Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 3rd November 2022.
“(1) Within 28 days of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must by regulations make provision for—
(a) buy-now-pay-later credit services, and
(b) other lending services that have non-interest-bearing elements to be regulated by the FCA.
(2) These regulations must include measures which—
(a) ensure all individuals accessing services mentioned in sub-section (1) have access to the Financial Services Ombudsman,
(b) ensure that individuals applying for services mentioned in sub-section (1) are subject to credit checks prior to the service being approved, and
(c) ensure that individuals accessing services mentioned in paragraph (1) are protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.”—
This new clause would bring the non-interest-bearing elements of bring buy-now-pay-later lending and similar services under the regulatory ambit of the FCA, as proposed by the Government consultation carried out in 2022.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I wish to say from the beginning that I will push the new clause to a vote. I move the new clause in the name of my hon. Friend Stella Creasy. As we heard in evidence, buy now, pay later companies offer consumers the opportunity to spread payments, but they remain unregulated. They represent a large, growing and unregulated form of debt, the growth of which was fast-tracked during the pandemic. Because the loans are initially interest free, consumers lack the key consumer credit protections they receive with other products, which potentially puts them at risk.
We know that buy now, pay later products drive people to spend more money because the providers tell us so. That risks pushing people to spend money that they do not have, without adequate protection against mis-selling. In the cost of living crisis, millions more consumers have turned to this form of credit to make ends meet. As with all forms of high-cost credit, regulation is critical to ensuring that buy now, pay later can be a constructive way for consumers to manage their financial situations.
Labour put forward a proposal to that effect in 2020, which the Government voted down. In 2021, the Financial Conduct Authority called for regulation, and the Government did a U-turn. Now, over two years later, consumers are still waiting for those vital protections, but there is little sign that the Government recognise the urgency to act. In the meantime, the industry has rapidly expanded, so the risks to consumers have grown, which has further increased the need to intervene.
In 2021, Citizens Advice reported that 41% of buy now, pay later users had struggled to make a repayment. One in 10 have been chased by debt collectors, rising to one in eight among young people. Some 25% have fallen behind on another household bill in order to pay a buy now, pay later bill. Those effects of this form of credit were echoed in research by StepChange. Its data shows that 40% of buy now, pay later customers took negative coping actions to cover the debt that they had accrued through this service, including using credit to repay credit, falling behind on housing payments or utility bills, asking family or friends for help, and cutting back to the point of hardship. The figure is 40% for buy now, pay later and 21% for users of other forms of credit.
With Christmas approaching, it is likely that more consumers will be driven to use buy now, pay later and risk unaffordable debt. Equifax data from Christmas 2021 showed that 9% of Christmas shoppers in 2020 used buy now, pay later to spread the cost of presents, and that a quarter of all 18 to 34-year-olds plan to use buy now, pay later to buy presents this Christmas. Last year, one in five people using buy now, pay later said that they felt pressure to buy presents for family and friends, and roughly a quarter—27%—said that they would struggle to afford Christmas without its help. These trends are only likely to increase. The Equifax data shows that two in five users report missing at least one payment in the past, and half of them say that they have been hit with extra fees as a result.
New clause 1 therefore requires that urgent action be taken now to ensure that consumers are protected against being sold unaffordable debt by these companies. It would ensure that some key protections form part of the regulation. That includes ensuring that buy now, pay later users have access to the Financial Ombudsman Service, that there are credit checks before use, and that users are protected by section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Those changes would bring buy now, pay later products into line with other forms of credit and ensure that our consumer credit landscape could not be pulled apart by other forms of credit demanding bespoke arrangements.
I add my voice to those supporting new clause 1. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle for her speech on this very important issue and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, who has long campaigned to bring buy now, pay later credit companies into some form of regulation. Obviously, their emergence has been assisted by the shift to online shopping, which we all have experienced and which was turbocharged during the lockdowns.
The consumer credit legislation that protects customers from taking on unaffordable levels of debt and paying over the odds for credit, in a way that is often quite opaque, did not anticipate the existence of online shopping or the explosion in the kind of credit that is now easily available to those who roam the internet or look at TikTok and see lovely things that are just within reach. I speak as someone who has been around for quite a while and whose parents used to put money away in shops so that they could afford Christmas presents, before consumer credit exploded in the way that it did. The Consumer Credit Act tried to make that fair and to regulate it. This is another switch in velocity, capacity and the availability of things, and it is very difficult to discern what the price is when you take something out.
We are now in an instant gratification culture, rather than the place where we said, “Put money away months before and hope you can afford to get the Christmas presents you want for your kids.” It is now a case of instantaneous availability—literally a click on a website. Klarna and various other of the buy now, pay later organisations are everywhere that it is possible to spend money. It is very difficult to imagine how that might be adding up—what the price of it actually is—when a person is in the middle of a purchase, particularly a younger person who is used to that kind of instant availability. It is very difficult for anyone to argue sensibly that the people who are clicking and making those purchases have a good idea of the price of the credit and the burden of the repayments they are taking on.
New clause 1 seeks to bring the new fintech ways of getting access to consumer credit—if I can put it that way—within the existing consumer protections in the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which admittedly is now pretty long in the tooth. Clearly, it is important for those to whom we give the job of protecting consumers to think in detail about how that can best be done, but it is pretty difficult to argue that we should allow the current circumstances to persist. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
It is important that people have time to think about what they are doing and that the pricing of credit is obvious at the time of the click, so that people can make genuine decisions and not feel that they have been conned, that the price is wrong or that they have got themselves into a vortex of increasing costs that were not in front of them at the time. The consequences of allowing an entire generation to have access to that kind of consumer credit without protections are too dire to contemplate.
I hope the fact that this Parliament has always put consumer protection at the heart of what it does and legislated for that purpose will prevail, and that the Minister will think about how we can sensibly and quickly bring this part of the growth industry of credit, including consumer credit, into the protected space.
Thank you, Mr Sharma, for allowing me to contribute to the debate on new clause 1. My colleagues on the Treasury Committee have raised a very interesting and topical subject for us to debate regarding the best way forward. I must declare an interest, as someone who has bought things on the internet and has used this convenient way of paying for them. Clearly, when we have the FCA in front of us, we need to ask how it is approaching regulation in what has been an area of innovation, where fintech has really come to the fore.
It will be very interesting to hear the Minister’s reply to the points that have been raised, and what he sees as the best way forward. That innovation is supporting our retail sector, but at the same time, consumers deserve to know what they are getting into and to have good information when they make decisions. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
I, too, support new clause 1, not because I wish to stop buy now, pay later as a form of credit or to restrict people’s choice, but because I want people to fully understand what they are getting into before they do it. I did not understand what Klarna was. I like the Space NK website as much as the next woman who likes to spend too much money on skin products, but I could not quite understand why all of a sudden, about two years ago, Klarna was mentioned as a means of buying now and paying later. I thought, “How terrifying. If you cannot pay that ridiculous price this month, how are you going to pay that ridiculous price next month?”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has done some brilliant work on this issue. Buy now, pay later is the form of credit for the under-30s. They use it more than store cards or credit cards. It is often used on clothing websites, primarily by young women who buy different sizes to see which dress they actually want.
We know that we have hit financially difficult times for young people. They need to be fully aware of the situation. The idea that people have started to use buy now, pay later to pay food bills is absolutely chilling. This cannot be an unregulated a form of credit, just because it is new or because it does not really impact on older people or people likely to be Members of this House.
I rise to support the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.
Some things do not change. The technology might, but the need for continuation of consumer protection does not. I heard Members talk about parents using buy now, pay later. I remember buying a sideboard with my sister in the ’80s using the old-fashioned financial system of paying money every week—that took a long time to pay back. That reality does not change, and this form of credit is now happening with single items, whether they be trousers or shoes, or make-up, which raises a whole range of diverse issues. We cannot lose sight of the fact that most people who might utilise the service in my constituency might not know that they do not have the appropriate consumer protections. The SNP will support the new clause if it is pushed to a vote.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Sharma. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, as others have done, for tabling the new clause and for her relentless work in the House to highlight the risks that unsecured credit poses to the most vulnerable in society, including many of my constituents in Kilburn. I also pay tribute to her successful campaign for better regulation of payday loans and companies. I am sure everyone has heard her speak on that campaign in the Chamber at some point.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull and Hessle said, we are disappointed that the Bill has failed to address buy now, pay later regulation. For years, the Government have promised to regulate the sector, but have not done so, which has left millions of consumers without protection. I recognise that many of my constituents, particularly the young, value buy now, pay later products, because they allow people to pay for expensive products over time. However, the products can also result in debt building up quickly and easily. That is why it is so important that the sector is properly regulated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden outlined.
An investigation by the FCA, the Woolard review, which reported in February last year, found that many consumers simply do not know that buy now, pay later products are a form of credit, which means that some people do not consider the risks associated with taking out such products and may not look at the products as carefully as they might have done otherwise. That should be deeply concerning to all of us here, and it has left the most vulnerable, financially excluded people at risk of getting trapped in a cycle of debt. The review made it clear that there is an urgent need to regulate all buy now, pay later products.
We are almost two years on from the review and nothing has been done—no action has been taken. The Government’s consultation concluded in June, and this Bill was the perfect opportunity to bring forward provisions to regulate the sector. Will the Minister explain why the Government have chosen not to do so? It is not just consumers who are in desperate need of regulation. As shadow City Minister, I have engaged with the main players in the buy now, pay later sector in recent months. They too have called on the Government for proper regulation to provide certainty for businesses and to keep bad actors out of the market. I hope the Minister will explain why his Government have chosen to leave consumers unprotected and have ignored calls from the sector by failing to include this regulation in the Bill today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn. I would like to add my recognition for what the hon. Member for Walthamstow has achieved, particularly when it comes to payday loans.
The debate on this clause is not about the ends. Rather, it is about the means and the best way of proceeding from here to an end that, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, is common to both sides of the Committee. However, there is a difference. The Government will not be supporting this amendment. I want to make it clear that we are trying to find the best path on which to proceed, and we are trying to get this important area right.
The amendment would require the Treasury to make regulations to bring buy now, pay later products into regulation within 28 days of the Bill’s passage. I contend that that would be breakneck speed. I hear and understand the frustration of colleagues that the legislation has taken a certain amount of time to mature, but it is also an innovative product and something that provides real utility to millions of people. It is important that we get this right.
The challenge for us in bringing forward appropriate regulations in this domain is that we must ensure we give no succour to the greater evil of informal or illegal credit. As we look to regulate the credit market, we have to acknowledge that what we do not regulate creates a floor, beneath which nefarious providers operate—for example, those whom the hon. Member for Walthamstow has been vigilant in cracking down on.
I understand the desire to move at pace, but I do not accept that nothing has happened. The FCA has significantly moved the dial on this, although there is more to do. It is our contention that we should do it in a thoughtful way and by consulting with the sector, which is supportive of endeavours to bring forward the right amount of legislation.
We also acknowledge that to many people credit can be a valued lifeline. Like the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, I remember being sent to do the weekly grocery shop, and that shop provided credit of a buy now, pay later form. As a growing family, and particularly at certain moments of the year, we had a more-than-average amount of groceries. It was a real lifeline. It was a way to spread the cost in a measured way. We should recognise that we must be very careful of the unintended consequences.
I am glad to hear that the Minister was helpful to his mother when growing up by doing the grocery shop. He has just made a subtle point about unintended consequences of unregulated lenders—nefarious was the word he used. We would all associate ourselves with that. I wonder if the Minister would talk about speed, given that he does not agree with a month. When does he expect this process to bring forward the wherewithal to incorporate this kind of lending into regulation? Is it his view that the price and consequences of the interest rates that are attached to lending like this should be presented far more upfront when it comes to the button being clicked?
I will address both of those points. In terms of timing, the Government published, as the hon. Member knows, a consultation on the proposed approach to regulation in October 2021; I acknowledge that was some time ago. The response to that consultation was published in June 2022. The Government are now developing the necessary legislation and intend to consult on that draft legislation soon. The Government aim to lay secondary legislation in mid-2023.
The hon. Member talks about price, and I will defer to her expertise if this is the case, but my understanding is that the category that is defined as “buy now, pay later” is required to be credit-provided for no more than 12 months, in no more than 12 instalments, and interest free. So although I am an addict for data, and I believe that transparency is—in most markets—the best oxygen, in this case it is clear and established that this product category is not allowed to charge interest. That does not mean that it does not have charges; there is hidden small print, and I understand and support the need for that.
I accept what the Minister has said, but the price here is not an interest rate, it is actually what happens if one does not make the payments. It is the consequences of falling behind that are the issue rather than an interest rate.
I think that the hon. Member and I are at common cause in terms of what we are talking about. To make a wider point, I think we would all understand and aspire to a culture that was “save first, and buy later”. What we are talking about are societal changes. We live in a society where too many people have early recourse to debt and where we perhaps do not have the level of financial education that we would like. That is something that I discussed yesterday with the Money and Pensions Service.
There is a great deal more work to do. I would like to champion that in my relatively new ministerial role. Although it is important that we regulate, and although we have to recognise that, however much we try to work upstream, there will be people who are exploited or simply vulnerable, or who are not operating on the sort of level of financial resilience that they should be. I know the Treasury Committee spends a great deal of time on that; it is a concern to me and the ministerial team in the Treasury. That is an area that we can collaborate and work on; it need not be something that we divide over. That is particularly pertinent to younger people.
As well as committing to move forward with regulation, we commit to do so in a measured way, in the right way and at the right time. That also brings into consideration wider initiatives about financial education in general.