New Clause 5 - Regulation of lead generators for debt advice and debt solution services

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 3 December 2020.

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“(none) In section 22 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (regulated activities), after subsection 1A insert—

‘(1AA) An activity is also a regulated activity for the purposes of this Act if it is an activity of a specified kind which is carried on by way of business and relates to—

(a) effecting an introduction of an individual to a person carrying on debt advice and debt solution services, or

(b) effecting an introduction of an individual to a person who carries on an activity of the kind specified in paragraph (a) by way of business.’”—

This new clause would empower the FCA to regulate activities such as paid search and social media advertisements, including the impersonation of reputable debt management charities.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause is directed at reducing harm to heavily indebted people by clamping down on imposter or clone websites that might direct people away from legitimate avenues of advice without their knowledge. It was suggested to us by the charity StepChange, which reports a serious, large-scale and ongoing problem with imposter or clone sites posing either as StepChange itself or as another reputable charity and preying on vulnerable people in debt. In fact, StepChange estimates that as many as one in 10 people searching for the organisation online are inadvertently led to someone else.

This is not just one of the traditional issues of having time-consuming and frustrating discussions with web providers to get them to take some responsibility for what is on their platforms; it is also a matter of regulation. The new clause proposes to close a regulatory loophole: the activity of introducing an individual to a credit provider is regulated by the FCA, but the activity of introducing an individual to a debt advice or debt solution service is not. That loophole represents a gap in the picture, and the new clause seeks to close that gap by bringing lead generators for debt advice and debt solution services clearly within the FCA’s remit.

The new clause is, perhaps, about quality control. It would protect consumers from clone sites and from unscrupulous operators who would prey on their financial problems. I argue that that becomes all the more important in the context of clause 32 and the establishment of statutory debt repayment plans, because the gateway to them will be through seeking advice from reputable debt advice and debt solution services. It would be entirely with the grain of the Bill, and the Government’s policy intent, to ensure that that gateway is properly regulated by the FCA.

The Minister has been consistent in resisting every amendment and new clause over the past couple of weeks, and I appreciate that he has probably come armed with advice not to accept any amendments, even if they look okay, because there may be a drafting issue or something. However, if there is some reason in his folder why he cannot accept this new clause today or—hopefully this is not the case—if the optics of doing so, because it has been suggested by the Opposition, are somehow too difficult to contemplate, will he at least take the matter away and consider introducing a provision either on Report or at a further stage in the Bill’s passage?

It is very much in the interests of the statutory debt repayment plans, for which he feels—I credit him for this—a big degree of personal ownership, that this regulatory loophole is closed, and that we do what we can to prevent people seeking that kind of help from being led away by unscrupulous operators on the internet. Instead, we must ensure that they are channelled to reputable advice organisations and solution providers—be it StepChange or somewhere else.

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

I rise to support the new clause. It is typical of the eagle-eyed way that the right hon. Gentleman has approached this Bill that he found this particular loophole. I am not sure which of his pots he thinks the Government might think it falls into, but it is a sensible, minor change. The Government would do well to take it on now or bring it back at a later stage. We want to protect people who have fallen into that situation in every way we can. We all know that there are vultures on the internet who want to cut a share of that and exploit people. The new clause is a sensible and reasonable way of addressing that and I commend it to the Minister.

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

I take this issue very seriously. I recognise the work of StepChange and I note the letter from Marlene Shiels, chief executive officer of the Capital Credit Union and her support for this. She makes a significant contribution to the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum that I chaired just last week.

The Government are taking strong steps to ensure that lead generators do not cause consumer harm.  As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East said, lead generators identify consumers in problem debt and refer them to debt advice firms and to insolvency practitioners. That can help consumers access appropriate debt solutions and support their recovery on to a stable financial footing. However, I readily recognise the risk that unscrupulous lead generators could act contrary to their clients’ interests. To mitigate that risk, debt advice firms and insolvency practitioners are already required to ensure that any lead generators they use are compliant with applicable rules to prevent consumer harm in the market.

Under Financial Conduct Authority rules, that includes ensuring that lead generators do not imitate charities or deliver unregulated debt advice, and that they are transparent with clients about their commercial interests. As such, the FCA, as the regulator of debt advice firms—and the Insolvency Service, as oversight regulator of insolvency practitioners—already influences lead generators’ impacts on consumers.

New clause 5 would not materially improve the FCA’s influence over lead generators. Its scope would be incomplete, applying only in respect of lead generators’ referrals to debt advice firms, not to insolvency practitioners. The Government have already issued a call for evidence on whether changes are needed to the regulatory framework for the insolvency profession and will publish a response next year. In the light of our recognition that the matter needs a focus and that work is being done on a response, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

I am happy to do that. I just appeal to the Minister to try to find a way that he is comfortable with of closing the loophole. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.