Part of Financial Services and Markets Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 7th December 2022.
I rise to add my wholehearted support to the comments of my hon. Friend Emma Hardy, to new clause 7, to my Front Bench, and indeed to the points made by Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: many of us have had concerns about the FCA and its ability to represent consumers for many years, and it is good to see that work being done.
I shall focus on new clause 28. The bridge of the Titanic received seven warnings about icebergs. It was told exactly where the iceberg was, but on hearing those warnings it varied the direction of travel by one or two degrees yet kept going full steam ahead. The visible iceberg was 50 to 100 feet high and 200 to 400 feet long, yet still they ploughed into it. It does not take a rocket scientist to recognise that we have a personal debt crisis in this country with a cost of living crisis, that our constituents are struggling because there is too much month at the end of their money, and that those who make their money from those who are struggling are licking their lips.
This Bill is about financial regulation yet one of the most pernicious legal loan sharks is the buy now, pay later industry. The pool in which they fish is wide. This country has £205 billion-worth of consumer credit lending to account for, up £482 million on the previous month. People are borrowing not just to pay Peter and Paul, but to pay for their mortgages, to put food on their table, petrol in their car and clothes on their children’s backs. Let me be clear: I do not stand here with a hair shirt on saying nobody should borrow, but in that environment, when our constituents are being exploited by these companies, it is absolutely right to regulate them and protect our constituents, yet that is not what is happening here.
For nearly three years we have been warning the Government on the need to act on legal loans harks and the buy now, pay later companies—those warnings that came to the bridge of the Titanic. The Klarnas, the Laybuys and the Clearpays are the companies whose names we see when we go to check out online. They account for 6% of all online spending in the UK, and that is expected to double in the next two years. High thousands of reputable retailers have them on their websites. They have them not to help people to spread their payments as the companies claim, but because people spend on average 30% to 40% more if they use buy now, pay later.
But what people are telling us very clearly is that they are spending money they do not have. A quarter of all buy now, pay later users have been unable to pay for at least one essential because they are having to make repayments on buy now, pay later products. Some 25% of users have also missed a payment or made a late payment on a buy now, pay later loan in the last 12 months.
In the three years we have been warning, urging, holding votes in this place and begging the Government to regulate those companies, the companies have exploded their interest across the UK. Companies such as Klarna are now worth billions of pounds because they can exploit our constituents. Two and a half years ago, the FCA said, “Yes, we should regulate these companies.” They exploit a loophole. Officially they do not charge interest, so they are not regulated by consumer credit.
What does that mean in practice? It does not just mean that right now our constituents are better protected if they take out a payday loan; it means they have nobody to complain to. They cannot go to the ombudsman if they feel they have been mis-sold this type of credit, and many constituents and consumers are saying they are being mis-sold. They did not realise that they had used buy now, pay later because it is so pervasive on websites. It means that consumers are dependent on the companies themselves, because they are not regulated, to do their own affordability checks, which is literally like asking turkeys whether they think Christmas is a good idea. It also means that when consumers get into debt they can only turn to these companies again for help.
For retailers, this is where the money is being made: the 30% to 40% extra that people are spending that they do not have. It is worth recognising who is using these companies. This is not about fast fashion anymore. People are buying food using buy now, pay later. The average age of users is my age, 44—I am actually 45, but there you go. One in 10 people using the service are buying basic items such as toiletries and food. We can now get Klarna on Deliveroo and Zilch on the Domino’s Pizza app.
For years, we have been forwarding proposals to regulate and the Government have accepted proposals to regulate, yet regulation has not come. We have had consultation after consultation. Indeed, the companies themselves now say they think they should be regulated. They all say, as they do, “It’s the others who are the bad apples. We’re not the bad guys; it’s somebody else.” Where have we heard that before? Where have we seen this behaviour before—dragging people into debt so they keep having to borrow from you because they cannot go to anyone else? We have seen that from the Wongas, the BrightHouses and the Amigo Loans of this world. Time and again, high-cost credit companies have plagued our constituents and we have been too slow to tackle them. Why have we been too slow? Because of the idea about unintended consequences.
The iceberg is looming. We can see it in the water. We can already see the numbers of people who are getting into debt. This time last year, StepChange reported that 10% of all adults were holding one or more buy now, pay later debts. A survey out today says that 40% of our constituents will put their Christmas spending on buy now, pay later. To wait another year is unforgivable in a cost of living crisis. New clause 28 would bring in the protection of the ombudsman, so that at the very least when people come to our constituency surgeries there is somebody who can take up their case.
The Minister ignored my question before, using time as the reason why. He has to do better than that. We have to understand what is being done to urgently tackle the damage that these companies have done. I can tell him that I heard all these stories before in relation to legal loan sharks, and we still have thousands of people in debt because of Wonga. Let us not make the same mistakes again. Let us regulate the buy now, pay later lenders and make sure that this Christmas does not turn into a terrible January for all our constituents.