Moved by Lord McKenzie of Luton
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—“( ) As soon as is practical after the completion of the transfer schemes referred to in subsection (7), the single financial guidance body must produce a business plan which must—(a) outline its business plans for a minimum of three years;(b) follow consultation;(c) be informed by a comprehensive assessment of consumer need; and(d) be updated annually.”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 2 and 3. Amendment 1 is a probing amendment designed to give the Government the opportunity both to expand on the process of creating the SFGB and, more importantly, to offer a greater understanding of the intended scale of the operation initially and going forward.
The amendment requires the production of a three-year business plan as soon as possible after the transfer schemes are completed. It requires that this be done following consultation, updated annually and informed by a comprehensive assessment of consumer need. At present, there appears to be no formal requirement in the Bill for there to be a business plan, although the response to the consultation of this month reminds us of the proposed publication of a framework document, which will provide further details of the governance arrangements under which the body will operate, including requirements for preparing, securing approval for and publishing its corporate and annual business plan. We know that SFGB will not be operational before autumn 2018, but perhaps the Minister might take the opportunity to expand on the timetable and say when the framework document is expected to be published.
As things stand—and we are grateful for a further meeting with officials on Monday—we have no information about the timing or sequencing of the transfer processes in Schedule 2, or certainty about what even the initial corporate and business plans might look like. Neither the response to the consultation, the impact assessment or the policy statement give any definitive information about the proposed initial scale of the operations of SFGB. Will SFGB have to commence within a funding envelope that reflects the existing arrangements? When will the SFGB levy components be set and how will they be consulted on? To what extent is it planned that efficiency savings arising from the amalgamation will be made available to the new body or applied to a reduction in the levies?
Is it envisaged that the Secretary of State will issue any initial directions or guidance to the SFGB in connection with the set-up arrangements? What parameters are to be given to the chair and chief executive on their appointment? At what stage in the process will they be in a position to influence the starting position of the new body?
There is a requirement in the Bill to make services available to those most in need. What initial assessment has been made of what this means in practice? Will the Minister outline for us how the transition is to be organised from the existing position to the introduction of the new body, and how smooth signposting can be secured?
Going forward, the NDPB will not be able to carry any reserves. So what will happen to the reserves and cash surpluses of MAS, which at March 2016 amounted to nearly £10 million—although they may have reduced since? Will these be available to the new body?
We know that MAS is to be dissolved, presumably at a point when a transfer scheme to the SFGB has been completed. Is it anticipated that any residual assets will be available at this point? If so, to whom will they accrue?
The landscape is changing for pensions and money advice. On pensions, we see the growth of auto-enrolment, provider signposting and pension freedoms; on money advice, the growth of those struggling with high levels of over-indebtedness and negligible savings. They amount to nearly 23% of the UK adult population— 11.6 million consumers. The Bill may have a technical framework to deal with all this, but we are seeking to understand how it is to be resourced to meet these challenges.
Amendments 2 and 3 are minor matters. Amendment 2 relates to the non-executive members of the NDPB. At present, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that a person does not have a conflict of interest before being appointed. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to be so satisfied also from time to time in future. I think this is a fairly routine approach to these matters that would not cut across any obligation on members to declare their interests in the usual way.
Amendment 3 deals with executive member appointments. Under paragraph 6 of Schedule 1, the chief executives and other executives must be appointed before the SFGB provides services to the public. The amendment requires that this also must be the case before any of the Schedule 2 transfers are put into effect.
We are seeking to understand the scale of this body and how it will look. At the moment, we are lacking a lot of information and we hope that the Minister can help us on this matter. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 1, and remind the Committee of the interest I declared at Second Reading as president of the Money Advice Trust, the national charity that provides free debt advice to individuals and small businesses through the National Debtline and the Business Debtline.
Amendment 1 corrects a notable omission in the Bill. Although the Bill requires the SFGB, as one would expect, to produce an annual report on its activities each year, there is no such provision for it to publish its business plan. Amendment 1 rectifies this quite effectively—and, perhaps more importantly, requires the body to consult on the preparation of this plan.
The Government have stated their intention that the SFGB should work in a consultative and collaborative way. Indeed, there are references to working with others elsewhere in the Bill. Amendment 1 would simply embed this consultative approach in the organisation, from the business plan down, and help set the appropriate culture in what will be, after all, a new organisation. I hope that the Minister will agree that this is a helpful amendment and give it serious consideration.
My Lords, I shall also comment on Amendment 1, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. I am not quite sure that I understand clearly everything it is trying to achieve.
I agree that to outline the business plans for a minimum of three years is a sensible move. Indeed, if that is not done and there is no requirement to outline the business plans, it is quite possible that those plans will not be adequately prepared. If they are prepared, it should also be clearer what efficiencies and savings could be achieved resulting from the merger of the three bodies. It is rather disappointing that the Government could say only that the costs and charges to the levies could be looked at and savings might be found in future, but in the short term the total charges to the levies would be roughly equivalent to what they are today. Perhaps the requirement to produce business plans would make it clearer where savings and efficiencies could be derived.
I am also not quite sure that the noble Lord’s amendment passes the necessary clarity test. In proposed new paragraph (b), “follow consultation” is a bit vague. What consultation and with whom? Proposed new paragraph (c) says it must,
“be informed by a comprehensive assessment of consumer need”.
Who provides such assessment, and in what detail? It is almost open ended. While I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s amendment, I could not support it in its present form.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for tabling these amendments on the establishment of the body, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and my noble friend Lord Trenchard for their contributions. The approach we have taken to the legislation is to create a high-level framework that enables the body to be responsive in its focus. I welcome this opportunity to talk in more detail about the transition from the existing services and how the body will operate going forward.
Amendment 1 seeks to specify requirements that must be met in relation to the single financial guidance body’s business plans. Those requirements would be that business plans should cover a forward period of a minimum of three years and be updated annually; plans should be informed by an assessment of consumer need; and plans should be subject to public consultation.
The Department for Work and Pensions’ arm’s-length bodies are required to produce corporate strategies covering a forward period of three years. Corporate strategies must incorporate a detailed business plan for the first year. The business plan is then updated annually and discussed with the sponsor department before sign-off by the body’s board. Corporate strategies and annual business plans are published and placed in the Library of both Houses. These requirements reflect Her Majesty’s Treasury guidance that applies to all arm’s-length bodies across government. As for other Department for Work and Pensions-sponsored bodies, these requirements will be written into the framework document that will be developed in the run-up to launch and agreed with the chief executive officer of the body. It will be reviewed regularly thereafter and will be published by the body.
The other requirements specified in Amendment 1 would make it necessary for the body to carry out a comprehensive assessment of consumer need to inform its business plans, and to consult on its business plans. I agree it is important for the single financial guidance body’s plans and activities to be informed by robust data, and information about its customers and their needs. There will also be aspects of the body’s work on which consultation will be helpful. Indeed, existing services have been developed and evolved based on data, research and consultation. We will ensure that this intelligence and experience is not lost in the transition.
As part of its functions, the body will liaise with stakeholders at strategic and operational levels all the time. This will include partners across the financial services industry, the devolved authorities and the public and voluntary sectors, informing the body’s thinking as it puts its plans together. The existing services regularly consult on matters which seek to assess consumer need without a statutory requirement to consult; for example, this week MAS published a consultation on debt advice commissioning. The body will work in a complex landscape. Without consultation on its plans and assessment of consumer needs, it would be failing in its objectives, set out in Clause 2(8), if it did not continuously assess the needs of the public and consult widely on its activities.
With regard to timing, the aim is to appoint the board members of the single financial guidance body—that is, the chair and non-executive members, and the chief executive and other executive members—as soon as the legislative process allows. So as not to pre-empt parliamentary authorisation, the Treasury’s Managing Public Money sets out that expenditure on the implementation of a new service is allowable only before Royal Assent if specific conditions are met. These include that the Bill must have reached Second Reading in the Commons; that it is virtually certain to achieve Royal Assent with minimal change; and that early expenditure must be genuinely urgent in the public interest. If these conditions are met, the Treasury may make an advance from the Contingencies Fund for the expenditure to go ahead.
The exact timings will depend on the Bill’s progress through Parliament, but the aim is to have the chair, chief executive and other board members in place within four to six months of approval of any Contingencies Fund advance and in sufficient time to actively participate in shaping the new body’s strategy and design before the go-live date. All appointments will be conditional on the Bill receiving Royal Assent. If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent, the appointments will be cancelled. The body’s first corporate plan and business plan will be published as soon as possible after the board and chief executive have been appointed —in any event, by the time that the body goes live.
There is also a question about what happens to the money currently held in reserves when MAS closes down and the SFGB opens. Does it simply transfer over? MAS reserves could be used for some of the body’s set-up costs prior to launch. At the point of transfer, reserves will be transferred to the new body and should be used up in year. At the end of the year, any unspent reserves will be returned to the Consolidated Fund. As the new body will be a non-departmental public body of central government, it will not be able to hold reserves.
Amendment 2 seeks to give the Secretary of State an ongoing duty to ensure that he is satisfied that those appointed as non-executive members of the single financial guidance body do not have a conflict of interest. The noble Lord makes a good point—that it is important that non-executive members do not have a conflict of interest. However, I believe that the provisions in the Bill and elsewhere already offer sufficient protections.
Schedule 1 makes provision for the tenure and pre-appointment checks of non-executive members. A conflict of interest is defined as,
“a financial or other interest which is likely to affect prejudicially the discharge by the person of his or her functions as a member or employee of the single financial guidance body, or as a member of a committee or sub-committee of the single financial guidance body”.
Schedule 1 also requires the Secretary of State to be satisfied that prospective non-executive members of the body do not have a conflict of interest. Paragraph 4(2) requires both existing and prospective non-executive members to provide the Secretary of State with information to determine whether they have a conflict of interest. Further, Paragraph 3 states:
“The Secretary of State may remove a non-executive member from office”,
if they have a conflict of interest.
Finally, requirements around declaring conflicts of interest are also covered in the Department for Work and Pensions’ terms and conditions of appointment for non-executive members of arm’s-length bodies; for example, the department may terminate an appointment by giving notice in writing if a non-executive fails to declare any conflict of interest. While I appreciate the noble Lord’s concern, I hope that I have reassured him that the Secretary of State will regularly satisfy himself that non-executive members of the single financial guidance body do not have a conflict of interest.
My noble friend Lord Trenchard questioned the issue of efficiency savings. Efficiencies are expected once the body is in a steady state in the medium term. We believe that it is too early to agree precise timings on this. Efficiencies are expected to come from back-office functions in particular, and will be redirected to front-line services.
I hope that noble Lords will accept that I have covered the questions raised. I also hope that the explanations I have given provide the assurance that they seek, and that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw Amendment 1.
I have looked at the amendment and listened carefully to what the Minister said. I agree very much with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. Nothing that the Minister said on Amendment 1 leads me to think that the Government are particularly opposed to these provisions. Is she saying that they are not necessary, or that they will be dealt with elsewhere? They all seem perfectly reasonable points to make, as any sort of future body would want to do these things—to have a business plan, to consult properly and to make sure that it does proper updates and seeks to be informed. Is it the intention that these things in the amendment can be done elsewhere and are not necessary to include at this point, but the Government are not opposed in principle to what the amendment says?
No, I am just trying to clarify for the noble Baroness. Is she saying that, in principle, she sees the points that my noble friend Lord McKenzie is making in the amendment but that she does not think they are necessary to include at this point in the Bill?
I accept what the noble Lord says but I am also saying that what is necessary is already either in the Bill or, as I explained, in the requirements reflected in Her Majesty’s Treasury guidance which apply to all arm’s-length bodies across government. As for other DWP sponsor bodies, those requirements will be written into the framework document that will be developed in the run-up to launch and agreed with the CEO of the body. It will be reviewed regularly thereafter and published by the body.
I thank the Minister for that reply and all other noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her support—in particular for the concept that this is a chance to embed in the culture of the new entity good practices around consultation and proper planning. I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, also supported the broad thrust of what the amendment is trying to do. Ultimately, we are trying to get on to the record some clarity about the process. That was a key objective in tabling the amendment in this form.
The Minister said that the Bill is a high-level framework document and although I thank her for putting on to the record some comforting remarks about the things we were pursuing, I am still at a loss to understand the scale or scope of the new body and whether, on day one, it will look like an aggregation of the three existing operations. Will it be half that size or twice that size? We have no sense of that from this debate and it is a germane issue. As she says, this is a very high-level framework Bill and our one chance to address it in this House will come over the next few months, and then it will be gone. There are no parliamentary processes genuinely attached to the processes that the Minister outlined. I do not know whether any more could be said on that, but the other part of moving this amendment was to see what the concept was.
Again, is it expected that the new body will have to operate within the levy base at the moment, or will it be constrained in any way? Can the Minister give us some sense of what the new body will look like in terms of scale?
I again thank the noble Lord for these amendments. It is helpful to have on the record a little more detail about how the three bodies will transfer into one. It is important to emphasise that we cannot predict exactly what the new body will look like, and it would be wrong to try to do so. Initially we will bring the three bodies together but, over time, the three will evolve into one. It is important to protect current services during transition. We do not want to pin down, constrain or compromise the CEO and his board in their ability to produce the most effective single body out of these three bodies. Therefore, we must trust in them to some degree, although there has to be a lot of consultation during the process to produce something that will be much more efficient and, we hope, practical, particularly for the consumer, than what we have at the moment.
It is hoped that we will have sufficient finances to cover the transfer. The money currently held in reserves when MAS closes down, and the SFGB, could be used for some of the set-up costs if that is necessary. At the point of transfer, the reserves will be transferred to the new body and should be used up in year. The new body will be a non-departmental public body of central government and will not hold reserves. It is impossible to predict exactly how large the funds will be, but that is something that the board and the department will stay in touch with as the transition takes place.
I am grateful for that. I think we have taken this as far as we can go this afternoon. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Schedule 1: The single financial guidance body
Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 2: Functions and objectives
My Lords, this amendment goes to the heart of the consumer experience of what we are trying to do in the Bill. The single financial guidance body aims to provide holistic help, guidance, information and education to the public on their financial issues. The public are understandably often confused about what constitutes help, guidance, information and education versus what is called “advice” in a regulated sense. There is confusion at the regulatory level about the word “advice”, which itself has fed through into the wording of the Bill.
I respectfully request that my noble friend the Minister carefully considers the perspective of the person coming to this single financial guidance body and expecting to receive a holistic service that will cover their financial circumstances, in particular the circumstances of somebody who has significant debts and is looking for assistance in managing those debts in the best way for them. In the past, without auto-enrolment, the issue would have much easier, which may be why we are in this position, because there would have been no expectation that somebody in significant debt could also be contributing to a pension scheme, and increasingly, that is likely to be the case. The Bill is very clear that when it comes to pensions, money and other finances, this body will only give guidance, but when it comes to debt the word used is advice, because that is the word that has been used always in the past.
I have been trying to understand the customer experience of someone who will be coming to this body. I am informed that if that person has large debts, and goes for what is called in this Bill “debt advice”, the adviser will not be able to advise them whether they should opt out of their auto-enrolment workplace pension scheme. Naturally, they would want to know that, but they cannot have a recommendation from this service, even though it is called an advice service. The only advice they can get is restricted and narrowly focused on what to do about the debt. We immediately have a potential confusion set up for the customer. We have an opportunity in the Bill to start to remedy this, but so far we have not.
There are two important points. First, advisers at the Citizens Advice money advice service have told me that the words “debt advice” are often off-putting for those who are in debt. They do not like terms such as “advice” or “financial advice” for some reason. Furthermore, the regulated activity is actually called “counselling”, and the definition that the regulator uses for “debt counselling” says that it involves the several elements, including advice given,
“to a borrower about the liquidation of a debt due under a credit agreement”.
It is clearly narrowly focused on that. The regulatory instructions in the manual about debt counselling spend quite some time trying to unpick what would constitute advice and what would not, but in each case what would constitute advice is not what one would consider to be independent financial advice on someone’s whole financial circumstances. We are supposed to be setting up a holistic guidance body. I am entirely supportive of the aims of the Bill and am not trying in any way to undermine them—they are right. What I am asking noble Lords to consider is whether we can take this opportunity to change the wording in the Bill which says “debt advice” and to use “debt counselling” instead. From what I am told by the advisers, that would be better received by those who need help. It would also be less misleading to those who might think that somebody can help them with the pension decision when this is not the case. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I was on the ad hoc Select Committee on Financial Exclusion, which produced the report Tackling Financial Exclusion: A Country that Works for Everyone? We spent a whole session on it and we covered all these points. I suggest that those who have not looked at the report should do so, not only because I was on the committee but because it is quite concise. We went to places like Toynbee Hall and we saw people who were affected.
If I ask you for your advice, you can just tell me to do this and that, which is the point the noble Baroness is making. Advice may not be helpful, whereas counselling is a two-way thing. To invite people to counselling is not to invite them to take your advice—it is to invite them to discuss what they are willing to find out, and to give them options. It is not speaking to them, it is discussing and talking things through with them.
The word “debt”, which has been mentioned, is not always helpful. Debt is almost considered a crime, but it is not. In fact, very often government institutions and regulations cause people to go into debt—so in many cases the debt is not even their own fault. We must remember that the Bill is about people, the way they think and are approached, and we want to encourage them to take this counselling. We do not want to ask them why they are here and then say, “Here is my advice”. It should be about invitation and discussion. This is a very simple amendment and I support the change of words.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. I too served on the ad hoc committee and I was going to make exactly the same point. I was very struck by the visits the committee made to front-line staff; they are always impressive in terms of their commitment. They give of their time, mostly as volunteers, in various organisations and circumstances. There are always difficulties to contend with in terms of managing and assisting households to stick together—it is as serious as that. I support this amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I trust her judgement; she has a lot of experience from a consumer point of view that this Committee would be ill advised not to consider seriously.
What is not to like about counselling? I do not see what the cost is. If there is a government communications programme to underline that, and the organisation is told that the tone and tactics it uses should be in that direction—if that is made crystal clear—it will be a serious service to assist the delivery of this important public function. Contrarywise, as the noble Baroness has said, if we do not take this opportunity, there is no way of rowing back. Should this Bill go on to the statute book with this inherent confusion, the damage will be done. This point is clear and has been well explained by the noble Baroness. It would not be safe for the Committee to pass by this amendment without careful consideration. I support it.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Altmann has done us a great service by tabling her amendment and the others with which it is grouped, but I am not sure that the issue is as simple as all that. It clearly is not, and I fear that it will be difficult to solve all these problems. It is not just that there is a significant difference between the words “advice”, “counselling” and “guidance” in the way that most people understand them. It is a pity that the good, much used and understood word “advice” has been partially hijacked in that it is part of a regulated activity when it is financial advice. “Counselling” has another connotation and insinuates that the person may also be suffering from some mental illness or disability. “Counselling” is also probably one of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language, because people confuse counsellor and councillor, and it is not so well understood or used.
My noble friend’s amendments do not just replace “advice” with “guidance”—I am not sure whether, to the man in the street, one is clearer than the other. I understand the problem about the regulatory meaning of “financial advice”, but sometimes we have “guidance” and sometimes we have “counselling”. In Amendment 21, my noble friend refers to “individualised independent financial advice”. In that amendment, she seeks to improve,
“public recognition of the distinctions in personal finance terms between ‘education’, ‘information’, ‘guidance’, ‘counselling’ and ‘individualised independent financial advice’,”.
I fear that it is extremely unlikely, without huge expenditure and alteration to the schools programme at all levels, that we will get anywhere near an even basic understanding among the public of the difference in meaning between those terms. In Amendment 38, we have distinctions between “advice” and “guidance”, but does “advice” mean only an activity regulated by the FCA? If so, that is a matter for regret, because “advice” is a very good word.
My noble friend is quite right to table the amendments. As was noted by several noble Lords on Second Reading—I apologise for not having been able to participate due to another pressing appointment—the Government have to consider carefully before deciding on the name and branding of the new body. People go to the citizens advice bureau, not the citizens counselling bureau, to get all kinds of advice, including advice on debt. I note that the Citizens Advice website avoids using the term “debt advice”, preferring to talk about help with debt, although I believe that this gives the impression that the CAB can easily provide the panacea of debt relief through an individual voluntary arrangement. This is complicated, and my noble friend is quite right to raise it.
My Lords, I served on the ad hoc committee, and I would like to add one point. One thing that came out loud and clear when we were working on the committee is that people’s financial lives are very complicated. Everything is interrelated. People do not actually differentiate between their pensions, their debts or their mortgage—the whole gamut of things. I support the noble Baroness’s amendment because it describes more accurately the way in which people view their financial lives. They want advice on the totality, not just on one particular aspect, because they see it all as being interrelated. That is why I think this is probably a good amendment.
My Lords, I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, will not mind my taking this opportunity, which was probably taken at Second Reading, to pay tribute to the work of organisations in this area, particularly to Toynbee Hall and the late Earl Attlee, who was a trustee of Toynbee Hall. When my father left university at Oxbridge, he went and lived in Toynbee Hall in the 1930s and learned a bit about what it was like living in that area at that time. It shaped Clement Attlee’s view of the world, of course, so perhaps the welfare state that we have now is partly due to the work of Toynbee Hall. It gives advice to care leaders, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, has spoken of the evidence that it gave him. It is organisations like that which have been providing support and advice to vulnerable families and individuals over many years that we really need to celebrate and give credit to.
My Lords, the amendments moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, are significant. They go to the heart of whether or not this new body is going to be structured in such a way, with a set of responsibilities and clear communication with the public, that will allow it to become properly effective. I think that is what everyone in the Committee both hopes and wants.
It is clear from listening to every Member across the Committee that we have a situation at the moment where the confusion between advice, counselling and guidance is intense. We need clarification around the use of language. The noble Baroness put it well in saying that this new body should be shaped, and therefore the legislation has to be shaped, from the perspective of the potential user, not from the perspective of the legal gurus whose primary objective is to bring three pre-existing bodies together—bodies that were set up in a different financial era with rather different purposes. I have no objection to them being brought together, but the primary purpose of the Bill is surely not to bring three bodies together but to end up with a body that meets the public need in handling the complexity of modern finance, ranging all the way through from debt at one extreme to savings and investments at the other, and recognising that most people in today’s world are engaged right across that spectrum, sometimes at different phases of their life but often all at the same time. There are complications now when people get into debt, but obviously some of that debt is considered desirable in terms of mortgages. We have ISAs of many different kinds, all with somewhat different purposes.
Pension funds used to provide defined benefits but now we have defined contribution schemes. The Committee will be well aware that many people now with defined contribution schemes have pots that they are beginning to draw down and remove from their pension schemes. At this point in time, that may not be that significant, because for many people that will be a relatively small amount of money because the change in the structure of pensions has been recent, but with every year the group of people newly coming through to this opportunity to draw down is looking at a pension that represents a bigger and bigger piece of the financing that has to support them through the rest of their lives.
The general confusion has to be tackled urgently. I point the Committee to the Financial Conduct Authority report, Retirement Outcomes Review, a very recent document—within the last couple of weeks—which speaks almost with some despair about the percentage of pensions that are being drawn down without any advice being taken at all. The Committee may not be aware that,
“Accessing pots early has become ‘the new norm’. 72% of pots … have been accessed by consumers under 65, most of whom have taken lump sums”.
That is a huge change. The report says:
“Most consumers choose the ‘path of least resistance’”— in other words, they do not review the various options and instead go with their current provider when they do the draw-down. However,
“Many consumers buy drawdown without advice but may need further protection to manage their drawdown effectively”.
The report talks about the risks of people,
“paying more in charges and/or tax”,
than they should,
“choosing unsuitable investment strategies … losing valuable benefits”,
“running out of pension savings sooner than expected”.
To get that group to take advice, we need a body that is fit for purpose. It seems to me that the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, are exactly designed to create a body that is fit for purpose in its use of language, presentation of its programme and shaping of its objectives, because it will have worked through these issues of advice, counselling and guidance and eliminated the endless confusion, which is, I would suggest, one reason why many people have not taken advice—they are, frankly, so confused about the offer that is out there that they have no idea which way to turn. It is interesting that the FCA report at no point talks about people seeking guidance and therefore getting appropriate outcomes; it recognises that advice is the direction that will be essential for most people. This body surely has to play a role in that, so language clarity is required.
In reference to the title or naming of this new organisation, we note that the Government have kept to themselves the powers to name the organisation. They have not shared with us what the title will be but, as we talk about this language confusion, it is rather important. The Committee will also note that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that it should, in fact, be Parliament that sets the name, recognising the importance of that name both in shaping strategy and in making sure that communication with the public is as clear as possible and that the body does not continue to struggle with the existing difficulties that have set by terminology.
I hope that the Government will take this whole issue away, recognise its significance, work through it and come back with something that will let this new body be as effective as it could possibly be in meeting the public need.
Well, my Lords, what is in a name? I start by declaring my interests: I am a former chairman of StepChange, the debt charity, and I am currently on the Financial Inclusion Commission, which is a group of all-party interests and experts that tries to lobby for increased financial inclusion and less financial exclusion. I mention StepChange for two reasons: first, because I have to declare it as an interest and, secondly, because it recently went through a change of name, which may bear on some of the points made in this debate. When I took over as chair, it was as chair of an organisation called the Consumer Credit Counselling Service—I could not say it without spitting out most of my teeth and I got very confused about the terminology.
As a matter of interest, at the time that I took over, the organisation was seeing over 500,000 people a year—so a lot of people—but we did not believe that the people whom we saw were “consumers” of our services in that classic sense. We did not deal with credit, because we were talking about people who were in debt. Now, obviously, debts and credits are simply optical illusions, one against the other, but people recognise them differently and, therefore, our name did not really say what we did. We did not do counselling —I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness opposite—and we were a service, but it was not just a service of advice. Our intention going into any engagement with anybody who rang us or contacted us through the web—I am sure this is also true of the Money Advice Trust, the Citizens Advice service and others working in this area—was that we wanted them to become debt free. In other words, it was a case not just of simply holding their hands and telling them what the options were but of working with them until they got to the point that they were debt free. I do not know where that fits in the catalogue of names with which the noble Baroness is enticing us, but I do not think that her amendment gets to the reality of the issue facing us.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, is right to remind us above all that where we are trying to go with this organisation is to get to a place which will add value to those who approach it by providing impartial and independent advice which will get them to where they want to get to. There are real difficulties in trying to combine in one body the different bodies, organisations and ideas. The pensions work, the financial guidance work and the debt space are all very different. They are not operated at the same level but are regulated differently, and the information that is provided, the guidance, the counselling—all the other words that we are using—will change considerably.
Where I think the noble Baroness is right is that it would be entirely against the best interests of the people we are talking about if the body were set up in a way that did not create an opportunity to resolve the issues that were brought before it. The examples she gave were all relevant. I add one which we picked up in earlier discussions—I think it was raised on Second Reading—namely, that, at least initially, although I hope that it will change, it will not be possible for the new body, however named, to answer direct questions about individuals’ state pensions. That seems to me a completely useless start for a body that is trying to deal holistically with people’s issues for all the reasons the noble Baroness gave about the increasing importance that pension draw-down will have for any of these solutions.
At present, StepChange is regulated to give debt advice and debt solutions but not to give pensions advice. It could apply to be a pension adviser and give advice on pensions, but it has not done so. It was the present management’s decision to do that. However, the issue stems from the initial problem about whether or not it is reasonable to have all those different types of expertise in one place or whether you need more expertise than would be available in a general advice system.
It is easy to describe this as a mess and a problem, and it is very hard to see how we will make progress. I look forward to the noble Baroness’s response to this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, is right that we need to rethink this. However, I have a slightly different approach to it which I would like to try out with the noble Baroness. As she will have picked up, our Amendment 38 in this group replicates what she said to the House on Second Reading. In terms which I think are not unreasonable, it defines “guidance” and it defines “advice” in terms of what the FCA considers it to be. That may be the current state of the art for this discussion and it may need to be looked at again. However, I do not think it is helpful to try to analyse the best word we can select to describe all the things that this body should do. We need to go back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, suggested and ask what this is about. We need to ask what this body is trying to achieve.
It seems to me that the two fixed points on which we can agree are, first, the functions that are currently carried out by these bodies, or could be considered to be added to the existing functions to achieve the aim that we are going to set for this body, and, secondly, the regulatory structure. I do not think there is much room for manoeuvre on either of those two things. We have a pretty good appreciation of what people want and we have a pretty good regulator that is capable of regulating these things. The names seem to me to fall back a bit in our consideration of that. If we get the infrastructure right, we will also get the processes which support it right. What is this body set up to do? What aims and responsibilities will it require to achieve that? What functions are required to achieve that? What are the regulatory constraints and what will they be called? That seems to me the right way to approach this. I hope that, when the noble Baroness responds, she will pick up at least some of those points.
My Lords, before this debate concludes with, I hope, the wise words of my noble friend the Minister, I should say that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, seems to have widened the subject of this amendment or group of amendments beyond what my noble friend Lady Altmann intended. I have been looking at Clause 2(5):
“The debt advice function is to provide, to members of the public in England, information and advice on debt”.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, almost got it. What we really want to happen is advice on debt reduction, so why cannot the Bill say so?
I do not wish to prolong the debate, because we could continue this discussion outside if we wished to. However, I was not the only person to say that there were wider issues at stake here, so I accept the charge, but I am not the only one guilty of this. Secondly, I was trying to make the point that information is only part of the story. It is of no value if we cannot get somebody who owes £10,000 to five different creditors to a position where they owe nothing. So it is a process leading to a resolution. I think that we are on the same page.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this helpful debate, and in particular my noble friend Lady Altmann for raising these issues through her amendments. It is important to be straight about it: let us not get hung up on legal terms that we need to use in the Bill to ensure that the body can deliver the crucial support on problem debt need. How the sector and others promote the services is another matter. It needs careful consideration based on evidence and insight.
I thank my noble friend Lady Altmann for bringing forward Amendments 4, 12, 44 and 67, which replace references to “debt advice” with “debt counselling” or “guidance and counselling”. My noble friend has tabled a further amendment in this group, 21, which would add to the body strategic functions to improve public understanding of the distinction between certain personal finance terms and improve their knowledge of how to access relevant information and guidance. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie of Luton and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, whose Amendment 38 would establish a definition for the terms “advice” and “guidance” used in the Bill.
Regarding Amendment 38, I reassure noble Lords that the Financial Conduct Authority provides thorough definitions of guidance and advice in the relevant section of its handbook. The handbook includes examples which clarify how the distinction between guidance and advice works in practice, and the Government believe that such detail is best articulated by the regulator rather than through primary legislation. I also observe that through the specifications in Clauses 6 and 7, the FCA will have a formal role in ensuring that all the activities conducted on behalf of the new body are in line with its regulatory standards and guidelines.
The FCA has conducted a significant body of work in this area, providing clear definitions of the terms “guidance” and “advice”. The Government are grateful to it for these efforts and believe that any ambiguity over the use of these terms has been appropriately addressed. It is therefore not appropriate to insert definitions of these terms in the Bill.
As she did on Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Altmann raised the important point about language and its consequences, as have other noble Lords. I agree that it is important to ensure that the Bill’s wording accurately reflects the activities the new body will be undertaking, and that members of the public fully understand the nature of the support available to them. I have reflected on this point, take it seriously, and have therefore given it careful consideration. However, I have concluded that it would not be right to include these amendments.
The first reason for not including the amendments is that “debt advice” is the term that most appropriately reflects the provision that the new body will deliver in relation to its debt function, so it should be used instead of alternatives. There are two key reasons for this. First, “debt advice” reflects a broader set of activities than “debt counselling”, and this broader set of activities is precisely what the new body will have a duty to deliver. For instance, while “debt advice” can be said to cover providing recommendations for individuals about which debt solution they should pursue, as well as adjusting individuals’ debts through a debt management plan, “debt counselling” can be said to cover only the first of those activities.
Secondly, I should note that, like financial advice, debt advice is an activity regulated by the FCA. It involves advisers offering a personal recommendation to an individual which steers them towards a particular course of action. Under FCA rules, in giving this recommendation the adviser is required to make it clear that they are giving a consumer regulated advice. Only those providers who have been authorised by the FCA to deliver this service or who are exempt from authorisation can provide this advice. As such, this makes it different from the other functions delivered by the body and means that other previously been suggested terms—for instance, “debt guidance”—would not be an appropriate description. “Guidance” in this context refers to the provision of generic information about money matters without the inclusion of a personal recommendation. Authorisation is not required for guidance, so using a term such as “debt guidance” would, we believe, be equally misleading.
The second reason why I do not believe that we should amend the term “debt advice” brings me back to the underlying purpose of ensuring that the language we use is clear, accurate and consistent. We must ensure that the way we structure and label the services on offer to individuals reflects the way they use and understand these services. There is no compelling evidence that use of the term “debt advice” is an issue for consumers or that it affects their ability to access appropriate provision. Indeed, the term is almost ubiquitously used among leading debt charities. We also need to bear in mind that we have carried out three consultations covering this issue, among many others, and have found that to be the case.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister for some clarification. My question relates to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, the reply to which I did not clearly understand. If an adviser provides debt advice to an individual who has a debt issue but also belongs to an auto-enrolment scheme for a pension, is the adviser permitted to propose that the individual opt out of that pension or would they be violating their authority as an adviser if they did so? From looking slightly to the Minister’s side, I gather that they would, and therefore they would be unable to provide that advice, even if it was the correct and best solution for the individual. That is part of the complication that is coming out of this language.
I thank the noble Baroness. Looking behind me, and in order to be absolutely right on this, I would like to come back to it in a moment, if I may.
We must ensure that we do not make changes to the language we use without strong reason if there is a risk of confusing service users. For that reason, I believe “debt advice” to be the most appropriate term to use. An important point which I do not think I have made is that we must ensure that the way we structure and label the services on offer to individuals reflects the way they use and understand them.
Finally, I should like to reassure my noble friend Lady Altmann on a specific concern that she raised during Second reading—that the debt advice the new body offers will not be holistic in nature. The Money Advice Service has recently launched a consultation paper entitled A Strategic Approach to Debt Advice Commissioning 2018-2023. It covers a range of things, including how best to deliver debt advice and money guidance in a blended fashion in line with the needs of the individual. This consultation will underpin the approach taken by MAS and later—towards the end of next year, we hope—by the new body.
Just as other forms of advice take into account an individual’s broader situation, such as their debt levels and spending commitments, debt advice will take into account an individual’s broader situation, such as their pension. I hope that that is helpful. Similarly, just as pensions advisers will not provide recommendations to individuals about specific debt solutions to pursue, debt advisers will not provide specific recommendations to individuals about which pensions options to pursue.
However, that does not mean that the support offered by the single financial guidance body is not holistic in approach. Ensuring that the new body offers joined-up, holistic support to members of the public who require help with overlapping needs is important. Indeed, one of the key aims of bringing the functions of the Money Advice Service, the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise together was to improve the co-ordination of these services. The body will be well placed to deliver this seamless service, including through—this is the important point—warm handovers and signposting to the different functions it offers. This will be central to ensuring that members of the public receive the personalised, holistic support they need.
That brings me on to the wider strategic function of the new body. My noble friend rightly draws attention to the need for a greater public understanding of how to access information and guidance, as well as distinguishing between some of the key terms, such as education, information, guidance, counselling and advice. These are key elements in improving the financial capability of members of the public. The existing services are already doing important work in these areas, and we expect the body to pick that up and continue it in the future. Indeed, the recent report from the Financial Advice Working Group, which conducted research into the terms “advice” and “guidance”, concluded that there was no value in changing the terms. The key is to have agreed and easily understandable definitions. We know from this work that people draw on multiple sources of information for help with their financial decisions but typically do not think of these as advice or guidance.
It is important that the body and its delivery partners ensure that the person they are supporting is clear about whether they are being advised to take a course of action or being given a range of options. That is what we must bear in mind. It is also important to think about the set of skills and permissions that advisers have when considering whether they can give advice on certain ways forward. However, rather than specify these elements—important as they are—within the legislation, we expect them to be wrapped up as part of the body’s wider strategic function to improve the financial capability of members of the public. Not only will that ensure that we do not limit the body’s ability to tackle a range of priority concerns now, working with others in the industry, the devolved nations and public and voluntary sectors; it will also ensure that the body is flexible enough to respond accordingly to emerging issues in the future, including any potential changes to language.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Stevenson, and other noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to put on the record the Government’s view on these important matters. It is also worth saying that the Financial Advice Working Group has recently looked at the broad terms “guidance” and “advice” in relation to the Financial Advice Market Review. The Financial Advice Working Group conducted consumer research that tested alternative terms but none emerged as strong alternatives to “advice” and “guidance”. However, consumer understanding of these two terms significantly improved with concise, consumer-friendly explanations. That is at the nub of this question. Therefore, the Financial Advice Working Group recommended that the terms “advice” and “guidance” should not be changed, as there was no clear consumer preference for new terms to justify the cost of changing them. Instead, the working group recommended that the market should, subject to analysis, consultation and cost-benefit analysis by the FCA, adopt a consistent set of explanations for different types of service.
Turning back to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, a debt adviser is only authorised to give debt advice. As to whether the body could give advice to members of the public with automatic enrolment issues, no, it could not recommend that they opt out.
I understand that a note has come at pace with its best advice. It might be sensible to ask for a letter on this point because it is at the heart of not so much the naming game but functions. If advisers of the body will not be able to move seamlessly, however many hot keys they are able to employ, from pensions to general expenditure and back again, it is a different body to the one we are trying to set up. As I understand the situation—this is what I would like to be checked back—it is possible for an individual to be authorised to give advice on both debt and pensions, but the debt advice community has broadly not chosen to go down that route, regarding pensions as needing expertise that would be difficult and expensive to acquire. What the noble Baroness has said is not entirely wrong, but it is not entirely right either.
Perhaps I may add to that. Partly this is problematic because individuals receiving the debt advice may not understand that there is no discussion of their pension pot, because the adviser is unable to raise the issue and, therefore, they may not recognise that they are being offered a series of potential solutions within a limited framework that does not make use of the full financial resource that describes essentially who they are and what they have available to them. We use advice only in the regulated sense, but the person listening thinks that it is advice in common terminology, and that is why we end up with the problems that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, is trying to address.
This turns on the question of what we mean by seamless. The point is that this body will be able to signpost people. The most important thing about the use of language, in a sense, is the ability of the advisers to clearly signpost and explain who can advise on what. It is a question of who has the advice, the skills and permissions to give debt advice and who can only give guidance.
I am not sure why there is an issue about this. It is more about the ability to signpost people in the right direction. Certainly, all the analysis has shown that changing the terminology makes no difference at all. What makes a difference is the ability of people to understand what it is they are able to receive and from whom.
There is clearly an issue here. This question is being looked at, at the moment. As I explained before the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, intervened, there is a consultation which covers a range of things, including how best to deliver debt advice and money guidance in a blended fashion, in line with the needs of the individual. This consultation has come about in recognition of the fact that there is no magic bullet at the moment for this issue. However, surely that should not prevent or preclude the creation of a body that will, to the best of its ability, signpost people in the right direction to receive the right guidance and advice as is appropriate.
I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, said about the name. I hoped that we had made it clear at Second Reading that the reason why we do not want to put the name of the body in the Bill is, unfortunately, we have every good reason to suspect that it could lead to other individuals holding themselves out and mimicking the body. It could lead to all kinds of problems if it was set up online as a spurious website, and so on. Call us cynical, but we have to be particularly cautious about that.
I am not convinced that politicians in Parliament are best placed to decide what the name should be. A lot of the terminology used within your Lordships’ House and beyond in our political lives, by those of us who are of a political leaning, no one understands. For example, when we talk about political wards, and so on, it sounds as though we are in a hospital. It is best left to the people who will be brought on board to run the single body to make those decisions and that that is done, therefore, through delegated legislation. On that basis, I hope my noble friend will withdraw her amendment.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for her remarks and all noble Lords for their excellent contributions on these vital issues and for much of their support.
This debate gives a clear example of why these amendments are necessary. There is obviously immense confusion about what advice is, what guidance is, and how they work. If we are setting up one body, it is essential that we are able to have a holistic service. I reiterate that one of the issues at the heart of this, for me, is that the body needs to serve and think about people, not products. Currently, we have different bodies that are geared towards products, whether it is helping people with debt, pensions or other savings, or managing their money. However, we are setting up one body, which is being explained to the public as providing holistic help in one place.
If we continue to call this “debt advice”, I can imagine someone coming along to the body and saying, “Can you help me manage my debts?”, and the body saying, “Yes, go and get your debt advice”. The individual goes for the debt advice and then says, “I have got this workplace pension that I ought to enrol in, what do you think? Should I opt out or not?” The person giving the debt advice currently would have to say to them, “No, you need to get financial advice for that”, because that is what the other activity is called. The individual would say, “But I thought I was here for advice. You are giving me debt advice”. “Yes, I am giving you debt advice, but you need financial advice for the pension. I can only give you guidance on the pension”. So immediately it is not holistic and immediately the person is confused.
The official umbrella term for helping people with debt is “debt counselling”. Debt advice is a subset as a part of that. We have an opportunity now, when we are setting up a unified holistic body, to do something that is in the interests of the person who will come along with complicated circumstances. It would be a missed opportunity if we let this pass without clarifying it for ourselves and changing the words “debt advice” to something else. My noble friend mentioned that the Citizens Advice Bureau does not call it debt advice but “help with debt”. That is a clear indication that the people it serves do not like the term debt advice, which is what it has told me, too.
I accept completely and appreciate that my noble friend the Minister is looking at this and has spent time considering it, so I would ask her to please carry on doing so.
I am mindful of what my noble friend has said, and I hope that she is encouraged by my reference to the consultation that has been set up so that we can somehow overcome the issues around providing a truly seamless and holistic approach to giving people advice and guidance. We will think it through some more before Report, and I shall reflect on all that noble Lords have said. It has been very helpful to have this detailed debate.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 5 I shall speak also to Amendment 42. Here I shall begin to put some flesh on to the bones of the discussion we have already been having. The amendment tries to unpick some of the questions about exactly what is going on among the various legs which are being added to this body. We are beginning to recognise that it is no longer going to be called the single financial guidance body for debt but the “signposting to other financial guidance support services”. That may well be where we end up, although I think that that would be sad.
Amendment 5 adds to the list of functions set out in Clause 2(1) what I call the “debt solutions function”. There is no advice, no guidance and no information. It will have none of that airy-fairy stuff because it is about solutions—getting people from the point at which they are unable to manage because their debts are beyond them to the point where they can re-engage with the wider world, take out credit and get back into ordinary living. That is the difference which was alluded to in the last debate; namely, that which can only be advice and that which is regulated to be solutions. It is important to make that point strongly here. Simply using the debt advice function can include these other areas, and indeed the earlier debate showed that, but it would be more helpful if the Bill explained and extended what is available to those who will approach the body and did so by clearly signalling that one of the important functions, one that will be important to them, is a debt solutions process.
The purpose of putting this in Amendment 5 and linking it to Amendment 42 is to be able to take a further step in the discussions which this Bill should engage with in terms of what it will allow, permit, encourage and support. That will lead naturally to the amendments in the fifth group containing Amendments 7, 23 and 41, the first two in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and her colleagues. Those amendments seek to add another function to the way we hope that debt advice can lead to debt solutions by creating what is commonly called a breathing space, to which I will return when we come to that arrangement. They can be seen both as an opening up of more functions and providing more certainty about what the body will be able to do and to deliver. They are also an example of what action is required in terms of insolvency which would seriously enhance the ability of those who are working in this area to take clients on a journey that allows them to emerge from their current debts.
We had some difficulty with the clerks in getting this amendment in scope. It is not in the form that I would have preferred to see because—I will say this again on the breathing space amendment—what is required now is what was set out in both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party manifestos, which is that England and Wales are a long way behind Scotland in dealing with debt solutions. One of the great advances made by the Scottish Parliament has been to introduce a statutorily based breathing space and different insolvency regimes which very much have the client at the heart of what they are doing. The regimes are not creditor dominated. I could give noble Lords a brief lecture on the history of credit and creditors in this country but I will not because there are too many experts here who might pick me to pieces. However, we are obsessed by the place of creditors in our society. We ignore the problems that an overly zealous approach leads to: whenever there is a problem, the creditors are always assumed to be in a strong enough position to require 100% repayment of the debts that they have advanced to people. That has led to real difficulties when for reasons which have already been mentioned, people get into problems with their finances, even if it is not always their fault.
We need to face up to the fact that in the real world, if someone has multiple debts and they confess to those they borrowed the money from, it is obviously a problem for those who advanced the money. But at that point there is a calculation going on in the brains of the creditors to work out what they are going to get back from the person who has come forward with a debt problem. The conventional wisdom is that it will be around 10%. That is historically what happens, it is practically what happens, and it is realistically what creditors will put in their books. Where people have multiple debts, the law and the framework expect that they should return 100% of those debts. Many people would indeed want to do so because they are not feckless, but the reality is that through the discounting and the risk activity that has been built into the algorithms which are used, the debt has already been written down to 10% of what it was.
I am sorry to take us on a slightly long journey through this area, but my argument is that if we are serious about tackling multiple debt problems—we call it unmanageable debt and we define the term in a later amendment—we ought to think about the solutions that are available to those who have to deal with these debts in a constructive way and have the individual in debt at the centre. Amendment 42 would begin the process of looking at the range of existing insolvency systems and regimes which can be brought into play by people who come forward with unmanageable debts. The difficulty is that while we have quite good structures, albeit that, as I have explained, I believe them to be based on a fundamental misconception of what we should be trying to do in society about dealing with the management of debt—in other words, reducing slightly the deference we pay to the creditor—I still think that we have a long way to go.
Let us take as an example the debt relief order which is specifically designed for those in society who have virtually no assets and very little income. It is meant to be a cheap and cheerful way to go bankrupt. What is good about it is that it is done with very little paperwork, it is administratively quite a simple process and is dealt with efficiently by the Insolvency Service. It can be extremely effective in taking people from a horrendous situation—pursued by multiple creditors with the doorbell being rung by bailiffs and others—in a relatively short period of time. The problem is that the order costs £90, but many clients do not have that sum and therefore they cannot take it up. We had a discussion recently with representatives from Christians Against Poverty who have given us figures which I am happy to share with the Government if they wish to see them. They show that in more than half of the cases, the charity has to provide the funding that will allow the client to access the debt relief order system.
However, it gets worse. Of the £90 which is paid in order to participate in the DRO, £80 goes to the Insolvency Service because it has the responsibility to sort it all out and to issue the legal framework, so the sum is not unreasonable. That leaves £10 for the body that is helping the individual to move forward in this process. That is completely uneconomic. The last time I checked, it is costing StepChange around £2 million to take clients through the DRO system, which we all agree is the right thing to do but for which additional money has to be found because the funds are not available from these clients’ resources. That is a real problem and I give this situation as an example.
I am sorry to have to go into such detail, but there is a need for the single financial guidance body to carry out a review into our current insolvency arrangements which should focus more on what can be done to help those who have a genuine need to make use of them. This has already been done in Scotland. The systems have been changed and now there is a much more realistic approach to how the DRO equivalent works there. The funding is more equitable, it is easier to approach, and the breathing space that we shall be coming on to discuss is part of the package. The Scots have also tackled the issue of the excessive fees being picked up by insolvency practitioners who process the DROs and individual voluntary arrangements; action on this has long been required. That has taken place in Scotland and is something which again I think we should borrow.
These functions relate to the debt advice function, but they represent the other side of the coin and therefore need to be reflected properly in the Bill, as Amendment 5 requires, so that it is explained to the wider world that the SFGB’s core functions are not just about advice and guidance but about moving people away from debt to a different arrangement which restores their ability to cope with credit. I have given in Amendment 42 an example of the work that it could do. I said that we had had trouble getting the amendment into scope. I would like the Government to commission action of their own to get such an insolvency review carried out. If it required the Minister to take away the Bill and change the Long Title slightly, it would make it easier for us to do it at later stages, and I commend that to her. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his positive contributions so far on the Bill. He has raised an important issue regarding the status of current insolvency regimes available to members of the public in England and Wales.
Amendments 5 and 42 tabled by the noble Lord would introduce a new function to the body with regard to debt solutions in addition to requiring it to review the current insolvency regimes available for members of the public in England. This would also apply in Wales, as the insolvency regime is common across both nations.
The Government are committed to helping those worst affected by problem debt. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that the insolvency regime for members of the public, including businesses, must be of high quality and be kept under review to ensure that it works as it should. It must provide essential debt relief for those who need it while offering those able to repay their debts the opportunity to do so. I commend the noble Lord on the work that he has done with StepChange and have listened with care to the examples that he gave, which are of course deeply concerning, in relation to debt and insolvency.
I assure the noble Lord that the Government are indeed committed to ensuring that we retain the best possible personal insolvency regime. The Insolvency Service, which is an executive agency of the business department, is charged with delivering economic confidence by, among other things, supporting those in financial distress. The service has implemented a number of changes to the personal insolvency regime to make improvements where they are required. For example, in April 2016, the Government removed the need for a person applying for bankruptcy to go to court. The Insolvency Service keeps the personal insolvency regime under review on behalf of the Government and works closely with the Money Advice Service and the wider debt advice sector.
Working with the Insolvency Service, MAS—the Money Advice Service—launched a consultation on improvements to the debt solutions regime across the country in February this year. This consultation followed a period of in-depth research with users of the main insolvency solutions across the UK and a review of each separate insolvency solution. All the major debt advice providers and many other stakeholders responded to the consultation. MAS will publish a response to the consultation later in the year. It is reviewing the responses with its debt advice steering group, which includes representatives of all the major advice providers and the largest creditors.
The single financial guidance body’s strategic function requires that it, too, works with others in the financial services industry, the devolved authorities and the public and voluntary sectors. The Government therefore expect that the SFGB will continue to work closely with the Insolvency Service to ensure that the insolvency regime in England and Wales meets the needs of members of the public.
The Government agree that the insolvency regime must remain fit for purpose and be regularly reviewed. That is why MAS, working closely with the Insolvency Service and the debt advice sector, has undertaken its consultation. However, the duty to review the regime remains the responsibility of the Insolvency Agency. Of course, there is a role for the new body to work with the Insolvency Agency on this matter, as MAS does now. My view is that this is captured by the strategic function set out in Clause 2(7). For these reasons, I ask the noble Lord not to press his amendments.
I thank the Minister for her full response and recognise much of what she said about the work currently going on. We are back in the same territory. The body will not work as we are beginning to envisage it if at every turn blockages are put up. It will be an insolvency service behind a different departmental boundary—it is in BEIS and not in DWP—making decisions of primary importance about clients coming to the single financial guidance body and the debt advisers seeking help with a problem. I accept that it is way the world is, but if it became clear after the reviews and further consideration of the points made here—there are many other people who can send in evidence—we might want to change that, having missed the opportunity to do so in the Bill. I appeal to the Minister to think again about this and to see whether it might be sensible to have a power somewhere in the Bill giving the single financial guidance body the opportunity to make proposals at least. In my view, we have the power to change it to help the consumers that it tries to deal with, but I realise that may be a step too far at this stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 28, 29, 30 and 32. I refer the Committee to my interests in the register, including TPAS.
Amendment 6 would put in the Bill the requirement that the functions delivered by the financial guidance body remain free at the point of use for members of the public. Supporting vulnerable individuals and increasing people’s ability to manage their financial affairs and make informed decisions are a major public policy challenge which has systemic roots. It underpins the creation of the new body to improve life outcomes for members of the public. The policy will need to be long term, as will the essential ingredient, “free at the point of use”. For it not to be free risks undermining the body’s reach to those who most need it and compromising its impartiality, because introducing charges raises conflict as to where organisational effort and resource are directed, as between most in need and potential to raise revenue.
Amendments 28, 29, 30 and 32 are all directed at requiring the provision of information, guidance and advice by the new body to be independent and impartial. Much in this Bill is at high level, which is understandable because of two requirements: the new board needs scope to build an organisation fit for purpose; and the new body needs flexibility so that it does not duplicate fit-for-purpose information and guidance sources that already exist, but also so that, over time, it is allowed to go wherever it identifies it needs to go in provision to assist and support the public. However, in meeting these two requirements, the Bill cannot be so imprecise that it introduces uncertainty. There should be little ambiguity as to the footprint of the new body’s functions and objectives, as hard experience tells us that in the field of public provision of financial information and guidance such ambiguity has not been a good thing.
My amendment would address that problem by amending Clause 2 so that the objective of,
“to support the provision of information, guidance and advice in areas where it is lacking”,
was amended to read,
“to support the provision of independent and impartial information, guidance and advice”.
Introducing “independent and impartial” would set qualitative parameters to what is provided, commissioned or otherwise approved or endorsed by the financial guidance body brand. It must be wholly customer focused, driven by the interests of the individual and not fettered by commercial or other vested interests. If the new body is not independent and impartial, it will not be trusted by the public and it will compromise its own objective to enable people to make informed decisions. A commercial comparison website that takes commission is very different from a factual comparison table that provides information based on customer needs. Guidance from a provider with a vested interest in the decision a customer makes is likely to be partial.
The new body will also address market failures where providers will not, cannot or do not meet an individual’s needs—failures which manifest as a lack of trust, hence the need for an impartial public service. In its recently published Retirement Outcomes Review, the FCA commented that potential remedies for inefficiencies in the marketplace include appropriate protections for those least able to engage, and services to help consumers make good choices primarily by building on existing guidance initiatives. The FCA observed that mistrust of pension products is a concern in itself but can also give rise to decisions that directly harm the consumer: for example, if they pay too much tax or miss out on employer contributions and investment growth—and, I would add, get sucked in by scams or exposed to inappropriate investment products.
Similar observations can be made about other financial products and services where the knowledge and understanding of members of the public is low. The Bill requires the new body to support provision of information, guidance and advice in areas where it is lacking. But what is meant by “lacking”: how is it defined? Not having some parameters for the definition precludes scrutiny. The Government’s policy note does not help. The public certainly have an interest in knowing in which areas the provision is lacking.
Whether something is lacking in an area is not simply a question of whether some kind of provision by other organisations is available; it requires an assessment of that provision. Is it impartial, based wholly on customer need and not compromised by a vested interest? There are numerous sources of information and guidance in the market and the public space. How it is presented, whether it is partial or nudges the individual in a direction not driven only by their needs, and whether it exploits the consumer’s inertia and tendency to choose the path of least resistance, will determine whether the provision meets the new body’s objective of improving the ability of members of the public to make informed decisions. This is an important issue. It will be a contested matter as to when the new body should provide information and guidance because it is lacking and when this should be left to organisations. Without greater clarity there is ambiguity.
The essential components of guidance are personalised —otherwise, it is just information. It should diagnose the real issue; the presenting question is often not the real issue due to complexity and lack of customer knowledge. It needs to be accessible and free at the point of use—and it needs to be trusted, with no real or perceived conflicts of interest. The guidance must be impartial to deliver these components because it requires the collation of personal information. The diagnosis of the customer’s choices may conflict with commercial drivers: for example, the customer may benefit from transferring from a high-charge contract to a new one. Guidance may be needed across all the customer’s financial means, both state and private.
Money guidance and pensions guidance are not regulated activities, so they cannot give customers a definitive course of action. But guidance that is independent and impartial can be more trusted to take the customer up to, but not into, the “decide and buy” or “decide and act” moment as there is no conflict; the guider has no vested interest in the customer’s decision.
The extent of guidance varies with customer need, but I will conclude with a simple published case. Its simplicity makes it all the more compelling. During the time when selling an annuity was under consideration, a customer who wanted to cash in their pension contacted the Pensions Advisory Service, having been told by another advisory body that they could cash it in. The guider discovered that it was an annuity in payment which could not then be cashed in or sold. On hearing that they could not sell it until April 2017, the customer replied, “But, dear, I will be 82 then. The issue is that my fridge freezer has broken. I have had it for 17 years and I cannot afford to buy a new one as I only have a state pension apart from this pension”. The conversation continued and the guider found that tax had been deducted from the annuity since it had been set up, despite the fact that the customer was not a taxpayer. The outcome was that the customer discovered that they had the option to keep the annuity and apply for a tax refund, with which they could buy a fridge freezer.
My Lords, I support Amendment 6, which I rather hope might prove uncontroversial. This is because, as I understand it, it is the Government’s firm policy intention that the services that the SFGB will commission will be free at the point of use to members of the public—as is the case with current arrangements. Given that what we are debating here are the arrangements for advice and guidance for individuals who are often in financial difficulty, certainly in the case of debt advice but also in other situations, this free-to-client principle is of such fundamental importance that it should be in the Bill.
On a separate point, the amendment uses the phrase “members of the public”—as does the Bill in relation to the SFGB’s functions and objectives. I would like clarification from the Minister that this phrase will include those members of the public who are self-employed. At Second Reading she referred to the body’s remit excluding micro-businesses, so clarification on the position of self-employed people would be welcome, in particular as they now account for 14% of the UK’s workforce. Indeed, the growth of self-employment has led to a significant increase in debt; self-employed people are increasingly taking out personal loans to finance their business needs, so the dividing line between personal debt and business debt is becoming increasingly blurred. Current arrangements for debt advice provision through the Money Advice Service do cover debt advice for people who are self-employed, and I would be grateful if the Minister could give us an assurance that this will continue.
My Lords, we support the amendments in this group. I start from the assumption that they are remedying a momentary lapse in the energy of the team that was drafting the Bill, because I cannot believe that the Government are not fully signed up to the principles that advice should be free at the point of use, and also both independent and impartial. So I, too, suggest that these amendments are surely uncontroversial and are useful to the Bill to make sure that the point is not lost, as they remedy those moments when long hours of work and not enough coffee made it difficult to remember every single issue that had to be grasped in the general drafting of a Bill of this complexity.
My Lords, it may come as no surprise that we on the Front Bench support my noble friend Lady Drake, for all the reasons that she and others mentioned this evening. Certainly, if advice was not free at the point of use, it would undermine the function and could create conflicts of interest, as my noble friend said. Issues around independence and impartiality are absolutely crucial. I am delighted to hear that HMRC had to cough up for a fridge—it is not a usual occurrence and I congratulate my noble friend on engineering that.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, that we entirely agree with the point about the self-employed. We have tabled an amendment on that later in the Bill and I hope that we will be able to make common cause on that as well.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for putting their names to the amendments in this group. They seek to amend the existing functions and objectives in the Bill to ensure that the body’s services are free at the point of use, that the guidance, information and advice provided is independent and impartial, and that the body provides its services broadly rather than focusing support in areas where provision is lacking.
Amendment 6, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Stevenson, specifies that any information, guidance or advice delivered by the new body or its delivery partners must be free. I note that this point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, as well. The Government absolutely agree that any help funded by the new body should be free at the point of use. The Government’s intention is to ensure that information and guidance are available to those who need it. We would not wish to prevent members of the public accessing help on the grounds of cost.
Pension Wise, the Pensions Advisory Service and the Money Advice Service currently offer free-to-client help and, as the Government noted in their consultation, the new body will do the same. Indeed, by bringing together pensions guidance, money guidance and debt advice in one organisation, the Government expect that savings will be made. As a result, we expect a greater proportion of levy funding to be made available for the delivery of front-line services to members of the public. I am grateful for the opportunity to address noble Lords’ concerns and will observe that Clause 5 confers on the Secretary of State powers of guidance and direction that may be used to prevent the new body entering into arrangements with fee-charging providers in the unlikely event that it should wish to do so.
Amendment 29, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, would alter the wording of the Bill to remove the requirement for the body to focus its support for the provision of information, advice and guidance on areas where it is lacking. I understand the concerns that the noble Baroness raised, and it is right to make the point that the new body’s responsibilities and functions are not relinquished simply because provision of some kind is already delivered by a third party. That is a very important point to stress. However, with respect, I do not think that the amendment is required in this instance.
It is important that the new body uses the funds it receives in a cost-effective way, thereby achieving maximum impact for members of the public. The current wording of the Bill aims to achieve this by ensuring that the body targets its activities towards those areas where information, advice and guidance are lacking. It would be helpful to explain what we mean by “lacking”. For example, provision may said to be lacking where it is not of the right quality, lacks impartiality—or, indeed, where it is absent altogether. As such, the Bill’s current wording ensures that the body carries out its functions in the most effective way possible, delivering value for money from public funding and avoiding unnecessary duplication.
As noble Lords will be aware, duplication of services with other providers was a key criticism of the Money Advice Service, both from the Treasury Select Committee and from Christine Farnish’s independent review. The Government are keen to ensure that the new body avoids this issue and have drafted legislation to reflect this. However, the proposed amendment could increase the likelihood of the new body duplicating existing and already adequate provision rather than complementing it, thereby compromising its ability to deliver value for money. Not focusing its activities on areas where support is lacking would increase the risk of leaving gaps in provision, to the detriment of members of the public.
Amendments 28, 30 and 32, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, would alter the wording of the Bill to include a requirement for the information, guidance and advice delivered by the body to be independent and impartial. The Government agree with the intent behind the amendments. Of course, it is important that information and guidance provided by the body is both impartial and independent from commercial interests. Members of the public must be confident that information and guidance provided by the body or on its behalf is trustworthy and accurate, and that it is not designed to sell particular financial services products—a point stressed by the noble Baroness.
The advantage of setting up an arm’s-length body will be that it is independent from central government and from industry. As a result, the new body will be separate from commercial and government interests, and will be able to offer information, guidance and advice exclusively focused on helping members of the public. In conclusion, the new body is designed to be both independent and impartial. For this reason, the Government believe the proposed amendment to be unnecessary.
The question of the self-employed was raised in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and also by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. Members of the public who are self-employed will be included. The body is focused on individuals. In the case of businesses, even a micro-business—which might be just one or two individuals running a business, either incorporated or however it is formed—is not covered. All individuals, including the self-employed, will be counted as members of the public.
Will the Minister take away and think through this issue? Their Lordships have been perfectly correct in saying that many people who are self-employed raise a personal loan that then finances their business activity. Historically, there would have been relatively little overlap between these categories. When people went to a bank, the category would have been specifically personal or business. In today’s world, particularly with people borrowing from peer-to-peer platforms and through various other internet mechanisms, that clarity has disappeared. I would not want to see—as I am sure this House and the Government would not—an adviser caught in a particularly awkward trap, trying to work out whether they are talking about an individual or have tripped over into a prohibited category because the funds are used for a business. Therefore, clarity around this will be crucial.
I will certainly take the point away—it was well made. I assure the noble Baroness that this should be part of the whole development of the service, whereby there is very clear signposting on the part of the adviser when talking to any individual to make sure that they understand that it is about their personal finances; it is not about finances that are in any way connected with their business.
Many of the jobs we have created since 2010 are sole-trader jobs. Is it not the case that there is no meaningful distinction in sole-trader jobs between personal finance and business finance?
As I just said, we will need to take back and clarify this point. My understanding is certainly that we should focus on an individual’s finances, as opposed to finances attached to their business.
Once again, I thank noble Lords for bringing forward these amendments. I hope they will agree that they are unnecessary in the context of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lords because we have had the opportunity to make it clear—it will be clear in Hansard—that it is unnecessary to put into the Bill additional terminology. I urge the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, not to press their amendments.
I thank the Minister for her reply. We are in danger of breaking out into agreement, because I agreed with a lot of what she said. However, the Bill does not state what the intention is. I completely agree with the body being cost effective. I do not want to engage in duplication. I agree with its focus on the front line and that it must identify and address where information and guidance are lacking. I do not believe that any of my amendments contradict any of those requirements or the desirable directions that the Government want to take. But when the body seeks to implement the objective of identifying where something is lacking—and therefore where it has a footprint and something to do—there is a test to be met, and there is no guidance or reference or indication of any kind in the Bill as to how that test would be met. My argument is that of course one would not want to be too prescriptive but that independence and impartiality must be the essential characteristics of any test.
This will be a controversial area. There are lots of private sector guidance and information functions. There will be contests over where the boundary of the footprint of the single financial guidance body ends and commercial practice begins. I do not want to detract from the Government’s aspiration for the body but I think there is a gap, because there is no legal or legislative guidance for the test to determine what is lacking. I ask the Minister to reflect on that. I said at Second Reading that if ever there was a word that needed testing, it was “lacking”. If something is lacking, there has to be a test to identify that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord Sharkey
7: Clause 2, page 2, line 16, at end insert— “( ) In relation to the strategic function, such advice to the Secretary of State may include advocating for the introduction of a period of up to 12 months during which time interest and other charges on an individual’s debts may be frozen, and enforcement action halted, in order to allow them time to seek and act upon debt advice.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 7, I shall speak also to Amendment 23. These amendments, in my name and those of my noble friends Lady Kramer and Lord Kirkwood, concern debt moratoriums, and cold calling for the benefit of debt management services and pensions providers or advisers.
Both issues were discussed extensively at Second Reading. Along with other noble Lords, we asked why there was no provision in the Bill for a debt moratorium or a ban on cold calling. I made the point that much cold calling for fee-paying debt management services has been found by the FCA to be misleading and damaging and affected the most financially disadvantaged. I also noted that we do not allow cold calling for mortgages and we should not allow it for debt management, pensions or claims management.
The problem represented by cold calling is getting worse. Truecaller, a call-blocking service, produced research last week that shows Britain’s cold-calling nuisance to be the worst in Europe. The number of spam calls has risen by an astonishing 180% in the past 10 months. We are now bombarded with 2.6 million calls a month—more than 31 million calls per year—despite new rules intended to limit the problem. This is a completely unsatisfactory situation, as is the absence of a debt moratorium.
“A breathing space scheme could help people affected by serious debt by stopping creditor enforcement and freezing further interest and charges on unpaid debt”.
A stronger version of this statement appears as a commitment on page 60 of the 2017 Conservative manifesto. The Minister went on to say:
“However, breathing space legislation would be lengthy and complex. As such, any breathing space legislation would need to be properly prepared and consulted upon, and Treasury Ministers will outline further details in due course”.—[Official Report, 5/7/17; col. 943.]
This is not promising. The two-year legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech does not provide a suitable legislative vehicle for future action on breathing space. This is not at all surprising when you consider the complexity of the inevitable difficulties with the Brexit Bills that were in the Queen’s Speech, but it is bad news for those in serious debt.
The Minister said much the same things and gave the same reasons for not producing the already promised ban on cold calling for pensions. She said:
“It is a complex area that requires careful and detailed consultation with stakeholders during the year. In particular, there are questions of how to define existing relationships and how to deal with referrals and third parties. As such, we do not propose to include a cold-calling ban in the Bill at this time”.
Again, this is very disappointing. As the Minister noted, pension scams can cost people their life savings and leave them facing retirement with no opportunity to build up their pension savings again. That is a catastrophic risk. Surely it is the duty of government to act very quickly to protect people against that risk.
The Minister was equally discouraging about cold calling by CMCs. She said simply that,
“strengthening the regulation of claims management services should reduce the number of nuisance calls”.—[
She said “should” not “would”, and “reduce” not “stop”. This is entirely unsatisfactory, as the airline and holiday industries are currently and loudly pointing out. The huge and absurd rise in claims for food poisoning while on holiday abroad is a clear example of cold-calling abuse.
Our amendments address both the breathing space and the cold-calling issues. We would have preferred to amend the Bill to institute the former and ban the latter, but the scope of the Bill is narrow and to stay in scope our amendments stop short of that. Instead, Amendment 7 allows the SFGB to advocate to the Secretary of State that a breathing space be introduced. Amendment 23 requires the SFGB to publish an annual assessment of,
“the extent to which consumer detriment is caused”,
by the absence of a breathing space and a ban on cold calling for the benefit of debt management services and pension providers or advisers.
However, these are only approaches to a resolution. There is a better way. The Government could table, later in Committee or on Report, a simple amendment which gives the Secretary of State the power to bring forward secondary legislation to introduce a debt moratorium and to ban cold calling for DMCs, pension providers and advisers, and CMCs; with a corresponding and minor tweak to the Long Title. It is perhaps a little unusual for an opposition party to suggest a Henry VIII clause to the Government; the convention is normally that it is the other way round. But since it is clear that the Government agree in principle with these moves and the only barrier is one of time, we could use this legislative vehicle—the Bill before us—to achieve what the Government have already promised.
If the Government do not do this, we see no likelihood in the next two years of helping those seriously in debt or in danger of being fleeced by cold calling. That is much too long and quite unnecessary. We should use the Bill to give the Government the power to protect those at risk. This is in the Government’s hands. Might I suggest that we meet to discuss this unusual proposal as a matter of urgency? I beg to move.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, to introduce a breathing space, and I have very much sympathy and agreement with his proposal that cold calling should be banned. He is right to say that cold calling has become a complete menace. It has, and it is getting worse by the month. I receive all kinds of spam texts and calls to my mobile, telling me I have debts and saying, “Would you not like us to help you repay them or have them written off?”. These people are a complete menace. The worst thing is that young people are taken in by them.
Of course, a lot of the problem is caused by lenders putting out offers of very cheap money to hard-up people, young and old, who are tempted to take advantage of 0% for 20 or 24 months. Then in very small type somewhere at the bottom it says that, after a relatively long period, the interest rate applicable to these loans will change from 1% or 0.8% to an APR of anything from 25% to 37%, or even higher. I would think it utterly reasonable that some kind of moratorium be put in place to protect people who have been tricked into taking out loans of the kind that I have just described.
Equally I am very nervous, as I am sure my noble friend the Minister is, about the Government taking on the responsibility to enforce a debt moratorium, because that would interfere in the market. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, pointed out to my amazement that lenders expect only 9% or 10% of debts to be repaid—in certain categories, I assume. That figure caused me huge surprise but, if a debt moratorium were in effect, I am sure that lenders would assume that even less will be repaid. This means it will affect the functioning of the market, to the extent that it will cost entrepreneurs and other people with properly managed debt plans more.
It is a delicate balance. I have considerable sympathy with the protection that a debt breathing space system would provide, but a lot of risks also need to be taken into account. However, something should be done about all the very cheap loans that last for up to two years until suddenly the interest rate shoots up, perhaps from less than 1% to about 30%, because they are the cause of a lot of individuals’ problems.
My Lords, I echo the wise words of my noble friend Lord Trenchard and certainly support the spirit of these amendments. It is right that we in the Committee should debate the concept of the single financial guidance body being able to help the Government in circumstances where the market is failing customers in a significant manner, such as has just been described. We all know that people are being enticed with teaser rates into debts that they are ultimately unlikely to be able to afford to repay. This is sometimes because salespeople are rewarded for the loans that they manage to get people to take on but do not necessarily stay around to worry about whether that debt is ultimately going to be repaid.
I also support the concept of banning cold calling. We will come to other amendments later on the claims management side. I would echo the concept in those on cold calling for pensions. The unsolicited approaches to people, enticing them to do things that are not in their interest, is a real problem. We would be wise to see whether we can find ways to address that while we are concerned with the financial circumstances of the general public in the context of the Bill.
My Lords, we are not having much success with our amendments here on the other side. I had hoped that the climate of a Government not having a clear majority in either House and the general spirit of wanting to work together on improving things would allow them to put at least one change of wording into the Bill as it stands, if nothing else. But I see that the tyranny of the Bill is with us still, and that there is a determination in the serried ranks of those looking with stern faces from the sidelines to ensure that Ministers do not depart in a single way from the track by showing weakness. In fact, we think they would be strengthening the Bill by accepting some of our amendments.
At this moment, we are giving them two options for the breathing space. The very good amendment put down in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, is echoed by Amendment 41, which is in my name and that of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, whom I thank very much for their support. There is a bit of a movement across the House that the time has come for a breathing space. I hope that the response to this amendment will be better than there was before.
As has been said—I said this on an earlier amendment—it would be much better if the Long Title of the Bill were such that it would take a real policy direction, and that the amendments were therefore not curtailed in the way that they are. We are having to seek that the body, as part of a strategic function, has generalised powers. Would we go as far as a Henry VIII power? I think that our arms could be twisted on that. As the Minister is aware, they have been offered on previous occasions; in debating the Digital Economy Bill, we were almost throwing Henry VIII powers at them. But they would not take them, the tyranny of the Bill being so strong.
Here is another option: there is no doubt that a scheme called breathing space has been working well in Scotland. It has done so now for nearly 10 years and been through three or four refinements. Some of the questions raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, have therefore already been addressed there, and I do not think he would find it quite so bad. I know that the noble Viscount is shocked by having the curtain of secrecy torn down regarding what happens in the creditors’ dark rooms when they discover that they have unpayable debts. However, I can tell him that if a breathing space is built in, as it has been in Scotland, it is possible to get returns to creditors that are much nearer the full 100% which they seek. We may be talking about 60%, 70% or 80%. Indeed, in the Scottish system the debt arrangement scheme has a pretty good record of getting 90% or 95% back to the creditors.
The noble Viscount should not be too worried about small entrepreneurs and others, when this is not their province. We are talking about household bills, credit card companies, banks and, increasingly, the Inland Revenue—it has money to spare, has it not? We are talking about local authorities, store cards and utility companies. These are the bodies creating the conditions, not necessarily in any destructive sense, under which it is too easy for people to borrow beyond their means to repay. The spiral of debt moves very fast when they suddenly get into it and find themselves in a hopeless situation. In StepChange—I am sure it was true of the other debt advice organisations—our best day in the year for business, but our worst day because of what was happening, was
One theme that we have not addressed in the Bill so far, but which I want to nail now, is the real problem there is in getting people to engage with the services that are available. We can label or signpost them—we can do what we like—but getting people to move from the vague realisation that there is a problem to actually seeking help in a constructive way that will get them out of their debt is the hidden problem. As well as making sure that the bodies we set up through the Bill work with the sole purpose of making sure that the consumer or individual citizen is at the heart of what they do, we have to recognise that we are not doing it well at the moment and there is still a long way to go.
Research carried out when I was at StepChange showed, I think, that it took about a year from people’s first indication of problems with their debts to seeking a debt management plan and going ahead with one. It must therefore be right that we all make every effort we can to ensure that there are systems, bodies, organisations, structures, mechanisms and techniques that will get people on to a way that gets them out of the debt, because the damage is so great. The breathing space scheme works in Scotland, and it is not difficult to see how it could be adapted to work in England. At the moment, there is no statutory scheme. We are talking about a breathing space period where interests, charges and collection activities are postponed without a requirement to make payments. That would give people time to seek advice and stabilise their finances enough for their debt adviser to recommend how to get out of it.
There is another thing about debt advice. I meant to make this point on an earlier amendment, and I apologise for getting carried away by what we were trying to do when we were discussing names. The physical product of most debt advice that is being exchanged in return for people’s engagement is a budget, which most people do not have. I am guilty of this, and most people in the Chamber probably are as well, as I do not have absolute certainty about where every penny of the very limited number of pennies I have under my direct control goes every month. Multiply that by the 63 million people in this country and you recognise that there is a bit of a problem here. If you ask them, people have no idea of what they are doing with their money. When I first went to Step Change, I was told that of 100 people who rang it, 30 people were obviously suitable to go straight on to a debt management plan and did, but about 10 of them actually had enough money to sort out their problems but did not know it. It was a question of going through every item of their expenditure line by line and making them believe that it was going to be all right and that, although it might take four or five years, there was certainly a solution. They did have the money, but they just did not realise it.
There is both a very simple solution to a lot of the problems we are seeing and a very complicated one, but both would benefit from having time to work through the options and to make sure that people are signed on and can go forward and get out of debt. We have to crack getting people. I think the Minister used the phrase “hot keying”, and I agree. If you catch them at any point in the cycle, hold on to them. Make them do something about their problem. Get them engaged and excited—and not only will you get them out of their debt problems but they will get an educational experience. It is only when people are in the crisis of not knowing what they are going to do, how they are going spend their money and whether they have enough cash to buy a meal for the kids that evening that they begin to feel, “I must get out of this and get it right in future”. That is what we must do.
When you can get a breathing space in, it is a sensible solution. It would work. The problem is that the Bill as currently constructed does not easily allow us to put this in as an amendment, but at the very least can we make sure that the powers exist for this to be taken as the next step forward, because it is certainly worth supporting?
My Lords, on cold calling, my mother suffered from dementia and, in the early stages, before we realised quite was the problem was, we were very concerned about attempts to defraud her, so I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that it is a problem not just for young people but for the elderly and the increasing number of people with dementia. I welcome that aspect of the debate.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for tabling Amendment 41, to which I was pleased to add my name. I am grateful for the expertise on this issue that he brings to the Committee with his long involvement with StepChange. It has been good to hear the Government’s concern for those who have been left behind and for families who are struggling. I welcome that their manifesto said:
“We will adopt a ‘Breathing Space’ scheme, with the right safeguards to prevent abuse, so that someone in serious problem debt may apply for legal protection from further interest, charges and enforcement action for a period of up to six weeks”.
That is a very welcome commitment from the Government. I think the noble Lord is just seeking to help the Government to meet that commitment as soon as possible.
As treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, I am particularly concerned about the way that family debt impacts on children. We know from Children’s Society research that, where a family has multiple creditors, the children fare worst. This welcome breathing space scheme would enable multiple creditors to be held at bay for a period of six weeks. What often happens is that, just because one creditor will not agree, there will not be that breathing space and proper planning cannot be put in place, so this is a very important proposal.
As a particular example, I think about care leavers. Until fairly recently, one-third of them left local authority care at the age of 16, and more recently one-quarter of them left at that age. We are making further progress on that. They are young, they have had trauma and they are out in world fairly unsupported. Over the past 15 years, as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, I have heard many young people talking about how they got into debt and about issues about paying for their housing. We know that care leavers are historically overrepresented among rough sleepers, often because they have fallen into debt around housing.
I can give as an example Emma—I shall call her Emma—who sought advice from Toynbee Hall. She was a care leaver. In 2015, she began a zero-hours contract. She had council housing, but she fell into debt, so over the course of about a year and half she was being pursued by the council for not paying her council tax and rent arrears and by a number of non-priority creditors. This caused her a great deal of stress. At the end of 2016, she got herself a regular job and was able to get a plan and begin to pay her debts off. How much better for that young woman if help had been there at the beginning of 2015. She would not have had to go through that and the creditors would have got their payment. At times, she was having to choose whether to eat, pay her rent or pay her debts. I hope the Minister can give a sympathetic response to the amendment.
My Lords, I apologise for not having been present at Second Reading. I rise to express my support the generation of this new body on condition that it leads to an increase in resources for front-line services. I particularly support Amendment 41, although I also support the comments made about cold calling.
I am sure I am not alone in receiving endless calls from single mums, in particular, with young children, who are desperate because of their debts which are mounting week by week. We all know the burgeoning use of food banks and the interminable queues at citizens advice bureaux of desperate people seeking help.
The breathing space proposal has cross-party support. It is so obviously badly needed, and urgently so. The fact that 60% of people offered this service were enabled to stabilise their debt and begin working towards solving their problems is surely evidence enough that the introduction of a breathing space programme should not be delayed.
Some 2.4 million children are living in families with problem debt in England and Wales. What proportion of these children’s parents have mental health problems? I suggest that an extremely high percentage of those parents are suffering from depression and anxiety or both, yet the services for these disorders remain inadequate to say the very least. Our mental health services are under huge pressure, and they certainly do not need the addition of more clients because of these horrendous debt problems.
In 50 years or so of being quite close to poverty and unemployment, I have never known a benefits system so harsh, so inclined to sanction claimants and to cut or remove benefits and so limited a level of benefits available to people out of work. It is difficult to imagine that those claimants can avoid debt, even at the best of times, but once debt begins to build, resolution of the problem quickly becomes impossible. I urge the Government to take seriously Amendment 41 and the other amendments in this group.
My Lords, I, too, rise to speak in support of Amendment 41. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Children’s Society.
In the area covered by the Diocese of Newcastle, the Children’s Society data tell me that there are more than 42, 000 children living in poverty and that almost 18,000 children from almost 16,000 families are living with the blight of problem debt. Last year, I read a report in the New York Times on a large, randomised trial involving 21,000 people on the efficacy of various aid mechanisms to bring people out of poverty and debt. What emerged surprised the researchers. It emerged that one key mechanism is more effective than any other, and that mechanism is hope. Families that are stressed and trapped in poverty and debt can feel real hopelessness that becomes entirely self-fulfilling. Give people a reason to hope, and it can make an extraordinary and real difference.
A breathing space is one of the things that can offer such a hope—a hope that there is time to find a way through. I am sure the Minister is aware of the long-running campaign of the Children’s Society and StepChange to achieve a breathing space scheme for those in problem debt. I understand that, prior to the election, the Government indicated their support for the principle of such a scheme, and I would be very grateful if the Minister could update us now as to the current situation and about any further progress on this.
My Lords, I do not want to delay this debate, which has been a very important one. This is the most important issue for me in the first 16 clauses. I share the frustration that has been reflected by powerful speeches from colleagues including my noble friend on the Front Bench, who made an excellent speech about the significance of the proposal in this group of amendments, particularly the breathing space provisions.
One of the reasons why this is so important is that debt, I think, is going to get worse, which is probably a realistic assumption to make for the next four or five years. I have spent my entire life working on the benefits, social security and social protection side of state provision. It is increasingly untenable that the calculation of means testing takes no account whatever of levels of benefit. People might well be applying for universal credit now, and being allowed work allowances and tapers that are appropriate to a clean sheet of paper, but no question is ever asked of decision-makers about to what extent the household debt behind the application affects the family circumstances—which affects child poverty, as the right reverend the Prelate Bishop of Newcastle just pointed out to some effect. This is the most important part of the Bill for me.
This also puzzles me because I come from Scotland and absolutely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said. For 10 years now, this system has been tried and tested there, and there is no doubt about the fact that it works. I know there are rumours that people in Scotland are particularly stingy and difficult when it comes to how they spend their money—particularly on the west coast of Scotland late on a Friday night—but it seems self-evident to me that consultations with jurisdictions in other parts of the country are part of what we should be doing in a new devolved United Kingdom. I would have expected the department to go across the border to make urgent and active inquiries into exactly what ingredients in Scotland have made this successful.
Indeed, you can argue it the other way round: it is not a good thing to have this level of disparity across the United Kingdom when the body we are setting up is UK-wide. The best practice that Scotland has demonstrated is being ignored—almost wilfully, if I can put it as strongly as that—through the position the Government are taking. Both the cold calling and the breathing space provisions are popular things to do. The Government would not be attacked by anybody I would think of as reasonable on either of these two important subjects. I do not understand why the Government are not being a bit more responsive to the unanswerable claims made in powerful speeches earlier this afternoon. I think the Government will lose in this House if they do not make some amendments, and solutions have been offered.
I know Governments do not like tinkering with Long Titles. I was a Whip for long enough to learn that, and it is not something I would want to start doing a lot myself. But there is a case to be made for my noble friend’s point about the small change needed to shoehorn these two important subjects into consideration so that they can be addressed more directly—and, if I may say so, in a more adult way than we are doing at the moment by trying to look round corners and use smoke and mirrors—to achieve an objective that we all think is sensible.
My plea to the Minister, who is very good at responding to these things and considering them further, is that she carefully consider particularly the breathing space proposal. It will dog the rest of the Bill’s proceedings if the Government and the department do not offer a compromise that enables one or both of these important issues to be addressed more directly.
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for their positive contributions so far on the passage of the Bill, particularly in relation to this important debate. Noble Lords have raised important issues such as indebtedness, the introduction of a breathing space scheme and protecting individuals from pensions and debt-management cold calling. I welcome the opportunity to talk about these significant issues.
Clause 2 sets out the functions and objectives of the single financial guidance body. An important function of the new body is to work with others in the financial services industry, the devolved authorities, and the public and voluntary sectors, to support and co-ordinate the development of a national strategy to improve financial capability, the ability of people to manage debt and the provision of financial education to children and young people. I say that up front, because it is important when we are thinking about how this body will evolve that the strategic function means that the body will work with others rather than in isolation. That is why we refer to its “strategic” function.
The amendments tabled by noble Lords seek to specify in statute that the body, in discharging this function, will need to focus on reviewing the case for a breathing space. This would include considering the impact of not having such a scheme, reviewing the insolvency schemes available and considering the impact of not banning pensions and debt-management cold calling.
I will first talk about the breathing space issue, which probably all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have raised. The amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, seeks to give the single financial guidance body the ability to specifically advocate for the introduction of a breathing space scheme. The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, seeks to give the single financial guidance body a specific requirement in respect of its strategic function, which is to review the case for the introduction of a statutory breathing space scheme.
The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, seeks to give the single financial guidance body a specific requirement in respect of its strategic function. It would require the body annually to assess the extent to which consumer detriment is caused by, or contributed to by, pensions and debt-management cold calling and the lack of a moratorium for debt recovery, also known as a breathing space. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord noted during Second Reading that the level of overindebtedness among the UK population is of increasing concern—a concern I share with all noble Lords this evening.
As I said at Second Reading, the Government recognise that the cost of living can sometimes become too great. Problem debt can be hard to escape and can compound family breakdown, worklessness, stress and mental health issues, along with other issues such as those raised particularly eloquently by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I understand that the breathing space is of particular interest to noble Lords and that some expressed disappointment that a breathing space scheme was not provided for in the Bill. But I would like to reassure noble Lords that the Government are committed to tackling problem debt. The Government’s manifesto, as noble Lords have referenced this evening, proposed the introduction of a statutory breathing space scheme and statutory debt repayment plan. This is an important and complex issue. It requires thorough preparation and consultation on details, such as who could be eligible, which debts could be in scope and how someone could enter into a breathing space.
It is of the utmost importance that we get this right. Indeed, the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, sets out that there are a range of important policy questions that have to be considered. In addition, the numerous points raised by noble Lords this evening demonstrate, I believe, the need to proceed on this issue with care. We have to get it right. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referenced that terrible day in the year,
Just having a breathing space will be progress, but perhaps it is also about encouraging a cultural shift. Maybe that is simply through financial education, but maybe also through the process of managing the breathing space and drafting the legislation so that it can encompass a truly in-depth approach. Prevention is really what I am referring to here. As all noble Lords have said this evening, debt is becoming more and more of a problem. Indeed, the point my noble friend Lord Trenchard referenced is also important: how do we deal with this issue and avoid unintended consequences —as we all know, so much legislation ends up with unintended consequences—for the markets? We have to think about the whole issue with care.
I want to reassure noble Lords that the Government are committed to developing a breathing space scheme. Work is ongoing and the Government will set out their plans for taking this proposal forward in due course. Placing a statutory duty on the body to review the case and advocate for a breathing space is therefore, we believe, not necessary. I urge the noble Lords to withdraw these amendments.
My Lords, every journey starts with a single step. We are not able to put in as an amendment the existing scheme—which has been through another Parliament close to here, has worked for 10 years and has answered all the questions that were on the lips of the noble Baroness—because the long title does not encompass it. We have put down a second-order amendment, but if we have to wait for an entire financial education edifice to be created and think about a cultural revolution in the way people deal with their credit card bills on
I hear what the noble Lord says, but I want to assure noble Lords that, as I said, the Government are seriously considering this issue. I take slight exception to the inference from the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that the Government are not doing anything. Why would the Government put this in their manifesto if they were not doing anything? The Government believe in this in principle; they simply want to get it right.
Noble Lords may laugh, but I have the advantage of having been at the other Dispatch Box in opposition when noble Lords opposite were in government. We suffered continually from the inability to get that Government to introduce and think about really important measures like this. That is why the situation has become so much worse over the past 19 years that I have been in your Lordships’ House. But we want to get this right.
I think the Minister may have misread noble Lords’ tone and intent. As everyone has said, there is common ground on this issue across all the Benches. Everyone is attempting to put in a breathing space and everyone wants to stop cold calling. The Minister’s argument is that the amendments have been twisted to come into the scope of this Bill. They are not the ideal amendments and everybody has said so. But in response to the discussion that has taken place across this House—a discussion that these amendments enabled—would the Government look at making a small amendment to the Long Title to enable the introduction of powers through statutory instrument? This could introduce both the breathing space and the stop on cold calling, without describing exactly how that is done, so the Government would have the opportunity to think through those complexities.
This measure is being proposed because the legislative timetable means that no vehicle other than this Bill is available for at least 24 months to make those changes. The Government may be ready to make the changes three months from now, but will find themselves without any legislative vehicle to enable them to do so. A small change here could enable the Government to act on the timetable they have identified, but which they now have no mechanism for because of the way the legislative timetable is playing out. Perhaps I am being confusing, but I am trying to make the point clear.
My Lords, I understand entirely and accept what the noble Baroness is saying. Indeed I understand that that is the purpose of all noble Lords who have spoken this evening. However, I take issue with the idea that there is no legislative opportunity over the next two years. The Government have made it very clear that we will not be confining ourselves to Bills relating to our departure from the European Union. There will be other opportunities to legislate in these important areas, but we want to make sure that when we do it, we get it right. It is important that I address—
Can the noble Baroness particularise for us the Bills mentioned in the Queen’s Speech for the next two years that might be used to this effect?
No, I cannot do that at the moment and I think it is unfair to ask me to set out the Bills that could be used at this time. What I am saying, though, is that noble Lords should not presume that there are no other opportunities to bring forward legislation over the next two-year period, other than those relating to the departure from the European Union—
I am sorry, but other than a Private Member’s Bill—I think even all the Private Member’s Bills have been allocated over the next two years—I am not sure it is possible to identify such a vehicle. If it is, we would all feel much comforted. A reassurance that such a vehicle is coming within a reasonable timeframe would be very helpful, but we cannot see one.
I hear what the noble Baroness is saying, but I stick to what I said before: there may be opportunities in the coming few sessions or so. The important thing is that we want to take this forward with care, and we are very committed to it in principle.
I should also refer to cold calling and the question the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, raised. We are consulting on pensions cold calling, but the situation is different from mortgages cold calling. We have consulted on banning pensions cold calling through legislation, while a ban on mortgages cold calling has been put in place through FCA rules. Legislating to ban cold calling makes the activity illegal and therefore sends a stronger message to members of the public to put down the phone.
There are already measures in place to tackle unsolicited calls more broadly. The Information Commissioner’s Office enforces restrictions on unsolicited direct marketing, and the Digital Economy Act, passed earlier this year, required it to issue a statutory code of practice on direct marketing activities. The code will include guidance for direct marketing organisations on complying with the law, including the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (EC Directive) 2003, and the upcoming data protection Bill. Unsolicited direct marketing calls to a person who has not agreed to be contacted are illegal.
In view of what the Minister is saying about the measures in place to reduce cold calling, does she think that they are a success so far, with a 180% increase in the past 10 months and now 2.6 million calls a month? Where are the signs of success in reducing cold calling?
The Government take the threat of scams and the whole issue of cold calling very seriously. On the specific issue of pension scams, the Government launched a consultation in December 2016, looking at three potential interventions. These included a ban on cold calling to help stop fraudsters contacting individuals. The Government plan to publish the response to that consultation shortly, which will set out the intended next steps—but, throughout the consultation period and during engagement with stakeholders, it became clear that this is a complex area. For example, where the consultation said that the ban would not extend to existing relationships, respondents highlighted the potential difficulty in defining existing relationships and ensuring that legislation is appropriately worded.
It is clear that this policy requires careful and detailed consultation as we further develop plans. We do not propose to extend this ban to debt management cold calling. We have focused on pension scams because they can have such a detrimental impact on individuals. Pension scams can cost people their life savings and leave them facing retirement with limited income and little or no opportunity to build their pension savings back up. I should add that, at the same time, we have sought to increase standards in the debt management sector by requiring organisations to be authorised by the FCA.
I assure noble Lords again that the Government take the issue of problem debt and cold calling very seriously. Work is ongoing in these areas. I do not think that the amendments would add value to the new body’s functions—and, although I appreciate noble Lords’ intentions, this is not the right time or the right place to amend the Bill, so I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to officials in the Box. They are doing a brilliant job. I took to heart his reference to them as if they are just there to be difficult. They are doing a superb job.
I feel humbled if in any sense what I was saying was taken as a criticism of the wonderful work that is being done to make sure that the good things in the Bill get done. I in no sense intended to say that, and I hope that the officials will accept my apology, gracefully given. I was trying to say that there is a mentality growing about the tyranny of the Bill, which is set up in part because those who have responsibility for drafting it—not always Ministers—feel very attached to it, having gone through the process, done the consultations and decided things. It is inevitable and perfectly understandable that they do not want to see it changed. I was making a light quip at Ministers. If I were in their position, I would probably be saying exactly the same thing—but it does not make it right.
Before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment, I thank the Minister for her kind words to me. I gently remind her that the right reverend Prelate had her name attached to Amendment 41 as well. It has been a very difficult and bruising time recently, and we now have the breathing space of summer, so I welcome the Minister’s reaffirmed commitment to reintroducing breathing space eventually. It is reassuring that there is work going on to look at how these measures will be brought about. I hope that, after the breathing space of the summer, we may perhaps have a more fruitful conversation in the autumn. I thank her for her reply.
I thank the noble Earl. Of course, I take very seriously everything that noble Lords have said in this evening’s debate and will take it back to the department to think it through carefully between now and Report.
I start by thanking all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I think it is true that all supported the general principles behind all three amendments. As I am sure the Minister will have expected, I am disappointed by her response. Both amendments are obviously entirely benign and useful, and I am disappointed that she has not taken up my suggestion of a meeting to discuss the Henry VIII proposal. I believe that the Government are seriously considering both a moratorium and how to deal with cold calling—I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would disagree with that. We believe that the Government are taking it seriously and are doing what they can. That is not the issue; the issue is timing.
I also agree that we need to proceed with care—as the Minister pointed out, these are complex issues—but, above all, we need to proceed. Giving the Secretary of State powers to institute by secondary legislation will significantly bring forward the point at which we can institute a debt moratorium and ban cold calling. The sooner we do that, the more people we protect and the more people we rescue from debt. The issue of timing is important.
I understand that it is difficult to answer the questions asked about legislative vehicles, but it would be immensely reassuring to the Committee to hear more specific answers to the questions, “Likely, when? Likely, how? Likely with what vehicle?”. In the absence of those answers, it is perfectly reasonable for us to say that we think we need more definite speed, which is what we propose.
I am sure that we will return to the issues on Report, when I hope that we can focus on producing a moratorium on debt and a ban on cold calling. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.47 pm.