Examination of Witnesses

Savings (Government Contributions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 25 October 2016.

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Joseph Surtees and Ed Boyd gave evidence.

We will now hear oral evidence from StepChange and the Centre for Social Justice. Would the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record? I call Ed Boyd first.

Ed Boyd:

My name is Ed Boyd and I am the managing director of the Centre for Social Justice think-tank.

Joseph Surtees:

Joseph Surtees, senior public policy advocate for the StepChange debt charity.

Welcome to this afternoon’s hearings. I call Peter Dowd to start the first set of questions.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

The proposal for the lifetime individual savings account followed a wider public consultation about the future of tax relief in pension provision. How do you think the LISA, as proposed, fits into that wider public debateQ 4747? Mr Surtees first.

Joseph Surtees:

I am afraid that, as an organisation, we have no particular views on the LISA. We are very keen on any proposals that the Government can bring forward to boost both short-term and long-term savings, and I think with the LISA we are still going over detail.

Ed Boyd:

I am afraid I will not be much more help. Our focus has very much been Help to Save, and that is what we have been doing research on. I can give a personal view, but it probably won’t be too beneficial.

However, the one thing I think it would be worth saying on the LISA side, and it is more of a comment than anything else, is that if you look at the panoply of savings products within LISA and Help to Save, in 2021, only 8% of those funds are budgeted in the impact statement to go towards Help to Save. That falls within an approach that this is about the “just about managing”. Those who are on universal credit—they are kind of in-work, but we would love them to be earning more and trying to progress up the earnings ladder—are the “just about managing”, I think. The majority of the people on universal credit when it is fully rolled out will be in deciles two to five. So it’s just a question about the balance between the two—LISA and Help to Save—but I am afraid I have no detailed comments on the LISA itself.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q Given that response, I will try another angle. Some of the suggestions that we have had about the LISA are that although it might well be a simple product on its own, in the context of a wider market full of God knows how many products it just complicates things. Do you have a view on that?

Joseph Surtees:

I suppose that in terms of how it fits into the wider market, the point Ed makes is very interesting, which is that if you refer back to the ISA itself, people earning about £80,000 are twice as likely to have an ISA as people earning the average income, which is £26,000. So the savings crisis, if I can put it like that, is among the very low earners. When products come forward in tandem, like LISA and Help to Save, it is important to ensure that they both have equal weight and an equal offer, and that they both appeal to the right markets.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q Okay. If we’re talking about encouraging people to save in one fashion or another, do you think that Help to Save adds to that in any substantial way? Will people save significantly more as a result of it?

Ed Boyd:

So the question is: do we think that it will help? I think the answer is yes. There are always little bits to tweak and improve, I guess, as the Bill goes through, but as a whole—I mean, the idea of Help to Save is a fantastic one. When you look, as the CSJ does, at the root causes of poverty, we very purposefully have as one of the five—alongside worklessness, addiction, family breakdown and things of that ilk—problem debt. The majority of the people who we are talking about, especially when they have just moved into work, are only working 16 hours on the national living wage, which this will apply to, and will often have very little savings.

It is about the unexpected shots, and StepChange’s research on this is brilliant. It shows that every six months or so there might be something, such as a washing machine that breaks down, or something else, and if you have no savings, the effect that can have on you—not just in terms of, “Oh, we have to go to slightly higher-cost credit”, but on your mental health, and how productive and efficient you are at your work because your mind is continually filled with the debt problems that you are trying to carry—is hugely significant. So, anything that can try to create a culture of saving and provide some Government backing to incentivise people to save more is a wonderful thing. It is a great thing to add to the armoury.

Joseph Surtees:

I certainly agree. We are very big supporters of Help to Save. The research that we carried out, which Ed is referring to, found that if a family has £1,000 saved, that reduces the chance of them falling into problem debt by 44%—so we think that Help to Save will really help in this area. To agree with Ed again, there are little tweaks that would help to increase its appeal. When it was introduced in the Budget, the potential eligibility for the scheme was 3.5 million, but the impact assessment says that it will probably only reach about 500,000. When looking at the Bill and the way that Help to Save and its features are going to be rolled out, the question is: how do we get that 500,000 closer to the 3.5 million figure?

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q Can I just ask, on that basis, how well targeted you think Help to Save is on those with the lowest income? It is all very well to say “Save”, but if you have no money because you are on benefits or have a low income, how well targeted is that particular product?

Joseph Surtees:

I think it is almost as well targeted as it could be without putting a huge onus on banks and, in a scenario in this case, running de facto means testing. We could possibly open up the eligibility. I know that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has done some work on this—which I have one or two questions about—but as a basic proposition it is pretty well targeted at the group that needs the savings the most. If you look at the figures, almost half of families with an income below £14,000, a category that a lot of the Help to Save target families fall into, do not have savings. We have one specific issue, which is to do with how it will help people under 25. That is very much to do with the benefits rules, which I can either discuss now or come back to later.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

I want to touchQ on one of the points raised in our previous evidence session, which was that someone can withdraw money from this lifetime ISA if they want to buy a home, but if they want to withdraw money for any other reason—you touched on some examples, such as if their washing machine breaks down or they have an urgent need to get money quickly—they face a penalty of between 5% and 6%. Are there certain criteria you would like to see where there are other options to withdraw money without hitting a penalty?

Ed Boyd:

As I said before, the detailed knowledge, in terms of the research that the CSJ has done, is on the Help to Save side rather than the ISA side of things. There is a valuable question about the accessibility and flexibility of accessing savings within Help to Save. I could give a comment on that—perhaps it is applicable across to ISAs. I would need you to be the judge of that.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q But do you think that there should be an option for those people to withdraw money quickly rather than just having being able to buy property as a penalty-free reason?

Ed Boyd:

On ISAs?

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Yes, on the lifetime ISA.

Ed Boyd:

We have not done the research on the ISA, so we do not have a view. I can probably only help with the Help to Save side of things.

Joseph Surtees:

On that point, I would say—and this is applicable to both—that a lot of the behavioural research in this area talks about a process called hyperbolic discounting, which is to do with the fact that the further away something is, the less appealing it will be. So, any mechanisms we can have in any of these products that allow people to access them before two years, in the case of Help to Save, or before much further in the future, in terms of the LISA, will appeal and widen the eligibility a lot more.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare)

Some of the evidence we have taken this morning has already been more about long-term savings. In the evidence you presented just now, you emphasised the issue of accessibility and the need for people to be able to access their savings quickly to deal with external shocks. What kind of products do you think would be beneficial for people on low and average incomes for longer-term saving?Q

Ed Boyd:

On the flexibility point in terms of accessibility of savings, there is a question. We produced a short paper on Help to Save off the back of a round table of experts in this area. One of the questions that kept coming up was whether there should be some friction for people taking out the money. For example, if someone starts to save for two years with the best intentions to make sure they get their Government bonus, but has one day of giving up on that plan, it would completely undermine it and they would not get the Government bonus. Potential frictions can be put in such as a 24-hour delay in taking out the money. I think that would be completely reasonable.

Where appropriate, someone could name a third party—a family member, husband, wife, carer or whoever—and when they say, “I want to bring it down in 24 hours”, that person is texted to make sure that there is enough friction to ensure that when the money is drawn down as a rainy-day fund, it is used for rainy-day activities and things that they really need the money for, rather than just for general expenditure. This would encourage people to save and make sure the money is used to help stop them getting into problem debt.

Joseph Surtees:

I think there are two interesting points here, one of which is on Help to Save. There is a system in the UK that has proved very good at encouraging low-income people to save over a long period, and that is pensions auto-enrolment. So far, the opt-out rate for that is far lower than anticipated. It is only 10% when it was anticipated to be a quarter. People who are enrolled and have not opted out are those just above the enrolment limits.

That sort of approach is incredibly useful in this area, particularly for low-income people. When you look at products such as Help to Save, such as LISA, perhaps, if you can look at how to incorporate an auto-enrolment element into that—with Help to Save, you can in particular do it through the universal credit system. Universal credit has personal budgeting support which helps you to do that. Those sorts of little behavioural incentives will help to make it appeal and work better for these lower-income individuals.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I am conscious that half of UK adults have less than £500 set aside for emergencies. Do you believe that the financial services market has done enough to attract and incentivise savers who are perhaps struggling with income? Do you think that the Help to Save initiative will help to plug thatQ gap?

Joseph Surtees:

In answer to the first question, I do not think the financial services sector has done enough to attract these customers and offer them a service. I will give two examples.

You may have heard of a product called prize-linked savings, which has proved to be incredibly successful in the United States. I can send you some information later, if that would be useful. It is incredibly successful at appealing to low-income families. For many years, people have talked about introducing such a system into the UK—a sort of slightly better premium bond offered via commercial providers. This was introduced in the UK by a bank, but only for people who already had £5,000 saved. To me that says that they were not really thinking about lower-income consumers.

The second example is Help to Save itself. One of the suggestions was that it would be offered by commercial high-street providers. Without giving anything away, my understanding is that most commercial providers displayed absolutely no interest in offering this product, but did display interest in taking on these customers once they had £2,000 saved at the end of two years.

Ed Boyd:

There is a big problem here, which is that people are getting stuck in problem debt. It is a growing problem. I will check my stats on this—30 million people in the UK lack savings to keep up with essential bills for just one month if their income dropped by a quarter. Within the confines of that, rather than saying, “Do I think it is the financial services’ fault that we have not done enough, or the Government’s, or someone else’s?”, there is a real opportunity with products such as Help to Save for everyone to pull together and do what they need to do to help solve the problem together.

There is an opportunity for credit unions and community development financial institutions to play a big role, as well as mainstream financial institutions, not just in helping people to save but in helping to ensure that they are financially included. You have wider debates around issues such as the poverty premium—that is, the fact that people who have insecure incomes end up paying far more because they cannot do direct debits.

I do not think it is as simple as saying, “It’s just the financial services sector that needs to deal with this and help more.” I think there is a contribution needed from Government, from the private sector and from the voluntary sector as well to work together to help increase people’s ability to budget, to increase people’s incentives and ability to save and to ensure that people are financially included as they go on that journey.

Joseph Surtees:

On that point, I always think about the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch: all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Actually, out there you have lots of the products and approaches such as Help to Save, LISA and auto-enrolment and there are banks—and especially credit unions—that do very innovative things in these areas, but I think it is important to bring these things together so that people have access at the time they need it and can see the products laid out in front of them and make the right choices.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Q Have you made recommendations to Government about how they can link up with benefit payment providers, local authorities and the third sector to ensure that the market we are talking about is signposted adequately to this type of product?

Ed Boyd:

Not in the work that we did, but we are really happy to help where we can. For example, we have an alliance of 350 front-line poverty-fighting voluntary organisations and they are a great avenue through which to ensure that things are articulated well to clients who might benefit from products such as this. If we can help in any way, we will be really happy to.

Joseph Surtees:

We work very closely with the Money Advice Service on these issues; we worked very well with them on the single financial statement, which includes the savings element, throughout the process of Help to Save. We have also spoken to quite a lot of Treasury officials on this and I think they listened to what we had to say. There is one issue emerging from Help to Save that people and the Treasury may want to look at going forward: a very technical issue about financial advice and how debt advice providers and financial advisers can recommend products and whether they will be able to recommend things like Help to Save.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

Have you done any analysis of how many in this target market are currently in the area that would benefit from auto-enrolment? How do you see the interaction between auto-enrolment and Help to Save in that regard? What comments would you make on the incentives there for pension investment against the incentives there for Help to SaveQ ?

Ed Boyd:

Before I come to that question, there is a point of context. One of the important things we stress in our research briefing is not seeing Help to Save in isolation. We are big fans of auto-enrolment as well. You look at the success with pensions and say, “This is important. Why wouldn’t we use that mechanism here, or at least try to tie that in?”

That brings up a question in our minds looking at things like contributory benefits. Over decades and decades and all kinds of Government, the generosity of them has slightly reduced continually and, actually, if you look at universal credit, the architecture is very different from legacy benefits, ensuring that people have the appropriate support if they fall out of work through their national insurance contributions. It is difficult to see how that ties up. One of the potential answers, and the reason I mention that, is to look at auto-enrolment and rainy-day guarantee funds being set up through employers in the same way you have done with pensions to provide insurance for people against smaller income shocks such as washing machine breakdowns and also for larger ones such as falling out of work.

To consider Help to Save in isolation from that wider debate would be a mistake. There is a great opportunity here to tie together different things that are happening around Government to ensure that you have a very clear, succinct, offer and approach to people who are in work but on low incomes, who we are encouraging to save. Combining those things together through Government thought would be useful.

As an organisation, we are not at a point yet to say, “Here is how we think it could work and here is the big solution,” but we are developing a lot of our agenda on this at the moment. Again, as the Bill is going through we are happy to contribute, but it feels like a really important thing to discuss as the Bill goes on its passage through the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Joseph Surtees:

In terms of the success and appeal of auto-enrolment, I referred earlier to the National Employment Savings Trust figures and auto-enrolment figures that say that there is more success and less opt-out from those with less income than from those with higher income. I would also refer you to a lot of work done in the United States by a couple of academics called Madrian and Shea, who looked at how auto-enrolment increases savings rates in businesses through payroll deduction. They found huge impacts, such as the number of people saving within a company doubling within a very short period of time once auto-enrolment was introduced.

On Help to Save, as I have said, auto-enrolment would really help, especially from the benefits side of things. There are even smaller tweaks that will help get that 500,000 figure closer to 3.5 million. Moving the bonus to getting it every six months would have a huge beneficial impact, as would allowing people to pay in an average of £50 a month rather than a maximum of £50 a month and looking at the issue of under 25-year-olds being excluded from Help to Save by the benefits rules concerning working tax credits. There are small changes you can make now that would have a big impact.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

Q Thank you for that. Those were interesting answers from both of you. Ed, when you talk about how you see that auto-enrolment can deal with some of the challenges that you have outlined, I wonder whether you would see as an example something like an insurance wrapper that would give the kind of benefits that you are talking about as an advancement of auto-enrolment.

Ed Boyd:

Could you say that again? I did not quite get that.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

Maybe something like an insurance wrapper could give the kind of benefits that you are talking about—people losing their job and benefits and what they could get. There are things you could do perhaps to auto-enrolment that would give the kind of opportunities for people that we are talking about.

Ed Boyd:

There is a number of ways you could do it. We have not yet got to the point to say, “This is specifically how you should do it.” We are at the stage of saying that maybe your question implies that there is an opportunity to do insurance wrappers or auto-enrol. There are a few different approaches that you could take. That is definitely one you would look at; I think that is what we would say.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I just wanted to ask you about the interaction with debt. You are talking about people who will potentially have payday loans or whatever. FirstQ , will there be legal protection for the savings that they have in respect of those lenders? On the other hand, it may well be the case that the most sensible thing for them to do with their savings, once they get bonuses et cetera, is to pay off some of their debt, especially if it is at a very high annual percentage rate. I wondered what sort of advice there would be.

You mentioned universal credit, where there is quite an important point. The thing that is really good here is that you are getting people into a habit but this is initially clearly for short-term savings, which I think will actually incentivise them more on the realisation that it can help them. It is a matter of how it interacts with the debt dynamic, because a lot of them will be in that area.

Joseph Surtees:

That is a very good point because there is a very specific point here about the risk that these accounts are under if somebody who has one either goes insolvent or does not go insolvent but falls into debt. That will mean they are at risk both of having the money taken during insolvency proceedings or taken by a third-party debt order. In the same way that was done with pensions under the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, where there was a wraparound of pension savings, it would be useful to have a think about whether the bonus, or even all the money in the account, should be protected if somebody begins to go insolvent, or is threatened by insolvency or their creditors.

On the second point, this is an ongoing conundrum. I know you are seeing Martin Lewis later and he will probably have a slightly different view on this. All of the research and lived experience of organisations such as ours show that, while it is crucial to pay back your debts, people also need some savings or fall-back for sudden shocks. That does not only do their financial position well; it does their mental health position incredibly well. It has been proven by the work of the single financial statement that you can save while paying back debt. Yes, in terms of a purely rational decision, occasionally people saving instead of repaying debt may not be 100% the best thing to do but, in terms of the common-sense best thing to do, I think it should be allowed.

Ed Boyd:

Likewise, if someone has a significant level of debt and we say, “We think you should save the full amount because you have just moved into work. You’re working 18 hours at the national living wage on universal credit,” for example—the advice needs to be tailored case by case. That is why I think the training experience of work coaches as they engage with these people is going to be absolutely crucial. You can say, “This is what the advice should be,” but the people who are advising people face to face and saying, “These are your options in terms of savings, paying off debt” are absolutely crucial. It will be really important to get that interface right.

This links with a programme that is being rolled out by the Department for Work and Pensions called universal support, which is the idea that when somebody comes into a jobcentre, they will not just get advice—“This is a job you can go for and we’ll try to push you into that”—but we will try to understand the root causes of why they are out of work. Debt is often one of those causes, so making sure that people have appropriate support for debt is really important.

I do not think I can say this is how it should happen in every situation. Building up savings is important, but you would not encourage someone to save the maximum amount in their scheme they could if they were paying off lots of debs separately. You would encourage them, if they have some spare capacity in terms of income, to use that to pay off the debt as part of the repayment plan. The interface with the work coach becomes very important to make sure that the advice is right.

We have four minutes now and three Members who still want to ask questions. Can we bear that in mind?

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby

I have a quick question. I am pleased that the line of questioning has taken us to problem debt. I am slightly worried that the way in which we are viewing this is through a prism where people are in regular work, on reasonable incomes and perhaps where, if they experience debt, it is a one-off emergency. In fact, a lot of families experience debt over an incremental, lengthier period of time, so they are regularly exceeding their income and then find themselves in a difficult position.Q

When it comes to the lifetime ISA, is it not the case that lots of people on lower incomes and struggling are not going to get the best deal? They will take the cash LISA rather than the investment ISA and will not benefit as much as other people who are in regular work, who are higher earners and already in a much better financial position than people on lower incomes.

Ed Boyd:

On the general point, the reason why our focus has been on Help to Save rather than LISAs is that if you look at those who are just about managing, those who are really in need of just building up savings because they could be hit hardest by some of these shocks, the overwhelming majority of people who will be on universal credit when it is fully rolled out are in deciles 2 to 5. If you are thinking about those people who would really benefit from this, this is the avenue through which we should be pouring our support and efforts in order to try and help them. As I said before, we have not looked specifically at LISAs so it is difficult to comment on the cross-over and effect that they will have on that group, but going back to the previous question of targeting, Help to Save targets that group pretty well.

Joseph Surtees:

It is an excellent point that most or a lot of saving products, certainly up to now, have not really thought about the best way to appeal to low- income consumers and the best way they can work with their lives. That is certainly a problem with ISAs and should be a slight problem with lifetime ISAs as well. The really good thing about Help to Save is that it has thought about how to appeal to this group and the bonus is the way that it has settled on that. All the evidence shows that that is overwhelmingly a great incentive and a much better incentive for this group, rather than interest rates or tax deductions or tax relief.

Other things could be looked at in future, such as prize-linked savings or even more innovative ideas such as adapting the auto-enrolment pension system, so that it has an accessible savings pot within in. I think that is slightly further down the road.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

You have identified that the two different measures, the LISA and Help to Save, are targeted at different people in society. If that is the case, do you see these measures as adding not complexity to the system but more choiceQ ?

Joseph Surtees:

I would agree that they would both be useful. I emphasise that we are big supporters of Help to Save. It is introducing an option for these low-income families that does not exist at the moment, so it is not more complexity; it is, for many, their only choice.

Ed Boyd:

They are both hugely welcome, especially Help to Save.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

I have another question, but I presume that that is it.

I am sorry—that brings us to the end of the time allocated for the Committee to ask questions. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the witnesses for their evidence.