Clause 33 - Successor accounts for Help-to-Save savers

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 1 December 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:30, 1 December 2020

I beg to move amendment 36, in clause 33, page 39, line 30, at end insert—

“(c) the successor account must bear, in each financial year, at least the same level of bonus as the mature account before maturation.”

This amendment would ensure customers do not lose any bonus should their funds be moved from a matured account into a new one.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 37, in clause 33, page 39, line 30, at end insert—

“(7) Regulations under sub-paragraph (2) may only be made if the conditions in sub-paragraph (8) are met.

(8) The conditions referred to in sub-paragraph (7) are—

(a) there must be an account available to any affected customer which provides at least as generous a bonus structure as the matured account.

(b) the customer must have been successfully contacted by a relevant department or public body.

(c) the customer must have been given full and accessible information on the effects of changing account.”

This amendment would ensure customers are contacted and informed before their funds are transferred.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Looking at the clause, we feel that it is important to protect customers who may have put money into help to save accounts but do not necessarily follow all the things that come in the post and risk losing their bonus or losing track of the funds. It is important to ensure that those people, who are the most vulnerable—the type of people who might turn up to my surgery with a plastic bag full of unopened letters—are protected, along with the savings that they have made, and do not risk losing anything as a result of the changes being made.

Help to save customers really have enough on their plate at the moment without having to navigate myriad savings products to transfer the funds over. We think it particularly important that their accounts continue to earn interest until this crisis is over. Amendment 36 ensures that customers will not be given a lower bonus should their funds be moved from a matured account to a new one.

In the Savings (Government Contributions) Act 2017, the Government introduced help to save accounts with the big purpose of encouraging working people with very low incomes and who were in receipt of certain benefits to save money. Since the launch of the scheme, more than 222,000 people have opened help to save accounts, with £85 million deposited. That is quite a significant number of people and a significant amount of money. My worry is that between opening the account and now, people may have moved house multiple times or may have been difficult to trace, and it is important the Government do all they can to ensure that people do not lose the money to which they are entitled.

I would be interested to hear from the Economic Secretary how the Government manage to keep in touch with those 222,000 people. How many of them do the Government expect to contact in advance of the Bill’s passage? What protections will be put in place? It seems important to ensure that those people, who are not the most financially literate people in the country, get as much advice as possible. StepChange, in its evidence to the Committee, was quite happy with the idea of accounts staying open just that wee bit longer, to give people extra time and reassurance so that they can transfer funds when they can. Many people up and down country have seen bank branches closing in their local communities, and it is now a lot more difficult to go and set up a new account than it was before.

The Government need to make the changes as easy and as simple as possible, to ensure that those who have money saved know where it is and can access it, and do not lose out in any way by changing from one scheme to another.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The Government are committed to supporting people of all income levels to save, including those on low incomes, through the pioneering Help to Save scheme. To be clear, the scheme provides generous Government bonuses of 50% on up to £50 of monthly savings after two and four years—I say to all hon. Members that it is a great scheme to promote among all their constituents. This means that an individual could save £2,400 and receive £1,200 in bonuses over a four-year period. I hope the Committee will agree that this is an attractive incentive to encourage people to save and build up that resilience. In fact, as of September 2020, more than 47,200 account holders had benefited from their first bonus payment, with an average value of £375 two years after opening their accounts.

The effect of amendment 36 would be to extend Help to Save accounts beyond their intended four-year term. The aim of Help to Save is to kick-start a regular, long-term savings habit, and encourage people to continue to save via mainstream savings accounts. The Government’s view is that a four-year Help to Save period is sufficient to achieve this objective. Therefore, the Government do not consider it necessary to extend the bonus incentive beyond four years.

Clause 33 relates to what happens to the customer’s savings at the end of the four-year period. This clause provides the legislative basis for successor accounts, which is one of a number of options that the Government are considering for supporting those customers who have become disengaged from their Help to Save account. We expect that the majority of account holders will make an active decision about where they want to transfer their money. Indeed, HMRC and National Savings and Investments will communicate with account holders ahead of accounts maturing, to ensure that savers receive appropriate information and guidance on the range of retail options available to continue saving once their participation in the scheme ends.

On the specifics of amendment 37, if the Government decide to proceed with successor accounts, account holders will be contacted both before and after the transfer. Ideally, once customers have been contacted to highlight that their account is maturing, the vast majority will take an active decision to transfer the funds elsewhere. This policy is designed to support those who have disengaged from their account and failed to provide instructions for transferring their balance upon maturity. Hopefully, with those clarifications, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central will be willing to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I still have a wee bit of hesitation about how the Government intend to communicate with people. If the Minister wants to write to me with a wee bit more reassurance about that, I would welcome that, because I am particularly worried. I know how often people move about and how they might lose contact with their accounts, and it would be useful to have a bit more detail from the Government about how many of those accounts they deem to be active and have money put into them, how many are relatively dormant, and the extent to which people are contacted to let them know what their options are.

Like I say, if there is money out there and it belongs to people in my constituency, I want them to be able to get it and have that money in their hand, because people need it, particularly at this time. If they have put money away, it should be there for them when they need it, and I would like a bit more detail from the Government about precisely what their communications strategy is, and how they are going to follow up with people. If they do not get in touch with those people the first time, are they going to follow them up a second time, and what then happens if they cannot reach somebody? A bit more detail on how the mechanics of that would work would be very useful, because, as I said, the purpose of amendment 37 is to make sure that customers are contacted and informed before anything happens to the money that is rightfully theirs. I ask for additional reassurance that they are not going to lose this money they have scrimped, saved, and done their very best for.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I am happy to give that reassurance. I would just say that since this scheme has been operating, the Government have been working hard to understand better ways of promoting it, and the most cost-effective way of doing that. I have had meetings at the University of Birmingham with academics and charities to try to establish the best way forward. Obviously, we have only got to the early stages of the first two-year bonus, but the hon. Lady makes a perfectly reasonable point about wanting to make sure that those who have saved and have become disengaged can get hold of that bonus money, which the Government are very happy to give.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Specifically on the point about engaging with academics and people who understand how best to do this, I would gently say that it is not necessarily the academics that the Minister wants to be speaking to, but the guy who turns up on a rainy Friday morning with a Farmfoods bag full of bills and unopened envelopes. That is the guy who the Government need to reach. That is the person they need to understand, and who needs to get that money if it belongs to him.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Absolutely. I am just trying to demonstrate my willingness to engage with creative ideas about it. Obviously, our comms strategy has not yet been defined because of the gap between the maturing of it, but I will undertake to keep in touch with the hon. Lady and Committee members on the evolution of this construct.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:45, 1 December 2020

I will press amendment 37 to a Division, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 36.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 37, in clause 33, page 39, line 30, at end insert—

“(7) Regulations under sub-paragraph (2) may only be made if the conditions in sub-paragraph (8) are met.

(8) The conditions referred to in sub-paragraph (7) are—

(a) there must be an account available to any affected customer which provides at least as generous a bonus structure as the matured account.

(b) the customer must have been successfully contacted by a relevant department or public body.

(c) the customer must have been given full and accessible information on the effects of changing account.”—

This amendment would ensure customers are contacted and informed before their funds are transferred.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 8 Financial Services Bill — Clause 33 - Successor accounts for Help-to-Save savers

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 3—Help to Save annual report—

“(1) The Treasury must prepare and publish an annual report on the Help to Save scheme for each financial year in which the scheme remains open to new accounts.

(2) The report must cover the following matters—

(a) the performance of the scheme;

(b) observations on take-up including, where applicable, reasons for take up being low;

(c) actions the Treasury proposes to take to increase take up of the scheme; and

(d) progress towards implementing successor accounts for the Help to Save savers.

(3) A report must be laid before both houses of Parliament no later than 31 October in the financial year following the financial year to which the report relates.

(4) The first annual report would be laid before both Houses of Parliament by 31 October 2021 and relate to the 2020-21 Financial year.”

This new clause would require the Treasury to publish an annual report on take up levels of the Help to Save scheme.

New clause 14—Help-to-Save accounts: report on effectiveness—

“(1) The Secretary of State must, within six months of the passing of this Act, and thereafter on an annual basis until 2027, lay before the House of Commons a report on the effectiveness of Help-to-Save accounts.

(2) The report in subsection (1) must cover—

(a) levels of take-up of Help-to-Save accounts;

(b) an analysis of the typical financial assets held by target users of the Help-to-Save scheme;

(c) an analysis of alternative forms of access to finance available to target users of the Help-to-Save scheme; and

(d) the effectiveness of the measures introduced by section 33.”

This new clause would gather the data required to enable policy makers to understand the effectiveness of the help to save scheme in addressing asset inequality amongst the UK population.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The clause will insert new paragraph 13A into schedule 2 of the Savings (Government Contributions) Act 2017. The clause gives the Treasury a power to make regulations that provide for the transfer of funds from a mature Help to Save account to a new or existing savings account with NSNI in the National Savings Bank where the account holder has not provided instructions upon maturity for it to be transferred elsewhere. It will be known as the successor account. The clause also provides that any regulations made under it cannot override the account holder’s instructions for the transfer of the balance to an account of their choosing. Where a transfer is made to a successor account, no charge may be imposed on the account holder for the transfer.

The Help to Save scheme supports individuals on low incomes to build a savings fund over four years, providing a generous 50% bonus. More than 222,000 accounts have been opened as of July 2020, and more than 47,200 savers have benefited from their first bonus. At the end of the four-year term of the Help to Save account, savers will be encouraged to provide instructions on where they want their savings transferred—for example, to a new or an existing savings account. However, some savers might not provide instructions, and the Government are in the process of evaluating the best way to support such customers, who have become disengaged from their accounts, to continue to save. A successor account is one of a number of options that are being considered. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I would like to speak to new clause 3, which calls on the Government to prepare and publish an annual report on the Help to Save scheme for each financial year that it remains open to new accounts.

The Help to Save scheme is a form of savings account that allows eligible people to receive a bonus of 50p for every pound they save over four years. The scheme is particularly good, as it targets people who are entitled to working tax credits or who are in receipt of universal credit. Given the failure to support jobs during covid-19, the number of households currently receiving universal credit has risen from 1.8 million in May 2019 to almost 4.6 million as of October 2020. I am sure everybody on the Committee agrees that that is a very high figure, although I appreciate that we are going through really difficult times because of covid.

One of the things that I am seeing as a local MP in my constituency—I am sure it is the same for everybody on the Committee—is a huge increase in universal credit claimants. We are likely to see an even bigger increase as people are no longer able to rely on their personal savings, so the Help to Save scheme is more important than ever.

After a two-year delay, the Help to Save scheme was launched by the Government in September 2018, to much anticipation. However, the scheme to date cannot be considered a success, and I am eager to find out why. We tabled the new clause because we feel that an annual report would help us in uncovering that. Of the 2.8 million people eligible to take up the scheme, only 132,150 accounts had been opened by July 2019—just 4.6% of those eligible for the scheme. I am still struggling to understand those figures and to believe that the Government are truly committed to a savings scheme and to creating a culture of household saving.

Furthermore, in last year’s spring statement of March 2019, the Government’s Budget watchdog slashed by half its forecast of how much the taxman would have to spend on Help to Save by 2021, citing lower than expected take-up. However, as I mentioned, I am in favour of the scheme and want it to succeed. That is, after all, why the previous Labour Government spent time highlighting the scheme and planning to launch it in 2010 as a savings gateway, only for it to be scrapped in 2010 by the then Chancellor.

Members may agree that the information we have so far does not paint a picture of commitment from the Government to supporting people to save. When the savings gateway was created, Labour worked with banks, building societies and credit unions, which invested in software and promotional literature for the launch. Some potential savers had received letters informing them of their eligibility and telling them about local providers just hours before the scheme was scrapped by the incoming Conservative Government.

I am really interested to hear what measures the Government have implemented to promote take-up of the scheme. I could raise many issues about universal credit and working tax credits, but as you advised, Mr Davies, we need to keep to the new clause, so I will raise them another time. My primary concern is to ensure that those who are eligible can access the scheme, now and in the future.

The Government’s pilot scheme found that 45,000 individuals saved a total of £3 billion during the trial period. We know that the scheme works. Charities and debt support services are hopeful that it can directly tackle asset poverty. The Help to Save scheme is due to come to a close in three years’ time, in September 2023, which means that we still have time to support people to save over £800, if we act now to make the scheme more widely accessible.

Publishing an annual report on the scheme, as provided for by the new clause, would allow us to see in detail where take-up has been successful and what we can do to ensure that people are aware of the scheme and how to engage with it. We feel very strongly that a report would help us to capture what areas we need to improve. The Minister mentioned that the Government are committed to providing support. I hope that they are, but agreeing to have an annual report would show further commitment.

In the meantime, I believe that more can be done, particularly to integrate with credit unions and debt management services so that the scheme functions more effectively in the years it has left to run. I would also be really interested, in lieu of an annual report for 2020, given that at the end of last year it was estimated that only 4% of eligible people have signed up to the Government’s Help to Save scheme, if the Minister could tell the Committee whether he thinks it has been unsuccessful and what the Government are doing to promote take-up.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I rise to support what my Front-Bench colleague said on new clause 3 and to speak to new clause 14, which seeks to underline the question that she set. Given that this is a good scheme, why has it not been taken up more widely?

The Minister may have thought that I was just a one-trick pony, obsessed with debt. Let me tell him that my difficult second album is very much about savings. I know that he had concerns about the drafting of my previous amendments and I want to put on the record my thanks to the Clerks, who have been incredibly helpful and patient with me in seeking to get the wording right. We all appreciate the hard work that they do behind the scenes to ensure that our drafting is intelligible, even if it is not inevitably accepted by the Minister.

I hope that the Minister will accept this new clause and my difficult second album about savings. This is two sides of the same coin of how people make ends meet. I would wager that that is why he has put them together in this portmanteau or Christmas tree Bill––given that it is 1 December, we may as well call it that. It is about how we make sure that people have the money they need, whatever the weather or time of year and whether things are going well or badly for them. Just as we would want people to get help when they get into debt, we also want them to get help to have rainy day money, as it might quaintly be called now. I said that to a member of my staff who looked blank and probably tried to look it up on Instagram.

Clearly, helping people on low incomes to save is critical. One reason why I support the new clauses is that I do not think we can have a conversation about savings without talking about assets. There are increasing inequalities in our society. Indeed, the new inequality is not so much about income as assets. We are looking at why people do not take up the scheme, what we can do to make it work and whether it serves the purpose that we are trying to get at. While we come from different political traditions, I hope that the Minister would agree that income inequality is of itself a negative draw on our economy and social cohesion. Perhaps that is the best way I can put it to him. One day, I will tempt him towards the more radical socialism of egalitarianism.

When we have people who have plenty and people who have very little, or indeed no access to anything, our society suffers. The Help to Save scheme is about improving that situation. It is increasingly obvious that in constituencies and communities like mine that are riven by gentrification and inequality, it is assets that are the difference between success and failure. That is necessarily different from savings accounts, and it is right that when we are looking at what we are doing to help those on the poorest incomes succeed in life, we are cognisant of that fact and include it in our thinking.

What do I mean in layman’s––or perhaps laywoman’s––terms? One in five mortgages are issued with the help of the bank of mum and dad. People with the bank of mum and dad are always going to be more successful and stable than many of those constituents who do not have access to that. Those are the people at whom the scheme is targeted. The 10 million households that have no savings at all stand in a very different place from the one in 10 children born in the 1980s who will inherit more than half average lifetime earnings. Property is the divider within our society and that trend has got a lot worse over the last 30 years, yet very little Government policy on tax and savings begins to address that and the income inequalities that it creates.

When we are looking at a savings scheme and expecting people to have money to put aside––even what might seem very modest sums––we have to set it in the context of the other assets they have access to if we really want to get to grips with those inequalities in society. In looking at tax and benefit policies, and savings policies, the fact that someone can inherit £1 million in property without paying any tax at all stands against those families with £15,000 of debt who will never be able to put any money aside because they will always owe somebody else. All Governments of all colours have been burned before in trying to address some of these factors, and in taking a narrow view purely of income levels. I am old enough to remember TESSAs—not just the fantastic Dame Tessa Jowell who is sadly no longer with us, but tax-exempt special savings accounts, which drove income inequality in this country in terms of people’s ability to put money aside.

It is right that we ask ourselves whether this measure will get to the root of that problem—to the communities and people we represent who will not be able to save and whose lives will always be askew, because their counterparts have been able to benefit from that growing asset wealth, whether that is people who have inherited property or people who are now in communities such as mine, where housing costs and housing values have risen to such an extent that their children will be able to benefit from them, including from schemes such as remortgaging. In situations such as that with covid, which we know is an income shock, people might be expected to use their savings account, but they cannot because they do not have any money in it, so it is even more apposite to ask whether they have other assets that they might be able to draw on in comparison with their counterparts.

The new clause does something very simple. It asks us to take account of the environment in which the policy intent of helping people to save is happening and the reality of what is driving inequality and poverty in our society, because that in itself reduces aspiration. Fundamentally, the kids in my constituency who will never ever get on the property ladder, who will never ever be able to borrow against their parents’ household, who will never be able to put money into a Help-to-Save account, are also the kids who probably will not go to university, who will not be able to set up their own business and who will not be able to go on a training course to be able to cope with the world ahead.

The point about money is that the rainy day is often every day for a lot of families, so asking ourselves how we get there is really important. So too is recognising that the figures are a bit mixed on the impact covid is having on people’s saving and spending habits. In the most recent figures, for April to June this year, 28% of household income on average was saved by families. That is a really interesting statistic. There are families who have absolutely no money and families who have been able to stay at home, work from home, who perhaps own their own homes and their own businesses, and manage.

If we do not look at the lives that people are living today and the resources that they have to draw on, any policy that is designed to be about savings or about debt will always have one hand tied behind its back because it is not living in the world that is with us now. Asset inequality is absolutely crucial to understanding what our constituents will face. When we ask ourselves whether we are helping them save, they may well have other assets that they can draw on, but we have never joined the dots. They may well never be able to put money—even that limited £50—into a Help-to-Save account because they do not have the flexibility of having, for example, a mortgage on a property, as opposed to paying rising rents.

Let us see our constituents for who they are now, see what is putting money in their pockets and in their bank accounts, and see what resources they have to draw on. The new clause simply does that. It asks how things compare. Is that the reason why people are not able to save in the way that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, set out, or is there something else going on?

I know that the Minister will want to know that. I am sure the Minister would have just as exciting a conversation with me about asset inequality and savings as he has had with me about consumer confidence and consumer debt regulation. They are two sides of the same coin. The new clause would simply put that into the Bill and make it part of our thinking as parliamentarians.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 4:00, 1 December 2020

Understandably, this topic brings out some very deeply held beliefs about the sort of society that we live in and the inequalities and challenges we face. I very much respect the points made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead.

I will try to respond to new clause 3 and new clause 14, but before I do, I think it would be helpful to clarify a few points about the Help-to-Save scheme. It is open to new entrants until September 2023 and those individuals will then be able to have it open for four years from that point. It is possible to save between £1 and £50 a month, so various modest savings can be made.

The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked about the schedule of promotion activities. Some of the full schedule was curtailed for this financial year because of covid, but we anticipate resuming our promotional activity early in 2021. We promoted Help-to-Save through Talk Money Week, we have engaged with Martin Lewis, who is also a key advocate of this scheme, and we will continue to work with the DWP to target those in receipt of universal credit and on working tax credits. The other point I would like to make clear to the Committee is that if somebody is in receipt of either of those benefits for just one week, they are eligible to open an account that is then valid for four years.

New clauses 3 and 14 require the Government to publish reports into the Help-to-Save scheme. Of course, the Government are prepared to inform Parliament on the progress of the scheme. Indeed, the Government committed to Parliament in 2018 to monitor and evaluate the scheme and has been publishing data every six months, in February and August. Therefore, we do not consider it necessary to enact these amendments as a statutory requirement. The latest statistics, published this August, show that by the end of July 2020 more than 222,000 accounts had been opened, with over £85 million in deposits between them. This has been a 37% increase in the total number of accounts opened by the end of January 2020, and a 57% increase in the total deposits into the scheme, compared with in the previous six-month period from August 2019 to January 2020. I am sure the Committee will agree that this is excellent progress, despite the difficult economic period.

The Government already work closely with stakeholders to monitor personal finances, including financial resilience; the Money and Pension Service monitor financial difficulty through an annual survey; and the Financial Conduct Authority undertake the biannual financial lives survey. It is not clear that this amendment would improve the data available to the Government in shaping policy. The Government are also working with stakeholders to raise awareness and encourage eligible individuals to open an account and benefit from the scheme, and I indicated some of the ways that is happening earlier. In fairness to the hon. Member for Walthamstow, who made a passionate and wide-ranging set of observations about these matters, I do not think I can fully do justice to them today. However, I share her belief that there are significant inequalities and certain obligations on people who have more to do more to support those who are more vulnerable in society. This measure is a good policy that we should all be able to promote and I am committed to promoting it further. I would ask the hon. Members to withdraw the new clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 33 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.