circumstances” could narrow the body’s remit and prevent it from addressing other vulnerabilities in the future.
On amendment 40, we believe it is important that people understand the difference between information, advice and guidance, but the improvement of people’s financial capability continues to be a focus of the new body, under its money guidance function.
On amendment 41, tabled by my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt, although the new body will provide general information and guidance to people about the benefits of saving towards a retirement income, it will not provide financial advice, but he makes a compelling case about the opportunities to use equity release products. Consumers considering equity release should seek independent financial advice, and the single financial guidance body’s role in this case will be to signpost to such advisers but not to give advice itself.
On amendment 31, tabled by Gareth Thomas, the Government have already done a great deal to support credit unions, and I look forward to further discussions with him in Westminster Hall tomorrow, where some linked issues can be raised. I am happy to meet him and the representatives that he suggested. The new body will continue this work by providing information about credit unions’ services through its money guidance function, which means, I believe, that the amendment is unnecessary.
On amendment 42, tabled by Yvonne Fovargue, we do not expect the standards to be too onerous on delivery partners. In setting its standards, the body and the FCA will ensure that conditions are proportionate with the benefits that they are expected to bring. In addition, the body and the FCA will consider whether the standards sit well with the FCA’s debt advice and authorisation process.
I now turn to the issues of high-cost credit, to which Stella Creasy and the hon. Member for Harrow West drew the House’s attention. I think the hon. Lady knows that there is a great deal of alignment between us on some of these matters. I have written to her and I would invite her to meet me and the FCA to examine her continuing concerns around high-cost credit. There was a two-year study on credit cards, whose outcome I know she is not satisfied with. Another FCA study is to be published next month. The core function of the single financial guidance body is to deliver impartial support on money matters, and we expect its efforts to be focused on delivering to a high quality. I believe the FCA has a role to play in that and I am happy to continue to have a meaningful dialogue with the hon. Lady on that. Moreover, UK Finance already publishes statistics on the geographic distribution of mortgage lending, personal loans and small and medium-sized enterprise lending by major UK lenders. We think, therefore, that placing this issue on the face of the Bill is unnecessary.
On amendment 2, the body and the FCA have different roles and functions, and the FCA’s role is to gather information to fulfil its functions as the regulator. I am very conscious of the need to move on to the next group of amendments. I have not done justice to all the speeches on this group, but I am happy to give way.
In the spirit of being able to get on to the next group, we welcome the ban on pension cold calling. We have sought to extend that ban to all cold calling. If the Minister is prepared to have discussions at the next stages, and before the Bill concludes its passage through Parliament, we would be prepared not to oppose Government amendment 11 or to move our amendments 8 and 9.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I acknowledge his kind words, which are reciprocated from our Front Bench. We continue to have a meaningful dialogue on the outstanding concerns that exist between us.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I always listen very carefully to what he says. We have made provision for additional bans to take place very quickly, and if my optimism is misplaced, I would expect the body to act. I will continue to have a deep dialogue with the right hon. Gentleman on these matters.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 4 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 9