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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:12 pm on 23rd November 2021.

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Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 3:12 pm, 23rd November 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank Stella Creasy very much for introducing the debate, and I congratulate her on having not only a genuinely good track record of action on consumer protection, but much better behaved infants than I have ever had, which is not to be sniffed at.

I associate myself with many of the remarks and proposals that the hon. Member and others have made, including about understanding that individuals and families are ready for a meaningful Christmas, and acknowledging that many are able to make, and are facilitated in making, difficult choices and balancing things this year and every year. However, we also have to acknowledge that Black Friday and the associated financing is not a generous offer and an attempt by retailers and financiers to make Christmas dreams come true. It is, in many ways, exploitation of those natural human instincts to try to provide for family. Black Friday is no longer just one day in November; it is a month-long—and often longer—bombardment of advertisements, deals and “ways to pay” that go far beyond traditional methods.

Research published today by Which? indicates that some 99% of Black Friday deals that it assessed were in fact available cheaper elsewhere in the calendar year. At the heart of this is driving people to make more purchases. We could spend this debate talking about the negative impacts of Black Friday alone on people, on the planet and on smaller retailers, which perhaps do not have the same marketing infrastructure as larger ones, but probably the most acute impact, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow outlined, is the results and the risks of predatory lending.

Citizens Advice has likened buy now, pay later to quicksand—easy to slip into and very, very difficult to get out of. As I said, at the heart of the concept is encouraging people to spend money that they do not have by putting the hard landing of any purchase on the long finger. The hon. Member for Walthamstow is correct to highlight the habit-forming tactics that mainstream this means of purchase and steepen the slippery slope by which many people slide into debt. She highlights the very interesting statistic that it increases sales by up to 30%. Evidence bears out the concerns that Members have expressed, with 75% of buy now, pay later users being under the age of 36—this tactic is clearly marketed particularly at Gen Z—and four out of 10 of them struggling to repay. That matches what we already know about the financial security of many in that demographic, who are already in or at risk from the gig economy, with its inadequate and unsustainable or unfixed incomes.

The services we are discussing are, in many cases, clearly harmful to the individual consumer, but also to the planet. Members outlined that the vast majority of buy now, pay later purchases relate to clothing, which drives the acutely unsustainable fast fashion market in which literally tonnes of clothing, often produced in dubious labour conditions, quickly ends up in landfill after a tiny number of wears—the product is often designed to be worn a small number of times. There is a wider impact. Fashion website Boohoo offers shoppers five different ways to pay for a £30 dress, which again underlines that this is not about facilitating a special Christmas purchase or a big purchase, such as a TV, that a household needs; this is about driving a pattern of spending that locks people into unsustainable purchasing habits.

As one investor in a buy now, pay later start-up explained:

“It increases the basket size and it also reduces dropped baskets”.

Some of that is marketing; it is what business does. It is the logical extension and development of the economy we have. However, as in many other areas of the market and the economy, we have an obligation to try to protect people from technologies and marketing techniques that are far beyond what any of us are used to.

This is a big and emerging problem and, like a lot that relates to technology and online, the market may be moving faster than regulation can, but it is not an unsolvable problem. The hon. Member for Walthamstow outlined many ways, alongside FCA regulation, to intervene and slow this down, including obligations on retailers to adequately display and explain the background of the products they serve. For example, in Sweden, the home of Klarna, it is already illegal to market buy now, pay later ahead of other types of up-front payment.

It is welcome that the Government acknowledge this issue and that regulation is required. It is important that we have forums such as this one to correct the view that this is not a widespread consumer problem, because it is. We know very well the depth of the debt problem. After all, credit is debt—that is what it is. As others have explained, people will always want to use credit, but in many cases it will be for a long-term purchase that will have benefits in life. In the vast majority of buy now, pay later cases, that does not apply. I support the motion and all efforts to regulate and protect.