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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:36 pm on 23rd November 2021.

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Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 3:36 pm, 23rd November 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I associate myself with the remarks of a number of Members this afternoon concerning the death of Sir David Amess. He was a true blessing to this Parliament and a great character whom we all loved, and he will be sadly missed.

I have listened carefully to the various contributions this afternoon. As ever, this has been a very well-informed debate that I welcome very much. I pay particular tribute, as I have done previously, to Stella Creasy for securing a debate on this important matter. I will be sure to give her some time to have another go at me in the last few minutes of the debate. She set the scene very well, explaining the context that we face in the run-up to Christmas: the inducements to consumption and the apparent savings for consumers; the evolution in new forms of credit; the need for regulation, which I fully accept at the outset; the risks around the use of buy now, pay later becoming habit-forming; the behavioural shifts we are seeing in the market; and the need to really think about the context of borrowers’ behaviour as we bring forward this regulation. As ever, we were treated to some sophisticated analysis of the wider consumer credit challenges, and the issues with making more affordable credit available, from my hon. Friend Paul Maynard. I will address those points later.

It is important that we start this afternoon by understanding the Government’s position: we recognise that there is a potential risk to consumers from unregulated buy now, pay later products. I listened very carefully to the criticisms of the timeline, and over the next few minutes I will address the challenges we have encountered and present some of the solutions that we think may exist. It is extremely helpful for all parties to be represented in this debate; given the level of engagement from players in the market, there is a clear desire to address this significant area of concern in Parliament. There has been a massive explosion in this area, and it is important that we respond appropriately.

It is important to understand the nature of the risks. We should acknowledge that the use of buy now, pay later is growing rapidly: in fact, the number of transactions from the main providers using buy now, pay later more than tripled in 2020. That said, buy now, pay later is still estimated to have amounted to only 2% to 3% of the consumer credit market last year, and a recent study by the consultancy Bain & Company found that about 5% of online transaction volumes involved the use of buy now, pay later. I am very sensitive to the distribution of that additional use and the people who are increasingly reliant on buy now, pay later—that is something we must take account of—but it makes up a smaller proportion of the market than is sometimes believed. In addition, we have not seen substantial evidence of the risks that some have predicted materialising.

I will set the scene of the current state of regulation, because it certainly does not mean that the Government are turning a blind eye. A degree of regulation already provides protections for users of interest-free buy now, pay later products. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 make it a criminal offence for traders to give consumers misleading information. Firms are required to provide consumers with the information necessary to make informed decisions and not omit or hide material information that the average consumer needs. The FCA and the Competition and Markets Authority are designated enforcement bodies for these regulations. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 requires that the contract terms of buy now, pay later providers must be transparent and not contain unfair terms. When promoting buy now, pay later products, firms must also comply with the rules set out in the UK advertising codes, and offending firms can be referred to trading standards and Ofcom.

Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority published formal guidance about buy now, pay later, setting out its expectations of both providers and retailers when they offer these services. The ASA also banned harmful buy now, pay later adverts, stating that future advertising must not irresponsibly encourage the use of a product, particularly

“by linking it with lifting or boosting mood”.

That is something that the hon. Member for Walthamstow has highlighted and campaigned on. Some buy now, pay later agreements are also already subject to some aspects of the financial promotions regime. The FCA uses its existing powers to protect buy now, pay later users, for example by scrutinising marketing materials of authorised firms and the way these products are promoted. The FCA has wider consumer protection powers that it can apply to unauthorised firms where it sees poor practice.

Effective Government oversight of financial services is not just about imposing rules; it is also about engaging with industry. In the case of the buy now, pay later sector, that is something we have done extensively—as have Members here today. We have seen that reflected in the actions of the largest firms, with many voluntarily introducing credit-worthiness checks and making information more transparent at checkout. However, I fully concede that that is not universal, and not every firm has moved in the right direction.

Looking ahead, the fact that we have seen some progress does not mean that we are complacent. As Members have noted, the Woolard review into the unsecured credit market, which was published in February this year, identified a number of potential risks. They include how buy now, pay later is promoted to consumers and presented as a payment option. Consumers are sometimes left with an absence of information about the product and the features of the credit agreement, and there are no requirements to undertake affordability and credit-worthiness checks. As has been pointed out, that is particularly important when multiple transactions are taken up with different buy now, pay later providers.

Following the publication of the Woolard review the Government announced, with support from the Opposition —I am grateful for their support—our intention to regulate these products. On 21 October, we published a consultation document that sets out the proposed approach to regulation, and that consultation is open until 6 January. Prior to the publication of the consultation, I had a lot of engagement with my officials. One of them is sitting here today, and I have spoken to a number of them this afternoon and numerous times before that. It is through a desire to get this right that we have taken time over it. There is no desire to go slow. I recognise that there is an urgency to this, and we have to move forward as quickly as we can. During the consultation period, the Government are engaging with representatives from consumer groups and industry—indeed, there is a workshop going on this afternoon—to ensure that the final approach to regulation strikes the right balance on consumer protections. Debates such as this help to inform that approach.

We want to expand the evidence base about the risk to consumers, and Members from across the Chamber have made a lot of points about that this afternoon. As I have said, the Government recognise the potential risks, and that has been supported in recent studies by consumer groups, such as Which?, Citizens Advice and others. However, the Government’s view is that as an interest-free product, buy now, pay later is inherently lower risk than products that charge interest. Used properly, it can be a way for consumers to manage their finances, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys mentioned, and to spread the cost of purchases—particularly when managing periods of higher household expenditure, such as Christmas, when Michael Bublé CDs are being purchased in the household of Mr McFadden. We should not forget that interest-free buy now, pay later offers, specifically around Black Friday, can allow consumers to take advantage of offers and discounts that they might not otherwise be able to benefit from.

Looking ahead, and in the context of the ongoing consultation, our overall objective is to ensure that buy now, pay later products can continue to be offered in a way that allows consumers to take advantage of the flexibility of the offer, while ensuring that the potential risks are managed. That means designing regulation that is proportionate to the level of risk and takes into account the way that the products are used.

For example, the Government believe that is it reasonable that buy now, pay later products use a bespoke approach to consumer disclosures, as well as to the form that the credit agreement must take. That is reflected in the proposals in the consultation, which I would characterise as not reluctant, but detailed, reflecting the fact that different issues come up with the evolution in the market and in the provision of different services. We cannot apply a single, one-size-fits-all approach. I see that the hon. Member for Walthamstow is adjusting her face mask, so I think she wants to intervene.