Military Credit Union — [Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 8th April 2014.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 2:30 pm, 8th April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan, for what I think is the first time. Given your past and present, you seem to be a particularly good choice of Chair for this debate, although I recognise that that will not save me if I deviate from the usual rules and conventions. In that spirit, I should say that I am one of 8 million ordinary members of the Co-op Group; I have accounts with Nationwide; I belong to the M for Money credit union in Harrow and the Rainbow Saver credit union; and I am privileged to chair the Co-op party and to be one of its MPs in the House.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first two credit unions in the UK. Now would be a good time for the Government to facilitate the establishment of a new credit union for our soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel and their families. Hornsey Co-operative credit union was one of those first two 50 years ago; it is now part of the London Capital credit union, which is directly taking on payday lenders throughout the capital, charging only £12 interest a month on a £400 loan, compared with the £120 charged by a typical payday lender for the same loan over the same period. That is one of many examples of how credit unions can offer a powerful alternative to payday lenders.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for the opportunity to press the case for the Government and the senior ranks of our armed forces to do more to facilitate access to a military credit union or to credit unions more generally, which can serve the needs of our armed forces personnel. Those personnel often face particular challenges in accessing financial services and sometimes have limited opportunity to develop financial management skills. In addition, as Lord Ashcroft has pointed out, transitions from military to civilian life are often hard and there is the potential for worry about debt to be a life-threatening distraction.

I hope that the Minister will commit to a feasibility study to establish a military credit union, to report by the end of the Parliament, and that he will say what he will do in the meantime to facilitate and encourage access to credit unions by members of our armed forces. I recognise and welcome the interest that a number of Ministers have shown in the idea of such a union, but I hope that this Minister will be able to do more than merely repeat interest and that he will demonstrate a more tangible commitment.

A credit union is a financial co-operative, which provides savings, loans and a range of other services to its members. It is owned and controlled by the members, and each member has one vote. Volunteer directors are elected from the membership of the credit union, by the membership. Credit unions are owned by their own users and not by external shareholders or investors, so the emphasis is always on providing the best service to members, rather than on maximising profits from their customers.

Such financial co-operatives exist throughout the world, as well as in the UK, and there are some 200 million members in 56,000 credit unions in more than 100 countries.

Indeed, in the USA, Canada, Australia and Ireland, more than a quarter of the population are credit union members. Such a target is achievable over time in the UK and, if 25% of the British population were members of a credit union, I suspect that payday loan firms would have fewer customers. More than 90% of the British population can join a credit union because of where they live, which is in no small part thanks to investment by the previous Labour Government, which, to be fair, is continued by the current Department for Work and Pensions credit union expansion plan.

I pay tribute to the many hundreds of volunteer board members and to the staff helping to drive a slow expansion in credit union members in the UK. I hope that the House will indulge me if I take the opportunity to praise Graham Tomlin of M for Money, which serves my constituency, and the board of the excellent Rainbow Saver credit union. I hope that the Government will do more to increase awareness of credit unions generally, but in particular among the military, because Whitehall, local government and housing associations could do much to make military personnel and others aware of the benefits of credit union membership. Crucially, credit unions, including any new military credit union that might be set up, are authorised and regulated by the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority.

As I set out in my ten-minute rule Bill on the same subject last year, my inspiration is the success of Navy Federal in the United States, which since 1933 and its first seven members has grown to have almost 4,700,000 members, with $44.5 billion in assets. Based in Vienna in Virginia, it is the world’s largest credit union, with 220 branches and almost 9,000 employees. It offers savings accounts, car loans, credit cards, 24/7 telephone access, internet and mobile banking, budget counselling and more than 45,000 ATMs, among other services, to people as diverse as navy SEALs and army cooks.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the other services under that regime in the United States is insurance? That is incredibly attractive to service personnel, who recognise that they will get a very good insurance package if something terrible happens to them or their loved ones.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If I remember rightly, through a subsidiary Navy Federal offers specialist insurance services as well. In short, it offers highly competitive services to those who put themselves in harm’s way for the United States. It provides tailored services to military personnel, supporting their specific needs, including the commitment to cover pay during the threatened US Government shutdown last year. The president or chief executive of Navy Federal is not perhaps the most obvious missionary for co-operation. Cutler Dawson is a graduate of the US Naval academy and served for 35 years in the US navy. He ended up as a vice-admiral, commanding four ships—the Enterprise battle group—and was the commander of the US second fleet.

Other significant military credit unions in the US include the Air Force Federal credit union, which charges no fees on its regular savings and cheque accounts.

It requires a minimum deposit of only $5 and, for example, offers 60-month car loans with an annual percentage rate, or APR, of only 1.6%. The Pentagon Federal credit union has 1.2 million members and $1.7 billion in assets. Australia, too, has a credit union for its service personnel; the Australian Defence credit union has been providing banking services to defence personnel and contractors, and their families, since as long ago as 1959. It now has 34 branches, assets approaching 1 billion Australian dollars and more than 47,000 members. Again, each member of that credit union has an equal say in how it operates.

Credit unions provide a responsible alternative for savings and loans and an inclusive service for all people, as well as being a crucial alternative to high-interest lenders. They are owned by their members and, because they have no external shareholders, they can offer competitive borrowing and savings rates.

I realise that establishing a new credit union dedicated to the military could take some time. It would involve some cost and, crucially, would not immediately be able to offer the lowest alternatives to payday loans that better capitalised and more well established credit unions are providing. I hope that, as well as committing to the specific feasibility study for a dedicated military credit union, the Minister will consider working with existing credit unions that may be able to offer our armed forces personnel access to the best credit union products and services straight away.

One such credit union, the Plane Saver credit union, has approached me directly and I believe it has written to the Secretary of State for Defence offering its services to do just what I have suggested. I am sure that other credit unions—and, indeed, the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd, the excellent trade body for the credit union movement—could help the MOD to think through how to provide more immediate access to the benefits of a credit union while cracking on with a feasibility study for a dedicated military credit union.

One crucial requirement if credit union services are to be accessible to our soldiers, airmen and women, and naval personnel, is for the Ministry of Defence to be able to put in place payroll deduction, just as payments are made directly from wages for all sorts of reasons already. It should surely be an employee’s right to be able to make payments from wages into their local credit union account. Many employers in other public services already allow that simple process, which in turn strengthens credit unions and helps to build their sustainability, enabling them to pass on to their members benefits in the form of better loan rates and dividends. ABCUL has said:

“Payroll deduction is an easy and convenient way for employees to get a savings habit and access affordable credit.”

There would be some additional work and, therefore, costs for the Ministry of Defence in running such a payroll deduction service. For example, regular payments and information and details of leavers, as well as of those joining the credit union, would need to be provided to the relevant credit union or unions in a timely manner, but payroll deductions are not a new concept and the MOD should be more than able to take that in its stride. Will the Minister set out whether he and the Secretary of State are willing in principle to allow payroll deduction for credit union membership? If not, will he say why?

Some of the many credit unions that already exist in Britain and internationally have strong links to particular groups of employees, as a new military credit union clearly would. That enables them to provide services to a range of employees, highly paid and lower paid, earlier or later in their careers, and allows the credit union to build a balanced portfolio for all. Such credit unions can offer extremely competitive terms. For example, the Police credit union serves a similar uniformed service and offers savings returns of 2.5% on instant access cash ISA accounts alongside small short-term loans at 25% APR or larger, longer-term loans from 4.3% APR. ABCUL tells me that similar examples exist in the passenger transport, airline, NHS and local government sectors.

Sadly, colleagues on both sides of the House will be aware of the many shocking statistics on the increasing use of payday loans in the UK. The Money Advice Service reported that some 1.2 million people took out payday loans to get through Christmas last year. The Debt Advice Foundation found that one in four people who took out payday loans did so to buy food or other essentials. Particularly worrying, perhaps, is that some 44% of people used payday loans to pay off other debts, thus sinking even further into the quicksand-like trap of ever-increasing debt.

Research from the Office of Fair Trading found that 50% of the industry’s profits come from refinancing, with those who take loans out repeatedly creating the largest return for the industry’s big boys. Some 19% of the industry’s profits came from just 5% of loans that were rolled over four times or more. That is a growing problem. Research from Citizens Advice shows that in just two years there has been a fourfold rise in the number of people seeking its advice with debt problems as a result of taking out payday loans.

Last year, I spoke to the chief executives of several Citizens Advice branches located close to military bases, and they said a pattern was clear. Soldiers and sailors were facing real financial difficulties because they had taken out one payday loan for a small sum and soon found themselves in ever deeper problems as one loan became two, two became three, and the interest mounted up and up.

The problem is clearly not limited to armed forces personnel—far from it. R3, the Association of Business Recovery Professionals, is the body representing insolvency practitioners, and published data in December 2013 showing that some 47% of British adults are worried about their debt levels, with 44% struggling to make it to pay day. Interestingly, R3’s research found that 71% of British adults blame the rising cost of living for their struggle to make it to pay day, but I digress.

Payday loans are a real and growing problem for our armed forces. The Royal British Legion published research warning that one third of all of the debt problems it deals with relate to people struggling with payday-style unsecured loans. In 2011, its money and benefit advice service was helping 11,000 servicemen and ex-servicemen with debt problems. That is a huge increase from when the service started back in 2007, when it helped just over 2,000 people. ABF, the soldiers’ charity—formerly the Army Benevolent Fund—does important work in many of our constituencies and has said that it gives half the money it raises directly to individuals to help in areas such as debt relief. That figure is remarkable by any definition.

There is a real problem. Payday lenders should have to signpost those taking out payday loans to debt management services, a little like cigarette packets having to carry health warnings. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has set out some steps we should take to tackle the damage done by payday loans. Some lenders make as much as £1 million a week in profit, and he has called for a levy on the profits of payday loan companies to raise capital for alternative and affordable sources of credit such as credit unions. That could raise an additional £13 million, allowing credit unions to offer more financial support to people in need of credit. Perhaps a little of that sum could be used to help to develop a credit union for military personnel if the Government were so minded.

My right hon. Friend made clear his support for the banning of payday loan adverts during children’s TV programmes, which would be a very sensible step forward. Just as importantly, he set out how he would take steps to allow local councils to decide whether they want to place some premises in a separate planning category, giving communities more control over payday loan outlets in their high streets. Sadly, many local authorities and communities feel increasingly powerless to shape their town centres or do anything to halt the tide of payday loan firms. We want to change that.

I understand that there is cross-party support for a payday loan charter setting out what effective regulation of payday lenders and high-cost credit might look like. Such a charter could call for better affordability checks, a crackdown on advertising, and real-time data sharing within the industry so that lenders can check whether a borrower already has other plans. A military credit union could support such initiatives.

I welcome the written answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Murrison:

“Although commanding officers retain discretion to decide which advertisements are appropriate for their bases, guidance has been issued to each of the services that advertisements from payday loan companies should not be carried in their internal publications.”—[Hansard, 24 February 2014; Vol. 124, c. 63W.]

That guidance was given once it was brought to the MOD’s attention that payday loan companies were seeking to entice people to their products; soldiers and sailors in particular were being targeted rigorously using military publications. Payday loan companies that were particularly targeting our soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel include Forces Loans, which claims to be the No. 1 lender to the military. Its loans are currently being advertised with an APR of 3,351%. Another company, QuickQuid, regularly advertises on the apparently popular militaryforums.co.uk with a rate of 1,362% APR.

A quick search online will find other examples of companies that have sponsored links to forces sites or to information that forces personnel can easily get access to: 1st Stop charges nearly 2,000% APR; Quids Today charges more than 2,000% APR; and The Money Shop charges nearly 3,000% APR—I could go on. A quick check of payday loans widely available online shows loans available at APRs ranging from nearly 900% to more than 7,000%. A military credit union could, over the medium to long term, provide a powerful competitive financial services offer to those who put their lives on the line for us, in ways that best meet their particular needs.

Let me underline the questions that I hope the Minister will answer today. Will he undertake a feasibility study into the establishment of a dedicated military credit union? Will he ensure that that feasibility study reports by the end of this Parliament? In the short term, other credit unions could help to offer such services now, with positive support from the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister commit to meet ABCUL, credit unions such as Plane Saver and possibly me to discuss how that might happen?

Will the Minister commit now to the principle of payroll deduction to help any member of the armed forces or supporting staff to join a credit union more easily if they want to? Will he encourage military publications to carry adverts for credit unions that armed forces personnel can join? Will he support an explicit ban on payday lenders advertising in military bases? Will he consider discussing with other ministerial colleagues a requirement on high-cost lenders, such as payday lenders, to signpost their borrowers towards free debt management advice services?

Credit unions have a long history. They are increasingly building capacity and membership. They are a powerful demonstration of the values of co-operation: working with others to help oneself; giving equal voting rights and an equal say in the running of a business; and being committed to a fair distribution of any profits or surplus in the form of better, cheaper services. Sadly, no such clear, distinct service exists for our armed forces, and I gently encourage the Minister to back our campaign for a military credit union.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 2:53 pm, 8th April 2014

I had anticipated that a large number of other Members would be here to speak about this issue, because of its importance. I congratulate Mr Thomas on bringing the matter to the House. The Minister is in his place and has heard a lot of what he said, and I will be adding to those comments. Other Members might have contributions to make and the shadow Minister will be making a valuable contribution, too.

I am very pleased to come along today and give my wholehearted support to the hon. Gentleman for bringing the issue to the Chamber for our consideration. We are aware of such issues not only as elected representatives, but because of previous service. I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Territorial Army for 11-and-a-half years in the Royal Artillery: in the UDR, in a terrorism role—or an anti-terrorism role, I should say—and in the Royal Artillery in a role that had a more global and European impact. That is where my interest in the issue comes from.

I represent Strangford, which is renowned for service in Her Majesty’s armed forces. The largest town in my constituency, Newtownards, is to host the Armed Forces day in Northern Ireland this year. I have no doubt that the streets will be thronged to capacity with people coming along to express the high esteem in which they hold service personnel and veterans. As I meet each of those veterans and personnel, I will do so with the knowledge that I support them in every way that I can. This debate is a way of doing just that. It reflects some constituency issues that I have had over the past four years as a Member of Parliament, and before that, as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I seek to help the personnel’s families at home while they are serving and when they return home from their service. Some return home with not only physical and emotional but financial issues, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted.

What the hon. Gentleman presented was about support for service personnel and their families. I completely agree that the fluctuation of pay of those serving due to the different rates depending on where they are serving means that some payday lenders can take advantage of our armed forces personnel. Serving personnel get an allowance on active duty, but some find it hard to get by without the top-up cash. Sometimes, there is a change of financial circumstances. Will the Minister indicate what help is given to service personnel when it comes to managing money and their wages better? I believe that there is some, but sometimes it takes more than a bit of paper; it takes a one-to-one, and if that is possible, has it been done?

A regular soldier’s wage is £17,767, and when they become used to the uplift in cash, it takes time to go back to a smaller budget. I am privileged to be in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which has given me chance to visit army camps. Catterick is one that sticks in my mind because it offers accommodation to soldiers who are single and have no families or dependants. The officers told me that many of those young men in uniform perhaps have a level of cash that they did not have before, and they very quickly spend it and frequently run into debt. Will the Minister say what help is given directly to service personnel to ensure that they manage their money and wages much better?

I have spoken in this place numerous times about the difficulties with payday loans, as have others. We are all aware of the story in the press in the past week or two about the lady who borrowed £500 and suddenly found, before it was all finished, that she owed £120,000. That is an extreme example, but none the less, it indicates the serious problems that people can have when they get into borrowing from payday companies. I have spoken about the number of people who come into my office seeking help to get themselves back on an even keel due to the high interest of these loans. We are fortunate to have debt advice organisations such as Citizens Advice, Debt Action, and Christians Against Poverty, just to think of three in my constituency that deliver specific help to those who need it most. Increasing numbers of ex-Army personnel come with their families to seek help for their circumstances. They are real issues and they show why today’s debate is so important.

Many people are seeking to get themselves back on an even keel, due to the high interest of the loans, as they try to manage their money in relation to their wives and children and to their new circumstances perhaps of not being in the Army. It is a vicious circle that is so difficult to get out of. Citizens Advice has said that it is dealing with an increasing number of cases where military personnel and their families had run into financial problems after taking out high-cost payday loans. Research by the Royal British Legion has found that about a third of veterans experience financial difficulties, including almost half of those who are recently injured. That is, again, a pointer to how important the issue is. We all greatly respect those soldiers who serve and those who come back injured, either emotionally or physically. It is a terrible tragedy when half of the recently injured and a third of veterans, as the Royal British Legion found, experience financial difficulties and need help, which lead many of them into very high levels of debt.

I place on record my thanks to the organisations that work in my area. Obviously, I thank the Royal British Legion first, but I also thank the Army Benevolent Fund, to which the hon. Member for Harrow West referred, and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which does great work with serving personnel or ex- personnel and their families. I hold a coffee morning once a year for SSAFA—it is basically coffee, tea and sticky buns—and last year we were very pleased because people from the town gave £4,500. That immense contribution was an example of the good that people can do and of their generosity. We never fail to be overwhelmed by people’s generosity. That contribution was an indication of the good that the people of Newtownards and district can do.

Last year, the Royal British Legion’s benefits and money advice service—this information is from the Royal British Legion—helped 11,000 Army personnel. That was in its second year. It was an increase of 8,600 on its first year. That clearly shows the magnitude of this issue and the need to respond. It is clear that there is an issue. It is equally clear that we have a role to play in providing the solution. The proposals were outlined by the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that the Minister, in his response, will be able to give us some indication of the importance of that and how he will address the issue.

At home, I always encourage people to use their local credit union, which allows money to be borrowed only when money has been saved. That has helped many people to get loans at an affordable rate of interest. The fact that the American military run a successful version in Navy Federal shows that such a service would be of use to our personnel.

I want to touch on the options or solutions that are available. Like other MPs, I would say that when people come to see me with their problems, it is about solutions. It is not about the problem; it is about how we make the situation better, how we can help the people. I believe that we have a solution here today if the Minister is minded to give us the response that we seek.

Navy Federal is the largest credit union in America, with more than 4 million members. It has branches on every military base in the country. My hon. Friend Ian Paisley spoke to me last year when he had the chance to be in America and speak to some navy personnel. He was aware of the good work that they do. Army personnel and navy personnel were depending on payday loans and creditors, so Navy Federal moved in and ensured that there was a branch on every military base in the country. The payday loaners used to target the military bases to hook American sailors and soldiers with their high-cost financial services. However, legislation and the low-cost financial products that credit unions offer have led to the Navy Federal credit union having branches on every military base in the United States of America and offering a very direct and personal service to its members. It is greatly utilised by service personnel.

According to the Library debate pack, a meeting took place of the all-party group on credit unions last October. The Minister for the Armed Forces used that meeting to express the Government’s interest in exploring the idea of a service personnel credit union further, so perhaps the Minister today could tell us where we have advanced since October, whether we are any closer to having this type of scheme in place—I hope that we are—and, if not, whether we have a programme that will lead to that happening. Like the hon. Member for Harrow West and other hon. Members present, I genuinely believe that this proposal could be the catalyst for a scheme that can change things round and help our soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel to manage their money better.

Abbie Shelton, policy and communications manager at ABCUL, said:

“Payroll deduction is an easy and convenient way for employees to get a savings habit and access affordable credit and we welcome any support for new partnerships which will help more people access credit unions in this way.”

I will not express a preference for any one building society. None the less, getting into the habit of saving is a good thing to do. If we do get into the habit of saving early and start to save regularly, that becomes a discipline in itself. Again, perhaps the Minister could comment on this issue in his response. The hon. Member for Harrow West focused greatly on payroll deduction, and I think that it is a tremendous idea, because it enables people to save directly. It is important that we all try to manage our money as best we can.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if such a scheme were introduced, the Government could make a forward calculation as to how much money could reasonably be expected and therefore underwrite the establishment of a military credit union for a period of five to 10 years to allow it to get established and thereby really give it the support that it needs to get off the ground?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very constructive intervention. Yes, I do believe that what he describes could be done. Again, perhaps the Minister can give us some idea of how he sees that particular scheme working. If we have a prediction, if we have an idea of what we will have coming in over five to 10 years, we can start such a scheme. When I visited Catterick camp in September two years ago, that was one of the things that the officers told me they wanted to see happening. I fed that back to the MOD in questions and I would like to know whether it has been activated and where it is going.

The example of the Navy Federal credit union in the United States is powerful. It shows what can be done. Where there is a will, there is a way, or, in this case, where there is a will, there must be a way. It can be delivered. We have a duty of care to our service personnel to help to support their families and to ensure that their sacrifices in service are acknowledged at home, and this is one way of doing just that. I wholeheartedly support the proposal and offer my help in any way possible to see this legislation being made in the House. It is critical, it is important and it is needed urgently. Everyone here is of that opinion. I know that the pledge that I have made is something that the rest of my party, the Democratic Unionist party, at Westminster will also support.

We have talked about the issue. Now it is time for action to be taken, for our serving personnel to become saving personnel and for them and veterans to see yet another tangible sign of our appreciation of and support for those who put their safety, mental health and lives on the line in service to the Queen and this tremendous country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:07 pm, 8th April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. It is also a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon, who made a welcome and constructive contribution to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Thomas on securing the debate. I am delighted to be able to follow him by speaking in support of the establishment of an armed forces credit union.

I pay tribute to the commitment and service of our armed forces, our veterans and their families. Without them, our country would not be as successful or as safe as it is. It is therefore my utmost belief that we have a duty to ensure that our servicemen and women and their families are treated fairly, protected from discrimination and supported in all aspects of their civilian life where necessary. That includes in their finances.

It is already hard enough for an individual or a family to save money and build up a strong credit history. For armed forces personnel, the struggle to become financially secure can sometimes be even more difficult. Military families face specific circumstances that can make it difficult to access financial services via the traditional routes, such as high street banks or building societies. Long periods spent outside the UK mean that some kinds of financial benefits, such as no-claims bonuses, are not easily acknowledged. It becomes harder to build up a credit history if someone’s address changes every two years as they move around. Fluctuations between an individual’s regular pay and deployment pay can mean that income is hard to predict. That is not just detrimental to the individual, who may be unable to develop a long-term budget but also influences things such as mortgage and credit card applications. Frequent relocations have a knock-on effect for partners, spouses and children, whose employment opportunities may be reduced, resulting in a drop in household income.

It can be hard for servicemen and women to save during deployment, but on leaving the military, the situation may become harder. More than 20,000 people leave the armed forces every year, and that number is rising as the Government reduce personnel numbers. Because of the institutional way in which the armed forces work, some of those people will have had little experience of budgeting, costing, saving or spending. Many people struggle with those things, and those in the armed forces are no different. That added burden can leave them at risk of financial difficulty. The 2012 issue of Homeport, a magazine distributed by the Navy and the Marines to naval families, said:

“The inability to manage personal finances is one of the single greatest welfare challenges facing members of the Armed Forces.”

Every one of those things makes our military personnel and their families more likely to search out alternative options for financing. When circumstances mean that they are refused assistance from high street banks or building societies, they become more susceptible to payday lenders offering sums of cash on the spot, as we have heard. Citizens Advice has reported dealing with an increased number of cases of British armed services personnel and their families being targeted by payday lending companies. A couple of payday lenders—I am struggling over whether to name the companies that I have in mind; on this occasion I do not think I will—have specialist sites aimed at the armed forces, and one of them has an interest rate of 1,734%. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West has outlined the interest rates of a number of other companies. In targeting armed forces families in such a way, they are exploiting for their own gain service personnel who have poor credit histories or difficulty accessing credit. Of course, payday lenders do not just target military families, and we have heard a good deal about that already. Which?, Citizens Advice, the Office of Fair Trading and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee have all criticised payday loan companies for offering exploitative loans to people who are at their lowest ebb and charging extortionate fees that simply push those people into further financial difficulty.

According to the Debt Advice Foundation, one in four people who take out payday loans need the money to buy food or essentials, and 44% use them to pay off other debts. Some in the forces may turn to payday loan companies because they see them as a quick and easy solution to a lack of finance. Initially, they are a quick way of getting money, but unfortunately it does not turn out to be easy in the long run.

Establishing a military credit union would not only shield our military families from exploitation but help them to become more financially stable and financially literate, and to live a more secure and stable life outside the armed forces when they leave. That would reduce the need for intervention further down the line. I appreciate that the Ministry of Defence has already recognised that something needs to be done, which is why it introduced the MoneyForce programme last year to provide service personnel with advice and training on finances. Although the scheme is a good step in the right direction, it does not offer our armed forces an alternative to the arrangements on offer.

As we have heard, the Royal British Legion operates its own money advice service, which gives service personnel, veterans and their families impartial and non-judgmental financial advice. I believe that it has helped more than 35,000 people; worryingly, about 11,000 of them in 2012 alone, so the numbers appear to be going up. About 70% of those people are ex-service rather than currently serving, which shows that there is a problem here that we must look at. In addition, research by the Royal British Legion in 2011 showed that almost a third of the debt problems it deals with involve unsecured loans from payday lenders and other providers. That is yet another reason why we should be providing servicemen and women with another option.

Given the facts, and given that is not difficult to see where and how the problems arise, I hope that Ministers will take the opportunity to do something positive about the matter. In February 2013, the Minister with responsibility for international strategy, Dr Murrison, said that the concept of a credit union had been considered but that the MOD believed that it was

“likely to be too restrictive in how it might operate and what it can provide.”—[Hansard, 4 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 440W.]

Earlier this year, however, he updated the position, saying that the MOD was considering the option of an armed forces credit union but a decision had not yet been made. I hope that the Minister can tell us where the Department stands and whether he has been convinced that a military credit union would offer a financial lifeline to thousands of serving personnel, veterans and their families. I back my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West in calling for a feasibility study into the matter and into deductions at source from salaries.

As we have heard, the Department for Work and Pensions has supported the expansion of credit unions across the UK. The Department’s feasibility study found that some 7 million people fall into the trap of high-cost credit. As a result, a significant amount of money has been set aside to invest in credit unions, and I hope that that might be one way of moving forward. Tackling high-interest consumer credit is a priority for the Opposition, as is supporting our armed forces and their families. Unfortunately, too many people in the UK have been forced into using food banks and relying on welfare payments to try to deal with the cost of living crisis. The armed forces and their families are facing their own cost of living crisis, because they have had reductions in their allowances and their pensions.

Considering all the evidence, I cannot see a single reason why we should not move ahead with the policy. The armed forces covenant states that, where possible, disadvantages should be removed so that military personnel can enjoy the same opportunities and outcomes as the civilian community. When it comes to personal finance, there is clearly a problem that we want to address. Credit unions provide a fair and affordable alternative to payday lenders. They are an option for those who are otherwise unable to access mainstream sources of high street credit from traditional banks or building societies. They are also a way forward for people who want to take an ethical approach to personal finance. They are trusted by more than 200 million people across the world, who use them to manage more than £700 billion in assets. In West Dunbartonshire, we have three community-based credit unions, not to mention some hugely successful workplace schemes, which help more than 12,000 people to manage their money in the best possible way. I want that service to be available to our armed forces community as well. I cannot think of a reason why they, too, should not have access to a workplace credit union.

We have heard about Navy Federal, which is the biggest credit union in the United States with 4 million members, so it cannot be that our armed forces are too big to establish such a scheme. One of the unique selling points of a credit union is that it can offer specialised financial products and services that are designed to meet the specific needs of the community it serves. Ian Paisley, who has left, spoke about insurance products, which I think Navy Federal offers. The specific circumstances and situations that military personnel face, such as families living apart, or moving house several times, could be factored into decision making.

The Co-operative party has launched the “Give Me Credit” campaign for a military credit union, with the simple expression: “Because service personnel and their families deserve better.” I could not have put it better. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West, I am proud to be a member of the Co-operative party and one of its Members of Parliament, because those are the sort of policies that make people’s lives better. I hope that the Minister and the MOD will commit to giving our service community what it deserves—an opportunity and an outlet by which they can become financially stable, through the establishment of a military credit union.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 3:20 pm, 8th April 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Riordan. For me, as for Mr Thomas, this is the first opportunity to do so. I congratulate him on securing the debate. He has been a persistent advocate of an armed forces credit union—I think he presented a ten-minute rule Bill earlier in the year—and I am pleased that he has managed to secure a full 90-minute debate today. It is good to see colleagues from Northern Ireland supporting it.

There is no fundamental disagreement between us on the proposal. The Government have actively supported credit unions since we came to office and we have been working energetically to increase access to affordable credit by modernising and expanding the sector. That is why we are investing up to £38 million in the credit union expansion project, providing an increased range of financial services for up to 1 million more customers, which we anticipate will save them up to £1 billion in loan interest repayments over the period to March 2019. We also believe that credit unions have a role to play in supporting our armed services.

Financial pressures exist within service households just as they do in the wider community, as all those hon. Members who spoke explained. Indeed, many hon. Members may have received letters from members of the armed forces or their families who have been denied credit, have struggled with obtaining a mortgage or have been refused the opportunity to purchase a financial product as simple as a product warranty. Often that has nothing to do with their creditworthiness per se, but is due to the nature of a peripatetic career that can prevent some in the armed forces community from developing a consistent credit history in the area where they live; that is often used by credit referencing companies to determine credit credentials. We recognise that that is a problem within the structure of employment in the armed forces, and have been actively taking steps to ease the problems for service personnel, as an important component of the armed forces covenant, which Gemma Doyle mentioned.

Two years ago, in April 2012, working with credit reference agencies and the Royal Mail, we introduced “shadow” postcodes against British forces postal addresses, to try to establish consistency of address. That helps armed forces personnel serving overseas to maintain a UK credit history that is recognised by financial service providers and allows improved access to financial products. The MOD has also secured an important pledge from, among others, the UK Cards Association, the British Bankers Association, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders to treat

“applications for credit and mortgages...fairly and consistently with civilian counterparts”.

Last year, as other hon. Members have mentioned, we launched MoneyForce in partnership with the Royal British Legion and the Standard Life Charitable Trust. That has been providing training, briefings, resources and online support, helping the armed forces community to manage its money and financial affairs better.

Despite that support, there are still those in the forces, as there are among the public at large, who end up requiring a loan just to make ends meet. I am sure that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire was not suggesting, in her remarks, that armed forces personnel have increasingly become users of food banks, because I am aware of no evidence of that. If she has any I should be interested.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I think she is indicating that she did not mean that, and I am pleased to hear that, because there is no reason for it.

Citizens Advice has said that it is dealing with a significant number of cases of service personnel and their families who get into difficulty with debts at high interest rates owed to payday lenders. Those lenders appear to be specifically targeting the armed forces because some personnel have problems with credit ratings. The hon. Members for Harrow West and for West Dunbartonshire both mentioned some of those payday lender adverts, and the extortionate rates of interest that they charge. I searched the internet to see what claims those companies make. Entering “armed forces loans” into the search engine generates a list of companies promising no credit checks, rapid payment and 100% satisfaction. One website even depicts a smiling soldier in uniform giving a thumbs-up in front of the Union flag, with the claim that it is the

Number One lender to the military”.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

The Minister accused me of persistence, so as he is five minutes into what is, to be fair, a very interesting speech, will he tell me whether he will support a feasibility study on payroll deduction, and meet me to discuss how we might get quicker access to credit union products for armed forces personnel?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to want to bring the debate to a premature conclusion. We have plenty of time left, and I am sure, given that he called the debate, he would like to use as much of it as possible. He already asked that question in his remarks, and I hope to deal comprehensively with all his questions before the debate finishes.

I referred to the website because of the impression that may advertently or inadvertently be given that websites directed at the armed forces carry some endorsement from the armed forces. That could not be further from the truth, but it highlights the risks for the Ministry and the service branches in any involvement in the provision of financial products, should personnel or their families get the impression that the military was endorsing a particular product. Such a financial product would carry the same kinds of risk as any other regulated entity, and we take that seriously.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

The hon. Member for Harrow West and I cited the Navy Federal credit union in the United States as an example of something that is clearly personnel-oriented but is acceptable and does what it should: it does what it says on the tin, as we say. That is an example of what could be done.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I completely accept that there are examples elsewhere, as the hon. Member for Harrow West said—not just in the United States but also in Australia—of credit unions receiving support from the armed forces. I shall come on to that but I was just highlighting the level of associated risk.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Before the Division, I was explaining how credit unions must be properly regulated, and the fact that we need to be confident that any credit union established with military branding has some financial security. Credit unions offer access to good-value savings and loan products for a customer base that has historically found it hard to access such services. They are registered as industrial and provident societies and are regulated by both the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Unlike payday loan companies, credit unions are, in my view, a positive force for the community around them, benefiting members and local economies alike. Their role in developing alternative financial services for member groups has been well championed in this House, not only by the hon. Member for Harrow West but particularly by the all-party group on credit unions, which my hon. Friend Damian Hindshas chaired so admirably since he was elected, among his many other duties, including his support for me today, for which I am extremely grateful.

Of course, provided that they meet the common bond for membership, members of the armed forces and their families can already apply to join an existing credit union local to them in order to access the range of financial services on offer. However, coverage is not national and the services vary. As the hon. Member for Harrow West pointed out, the Navy Federal credit union in the US is a model of what can be achieved. It has around 5 million members and some £50 billion in assets. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a well-managed credit union for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, as well as their families and veterans, could be of considerable benefit if established for United Kingdom armed forces.

However, there is a “but”. What makes credit unions unique and makes them work is their independent spirit. They are created by the people for the people, offering products that their customers want because their customers are also their members. Typically, credit unions grow steadily and organically from small beginnings, normally taking many years to cultivate their membership.

To give one example, the Glasgow Credit Union was founded by two members in 1989 as the Glasgow District Employees Credit Union. In the following 25 years, it grew to a membership of 32,000 and now has some £100 million in assets. Although this is an excellent example of localism in action, it demonstrates the time that it can take a credit union to develop proper traction and critical mass. Also, it would not be in the interests of anyone—the taxpayer, UK financial services or credit union members themselves—to try to shoehorn an institution of this kind into a Whitehall Department. The organisation of credit unions has always been, and must continue to be, the remit of the private and voluntary sector. It is no small undertaking to establish one.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

Could the Minister explain, therefore, why the Department for Work and Pensions has put aside £38 million to support credit unions, because that does not seem to sit with the point he has just made, namely that supporting credit unions is not the business of Government?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The Government are keen to support the development of credit unions but we are not keen to be the operator. The funding is available to provide support. I am not familiar with all the detail about what the DWP funding has provided, but I can certainly look into that matter and write to the hon. Lady if she would like clarification. Nevertheless, as far as I am aware, it is not the business of the DWP to establish credit unions. I think that it is providing support for existing or start-up unions being established around the country on an initial basis, effectively like providing start-up funding for a business.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

Of course the Minister is right that one would not want a military credit union to be run by the Secretary of State for Defence, or even by a talented junior Minister such as himself; one would want it to be run by its members. However, what the Ministry of Defence could do is to help to facilitate the establishment of such a credit union and a feasibility study that was specifically focused on what role the MOD might play to help to achieve that objective.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Indeed, and not for the first time the hon. Gentleman is pre-empting just what I am coming to in my remarks; he is very prescient.

It is important that any organisation that undertakes the establishment of a credit union does so with its eyes wide open and is aware of the risks that might be involved. From our perspective, in the event that we were to provide support for an organisation we have some responsibility for the savings of service personnel, to ensure that those savings are in an environment where they will be properly stewarded, managed and regulated. That said, we are minded to support any suitable organisation with the wherewithal to put in place a credit union to support the men and women who serve in our armed forces.

To that end, I will update the House on where the Department has got to in the discussions that were identified by the hon. Gentleman in his remarks. The Department has already brought together relevant parties to form a working group to look at precisely this issue. It includes the DWP, the Treasury and the Association of British Credit Unions Limited, as well as service charities such as the Royal British Legion and the three service benevolent funds. A number of those stakeholders were present at meetings hosted in January and February by the MOD. There was broad support for the credit union concept and a number of parties expressed their willingness to become involved, but unfortunately at that time none of the individual charities stepped forward to take the lead. Subsequent to those meetings, however, we have had further approaches from some of those organisations that attended them. ABCUL, which was referred to earlier, has been in touch and it has indicated that it is keen to take these discussions forward. We, too, stand absolutely ready to do so.

The hon. Gentleman has asked repeatedly about the prospect of the MOD funding a feasibility study into a military credit union. We are of a mind to support one or more organisations that wish to take the lead in investigating the feasibility of a credit union, but we do not think that it would be appropriate for us to take the lead. As and when an organisation steps forward, we are willing to work with it on how we can best support the establishment of a credit union, but we think that actually establishing a credit union would be best done by an organisation that is already one of those we have been talking to and that is already embedded with relationships with service personnel and their families.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I want to understand exactly the Minister’s point. If a charity or a credit union were to come forward saying that it believes it has the capacity or interest to provide such a dedicated military credit union and to get it up and running, would there potentially be the prospect of support in financial terms as well as in the crucial area of payroll deduction for a military credit union?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am not in a position to commit the Ministry’s budget here and now. What I am willing to do, as I think I have already indicated, is to offer further support to explore the possibility of establishing a military credit union. If an existing credit union felt that it had the resources and the experience to bring to bear, that would be a very positive development; equally, if an existing service charity felt that this was an area that it wished to explore, that would also be very welcome. I am not closing the door to providing assistance for a feasibility study, but I will not commit at this point to conduct one without knowing to whom I might be making such a commitment.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Harrow West, I have a question. My hon. Friend Ian Paisley and I suggested that, by making payroll deductions during a five or 10-year period, we could build in the moneys that would be needed, while being ever mindful that it is a credit union that is being established. Would such a scheme be part of the feasibility study?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The subject of payroll deduction has been raised by a number of hon. Members. We make payroll deductions in certain areas. Insurance services were specifically mentioned as possible services for a credit union to provide and it was said that a payroll deduction might be a way of helping to fund insurance premiums. We already make such deductions for armed forces personnel. We have a payroll deduction scheme that is financially supported by the Government, over and above our merely facilitating contribution payments. That is to ensure that life insurance is available to armed forces personnel who are on operations, irrespective of their role. That is a specific product that is funded through payroll deduction.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I am grateful to the Minister for what he just said on that subject. However, may I specifically ask him whether the MOD now accepts that if there were a credit union that it had confidence in regarding the ability to provide financial services to armed forces personnel, it would be willing to facilitate payroll deduction for members of the armed forces to join, contribute to and pay into such a specific military credit union?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Again, we are talking about quite a number of hypothetical steps here. I am certainly willing to say that if we get into discussions with a serious, credible entity that is willing to establish a credit union, we can consider the possibility of payroll deductions as one means of providing either interest payments or investment through the union’s savings products. However, in the absence of knowing which party we would be dealing with and the suitable structures that would be placed around it, I cannot commit to do that.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that military payrolls are not a uniform or simple thing. The issue strays rather beyond my departmental responsibilities, so for me to commit other Ministers and other elements of the Department to things about which I am not expert would be career-inhibiting. I will not do that, but I certainly undertake that, if we pursue discussions with the credit union, the issue can be on the agenda.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I would not want to limit the Minister’s career in any way, given how helpful he has been in this debate. On payroll deduction, I gently suggest to him that the NHS has some equally complex systems, and many parts of the NHS are able to do it. My last specific question is whether he is willing to commit to asking the relevant Minister—I appreciate that he is filling in today—to meet ABCUL, Plane Saver and me. Those organisations think they might be in a position to offer a credit union service now, before a dedicated military credit union is established.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman referred to Plane Saver before, and I am not aware that it has directly approached us. We have clearly had an approach from ABCUL. It participated in meetings earlier this year and wrote again last week, perhaps prompted by sight of this debate. I am confident that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Anna Soubry, who has responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, would be willing to meet the hon. Gentleman and ABCUL. If he wanted to bring Plane Saver along, it would be welcome, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions about the promotion of credit unions within military publications. Were the credit union to be established with support from the military, it would be more than welcome to take space in the military publications. I cannot, however, commit to the charging basis on which that space would be available; that would be a matter for the normal procedures for each publication. He asked whether we could institute a ban on payday lenders advertising in military publications. This Government are not in the business of prohibiting freedom of speech. Payday lenders might be unethical, but they are not unlawful, so we should not ban their adverts. We should, however, look to support the credit union going forward.

Jim Shannon asked whether we could underwrite a scheme, but I have to disappoint him. The Ministry of Defence budget might appear to be large, but it appears from the inside to be somewhat constrained. We have to devote our budget to our front-line duty, which is protecting the nation. We are willingto provide opportunities to access military publications and that kind of thing, but we are not in a position to underwrite a financial offering to our personnel.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I also asked the Minister about giving advice to soldiers and serving personnel on how best to manage their money. I said that, often, those who did not have the level of income they currently have found managing their money overawing. Has offering that advice been considered?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman raised the role of the Money Advice Service, which we established two years ago, and I am grateful that he gave it a positive endorsement. The advice is proving effective and, as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said, the number of people taking advantage of the service in its first two years demonstrates that there was a need for it. We think that it is being delivered in the right way. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for the advert he gave to Armed Forces day this summer and the celebrations that will take place in his constituency. I wish them well.[This section has been corrected on 28 April 2014, column 7MC — read correction]

I conclude by confirming that the Government support the notion of establishing a military credit union. We are in active discussions with the credit union trade body and the service charities. I have indicated that we are willing to commit the Minister to meet them again, with the hon. Member for Harrow West, who takes such an interest in this matter. In closing, I encourage all parties with an interest in developing this kind of financial service for our armed forces personnel to get together, to pool resources and to try to find a way of making it happen.