Breathing Space Scheme: Consultation Response - Statement

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat 3:46 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches very much welcome the introduction of the breathing space and the statutory debt repayment schemes, although we do have a few questions about execution.

To debtors, this reform may seem to have been quite a long time coming: I can recall discussions in Parliament in 2015, as well as outside long before that. The proposal was, of course, included in the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto. Many people and organisations have played a part in getting us to this stage. I particularly want to mention StepChange and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. The critical point in getting the Government to do something arose during the passage through this House of what is now the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018. The amendment to the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about breathing space now appears as Section 6 of the Act. This section encouraged and enabled the Government to do what they have announced today.

Turning to the schemes themselves, we are pleased that the Government have in most cases followed the advice they were given in the consultation—which seemed to be a model of its kind, unlike some of the other consultations that the Minister and I have had to discuss in this Chamber. We believe that the eligibility criteria for the breathing space scheme are broadly right, although we have doubts about the restriction to only once in 12 months. We encourage the Government to think again about this and—as they say they are minded to—to include provision for joint debts to qualify for inclusion in the scheme.

We are also happy to see that local and central government debts are to be included in the new scheme and very pleased to see the inclusion of small sole-trader debts, which we think is a vital element. We especially welcome the unlimited extension and repeated entry to the scheme for those in mental health crisis.

The Government’s very helpful consultation and policy response paper does qualify the inclusion of universal credit advances and third-party deductions from universal credit. The document is very vague about the timing of their eventual inclusion. I ask the Minister to give the House a little more detail and encourage him to speed up the process of including these two elements.

When it comes to which ongoing bills should be paid during the breathing space, I think that the Government have it about right in giving debt advice agencies the discretion over whether to remove people who do not keep up specified ongoing payments from the scheme.

Debt and debt repayment continue to be severe problems for millions of people in this country. As the Minister noted, the Money and Pensions Service has estimated that around 9 million people are overburdened with debt. We also now know that real incomes have started to fall again.

The Government’s proposals are a significant step forward in addressing problem debt, and we welcome them. However, we are disappointed with the timetable for the introduction of these measures. Early 2021 seems a very long way off—probably an intolerably long way off if you have unmanageable debt. All the Government’s proposed measures can be introduced by SI. Parliament is not currently overpressed with business. Why can we not use some of that time to bring forward the implementation date?