Covid-19: Household Debt — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:10 pm on 8th July 2021.

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Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles 2:10 pm, 8th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue for the securing this important debate and for her brilliant contribution.

Although the Government trumpet the billions spent so far during the pandemic on support such as on furlough and business support grants, we all know that millions have been excluded from support, or worse, have lost their livelihoods. As each day goes by, many fall further and further into debt. As we have heard, StepChange estimates that between the start of the pandemic and March this year, 11 million people built up £25 billion of arrears and debt. Unsustainable household debt is not just devastating for those involved; it damages the economy. Economic activity declines as households in debt cut back their spending, and the banking system is affected when there are loan defaults. Without a clear covid recovery plan that tackles the household debt balloon, our ability to recover economically from the pandemic will be in peril.

I will outline briefly a few elements that I would like the Minister to consider. For immediate support to repay council tax and rent debt, the Jubilee Debt Campaign and other organisations advocate providing grants directly to households to help clear rent debt and council tax arrears. I agree with other speakers that the £20 uplift in universal credit must be maintained and should be extended to those on legacy benefits. There must be an emergency grant for the millions who have been excluded from any Government support and complete parity with the extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. Payments for those excluded should also be backdated.

To manage long-term debt, the Government must first remove barriers to insolvency procedures such as debt relief orders. There should also be fair debt write-down. Many lenders sell on their problem debts for a fraction of their value, only for debt collectors to enforce them at their full value, which places debtors under increased and unnecessary pressure. The Government could tackle that by creating a consumer version of UK Asset Resolution, the public finance company that was set up to purchase problem debts from the banks during the financial crash. Such a public vehicle would allow the offloading of many problem debts, to be refinanced at affordable rates for borrowers. Only the Government can borrow at low interest rates to make that happen effectively.

Finally, is the option of a debt jubilee must be examined —writing off some debts for households and businesses that will simply never be able to repay them, even at more affordable rates. Even former Chancellor George Osborne has called for all coronavirus emergency debt taken out by small and micro-businesses to be forgiven. In practice, that would need to be carefully and strictly limited to specific types of problem debt. An example of how it could work is if a lender decided that an outstanding loan was simply not going to be repaid, they could discharge the debt and be offered a tax break in return.

The Government must heed the warning signs. Responding to the growing covid debt crisis is not just morally the right thing to do, but essential if we are to have any chance of rebuilding our economy as the pandemic ends.