We will now move on to our final panel of the afternoon. It is another one-man virtual panel, with Peter Tutton from StepChange joining us remotely. We have until 5 o’clock, when we must adjourn. Peter, could you introduce yourself for the record and for the members of the Committee?
Q Thank you very much for joining us and giving your input this afternoon. I think that there are probably two measures that would be of most interest to your organisation––please correct me if I am wrong––in the statutory debt repayment plans and the measure to transfer the Help-to-Save bonus. May I ask you about the first one? Obviously, your organisation has been a key consultee and driver of the moratorium that we introduced in May. The statutory debt repayment plan is a key option during that eight-week period. How do you think this will work and what do you see as its challenges? How does it sit within the context of what is available at the moment for people who get into difficulty?
That is a good question. We are delighted that the two new debt schemes are going forward. We think that they will be a very important help for people who are struggling. What we think they will do is partly driven by our experience of being a deliverer of the debt advice scheme in Scotland. From when we have spoken to our clients, we know that the protections that both the breathing space scheme and the statutory debt repayment plan will offer––a sort of guarantee that if you keep up with your payments you will have protection from your debt spiralling, from collections activity, with people asking you to pay money that you cannot afford, and the threat of enforcement action––deal with the things that frighten people and make them stressed and anxious. They damage people’s health and lead them to do things like borrowing more to cope with unaffordable demands. The lack of a guarantee of forbearance can really impede people’s recovery from debt and financial difficulty.
We are very pleased: those protections have existed in England and Wales for insolvency solutions for some time but not for people who are able to repay their debts. Very often, clients will come to us after an income shock. As we sit here now, people are losing their jobs, having income reductions or falling ill. Their income will drop significantly for a time, but then it takes time for them to recover and get back on track. In those cases, these kind of schemes, first the breathing space scheme to help people to get advice and then the statutory debt repayment plan to help people pay their debts off within that safe space, will be really important in helping people. A lot of the fine detail about how they will work has still to be worked out. It will be important to ensure that they are accessible and that they fit together.
One thing we are interested in is when someone gets to the end of their breathing space scheme. If someone is still recovering, as we call it, from their financial difficulties, will they be able to go into the statutory debt repayment plan, where it may not be apparent that they can pay their debts within their long-stop period at that point, but where we have good reason to believe that their income will recover and that they have a good chance of getting back into work? It would be useful if the two schemes aligned so that people do not, first, get protection, then fall out of protection and only come back into it later. There could be a position where creditors could all pile in to take enforcement action or debts could begin to grow again. That is one of the things where we are keen to see the detail to ensure that the two schemes align and that we can move people from one to the other, with a long-stop on “How long is a reasonable period to repay their debts?” but one that is not worked out very strictly at the beginning while people’s circumstances are still fluid.
There is lots of fine detail to work out. We are going through the process at the moment with the Insolvency Service creditors and debt advice. Agencies are working out the detail of how the scheme will work in practice. What is important for both schemes is that we as debt advisers need to be able to administer them without significant extra cost. We might come to that later. With breathing space, there is no direct funding so the cost situation is very important. If it is very burdensome for us to deliver, it may be hard to do. We then need to do some work still with the creditors to make sure that everyone is getting the information that they need to get protection quickly to people who need it. There is a bit more work to be done there. Likewise, with regard to the way in which the statutory debt repayment will work, there are practical details such as how people will go into the scheme; how the “fair and reasonable” test will work—there is a need to make sure that it is not too cumbersome, and that it is effective and cannot delay protection unduly—and ensuring that creditors do not abuse the right to object, although they must have that right, in a way that can slow the whole scheme down. These are the sorts of things we will need to work out.
Q Thank you. I appreciate the work that you and your organisation have done, and Phil Andrew as well. On my second question, can I ask you about the Help-to-Save provision, under which people can save up to £50 a month for four years, and after two years, if they have saved up £1,200, they have £600 transferred to them by the Government? As you know, the provision makes sure that that money can be transferred to a NS&I account. Could you set out your understanding of why this would be necessary and how people become disengaged? Why is this measure, which may appear to some unnecessary, needed?
I think this is a necessary measure. We should cast our minds back to the child trust fund. In some ways that was similar, as it was a way of encouraging people to build up savings, although in that case the savings were for their children. As you may remember, one aspect of the child trust fund is that people got a voucher and then had to put it somewhere. A huge number of those vouchers ended up in default. We know that, especially among people who are less experienced in using financial services and in lower income households, it can be quite daunting when a choice has to be made between a number of different savings products that they do not really understand, and when they do not really know the difference.
That can create inertia. It makes a great deal of sense to give a safe way of moving people automatically into a successor product so that we do not have that problem of trying to contact them to get them to make a decision. The clause is worded so as still to allow people to make their own decision, which is quite right, and having safeguards seems sensible. We are big supporters of the Help-to-Save scheme, which is a cracking scheme. Our own research shows that having a pot of precautionary savings can significantly reduce people’s chances of falling into debt. If I had one criticism—
I agree with that. We are trying to do what we can to improve awareness and get people to use small amounts; I think they can put by up to £1 or £2 minimum.
But it is a good scheme, and it is sensible to allow people who have saved into the scheme to put their savings somewhere else. They can make a choice if they want to, but we know that some of the people whom the scheme is designed to attract may struggle to choose between superficially similar financial service providers and get stuck in the middle. This makes sense.
Q Peter, we are talking about things that have broad support: the debt respite scheme, Help-to-Save and so on. The Minister and I debated some regulations about these matters about a month ago. This is really just a short question. You have looked at how these things have been set out in the Bill and you have been very warm about them today. Is there anything you would change, given what you have seen in the Bill? Are there any gaps or any changes you would suggest to the way in which these things have been set out in the Bill?
In an ideal world, we would like the breathing space period to be longer. We can understand why it has been set up as it has. It is very good that it includes, for instance, Government debt; it is a new thing that people will have protection from Government and local government debt; things like council tax are a very big problem for our clients. We can see that the Government may be nervous about a longer scheme. Perhaps if there was a way of looking again soon, once we are satisfied that it works okay, we could give that breathing space a bit more time. There are two things that the breathing space can do. There is what it does at the moment, which is largely about allowing people to get advice and get into a debt solution, but there is also time during which people need to recover.
As I said earlier, when people come to us they are often still in quite a degree of difficulty and their circumstances have not resolved themselves. We cannot always instantly put them into a stable long-term solution. One of the things that might help that would be a longer period of breathing space while they are recovering. In lots of cases, there is an obvious solution to put people into; if their circumstances are not going to improve and debt relief is the right solution, we will put them into that. We may be able to deal with that by articulating the statutory debt repayment plan and the breathing space such that there is a gap in the middle. Ideally, a longer period would be good. There may be a way of effecting that just by making sure those two things align, so that people whose circumstances are still recovering—they come to us and have a very small amount of money, but we believe that they will back into work, and for a lot of our clients that is what happens—can keep that protection going through until their circumstances improve and they can get back on the track of repaying their debts. That would be the one thing, instantly, that we would think about changing.
Another thing is that in the Treasury policy statement, including this legislation, there is a provision for funding the statutory debt repayment plan. The Treasury policy statement talks about that funding for debt advice providers being around 9% if you distribute funds as well. That is something that may need to be looked at again—not a lot, but a bit. That 9% is a bit less than the funding that we currently get from what is called fair share funding, which is [Inaudible] funding we get for helping clients with debt management plans. That funding actually allows us to do a lot of things.
One of the things that we are not yet sure about and are not able to model is what the additional costs of the statutory debt repayment plan will be. For instance, there is a provision in there for creditors to have a vote as a safeguard before a plan can be accepted. If we have to administer that vote in some way, for instance, it would mean an extra cost. There are some bits and pieces around that that may need looking at a bit more once the precise details of the debt repayment plan scheme are better understood.
Q Thank you. Covid has had a paradoxical effect this year because, on the one hand, some people have become better off as the year has gone on because they are still getting paid but are not spending as much as they would normally—that is why we have seen bank deposits going up around Europe—while on the other hand, there has been an increase in unemployment and a lot of people with increased debt burdens and so on. Does anything about the covid impact suggest to you that there should be changes in the timing order of the introduction of the proposals and their content?
That is a really good question. I agree that that is what we are seeing—we put a report out last week. We see a growing number of households struggling because of covid—those who have lost their jobs. Furlough may be picking up 80% of their wages, but if you are on low pay, that is a big jump and a big cut can put people into difficulty.
You are absolutely right: this is growing. In an ideal world, it would be great if we had those breathing space protections tomorrow so that people had a safe place to go and we could start getting them back on the road towards control of their finances and stopping their debts growing. For practical reasons, I do not think that it will be possible to put that in place tomorrow. For the scheme to work and for us to be able to do it at the scale that we think it would need, it needs to work as an online remedy.
It also needs to work for advisers, to make sure that where we capture information or when someone inputs information into our online system debt help tools, for example, we do not then have to copy that again into the Insolvency Services portal, which is incredibly expensive. That is something that happens with DROs and can be very expensive. The software and APIs need to be developed so that there is a seamless process and the cost is minimised for the scale that we need to get people into this. I do not think it is possible to do that or for us, as debt advice providers, to be organised to do it on the scale that we would need to, much before the implementation date.
Bringing the scheme forward, for practical, implementation and software reasons—all that kind of stuff—is going to be hard, but I think there are things that the Government can do, in the areas that we are really worried about at the moment, to bring forward the protections, if not the breathing space scheme. One of the things that our polling estimates, and other people have said the same thing, is that a large number of people have fallen into rent arrears. Those people [Inaudible] in the private rented sector have relatively little protection against eviction for rent arrears. There are longer notice periods, but that will start unfolding quite soon—it probably already is—so are there protections? Similarly with council tax, there are people falling behind who may be subject to enforcement by bailiffs, which we know can be intimidating and expensive and can make people’s problems worse.
It seems to me that the Government and Parliament supported breathing space. There was cross-party support for the idea that people in financial difficulty need protection from unaffordable collections and enforcement that make their problems worse, so I think there is something the Government can do. That may not be through the breathing space scheme itself now, but it is in the spirit of those protections, particularly for key debts: things like rent arrears and council tax, and maybe other types of debt enforcement that will have lasting, harmful consequences if they are not addressed. That is something that the Government should be looking at now, to make sure that in the coming months people are not worrying more and more about what will happen to their house if their incomes do not recover, or worrying about a bailiff for council tax. Those are things that can be done by Government without the whole breathing space scheme, so I agree: with covid, there is a pressing need to look at the different things that Government may be able to do to help people through this period. Otherwise, we are likely to see some of those harsh enforcement actions starting to happen, and people experiencing harm because of covid. No one really wants to see that.
Q Can I ask about help to save accounts? I think there is somewhere in the region of 222,000 of those accounts, with about £85 million in them, and you are dealing with people who are very much on the brink of things. Can you tell me how you think it would be best for the Government to communicate with those people about what is likely to happen to their account and what they need to do?
That is a very good question, and I am not sure I have a complete answer for you off the top of my head. First, the Government have some communications routes: those eligible for help to save are effectively those people who are in receipt of universal credit and tax credits, so these are people whom Government can identify and should be communicating with anyway.
To a certain extent, the thing about the transition is that because it is automatic, it is about ensuring that people know where their money is. I do not have an answer straight away when it comes to the best way of doing that. We know that it can be difficult to communicate and get people to engage. It is one of these things where we need a trial wording approach, communicating, and making sure that that communication is very clear that this is something that is happening to your benefit: “Here it is, and here is how you can get at it.” At the same time, there need to be more comms, perhaps to recipients of universal credit—the numbers of whom have grown quite a lot recently, as you will know—about the fact that this scheme is available to help them, and that if they put some money into it now they will get a bonus, which they may be able to use quite soon to deal with their difficulties. Those are the two things that spring to mind immediately.
I think that is a good idea. There is a maximum amount of savings, so if you can afford to save the full £50 a month, you will get the full bonus. If you are only able to save £20 a month, you will not, but if you allow the £20 savers to save for longer, they would get more of a bonus. There is definitely an argument there to say, “If we want people to build up a precautionary savings pot, we should give those who have started saving the best opportunity to build that savings pot where possible, albeit by leaving the accounts open a bit longer within the scheme.” That sounds sensible.
Q I have had it flagged via Macmillan that they think there is a bit of a weakness in the FCA’s reliance on guidance. They are arguing for a legal duty of care for all financial services providers. Do you think that would be helpful when it comes to getting ahead of people getting into trouble?
Yes, we are supporters of a duty of care as well: we have spoken with Macmillan about this, and we can see the point. It is an interesting one to attach to the Bill. The FCA said that it is due to reply to a consultation on a duty of care. That response probably will not come until Q1 next year, so it has been a bit delayed. That is a bit unfortunate, because if there is a need to legislate or it concludes that there is a need to legislate, the opportunity of doing so through this Bill will have passed.
We agree that there is a need for a duty of care. There has been a succession of problems over the years with financial services. The FCA does a good job: it does rules, and it is getting on top of some of the wide-ranging historical problems we have seen, from unauthorised overdraft charges to payday lending, other bits of high-cost credit, aggressive collections, and a whole range of things in my areas of interest. It is starting to get on top of these.
We think the measure could still be clearer. We think a duty of care, or at least being specifically required by a rule-making power to think about a duty of care and what that means, and empowering the FCA to make rules would be helpful. We have a particular take on duty of care. There are lots of definitions of it. One thing that we see is the idea of having regard to consumer protection. A duty of care could also help better define the consumer protection definition.
We still see too many cases where people who are vulnerable or face constraint choices because of lower incomes and are forced to use credit and things like that or because of behavioural biases built into products. People are in a situation where effectively there are firms exploiting those circumstances. This is the sort of thing that we think a duty of care could deal with. We need a more explicit statement in the legislation about the way firms need to understand the measure. In vulnerability guidance, we would make that more explicit and biting on the way firms have to think about their products and services, and making sure that they do not have the effect of exploiting vulnerable consumers.
We are not quite there yet with financial services, because these problems keep happening. It would sharpen that up and give a better line between what is regulatory policy and what is social policy. We would start to be able to have a better debate about when it is reasonable for someone on a low income to be on credit, the sorts of credit they may be offered that make their debt problems worse and why that is happening . That may help to stop that happening. For lots of reasons, we are supportive of the idea of a duty of care. It would sharpen the focus on vulnerability. It would sharpen the focus on the kind of detriment that people face when they are using financial circumstances as a sort of distressed purchase. For us, the measure is a good thing and something we would like the FCA to take forward.
Peter, thank you for your evidence and written submission, which has been circulated to the Committee. One thing you say in that is that your evidence points to the importance of statutory protections as a key way to alleviate the harm of problem debt. Could you tell us a bit more about that evidence?Q
We spend quite a lot of time looking at the experience of our clients, and we survey our clients and poll them to see what has happened to them. When we were looking, back in the day, at breathing space we were trying to understand what brought our clients to advice and what helped them to recover. What we found was that our clients often had multiple creditors. On average, they would have about five or six. Typically, we find that some creditors, even most, will be very good, but it only takes one creditor to defect from good practice and to push for more money to destabilise people’s financial situation and restart the process of juggling bills and borrowing more to deal with a particularly aggressive, unaffordable payment demand.
There was a very strong message from clients that that impeded their ability to recover. At the same time, we spoke to our clients who were in the debt arrangement scheme in Scotland, and we got a very clear message from them that that kind of guarantee—the statutory framework that the debt arrangement scheme in Scotland gave them—reduced their anxiety and gave them a really good, strong and solid platform for recovery. They knew that if they paid what they could afford to pay and kept doing that, nothing else bad would happen to them in terms of unaffordable demands and escalating enforcement.
In that sense, we have known for a long time that people need protection from their creditors in certain circumstances. Both the experiences of clients who do not have that protection in England and Wales outside of insolvency and the experiences of clients who do have it in Scotland persuaded us that what has become breathing space in the statutory debt repayment plan was a necessary additional protection that we did not have at the time.
Q That is very interesting. Do you have any data that can quantify some of the anecdotal evidence that you have just been giving us? If you can, could you please circulate it around the Committee?
Q Peter, thank you for articulating so clearly all the different challenges that we face in trying to prevent debt as well as deal with its consequences. I have a couple of questions about the Bill and some of its provisions, and then about your sense of where we might be able to make some progress in strengthening the protection for consumers from unaffordable debt.
With the debt repayment schemes, I think all of us recognise that the breathing space is a very positive development. First and foremost, I want to ask for your view on the midway review element. Do you have any thoughts on what impact that might have as currently drafted?
It is a good question. We were very concerned initially about the midway point, simply because it could be very expensive and hard to administer the debt advice. The provision is now not quite as onerous, so we are not having to do full outbound calls and things like that. We are now reasonably comfortable with it as something that is a touching point, where clients touch in with us to ensure that they are still engaged with the process. That is something we do anyway. If someone has come for advice and there is a recommendation that the next step of a particular debt solution requires them to do further things for us to help them, we will follow up and keep in contact with them to ensure that they do not drop out of the process and that they have some help. The initial relief of having spoken to someone about it can lead people to think, “Well, I’ve got that out that way,” whereas it is important to keep going and get people into the debt solution.
There is some element of the midway review that is not dissimilar from the kinds of things that we would do anyway. The important thing is that the way it is done in practice should not become an onerous burden that does not really have any practical use to it. I think we are sort of there. We are talking to the Insolvency Service about the guidance and the way it will work. I think we will get to a place that we can live with. My operational colleagues who are implementing this are not saying it is unworkable at the moment, so we are reasonably comfortable with it, but time will tell. [Inaudible.] If, six months in, it turns out to have been really onerous with no practical effect, that is something we would ask the Treasury to come back and look at again.
Q I ask because I wonder whether you can give us your professional opinion on whether there is a point at which a breathing space should stop. It might become apparent in the review process that somebody is in a level of debt for which a breathing space is not suitable. If it becomes apparent that the person will not be able to repay under the terms of the breathing space, do you perhaps have in mind a length of time over which it would be appropriate to look at some other form of intervention? Do you have a view about when to end the breathing space, essentially?
That is a good question. Our starting point here is that we would end the breathing space scheme as soon as it is no longer needed. At the moment, people come to us in a variety of different situations, and a number of different debt solutions are appropriate for them. If the most appropriate solution for them is a debt relief order, which is a type of insolvency for people with very low incomes or with disposable incomes and no assets, and they want to do it, we would put them into that as quickly as we can. If that can be done—sometimes it can, and sometimes it cannot—before the breathing space period ends, the breathing space will end.
There is actually a provision in the Bill that means that if you are in a debt solution before the review, it will end. It certainly is not a case of putting people in breathing space until it comes to the end of its 60 days, and then putting them in a solution. We will always try to get people into the right solution as quickly as they can. The other end of your question is that there might sometimes be cases whereby there is a debt solution but, for whatever reason, it takes a bit longer to get them into it. In exceptional circumstances, there might be a case to extend the breathing space, if for some reason it takes us longer to get someone into a DRO or something like that.
There is another question about this. One of the problems with debt relief solutions at the moment—debt relief orders and bankruptcy in particular—is that they have fees. These people are so poor and their debts are so big that they need to go into insolvency, but they have to find a fee, and the fee is hundreds of pounds for bankruptcy. Very few of our clients could afford that; they would have to save up for a year or two years to meet the fee.
There is a bit here that Government will need to think about, in relation to breathing space, if someone has come for advice and we have given them protection and worked out that the best thing for them is bankruptcy, but it will take them ages to find the fee to actually go bankrupt. They will fall out of that statutory protection, as it were, back into the mosh pit before they can get their protection in bankruptcy.
So you raise a really good question. There are two ends to it. One bit is that we would not keep people in longer than we needed to; that is a case of getting them into the debt solution they need. But there may be other people who will not be able to progress to the right debt solution for them, for a variety of reasons, before the breathing space runs out. That is something that Government may look at. Perhaps we need to build some evidence of that problem as we go along, but it would be good to do a quick review to see whether there are circumstances where the period needs to be extended or, indeed, whether elsewhere in Government we need to look at things like the barriers to accessing debt relief that mean it is not a good option, either because of the cost of getting into it or because it is still quite a stigmatising process and puts people off. There is another need, elsewhere in Government, to look at how the whole debt relief thing is working.
Q I am conscious that I have one other element that I want to ask you about, but just on that, let me ask this. You have talked about debt relief orders. Obviously, you can access them only if you have less than £50 left after all your outgoings. You seem to be saying that actually the cost of moving into some other forms of debt relief that might be part of this would be something that would be helpful to make the breathing space work. Is it worth looking at those thresholds, as part of making the breathing space process work, so that people can move in, rather than being stuck in a breathing space or, possibly, stuck in a position where you get to the point where you need to write off a debt entirely?
The particular issue with the insolvency schemes for England and Wales—well, one of the issues—is the application fee. That is a point that is slightly different from the threshold; that is an issue about people having to find money to pay for those solutions.
Q Yes, but my question was particularly on the debt relief orders, because you have to be on such a low income for them to be possible. Is there a case, from what you are saying, in terms of making this legislation work, to be more flexible about that threshold—to make it, say, the bottom two deciles, rather than the bottom one decile of income before you can access a debt relief order?
It makes some sense to look at this, because a debt relief order is so much cheaper than bankruptcy. Debt relief orders have a restriction on debt size and, as you say, a restriction on disposable income, both of which are to safeguard the creditors, because the Insolvency Service will not do a full investigation. The idea is that it is the people who have really got no money, no assets, and so if we let them into insolvency without an investigation, there is nothing squirreled away that otherwise would benefit creditors.
DROs have been running for many years now, and I think you are right: it is time to look at whether we could have an easier route into them rather than bankruptcy, which might mean lifting the disposable income threshold a bit or the debt threshold a bit, or both. There is now a bunch of people for whom we would be advising bankruptcy who are never going to get into bankruptcy because they cannot afford it, and often it is the debt size as well.
I think it is the right time for the Government to do this. Given what we might see after the fallout from covid of more households, more people, facing financial difficulty, it is a good time to review how these debt solutions work at the moment and to see what can be done to increase accessibility for those who need that help.
Q May I be cheeky and ask one final question? Obviously, we are talking about where debt has occurred. I would very much welcome your professional opinion about where you see debts being generated by particular products and what you think has worked to prevent that. You and I have previously talked about the benefits of capping forms of credit to prevent people from getting into debt in the first place. We have seen in the last six months concern about the “Buy now, pay later” industry, which currently is not regulated by the FCA but is a form of credit. What is your experience of where the best interventions are to prevent debt and whether there might be things that we could do in this Bill to help that in the first place, before we get to a debt breathing space?
That is a good point. There are things we can do. There are a number of interventions, from lending rules to product features and price. Also, on the relationship between who is using high-cost credit, there is a social policy point here. Is there more to be done to give people affordable alternatives, so that they do not have to go to those products? It would be good to talk more about all of that, because it is absolutely key.
We estimate that survival borrowing under covid—people having to borrow to make ends meet—is up to about £6 billion. There is a big pile of debt building there, which people will not be able to afford to pay down. Some action now to give them an alternative and think about how to deal with that debt is timely and important. We should try to do something now before it gets much bigger.
If there are no further questions, let me thank Peter Tutton. A few times we thought that your technology would fail us, but we got through, so thank you. I thank all our witnesses from our eight evidence sessions today. That brings us to the end of the oral evidence for today. The Committee will meet again in the same room at 11.30 am on Thursday.