Black Friday: Financial Products — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:31 pm on 23rd November 2021.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 2:31 pm, 23rd November 2021

My hon. Friend makes her point incredibly well and she will not be surprised to learn that, yes, I absolutely agree with her. Indeed, it is striking that just before the pandemic hit we had the first year in this country when more purchases were made online than in bricks-and-mortar shops, and of course during the pandemic people’s switch to shopping online has become even starker. The state of our high streets is a debate for another time, but we have all seen that change and I do not think that it will go backwards. People’s comfort with shopping online had already been set in place before the pandemic hit; now, for most people, that is the first place that they look, rather than the last.

In 2020, 9 million people were forced to increase their borrowing to cope with the pandemic. That is a phenomenal statistic. The press and media have been full of people paying down their debts, and the silent minority of people for whom debt has increased have not been heard. Today’s debate is about that group of people, and what support and advice we are giving them, because, as my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq said, being able to treat our family members, especially when we have been through such tough times, becomes even more important for everyone. That means that we must ensure that everybody can access credit in a fair and affordable way.

My argument with the Minister today—he will know it, because we have been having it for many years—is about what more we can do to ensure that there is a fair and level playing field, that consumers are armed with the best information and that companies cannot exploit the situation in which there are so many people in our communities who are drowning in debt and will never get out of it. They will always live with a level of debt that might be exacerbated so that one single thing can tip them over into a financial crisis, as opposed to just a financial meltdown, which is what they might be in right now without realising it. Indeed, many of us may have had the experience of talking to people in our constituencies who say, “Well, I don’t have any debt”, and then we ask them if they have a credit card and they say, “Yes, of course”, as if a credit card is not debt.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for Hampstead and Kilburn are right to prefigure the particular type of debt that I am concerned about. The Minister knows that I am concerned about it and I know that he agrees with me that there is a problem with this type of credit, which needs to be regulated. My point today about the buy now, pay later industry is that there are echoes of previous examples in our communities where new, or relatively new, forms of credit that might have seemed niche when they first came to the UK market explode very quickly, become commonplace among millions of people and, without proper regulation or scrutiny, cause many more people to get into debt as a result. We saw that with the payday lending industry, which exploded in the UK in the early 2010s, and the honest truth is that it took politicians from all sides too long to recognise just how much damage could be done by a high-interest loan.

Those in the buy now, pay later industry will say that they are not a payday loan. Indeed, they are not—they are not capped, for a start, which is one of the things that helps to protect people from getting into debt through a payday loan. Buy now, pay later companies will say that they do not charge interest to consumers, so we should not view them in the same way as payday lenders—that this is apples and oranges. But both types of high-cost credit—they are high-cost credit, because they come with late fees if people do not pay them back on time—share a similar marketing tactic, which is about forming a habit. It is about getting people to see them as the main way to make ends meet; the main way for people to deal with having too much month at the end of their money.

Whereas the payday lender said, “We’ll give you a short-term loan and you’ll pay it back very quickly, and you’ll never notice, and it will just tide you over”, the buy now, pay later companies say, “Spread the cost. It will make it much more manageable, and you will be able to get the things that you need at the time that you want to.” Let me be very clear that for some people, there may well be a perfectly reasonable use of buy now, pay later, in the same way that for some people there is a perfectly reasonable use of a payday loan. The problem is that for many people buy now, pay later is a form of credit that they cannot afford, because they cannot afford the goods in the first place.

Experian data shows us that 30% of people using buy now, pay later say they use it for items that they otherwise could not afford, and in an environment where inflation might top 4%, where wages have struggled to keep up and where we have a cost-of-living crisis, that is pouring fuel on to the fire for many people and the debt problems that they face.

For those who may not be familiar with buy now, pay later, it is a simple premise. The payments are spread over a number of weeks or months with these companies, and there are variations of the same model. What does that mean for a consumer in practice? A £100 pair of trainers will, perhaps, suddenly become £25 at the point of sale, because the £75 will be paid off at later points throughout the year to recoup the cost. Crucially, the consumer is not officially paying the fees, because the retailer pays to use the service, although one innovation we have noticed in the market in the last year alone has been the move to be able to allow the company to have a direct relationship with the consumers. What they call a one-time card can be created and purchased from a website without the retailer ever being involved. That in itself is problematic, because it prompts the question of how they are deciding what someone can afford to pay.

Let us stick with the original business model. How these companies make their money is very simple. When a £100 pair of trainers suddenly looks as if it only costs £25, people think, “Well, I might buy the trousers and jacket to go with it, because I thought I was going to spend £100 today, and I’m only spending £25”. On average, consumers spend 20% to 30% more when they can spread the payments. For the retailers, it is worth paying the fees of these companies, because people will spend more and they will get more purchases from them.

Many retailers are very up front about that. It is a massive part of their forthcoming business strategy, particularly in relation to Black Friday and Christmas, to encourage consumers to use buy now, pay later because they will end up spending more than they would have done if they had used another form of credit. I reiterate: for some people, that may be perfectly reasonable. They are spending future money, but they have that future money, so it is an acceptable way to do it. They can splash out this Christmas knowing that pay packets in January, February and March will cover the cost. However, a large group of people is spending money that they simply do not have and getting into debt. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for Hampstead and Kilburn have pointed out, because this is a new form of credit, many people do not realise it is a form of credit and what can happen if they do not pay back. The late fees, the credit checking, the credit reference agencies and the debt collection agencies are all part of the mix and experience of using these companies.

In the pandemic, spending on buy now, pay later has gone up 60% to 70%. For some age groups in this country now, buy now, pay later is used more than credit cards. It is a revolution in how we use credit in this country and it has gone relatively unnoticed, except by those who cannot afford to pay and have ended up with a big hole.