Breathing Space Scheme: Consultation Response - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:46 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 3:46 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, I declare my previous interest as a former chair of StepChange, the debt charity. I thank the Minister for repeating this Statement, and I am very happy to hear what he had to say. I have campaigned for both these changes in policy for a number of years, and it is astonishing to hear them being announced today. What on earth will I do with my time?

The Minister will recall the discussions we had during the passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill when he was the co-pilot, as he described it. We worked closely with the Government to try to get a breathing space scheme into scope. We did not succeed then, and the worry was that although these two measures were in the Conservative Party manifesto, they might, like so many other good and necessary policies in recent years, fall under the Brexit behemoth, but here we are. I welcome the excellent progress made on this issue.

I was interested to hear that the Minister making the announcement in the other place revealed that this is an issue close to his heart. I think everyone who has seen at first hand the hardship that problem debt can cause realises that it places a heavy burden on households and can lead to family breakdown, stress and mental health issues. It was good to hear the Government accept that it is wrong to assume that overindebtedness is simply a product of feckless people taking out too much credit. Many hard-working families struggle to meet essential bills and can end up owing money to multiple creditors in the public and private sectors. My experience in StepChange was that the majority of the 500,000 or so people who contacted the charity each year had successfully managed their finances for many years before illness or another unexpected factor tipped them into unmanageable debt, which they desperately wanted to repay.

With this announcement today, the Government have taken a significant step which will do a huge amount to encourage people to seek the free professional advice they need timeously when problem debt occurs. The combination of the breathing space and the statutory debt recovery scheme will support those who have the capacity to repay their debts but lack the knowledge and expertise to deal with their multiple creditors. It will allow them to do so in a way that will repay much more to creditors and in a shorter time. This system has worked for many years in Scotland, and it is good to see that pioneering approach being extended to England and Wales, and hopefully to Northern Ireland in due course.

The detail of the government response has only just gone up on the website and there is a lot to take in, but I would like to make a few points. I worry that the breathing space period of 60 days may not be long enough in practice, and I am sure that this will be something we will need to come back to, but I think the best thing is to begin with that length and review it in the light of experience. It is good that the protections include the freezing of further default interest, charges and enforcement action once somebody has taken the first step of seeking debt advice. We are delighted that government debt will be included in both schemes. In particular, this should give some protection to many people against the rather aggressive action that is sometimes taken by bailiffs collecting council tax arrears.

The introduction of a special version of the breathing space for people experiencing a mental health crisis is most welcome. It is good that there is not going to be a public register, with all that that might bring in terms of unsolicited approaches to those on it from unscrupulous third parties. I think the Government have taken the right decision about a private register. We are sad that we will not see the breathing space scheme until 2020 and will not see the statutory debt management recovery scheme until 2021 or later, but I hope that HMT will do what it can to expedite both schemes. We certainly stand ready to help if that is required.

I have some reservations about the suggested level of the statutory fair share element in the SDRP. The current scheme agreed with large creditors is much higher than the 9% suggested in the Treasury’s response. However, I am aware that there is a broader discussion on comprehensive debt advice funding being worked on by the new Money and Pensions Service.

I will conclude by discussing two other issues. Unmanageable personal debt is a by-product of many factors, but most are linked to the health of the economy. Lack of affordable credit, slow wage growth, growth in zero-hours contracts and changes brought in by the gig economy all play a part. In addition, it is incontestable that the introduction of universal credit is causing strain and stress here. While this new policy is welcome—and it is—other issues need to be addressed. Does the Minister agree?

Finally, while it is true that the Government have acted to correct abuses in the consumer credit market, high-interest loans are still being made to people who cannot afford to repay them. Banks are not averse to making punitive charges for temporary overdrafts. Guarantor loans are a current concern, and it is a matter of considerable regret that the Government have not taken action to outlaw logbook loans. In relation to the latter, will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss how we might progress the Law Commission draft Bill on goods mortgages, which would inter alia have the effect of repealing the Victorian legislation that gives rise to these bans?