Credit Unions — [Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 23rd November 2011.

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Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire 2:30 pm, 23rd November 2011

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Streeter. I know that we are competing against an Opposition day debate in the main Chamber and the appearance of Mr Patrick Vieira, so it is particularly good to see many hon. Members present. The subject matters to Members from all parties in the House. It is good to see at least four parties represented here already, with possibly a fifth quite soon.

I should declare an interest at the outset in that, like many hon. Members present, I am a member of a local credit union—in my case, United Savings and Loans, in Hampshire. I also chair the all-party group on credit unions, whose secretariat is provided by the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd.

The debate is timely, and that timeliness is to do with the making earlier this month of a legislative reform order that will come into effect in January. It is a key milestone enabler for the credit union sector that will boost the ability of credit unions to improve financial inclusion right across the piece. There are other timely aspects, such as the Government’s recent announcement on the modernisation fund and the exciting possibility of linking up credit unions with the post office network. More broadly, the debate is timely also because of the focus that we have these days on debt at all levels—national, corporate and individual—and because of the desire to re-encourage a culture of savings at a time when 4 million households in the country have no savings at all.

Several related debates are taking place within Parliament, such as on capping the cost of credit, debt management companies and credit brokerage. While those are not debates for today, I would not be surprised if hon. Members brought up aspects of them.

Credit unions have a huge growth opportunity in this country. The sector has already seen substantial and rapid growth over the past decade—between 200% and 300%, depending on which measure we choose. The growth fund, which was introduced under the previous Government, was a big part of that growth. There had already been substantial momentum for growth, but the growth fund also enabled credit unions to reach out to a new category of clients and members. Credit unions in Britain now have more than 800,000 adult members and more than 100,000 junior savers.

However, on an international level, membership penetration of the population by credit unions in this country remains small—a low, single-digit percentage, compared with almost a third in the United States and Australia, and almost half in Ireland. Before I am corrected, I should say that when I talk about credit unions in Britain being small, I am referring to Britain, not the United Kingdom, because in Northern Ireland, as in the Republic of Ireland, credit union penetration is massively higher than it is in England, Scotland and Wales. Globally, there are some 53,000 credit unions, with 188 million members across 100 countries. This model is not some newfangled idea or experiment; it has a great international, long-term record.

We are here to talk specifically about credit unions and financial inclusion. It is important to note that when we talk about financial inclusion or exclusion, the subject is not quite as binary as those terms suggest. It is not that someone is either included or excluded, but that there is a scale in between. No one has no access to any financial service whatever. The scale runs from one end—people trading derivatives on personal accounts—to the other, which is people borrowing money from the sort of lender whose idea of a late-payment penalty is a cigarette burn to the forearm. The question is not whether someone is absolutely included or excluded, but what sort of financial services they can access and at what cost.

A great deal of progress has been made on the entry level of financial inclusion, which is having a transactional bank account. In 2002-03, 10% of households did not have a bank account, and the latest figures suggest 4%. That, however, is still one household in 25, or 1.5 million adults in 1 million homes. Disproportionately, such households are single households, households with single parents and pensioner households, and they tend to be at the bottom of the income scale.

Not having a bank account matters on a practical level. Figures suggest that people could save between £125 and £215 just on utilities in the first year, because they could use direct debit. Interestingly and importantly, such savings can be wiped out by bank charges, particularly behavioural charges for people who are more used to dealing on a cash-only basis.

Broader than the question whether someone has a bank account is how much they pay. Risk will always be priced into credit. Different people will always pay different prices. However, it remains the case that some people pay massively more than others. In credit and other sectors, there is still a significant problem in that the poorest pay the most.

The Centre for Responsible Credit recently produced a good analysis and report, showing how much more the poorest pay for their credit than we—people with access to mainstream credit—do. It found that for every £100 borrowed for infrequent purchases, such as white goods, the cost of credit for people with access only to high-cost credit was on average 2.5 times as much as for people who accessed mainstream financial services. For annually recurring items, such as Christmas presents and back-to-school purchases, that figure rose to 10 times: the cost was £7.80 per £100 borrowed on a Barclaycard, and £71.90 if someone borrowed from home credit providers.

We are not talking about small numbers of people, even though sub-prime and high-cost credit is not an issue that many opinion formers and journalists are particularly aware of because they do not see some of the issues. The leader in the home credit market has 11,000 agents calling weekly on one home in 20 in the UK to collect repayments. Payday loan companies have between 1 million and 2 million customers per annum, and the segment is growing quickly. The leader in the rent-to-own market has 245 stores nationwide, with an ambition to more than double that. With rent-to-own in particular, the question is not only the advertised annual percentage interest rate, which is high enough, but the hidden costs that go with that, especially on the mark-up of goods and the additional cost of service cover.

Across personal credit, particularly to the most disadvantaged, although we could argue that this extends far beyond them, much of the emphasis is not on what they can afford to repay, but on what they want. Combining that with extensions and roll-overs, too many of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in society find themselves in a seemingly never-ending trap of debt, from which it is difficult to break out.

How do credit unions address financial inclusion? On transactional bank accounts, credit unions offer current accounts, and I have such a card with me. There are 33,000 active accounts through 25 different credit unions. Credit unions also offer affordable credit. Interest on loans from credit unions is capped at 26.8% APR, which is a small fraction of what someone might pay to high-cost and sub-prime lenders. Importantly, credit unions must have a balance between savings and loans, so they encourage savings. They are personal, community focused and responsible, and perhaps most importantly, they have an ethos about helping people. They are run by and for their members and are truly co-operative, without a profit motive.

One of the most important development and growth areas for the credit union sector recently has been forging partnerships to reach out to people at risk of financial exclusion. That can be groups of people who would identifiably be at risk of exclusion and a broader group who would, at certain times, be at risk of exclusion. To help such groups, many credit unions work actively with local community organisations, ethnic associations and so on. Some excellent work is being done in prisons to help offenders to prepare for release, rehabilitation and work. Leeds City credit union, for example, is undertaking a number of such projects. Care leavers are an important segment. There is a new financial savings product for children in care, and I hope that credit unions will take the opportunity to work actively in that area.

There is also a broader group of people who, at different times in their life, will face the trigger points at which the risk of financial exclusion becomes that much greater. For example, those trigger points can come when a person is setting up their first home or moving into a flat for the first time. The temptation of going down the high street and seeing the furniture and the flat screen telly in the window of the BrightHouse store is a real danger point, because if someone gets into the trap then, it may take them years and years, or perhaps longer, to get out of it.

There are also those who, perhaps through a change in circumstance—a change in job or the breakdown of a relationship—suddenly find themselves in rent arrears, and the problem can build up and snowball. Organisations such as the London Mutual credit union do a lot of great work with housing associations on exactly that area. By coincidence, right now, in the room next to this Chamber, the all-party parliamentary group on credit unions is holding a fair that showcases some of those partnerships, including London Mutual’s work with the Family Mosaic housing association.

Other types of partnership that credit unions engage in do something slightly different. Rather than just targeting people at risk of exclusion, they seek to grow to build up their self-sustainability and reach out to more people. An important way in which that can be done is with housing associations. Such a partnership is a great way to reach people—it is absolutely in the interests of the housing association that new tenants do not fall into rent arrears. They need tenants to become better at managing their finances and, ideally, to build up savings. Credit unions including my own, United Savings and Loans, do very good work in that area.

Payroll deduction schemes are another interesting and exciting development. They drive savings accounts, either through employer-based credit unions—credit unions can be community, employer or association based—or in partnerships. For example, we could see a community-based credit union partnering with local companies.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I congratulate my hon. Friend hugely on securing today’s debate and on his leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on credit unions. He mentioned the importance of the legislative reform order that is due to come in, and also alluded to the important role that housing associations can play in the spread of credit union membership, which we both agree is incredibly important. Does he not agree that there is a real opportunity for the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association to go out there and encourage all their members to join their local credit union so that almost immediately the number of people across the country with access to loans and a place to deposit their money would increase sharply overnight?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a great opportunity to expand the work between credit unions and housing associations. I hope that the number of those partnerships will increase greatly.

Some credit unions have been involved in payroll deduction savings accounts for many years. I had the privilege of visiting the Voyager Alliance credit union in Manchester. Based at the Stagecoach bus depot in Moss Side, the credit union runs a slick operation. When bus drivers and transport workers join the organisation, they frequently open a savings account from day one. Very small amounts go into the account from their wages. It is a bit like pay-as-you-earn in that they almost do not notice the deduction—well, they do notice it, but hon. Members know what I mean. Before they know it, a small nest egg has been built up, which is important for their financial stability.

The Police credit union does great work with a number of different forces. The Glasgow credit union, which is one of the most successful in the country, has 71 partnerships with different organisations to facilitate building up exactly this kind of savings account. The book on the power of nudge is required reading for all political anoraks these days, and we have talked about that mostly in the context of auto-enrolment pensions, but there is great potential for savings products as well.

Those are some of the things that credit unions themselves are doing, but as my hon. Friend Richard Graham mentioned, deregulation of the sector and Government support are about to unleash a set of new and exciting opportunities.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate and on his wider work in this area. My intervention gives me the opportunity to praise Blackbird Leys credit union and Oxford credit union in my own area. Does he not agree that there is scope to do more through the Post Office to reach out more widely to communities across the country?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is the single most exciting potential opportunity for the sector, and I will come to it shortly.

The key piece of deregulation, and what makes this debate particularly timely, is the passing of what in the credit union movement is known as the LRO. Politicos, however, prefer the longer title of Legislative Reform (Industrial and Providence Societies and Credit Unions) Order 2011, which is an awfully long phrase to get one’s head around. It is very important to the sector and has been an awful long time in the making. When speaking to credit union groups, we always get a groan when we say, “Soon, the LRO will be with us.” I am pleased to say that the order has now been passed and will be with us in the new year.

There are three critical elements to the LRO. First, there is the liberalisation of the common bond requirements. Traditionally, there has to be something in common between the members of a credit union. Although that has some advantages, it is also restrictive of growth. In future, credit unions will be able to open up membership to residents of a local housing association, which may have tenants outside the common bond area, or to employers who may have different branches and operations elsewhere. It will also help to facilitate the growth of the strongest credit unions, thus helping to serve more people.

The second key element is the capacity to pay interest on savings rather than the traditional dividend. The divvy, as it is known, has many advantages. However, it is rather difficult to explain, especially if someone is trying to persuade people to put their savings into a particular product. They may say, “Well, it depends how much money is left at the end of the year and then we will divide it all up and you will get whatever you get.” When a credit union is trying to compete in the market against individual savings accounts, it needs to be able to demonstrate a competitive rate. In future, it will be possible for credit unions to do that.

The third important change is in the type of members. It will be possible for credit unions to engage with not only individuals but organisations for a portion of their business. I do not think that we will see many large plcs suddenly starting to bank with their credit union, but it will work for local community groups, not-for-profit groups, small traders and so on that keep relatively small, but not totally insubstantial, positive balances in their account.

On a wider basis, we could say that credit unions have the potential to be the banker to the big society. Importantly, these changes are enabling; they are not compulsory. Three-quarters of credit unions intend to extend their membership base as a result of the changes.

What are the critical success factors for credit unions to be able to promote financial inclusion? We have to look at that on two levels: individual credit union and system-wide. For an individual credit union, scale is needed. It then needs a proportionate cost base so that it can run a surplus. It needs a good mix of savers and borrowers and income groups. To be successful, credit unions cannot just be for the most disadvantaged; they need a good mix. MPs and our local media can play an important part by encouraging more people to put a proportion of their savings—it does not have to be all—into credit unions in the knowledge that they are totally safe and that they will be doing some good in the local community.

On the system-wide level, scale is again at the top of the list of success factors. Alongside that are awareness, visibility and accessibility. Credit unions suffer on that count at the moment. Not as many people are aware of credit unions as they are of the sort of organisations that can afford to advertise constantly on daytime television. Credit unions need attractive, competitive products and substantial, robust back-office processes and interfaces.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

My hon. Friend is drawing our attention to a number of issues; one of which I am aware is that the Isle of Wight credit union died earlier this year and was helped to amalgamate with the Hampshire credit union. We were greatly helped by the Financial Services Authority, and of course the local people were helped too, but it is important that people should feel some local connection. We do not need huge credit unions that go all over the country.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

My hon. Friend makes a fine point. There will be variety. One of the things that sets credit unions apart is having something about them other than just being a financial institution, and that aspect will absolutely continue. However, these deregulatory changes will also enable stronger credit unions to grow and reach out to more people.

The other thing that can facilitate great change, improvement and growth in the sector is the modernisation fund of up to £73 million, which the Government are making available to help credit unions that can expand to reach self-sustainability in four to five years. I know that Ministers are considering a feasibility study on this issue, and whether and how best to use that money. There are some ways that Government capital can make a big difference. First, it can help the sector to develop a common banking platform and business processing. The sector has already demonstrated its potential for doing that with the credit union card account and the credit union prepaid card.

Secondly, as has been alluded to already, there is the possibility of linking credit unions with the Post Office, marrying a huge, trusted, visible and, for most people, accessible network with financial services from credit unions, which currently suffer from not having that presence. Thirdly, there is the development of the brilliantly named Jam Jar budget account, which is all about helping people to mimic the way that our mums and dads’ generation organised their finances. They had a jar for the rent, a jar for this outgoing, a jar for that outgoing and then they knew what they had left. It is a lot harder to know that these days. I mentioned some of the bank charges that people can incur, particularly in the first year they have a transactional bank account and move away from operating on a cash-only basis. Of course, that is of particular interest at the moment, not least because of the Government’s ambitious welfare reform programme.

There is another idea that I want to throw into the debate. It is not something that the sector is calling for, but I want to see new and innovative ways for people right across the country who may not have an immediate association with a credit union to put part of their investment portfolio through something like a social ISA, to hook them up with opportunities with credit unions and perhaps also with community development finance institutions or other social enterprises, social impact projects and so on.

We want growth in the sector and we want more financial inclusion, but we have to note and accept that particular costs are associated with inclusive growth. I am not a banker—thankfully—but to oversimplify things hugely I suggest that there are three key cost drivers to extending credit: the first is the riskiness of the customer base; the second is the term, or length, of the loan; and the third is the cost of collecting repayments. On those criteria, operating in the sub-prime segment of the market and reaching out to riskier types of customer, particularly with small loans and shorter-term loans, carries an additional cost.

Credit unions are known as an affordable option; that is what makes them so attractive. Their 26.8% APR limit is absolutely key, but the thing that we perhaps do not speak about often enough is that the limit has limits and it restricts what credit unions can do. With the growth fund, credit unions were able to reach out to a more excluded segment of the market. For the people that process helped, the savings have been quite substantial; there have been total savings in interest of more than £100 million and there has been a big drop-off in that group in the use of high-cost credit. However, for the credit unions themselves it is a costlier segment of the market, which is part of the reason why we have seen an erosion of the growth fund over time. Of course, with the growth of payday loans in particular it is especially difficult—actually, it is mathematically impossible—for credit unions to compete with organisations that are able to charge an APR in the thousands per cent, when credit unions themselves are capped at an APR of something less than 30%.

Some of the increased costs may be mitigated by technology. Of course, part of the point of the social fund is that if there is direct benefit deduction it greatly reduces the cost of collection and the cost of default. Jam Jar budget accounts are another development that would help in that respect, as would different channel developments. Those developments may mitigate the increased costs, but they are not the whole answer.

The sector is not calling for a lifting of the 26.8% APR limit, but I am sure that some right hon. and hon. Members have heard from individual credit unions, as I have, that they would like a liberalisation of the limit. There are big perception issues around that question but we must keep the debate active, because even if the limit on credit unions was somewhat higher than it is today there would still be a huge gap between the APR of credit unions and the 272% that someone might pay a home credit provider, or the thousands of per cent to a payday lender.

In recent months, a wider debate about APR caps and restrictions overall has had quite a lot of currency in this place, although as I said earlier, that is not a debate for today. Suffice to say, however, that everything I know about economics tells me that a blunt general cap on APR would be a terrible idea for multiple reasons, with all sorts of unintended consequences. I know that the Government are actively engaging in debate and analysis of the issue, so perhaps it is possible to have a different sort of regime—a different structure to the restrictions—which would get rid of the worst excesses of the market without denying people access to credit altogether. Personally, I have been kicking around the idea of a double-restriction scheme, whereby there is a limit on the initial set-up fee and then a separate limit, or set of limits, on the interest rate charge, which would enable payday loans, home credit and all sorts of things to continue while getting rid of the worst excesses of the market. In that different way of thinking, it might also be possible to create a different sort of regime for credit unions, although I stress again that it is not something that the sector is calling for.

To conclude, credit unions can deliver in Britain on a much bigger scale than they do today; we have only to look to Northern Ireland for a model of what things could look like. Credit unions can also deliver greatly enhanced financial inclusion. Let us not forget the human angle: more stable lives, less pressure on relationships and families and, essentially, happier people. Credit unions can also target and reach at-risk groups, such as those leaving care or ex-offenders.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

I declare an interest as a fully paid-up member of the Society Credit Union in Londonderry. I congratulate Damian Hinds on securing this debate. In his very illuminating introduction, he mentioned a couple of times the differing aspects of credit unions. That applies particularly to Northern Ireland, where credit unions are flourishing and have done so for many decades. He has already alluded to flexibility, but does he agree that any changes we contemplate need to be sufficiently flexible to allow for growth in communities where credit unions have been stunted and have not really taken root, while allowing credit unions in areas where they show significant growth to expand even beyond the reach that they have managed over many decades?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

I certainly take, accept and agree with the hon. Gentleman’s general point. There are very specific issues about the regulatory regime in Northern Ireland, but I am not an expert so I will not attempt to talk about things that I do not know enough about. However, I have a feeling that we may hear more about the Northern Ireland situation later in the debate.

More generally with affordable credit, if people are not overpaying for their loans it means that wages go further, and of course that has a beneficial marginal effect on employment and growth. Benefits go further too, and when taxpayers are paying out sums in benefit they want to know that it is going to support families and children, rather than being swallowed up in sky-high interest rates. Credit unions can also help to deliver a renewed savings culture.

I thank the Government for their support of the sector, their recognition of the role that credit unions can play in increasing and improving financial inclusion, and for their general interest in mutuals, especially in the wake of the banking crisis. I also thank them for seeing the legislative reform order through, for their boldness and ambition with the modernisation fund of up to £73 million, and their willingness to look at radical options, such as the Post Office link-up.

Inevitably, however, I also have some asks. First, I ask the Government to please provide a proportionate regulatory framework for credit unions in the post-FSA world. Credit unions should not be penalised for a crisis in which they played no part, and for which they share none of the blame. Secondly, it would be good to get further details of the modernisation fund, and to get the key projects under way as soon as possible. Thirdly, we ask the Government to understand the pressures, challenges and costs associated with reaching the hard-to-reach and, finally, to continue to work as partners with all levels of government to address financial inclusion, rip-off loans and the erosion of the savings culture, to help responsive and responsible financial services, and to further the cause of social justice that brought us all into politics.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn 3:01 pm, 23rd November 2011

The speech by Damian Hinds was illuminating and informative, and his passion for credit unions came through. As treasurer of the all-party group on credit unions, I pay tribute to him for his work in raising awareness across all parties in the House of the good work that credit unions do. I declare an interest as a Co-op MP, and also as a member of Islwyn Community Credit Union, which, I am pleased to report, has this year lent £1 million to its members in Islwyn. That just goes to prove that, once again, for many people it is credit unions that are coming to the rescue for their financial needs.

There has been an explosion in credit unions in the past 10 years. In 2000, they accounted for £183 million of savings and that figure is now £475 million, and they lent £175 million in 2000 compared with £429 million now. That goes to prove the vital role the credit unions play in financial inclusion. To me, coming from the south Wales valleys—I will not use any of the colloquialisms or anecdotes I usually do—financial inclusion is the No. 1 issue.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned that credit unions often cannot compete with companies that offer massive amounts of interest because they do not have a budget for television advertising during “The Jeremy Kyle Show”, “This Morning” or “Loose Women”, for example. The other problem, which exists in the south Wales valleys as well, is a cultural one. People borrowing from doorstep lenders are used to the woman coming around at 6 o’clock on a Monday night and collecting.

With financial inclusion, we are looking at three issues. First, we must do something about the culture of door-to-door money lending. It is not just the illegal loan shark that we are all concerned about, but Provident, Shopacheck and obscure companies that we have never heard of. This might be outside the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions, but we need to start with financial literacy and do more to encourage credit unions in schools. When I was a kid, we had national savings, and we would save £1 a week. We learnt about the value of money and of saving, and we took the cash out at Christmas to spend on what we wanted. I pay tribute to Islwyn Community Credit Union, which has a scheme in Trinant primary school with more than 45 members. The scheme is a good advertisement, because the children are joining and then the parents are coming along and joining as well—there is a collection point there. The question we must ask is: how do we promote credit unions? When we talk about credit unions, people even in this place do not seem to know what they do, so we have to do more about advertising.

Secondly, and again outside the DWP’s remit, there is the issue of banking. I am a former Lloyds TSB banker, and when the fine Government initiative of the basic bank account was introduced, people working in the banking industry were not interested in it, because it never credit scored for products such as credit cards, loans, or even, to some extent, savings accounts. A lot of work has been done with that account, but I am still concerned that many people in my surgeries tell me about going to loan sharks and companies that offer exorbitant amounts. I ask them, “Why are you borrowing so much money off them when they are clearly ripping you off?” The problem is that they cannot access finance, even simple things such as overdrafts, which anyone might need. They are therefore driven into the hands of these lenders. I recently said to the British Bankers Association: “The way I view it is that there is a massive business opportunity there for you,” and they replied, “The set-up costs would be so high it wouldn’t be worth our while offering £500 or whatever.” So we need to talk about the role that banks can play. Would there be a facility for banks to finance credit unions and to expand that in some way?

The third issue is that we often talk about financial inclusion as being an individual option, as something that seems to happen to an individual or a family, but there are a number of small businesses that cannot access any form of lending. They might be social enterprises and there might be no money in there. I would like to hear more from the Minister about the plans for community development finance initiatives, which lend to small businesses and social enterprises. How can we expand that and make businesses aware of the facility? I did not know what they were until I did some research, so how can a business know about them? We can look at increasing that awareness.

The hon. Member for East Hampshire said that we have an option here. We can support credit unions and make people aware of them. A great thing about living in Wales—I am from there, as is Roger Williams, who is no longer in his place, and it is a great place—is that everyone has access to a credit union. We can look at the examples there and roll the idea out across the country. It does not really cost anything. If we do not do something now, particularly in these hard financial times when even people with regular jobs find themselves squeezed out, the only option will be to go to the high-lending companies. I agree in many respects with not fixing credit APR, because if we fix it all the other costs will be pushed down on to the consumer. There is an argument for capping the costs of lending, and we can look at things such as not having early repayment penalties and making loans more simplistic.

Another problem that credit unions suffer is one of image. People seem to think that they are only for the most impoverished, those who are cut off, but Islwyn Community Credit Union says that the vast majority of its members have jobs. The key is promoting credit unions to such people as a way of saving and borrowing, and promoting the idea that they are not just for people on benefits.

I have another moan—I am sorry if I am moaning a bit too much. This is an idea not for the DWP to respond to today but I hope that it will be taken back to the Ministry of Justice. When I worked in the bank, I had excellent customers who were paying their mortgage and loans, and I got a lot of business out of them. Then, all of a sudden, a county court judgment would appear on their file, and that would destroy the possibility of their having any facilities whatsoever. When I asked them what the CCJ was, very often they did not know because they thought that they had not defaulted or anything. On investigation, they found out that they were in dispute with Vodafone or Orange or over gym membership, for example, and that a CCJ had been put on them, but they knew nothing about it. It seems mad that somebody’s credit record should be completely destroyed simply because of a dispute with a mobile phone company.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say, and he is making an important point, but could I clarify something? I am a bit puzzled as to how someone in that position could reach the point of getting a CCJ against them without having received any notification. If that is happening, it is clearly a big concern.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn

What I have found is that a lot of people have got into arguments with a mobile phone company, for example, because they want to end their contract. They say that they have paid 12 months, but the company says that they have paid only 11 months and that they need to make one more payment—it might be for a silly amount of, say, £30. The two sides have been arguing, but they have reached gridlock, and no money has been paid, so the phone company has threatened to take the person to court. Gym membership is another issue I have come across. People want to end their membership early, but they then get into a dispute with the gym. In many respects, it seems lop-sided that the company has sought a CCJ.

If a consumer is in dispute with a company over a payment, there should be some way of ensuring that the company cannot put a CCJ on them until the issue is resolved; I am talking about tidying up that part of the law. This is very important, but it is not talked about often, so it might be something to look at. These people can be good bank customers, but what can the bank do? It can go only on their credit record. I am not knocking the banks for that. I am asking why companies that should have no effect on people’s credit rating are able to write people off in that way.

I have spoken for longer than I expected, but I believe passionately in credit unions and in expanding them as much as possible. I believe in relaxing the common bond, but I also think it is possible to have a central finance facility—these facilities are used all over the world—that credit unions could access. The Co-op party has told me that such an arrangement would cost about £10 million to £15 million, so it is not a lot. It would increase credit union membership from 750,000 at present to 2 million in five years. It would deliver

100,000 new growth fund loans over five years. It is worth looking at that, and I hope the Minister will give us more information when he responds.

Let me end by thanking every member of the all-party group for showing an interest in this issue. In the economic times in which we find ourselves, financial inclusion really is the most important subject, and I thank everybody for turning up for the debate.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 3:12 pm, 23rd November 2011

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Damian Hinds for introducing the debate and for his active championing of the credit union sector, of which everybody in the Chamber is a keen supporter. We are all grateful for the good work he does, and we support him.

I am a huge supporter of credit unions. Before I entered this place, I was employed as a consumer advocate in the financial services industry. The burden of debt and the misery that increased indebtedness causes are probably among the biggest consumer issues of our time. The credit union sector plays a key role in tackling the worst excesses and, perhaps more to the point, in preventing people from becoming overburdened by indebtedness.

It is fair to say that one of the biggest causes of indebtedness is excessive charges on unauthorised overdrafts and excessive credit card debt. That is fine if people can access mainstream credit providers. This is where we get into the real contribution that credit unions can make. Once some people take on the burden of debt, the only thing for them to do is to go to less mainstream providers, which charge ever more punitive rates of interest and, at their worst, involve levels of criminality. We all recognise the role credit unions can play in expanding the amount of affordable credit that can be accessed by people who need to borrow.

My constituency is served by a credit union called Essex Savers, and I want to highlight the partnership it has with the local authority, which has enabled quite a significant expansion of services. Essex Savers came to Thurrock only one year ago, but it now has four branches operating across the borough. It is an interesting example, because the local authority’s support does not involve providing cash; it involves making the facilities the authority runs services from available to the credit union and making the staff who deliver those services available for a couple of hours a week to take deposits. That is really harnessing the voluntary aspects of the credit union and enabling a good partnership with the organisations of government. When they come together, they can be most effective. These days, when credit unions are looking for support, local authorities’ immediate response is to say, “We’re sorry, but money’s tight. We can’t help you.” With a bit of imagination, however, Thurrock council has shown that it can give credit unions meaningful support. The growth in the number of accounts and loans that Essex Savers has delivered in Thurrock through its four branches in one year is nothing short of inspiring.

That arrangement makes perfect sense from a public policy perspective. As we know, debt is a contributory cause of family breakdown, house repossessions and bankruptcy, all of which lead to additional burdens on the taxpayer, and the problem is nowhere more acute than in terms of housing. I would therefore encourage all local authorities to look at the example of Thurrock to see whether they can learn lessons about how to engage in meaningful partnerships with credit unions to tackle some of the negative consequences of debt.

We should recognise that this is the time of year when debt issues are at their most acute, because Christmas is approaching. I want to highlight the reality for many of my constituents. In the main, they are ordinary, hard-working people; we are not characterised by high levels of affluence. Let me take Members for a little walk down the high street in Grays. Midway down, we come across The Money Shop, which offers services such as pawnbroking or gold to cash. It also offers a payday loan at £9.99 per £100, which sounds reasonable, and it can be if people can pay it back within a month; if they cannot, they have no choice but to take out a fresh loan. Some customers find themselves taking out a fresh loan every month and end up paying APRs of as much as 260%.

I give that example because we are in November and in the run-up to Christmas, and people will be tempted to overextend themselves. That is particularly likely if they cross Grays high street to BrightHouse. At present, the company is offering a 42-inch Philips LED TV for £16.99 a month for three years. Closer examination shows the cash price is £1,196.36 but that, under the terms of the agreement, the customer will actually pay £2,650.44.

Such businesses have arrived in Grays only in the past three years, but they are thriving because people with poor credit histories just cannot access loans from banks any more and have no choice but to enter into such punitive arrangements, seduced as they are by weekly payments that sound affordable on the face of it.

That is why credit unions are so important, and access to affordable credit will help to tackle some of these issues. Credit unions are staffed by volunteers and owned by their members, and their customers access credit on terms that ensure they will not be exploited. We all need to do our bit to raise awareness of the facilities that credit unions can supply.

I congratulate the Government on the new order, which liberates credit unions from some of the legal constraints under which they operated. It is fair to say that the legal regime has been a barrier to enabling some credit unions to achieve financial sustainability. It is really positive that they will be able to get deposits from businesses and partnerships from now on. Ultimately, credit unions can lend only what they have in deposits.

I, for one, will be engaging in a campaign to encourage more people in my constituency to open savings accounts with the credit union there. As Chris Evans said, one of the biggest stigmas that credit unions face is the idea that they are only for poor people. The message I want to send out is that those of us who want, and are able, to save can make deposits with credit unions, in the full knowledge that we are not only building a nest egg, but making money available for a good social purpose.

Finally, having congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, I look forward to hearing from the Minister what else the Government can do to support this important sector. The legislative reform order is obviously a move in the right direction. Credit unions will be able to take advantage of the freedoms, to grow. However, the real challenge is for those that are growing to achieve sustainability, particularly when there are increased costs of complying with the FSA, audit requirements and so on. One of the keys to building sustainability in the sector is thinking about how we can engage credit unions to deliver some Government services, and make use of that facility to engage with the people who are hardest to reach.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:20 pm, 23rd November 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I commend Damian Hinds for obtaining the debate and for his good and active work as chairman of the all-party group on credit unions. I am conscious that the Minister who is to reply to the debate is from the Department for Work and Pensions because that Department has been closely involved—recently, in particular—in the long awaited LRO, which is so welcomed by credit unions in this country. However, without detracting from the positive points that have been made about the development and potential of credit unions in Great Britain, I want to highlight some points about credit unions in Northern Ireland. I am aware that there are in the Chamber not only officials from the DWP, but some with a relevant interest from the Treasury.

The LRO has long been sought by the credit union movement in Great Britain. It is great to see that advance, some of whose benefits were highlighted by the hon. Member for East Hampshire. Of course, that development, of itself, will not extend to credit unions in Northern Ireland, as he mentioned, so we have a little source of frustration. The Northern Ireland credit unions have spent many years campaigning to be able to offer as many services as their counterparts in Great Britain—their much smaller counterparts, both as to member numbers and savings. At a time when it looks as if that will now happen—at least the primary measure to permit it is coming with the draft Financial Services Bill—one frustration makes Northern Ireland credit unions a wee bit jealous: the LRO will further enhance what their counterparts in Great Britain can do compared with what they can do. Also, of course, there are issues to do with some of the details of the regulation that might come from the Financial Conduct Authority, courtesy of the Treasury’s plans in relation to the draft Bill and associated developments. Issues of context and content arise in relation to the change.

As the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members acknowledged, the credit union movement in Ireland at large is very strong. It has a long history, well rooted in communities. It is also particularly strong in Northern Ireland. The roots of my predecessor, John Hume, were in the credit union movement: not only did he help to found the movement in my constituency, but he led it in Ireland in the 1960s. In Northern Ireland, we have 163 credit unions, 103 of which are affiliated to the Irish League of Credit Unions. Those tend to be more mature; they have been longer in existence. Some 60 credit unions are associated with the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions. The Irish league has 370,000 members and there are 148,000 borrowing members with total savings of more than £700 million and total loans of more than £430 million, so, given the size of the Northern Ireland population, we are talking about something quite significant.

That is the situation while the credit unions are able to offer their members limited services—essentially just deposits and loans. The beauty of the measures that we hope will proceed—courtesy of the draft Bill and the consultations undertaken by the devolved Department and the Treasury in the past while, in response to the report to the Northern Ireland Assembly of an inquiry that I chaired—is the creation of at least the regulatory openings to allow credit unions in Northern Ireland to offer increased services. That is because some historic anomalies and legislative warps have limited what credit unions in Northern Ireland can do. They are not regulated by the Financial Services Authority. Therefore, they cannot offer services that are, by their nature, regulated by the FSA here.

It looks as if we may be coming to a path forward in that respect, but the credit union movement—both the Ulster federation and the Irish league—have concerns about the context and the detail of what is happening. The recent consultation was shortened to two months instead of three. People are worried that it has been rushed, and that although the changes that could be made afterwards have long been awaited, they may take place relatively quickly, before credit unions have been able to prepare themselves properly, internally and externally, for their impact, and for all the requirements. There is no point imposing change that will add to difficulties and make life hard for busy and effective credit unions.

The federation and the Irish league are also concerned about the content of some of the changes. Some of the proposed changes would take credit unions in Northern Ireland backwards in relation to existing functions. One is the planned reduction in the maximum deposit limit. Credit unions in Northern Ireland have a maximum deposit limit of £15,000. It was raised to that amount in 2006, because it needed to be. The proposal is that under the new arrangements it will be scaled back to £10,000. That will affect 48 credit unions in Northern Ireland, in which there are already people over that savings limit. That is entirely consistent with the culture of credit unions, which is about encouraging thrift through growing savings. To ask credit unions to tell some of their savers that they must take money away seems perverse.

The credit unions that belong to the Irish League of Credit Unions also offer, essentially, a free life-savings insurance service to their members. Whatever the value of a member’s savings on death, a multiple of that will go to their next of kin. Therefore, imposing the new limit will mean a significant change in the benefit that credit unions can offer their members.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the issues affecting credit unions in Northern Ireland, and I agree with him. I have received representations on the issue of borrowing, as have several hon. Members, and it is clear that members’ borrowing ability will be adversely affected, with the effects that he suggests. In the case of Northern Ireland, which has such a mature credit union movement, would it not be a good idea for the FSA and the Government to consider the best examples of what has happened there and perhaps import those, rather than imposing what is suggested for Great Britain on Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. Any changes proposed now should be about allowing and encouraging credit unions in Northern Ireland to go forward, not taking some of them backwards, and expanding their platform, rather than restricting the space in what they offer their members. He has made the point that the deposit restriction has a consequential effect, in some ways, on borrowing. Another issue, although I shall not go into it here as time does not permit, is the limit being imposed on unsecured loans. Given that there is such a high rate of saving and very healthy savings levels in credit unions in Northern Ireland, that restriction also seems perverse in its consequences.

There is also a proposal to limit the investment maturity period for any surplus sums that credit unions invest. Many credit unions in Northern Ireland are investing them very prudently, sometimes on three, four or five-year terms. The changes proposed by the Government would limit them to one-year deals. In the circumstances, the logic of Government policy should be about encouraging long-termism, prudence and sound investment in savings, so it seems perverse that credit unions in Northern Ireland are being told that they will no longer be allowed to follow the good and effective practice in which they have been engaging for years, and that they will have to move to a more varied and less reliable pattern of dealing with investments.

There are also issues with the transition to the new arrangements. Traditionally, credit unions in Northern Ireland have been registered with and regulated by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, albeit for a limited number of services. Credit unions belonging to the Irish League of Credit Unions and the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions have enjoyed their relationship with DETI. They have confidence in its officials, who have important insight and rapport.

During any change or transition to the Financial Conduct Authority, given that it will involve new things, as will the new regulation for credit unions in Northern Ireland, it will be important to have a strong support programme in place. The devolved Administration should support that, but I also hope that the Treasury and DWP will be sympathetic, because the kinds of measure that we want during the transition and development period are akin to the sorts of support that the Department has been happy to give to members of the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd and credit unions in this country.

I wanted to take advantage of the debate, secured by the hon. Member for East Hampshire, to set out some of the concerns. The story of credit union development in Northern Ireland has been good and strong. We could be on the threshold of something positive, but there is a danger that unnecessary detail will detract from that potential.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford 3:31 pm, 23rd November 2011

As always, Mr Streeter, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Damian Hinds on securing the debate.

Chris Evans spoke passionately about financial literacy. He might be interested to learn that a young lady doing work experience with me this week is watching the debate from the Gallery. She told me before we came to Westminster Hall that, as part of her enrichment class, she has just studied the role of credit unions. I have no idea what an enrichment class is, but the fact that it is studying credit unions is a fantastic way to ensure that youngsters learn about a variety of sources—

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Does she agree that it is important that credit unions can operate from an early stage in schools and involve young people much more directly than by simply learning about them?

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree. As many providers as exist should be entitled to teach children about the variety of sources of financial awareness. I have been to primary schools in my constituency and seen big banks supporting financial education programmes, which I think is fantastic, but we should get as many people in there as possible.

I proudly declare, like many Members here, that I am a member of a credit union: Kent Savers, the county-wide credit union. I am also soon to be a member of Medway credit union, which covers part of my constituency. Like others, I am passionate about tackling high-cost credit, lending and financial inclusion, and see credit unions as part of the answer. That stems from my experience of living the high life in London as a young graduate and stupidly running up debts, from which I was saved by my bank manager, and of representing a constituency that has pockets of deprivation and associated personal debt problems.

In the current economic climate, we must pay particularly close attention to how much debt people take on as pressure inevitably increases on household budgets. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to promote accessibility to fair and equitable credit, particularly, although not exclusively, for those on low incomes. That is why I share the enthusiasm for credit unions and believe that we must raise their profile. I am sure that I join many hon. Members here in having done so through local media.

I have met representatives of Kent Savers and Medway credit union, the latter as recently as last Friday, and have learned a great deal more about credit unions’ services, benefits and duties. Northern Irish Members will be interested to know that they spoke favourably of the credit unions in Ireland and Northern Ireland. One director is from Ireland and is helping to bring that experience to Medway.

As a mutual, a credit union has an ethos of responsibility and inclusion—traits especially welcome in Medway, which, sadly, has problems with unmanageable debt. Responsibility and inclusion go hand in hand and are crucial features in running credit unions fairly and equitably. Much is admirable in credit unions’ ability to open up opportunities to take out reasonable loans for people on low incomes or with bad credit history. The alternatives, as I have found in Medway, are far less appealing. As in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price, several high-cost credit lenders have set up shops prominently situated on busy high streets. They are the antithesis of credit unions.

Consumers took out £1.9 billion in payday loans last year, which is £500 million more than in the previous year. That trend is a concern and it is broadly reflected in the Medway area. Shockingly, at the local citizens advice bureau recently, a record £3 million in unsecured personal debt walked through the doors in one week. I have since been informed that loans and the interest associated with payday lending account for a worrying proportion of that £3 million. That is a great shame, and I have campaigned against it as a local Member of Parliament.

Such businesses deal in large sums of money and small print. They are identifiable by their glossy shop fronts, but they offer less attractive interest rates, targeting people on low incomes who are in financial difficulty. Sure, if they pay back the loan in time, the rate might be lower over 30 days than a high street bank’s overdraft charge, but the very fact that someone has gone to a payday loan company rather than a bank might indicate that they are a credit risk. No controls are placed on borrowing—a remarkable difference from credit unions.

The emergence of payday loan shops on high streets and the accessibility of easy credit on the internet appear to offer a quick fix. It might be financial inclusion of a sort, but the reality of high-cost credit is very different. It can be irresponsible on the part of the lender and self-defeating for the consumer, placing them deeper into debt and excluding them from accessing the lending market in the future, which credit unions do not do.

On Monday, I was pleased to note the Government’s response to the consumer credit and personal insolvency review. I was particularly encouraged to learn that they will consider the possibility of imposing a variable cap on the cost of high-cost credit that can be charged in the short to medium-term high-cost credit market, while talking up the credentials of credit unions as an alternative.

It is worth making the point that credit unions are more than just a lending service. To take out a loan, members must first commit to saving, which is an equally important feature of managing their finances. Given that only 20% of people in the UK reportedly put aside money each month, more clearly needs to be done to encourage saving. Credit unions offer a great opportunity to help to reverse that trend with a more innovative method of depositing cash, receiving a dividend and earning the possibility of taking out a loan. By committing to saving, members provide a cushion for those unexpected emergencies that we hear so much about from payday loan lenders, while avoiding astronomical interest rates.

I learned last week that Medway credit union is developing a Christmas savings scheme that encourages members to put aside money for Christmas essentials. Christmas is an expensive time of year. Given the pressure on families to spend, the temptation for those on low incomes to buy now and pay later is strong. However, under the scheme, reserves gradually built up over time will be on hand to cover the cost of the festive family season and steer families away from alternative high-cost credit. Most importantly, what makes the Christmas saving scheme attractive is that it is secure.

Credit unions have an important role to play for older people, who are often financially excluded. I have spoken before in this Chamber about my concerns for the financial welfare and education of our pensioners.

Financial difficulty is not limited to younger generations seeking loans to cover rent, bills or insuring the family car. I read a worrying report called “Debt and generations” commissioned by the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, and I urge hon. Members to read it. It revealed a minority of older people with extremely high levels of debt and a notable number of older households with high repayment-to-income ratios.

For instance, 12% of over-55s have a repayment-to-income ratio of 30%, compared to only 9% of those aged 18 to 24. Also, a great many older people are less able to mitigate the effect of an unexpected bill or change in circumstance. A reduction of just £50 to their monthly income, for example, doubles the likelihood of the oldest age groups becoming financially vulnerable and, potentially, taking out costly loans to meet the shortfall. I think we all agree that it would be far more preferable for older people faced with those difficulties to approach credit unions instead.

I am conscious of the time, so I will finish by saying that the Government have taken some welcome steps with the legislative reform order and other measures. I think we all welcome those steps and I look forward to reading the Government’s study, to which their formal response on consumer credit alludes, on credit unions and how they will be encouraged to grow and prosper.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:40 pm, 23rd November 2011

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate Damian Hinds on securing the debate, on his work chairing the all-party group on credit unions, and on his thoughtful and well informed observations at the start of the debate. His constituency and mine have similar names, although they are rather different places. We both, however, have constituents who owe a great deal to their local credit unions. I will touch on that during my remarks.

We have had friendly societies for a long time, since the early 18th century, when the chaos of the period brought the need for the greater security that mutual action was able to provide. The idea of working co-operatively to ensure that people are provided for in times of want and have a secure haven for their money, drawing on the resources of the community, continues to be very important.

The previous Government made a number of widely supported changes to enable the development of new dynamism and opportunity to the credit union and mutual sector. We recognised that the way the law treated credit unions in a number of respects was holding them back. That was the reason why, in 2002, the previous Government brought credit unions under the regulatory aegis of the Financial Services Authority. Mr Turner gave a good example in his intervention of that arrangement working very well. The hon. Member for East Hampshire was also right to sound a cautionary note about some of the risks for credit unions in the current re-regulation process.

The previous Government then took steps to enable credit unions to modernise while retaining what has always made them unique, starting with permitting them to communicate electronically in 2007, which was previously not allowed. We also committed to looking at how to reform the legislation on their membership, and that was the background, in 2008, to what became the Legislative Reform (Industrial and Provident Societies and Credit Unions) Order 2011, which will modernise the common bond and which has been widely welcomed during the debate. I note, however, the cautionary observations made by Mark Durkan about the possible effects in Northern Ireland.

It is clearly right that as communities have changed, so the restrictions that the common bond places on credit unions should change, too. Allowing businesses, housing associations and social enterprises to become partners with credit unions reflects the reality of communities today and the opportunities in them.

It was not just the previous Labour Government who introduced changes to the sector. Both the former Member for Bournemouth West, Sir John Butterfill, and my right hon. Friend Malcolm Wicks tabled private Members’ Bills, which helped the sector by reflecting the extent of consensus and support. Like others, I hope that the Minister will make some favourable observations about the prospects for the imminent implementation of the legislative reform order.

Partly—perhaps largely—as a result of support given to the sector by Government, there has been significant growth in the size and scale of the credit union movement, particularly over the past decade, in terms of numbers and of the amount saved, as my hon. Friend Chris Evans rightly pointed out. I pay tribute to the work of the Association of British Credit Unions in supporting the sector and its consistent and effective effort on behalf of credit unions. Recent unaudited data from the association note that credit unions grew by nearly 15% in just the first six months of 2009, which reflects what was happening elsewhere, I guess, in the financial services industry.

In Westminster Hall last week, I set out the case of my constituent who was about to start her university course and was unfairly denied a bank account after she became a victim of fraud when her card was stolen. She was only able to take up her university place because the local credit union, NewCred, of which I am too a member, as are other Members, was willing to offer her an account. Because she had run into problems with her bank account, a reference was made to CIFAS—the credit industry fraud avoidance system—which meant that she could not get an account from any bank at all. NewCred was the only institution able to offer her an account, and had it not been for that she would not have been able to take up her place at university, because she would not have been able to receive her student loan cheque or have an account for it to be paid into.

Like other Members, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm the continuation of his Department’s funding for credit unions. That has been a valuable source of support over recent years; the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned the figure of £73 million, which has been spoken of in this context. I also hope that the Government will support credit union access through the Post Office, to which my right hon. Friend Mr Smith drew attention during an intervention.

I echo the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn for the creation of a central finance facility. He has talked about the cost of setting it up, but as he said, such a facility is widely used elsewhere and it is estimated that consumers will have significant savings in credit costs if such an arrangement can be put in place. It might also provide a mechanism to release more than £1 billion in the Post Office card account float, which could be lent to social fund customers, as well as providing, as my hon. Friend said, the potential to significantly increase the size of credit unions. Is the Minister able to say something about that?

One major disappointment is the missed opportunity—many of us felt this—in relation to Northern Rock. My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North raised the issue of the extension and expansion of the mutual financial sector in his question to the Prime Minister earlier today. We have not really received an explanation of why the option of a member-led remutualisation, which was proposed by the Co-operative party, was not accepted. There are some big questions to be asked about the sale of Northern Rock. When will the Minister and his hon. Friends publish the advice of United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd and Deutsche Bank, so that we can see exactly why a mutual Northern Rock was ruled out? I know that the Treasury said that remutualisation would have meant gifting value currently held by the Exchequer to members of the new mutual, but we have not been told whether the Treasury is gifting £250 million of Northern Rock’s existing equity to Virgin, or what the difference in principle is between those two exchanges. A mutual Northern Rock would have been very attractive.

Members have rightly touched on other aspects of financial inclusion and exclusion. My hon. Friend Stella Creasy has made great strides in advancing the argument for a cap on interest rates in the UK, and there are pros and cons to that proposal. Before the election, as I recall, the Conservative party pledged that there would be a cap on excessive store card interest rates, to protect the public and help prevent people from falling into problem debt. I was present at an event at the Barbican where the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor, Greg Hands, said that the cap would be the firm policy of the Conservative party, and it subsequently appeared in a policy document. Will the Minister let us know what the plans for that measure now are?

I welcome the strong support expressed for the credit union sector in the debate. The growth of the sector has been greatly helped by Government support in the past decade or more. I, with others, hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today that support will be maintained, and that the sector will have the potential to expand further in the period ahead.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 3:50 pm, 23rd November 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. It has been an extremely informed and useful debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Damian Hinds on securing it, on the extensive work that he has clearly done chairing the all-party group, and on his involvement in the credit union fair today. It is with fortuitous timing that we debate this issue at the same time as the fair, which showcased the valuable work of credit unions. There is a greater focus on both events as a result, but I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for their involvement in the fair—a sign of hon. Members not just talking, but acting—and showcasing work by a sector that we all agree plays a very valuable role in our society, particularly in tackling debt, which can be a massive burden on lower income families.

One of the consequences of the credit crunch is that it is now more difficult for families on low income to obtain credit. The consequence can be to trap people in poverty, which makes it more difficult for many people to improve their work situation, as it constrains job search activity and makes financial planning much harder to manage. Of course, it also denies people access to certain types of job; for example, those that include handling cash are not necessarily available to people with poor credit records. It means that people have more demands on their finances, more to lose if something goes wrong, and are therefore perhaps more cautious about changing their financial situation; for example, by leaving the relative security of the benefits system and moving into work, even though we all know that once they are established in work, they are much better off in the long run.

We are dealing with the problem of debt that entrenches people in poverty. We know that those on low incomes are at the greatest risk of ending up in debt and, as a result, are often the least equipped to cope with it. One of the principal causes of debt for those on low incomes is that the majority have few or no savings. When an unexpected financial pressure occurs—an essential household appliance stops working; for example, the fridge breaks down—they have to resort to borrowing to make ends meet. However, they are treated as high-risk borrowers by the financial services sector and have to pay a high price for their credit. We have heard very articulate arguments this afternoon about the problems that can create, and about various lenders in the marketplace. My hon. Friend Tracey Crouch made valuable points about the risks to families on very low incomes and the huge price that they can pay for access to some of the things that those who are able to access mainstream financial services find easy.

Credit unions offer a valuable alternative service. By working within communities and helping those most in need of support, they help people to manage their financial affairs. Hon. Members play a valuable role. It has been interesting to hear how many of them give active support as members of their local credit union. As Stephen Timms said, successive Governments have supported credit unions and directly helped the sector to grow. We are keen to continue that support in a sustainable way; we believe that it is important. That is why we have agreed to continue providing support from the growth fund while we carry out a feasibility study into how we should help the sector to develop in the future. We have allocated £11.8 million to continue to support credit unions and other community financial institutions in this fiscal year. We want credit unions to continue to be part of the financial services landscape.

We also have a duty to ensure that credit unions operate efficiently and offer a good range of services to a wide range of people. Many credit unions are run at a loss. Many do not offer the same range of products and services. Many cannot provide services that are available in another part of the country. We have heard much about the legislative reform order this afternoon. As I am relatively new to the issue, I had not followed the extensive process to the degree described by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, but the order is there. It is happening. It will help to improve coverage.

The amendment to the Credit Union Act 1979 effectively opens up membership of credit unions to new groups, such as housing association tenants and employees of a national company, even if some of those people live outside the geographical area served by the credit union. It was either Mr Smith or Chris Evans who pointed out that it is important for credit unions to spread their umbrella over a wider area than they do at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made a point about credit unions becoming the bankers of the big society. He is correct to say that there is potential to drive deep into the heart of the communities that they serve.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I want to point out, and I am sure that the Minister would agree, that the people who run credit unions have made a great contribution. When the Isle of Wight credit union ceased to exist, the new amalgamated credit union of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight did a great deal of work, which was carried out by individuals voluntarily in the constituencies.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I pay tribute to all those involved. This is the essence of the credit union movement, and indeed the essence of the co-operative movement as a whole. If I have one regret politically, looking back over history, it is that the co-operative movement found itself on the left of politics rather than the right. The co-operative spirit has much in common with the spirit that we on the Government side of the House represent. Many of the changes that we are putting in place are designed to try and encourage people to work together. Within the credit union movement, we find that writ large.

As a result of the changes in the review, credit unions will be able to pay a guaranteed rate of interest on members’ savings. We hope that will help them to attract more savings, and so make more affordable credit available in the community. We also want them to do more. We want them to look to the future, reach out to offer new products to many more potential members, and work to provide the services that landlords and their other partners want. We need them to become more efficient, better known and more attractive—effectively, to move to the next level of potential for the credit union movement.

Credit unions need to reduce their costs, increase their capacity, and operate more efficiently by sharing back-office activity. The right hon. Member for East Ham asked a question about that. The creation of a central financial wholesale organisation for credit unions is being examined by the feasibility study, which is looking at a wide range of different options. It is being led by a project steering committee, supported by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am pleased that the issue of jam jar accounts was raised. Financial products such as jam jar accounts are very much part of the study.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. He mentioned the feasibility study and the welcome agenda of work it is addressing. Can he give us any indication of when the study is likely to report?

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the study is being chaired by Deanna Oppenheimer of Barclays bank. She has just finalised her report with her team, and the recommendations will be presented to Ministers shortly. We hope to be able to make that information available to the House before too long. We have not seen the report yet, but there will not be long to wait. Clearly, that restricts some of my ability to provide detailed answers to questions raised today, because these are matters that will be in the report. However, I hope that it will provide a clear blueprint and a clear direction of travel for the sector for the future.

We are bringing credit unions into Jobcentre Plus offices to try to create a greater link between credit unions and the work Jobcentre Plus is doing for the unemployed. The committee consulted the Post Office on its potential role working in partnership with credit unions. That could have benefits. A number of hon. Members made the point that such a partnership would be valuable. We will know more when the study is published.

We regard the sector as enormously important. We want to see credit unions grow and develop in an effective and efficient way, delivering support to those in debt at the bottom end of the income scale, driving to the heart of communities, attracting savings from a broader range of people and sources, and absolutely at the heart of what we hope to deliver for local communities and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire says, the big society, through the community groups that will give support right across the country.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.