My Lords, Amendment 178 concerns continuous payment authorities. This is an issue that I raised during the passage of the Financial Services Act 2012. Continuous payment authorities are a recurring payment mechanism involving a debit or credit card where the debtor gives his or her card to the company and they contact the bank. Unlike direct debits or standing orders, this allows a firm to take regular payments from a customer’s bank account without having to seek express authority for each payment. When I made this point to the Minister, the noble Lord Lord Newby said that,
“abuse of the CPA is one of the most concerning practices of payday lenders”.—[ Official Report , 28/11/12, col. 235.]
Consumer groups, the Law Society and the OFT have expressed ongoing concerns about this issue. The real issue is that the debtor—the customer—is not in full charge of their affairs. The continuous payment authorities do not offer the same guarantee as direct debits or standing orders. In effect, they give the company authority about how much is taken from an individual’s account and when. This is hugely important to those who take out payday loans, whose financial position is tenuous. Unlike direct debits and standing orders, there is no written communication between the individual and the bank. This situation has led to the banks reviewing up to 30,000 complaints from customers since 2009. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, quite a number of those will be eligible for compensation. That authority has said that many of the banks or providers are not cancelling recurring payments to payday loan firms.
Last December, the OFT warned that businesses should not lock customers into CPA traps because people did not know what they were signing up to. The OFT opened formal investigations last November into several payday lenders over aggressive debt collection practices. Their progress report focused on concerns regarding unfair or improper practices:
“Using the CPA in a manner which is unreasonable or disproportionate or excessive in failing to have proper regard to the possibility that a debtor is in financial difficulties”.
“seeking payment before income or other funds may reasonably be expected to reach the account”.
The Financial Ombudsman Service was seeing 50 new cases a month at the end of last year. My information is that that number has increased since.
Such blatantly unfair treatment of consumers should not be restricted to a matter of guidance. The new clause that I am proposing ensures that debtors are informed about their rights and that only the debtor may cancel or vary a CPA in communication with the bank. Furthermore, the debtor’s bank is obliged to comply with the debtor’s instructions, as they do with direct debits and standing orders. I suggest to the Minister that in these austere times we ought to legislate to protect such debtors and to ensure a level playing field between the lender and the debtor.