Tackling Financial Exclusion (Financial Exclusion Report) - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 18 December 2017.

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Photo of The Bishop of Birmingham The Bishop of Birmingham Convenor of the Lords Spiritual 7:00, 18 December 2017

My Lords, as we resume the debate on Tackling Financial Exclusion: A Country that Works for Everyone?, there can be no more poignant reminder of the issues raised in the committee’s report and the seriousness with which we need to take its challenge. As the Bishop of Kensington said in the service just mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, we can be too wrapped up in our own interests and prosperity, but we might just now turn outwards towards each other—a society known for listening, compassion and love.

As noble Lords have heard, the Select Committee did a lot of listening and we know that finance affects every person in the land, from the poorest to the richest. Our knowledge and appreciation of the many interventions, whether the basic bank account promotion, the control of payday lending or the encouragement of education in personal and household budgeting, has increased. Our imagination has also been stimulated and sometimes appalled by the testimony of those not included in the ordinary money transactions most of the population take for granted. In her introductory remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, mentioned some of the statistics that back that up.

We are on a journey. There have been some achievements, going back as far as the government strategy of 2004, the taskforce of 2005 and the commission that reported in 2015. The present Government’s response to the committee’s findings is also welcome, if, as the Minister will have already realised, some of us think it has been a bit too mild. There is a long way to go towards full financial inclusion, the lack of which, in a mature economy, illustrates starkly the relationship between poverty and power, between the person and the policy, between the micro and the macro, and the breathtaking inequalities in income, housing, health and education already mentioned by several speakers this evening.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to just a few of the many recommendations in this complex subject that have already been referred to in the debate so far, from chapter 7, “Credit and Borrowing” and chapter 8, “Welfare Reform”. The sharp reduction in payday lending by regulatory action made us face up to the ease with which it is possible to fall into unmanageable debt. Other reasons have also been mentioned tonight, including gambling. Other high-cost credit areas, again referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, being reviewed by the Financial Conduct Authority, should also be considered for regulation, as in recommendation 16. What is the timetable for the Financial Conduct Authority policy review on further interventions, mentioned in the government response at paragraph 5.41? At the same time, further support for the affordable credit industry should be provided, with, as we have heard, investment capital rather than grant or revenue funding. This, if supported, could be directed especially at credit unions such as the effective but underfunded Advance Credit Union at Erdington in my own diocese. What specific targets would the Government support for this ambition, as in paragraph 5.50? Alongside the well-needed, well-designed support there also need to be light-touch fees and regulatory regimes appropriate for these small and medium-sized financial enterprises.

The fruit of these recommendations, if we needed any incentive, will be seen in the removal or reduction of the poverty premium and, beyond that, the possibility of people beginning to save for the first time in their lives. Chapter 8, “Welfare Reform” deals with how the ordinary ambitions of people trying to participate responsibly in the economy have been hindered by the implementation of the worthy ideals of universal credit. Here, we recommended the abolition of the seven-day waiting period and flexibility in the frequency of payments. I note the Government’s optimism in paragraphs 5.51 to 5.55, but we have to realise that the tragic consequences of the failure of tightly managed household budgets are seen at food banks and places of welcome all over the country. Those applying for universal credit are being given impressive support by the Just Finance Foundation and Just Finance Black Country, by the Good Things Foundation, supported by Lloyds Banking Group, by Christians Against Poverty with its debt centres, four of which are in Birmingham, and by other money advice centres.

These actions and most of the issues raised in the committee’s report are well documented close to the people; for example, in my own area by the Birmingham Financial Inclusion Partnership, which I commend to the Minister. By way of general requests, in addition to the challenge to the Government to attend to the 14 other recommendations that have not so far been tackled, will the Minister recognise and commit to the need for the continuous, top-level leadership from government mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, in focusing on the multiple remedies to reduce financial exclusion? I know various people have been named tonight as being responsible, but this matter is so complex and serious for the welfare and inclusion of the whole population in our successful economy that it needs the very highest level of attention and a report back to this House.

Will the Minister give further support to those local authorities that have well worked out but underresourced strategies for reducing financial exclusion? Thirdly, will he recognise and give vigorous support to the role of the NGO, charity and faith sectors in meeting personal needs, both for practical, life-saving assistance and sustainable money advice? In the minute left to me, I express the hope that in future we may take time to reflect at the macro level on the bigger question of the meaning and uses of money and to examine our own assumptions about the systems we operate. In a city where Winterval, if I may mention this to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has been abolished in favour of religious traditions from all backgrounds, perhaps we might, at this end of term, look to the vulnerable baby with an unmarried, teenage mother and a compassionate foster father, who had the attention of rich philosophers, poor shepherds, powerful governors, a reluctant innkeeper and even joyful angels; a baby who grew up to teach that crumbs from the table were not enough and that nothing less than a much larger table, at which all could share the feast, would do.