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

I fully accept the point that the hon. Lady makes, in that at the moment, those protections do not exist, and that is why we have to regulate appropriately and proportionately.

I want to say a bit more about what I think we should be doing. It is reasonable that buy now, pay later products use a bespoke approach to consumer disclosures, as well as to the form the credit agreement must take, and that is reflected in the consultation proposals. However, we need to think about the way that these products are used in the context of an online journey, the warnings that are inherently there during that journey and the fact that they are frequently used for much smaller sums than the traditional credit agreements for which these rules were originally developed.

When we think about how this facility is used, part of the challenge is the way additional payment smoothing mechanisms can inadvertently be sucked in. I do not want dental payment plans—essentially, for expenditure that is smoothed over 12 months—to incur an obligation to do some form of affordability check. Such issues make this more complex than it may have at first seemed.

I am determined that we get this right, that we recognise the distinct consumer risks that exist and that we bring forward regulation that deals with them. The Government’s view is that buy now, buy later information should not be long and detailed so that it becomes just another long set of terms and conditions, because frankly there is a significant risk that people would just make a cursory observation of such a list and tick the box. Instead, the information should be presented in a form that allows consumers to engage meaningfully, and I hope the hon. Member for Walthamstow would support that.

The Government also consider in the consultation whether the financial promotions regime, which already applies to a broad range of financial products, should be amended to ensure that all buy now, pay later promotions fall into that regime, further strengthening consumer protection. That would mean that all promotions made by merchants, such as a retailer, would have to be approved by an FCA-authorised firm. It is also important that consumers are lent to affordably. That is why the Government anticipate that the proportionate regulation of buy now, pay later would include the application of the FCA’s current rules on credit worthiness.

The Government recognise that these products are lower risk than other interest-bearing agreements and can help consumers to manage their finances. A study by Bain suggests that in 2020 consumers using buy now, pay later instead of credit cards in the UK saved £103 million in interest. I say that not to commend it over credit cards, but to recognise the segmentation of the credit market and the different behaviours and options that exist out there. That is why we believe it is right that regulation is balanced and proportionate, ensuring that customers are given the appropriate protections, without unduly limiting the availability and cost of useful financial products.

As hon. Members have mentioned, there is already precedent for imposing different regulatory requirements on different credit products, depending on the risk they pose. The Government and the FCA have previously implemented bespoke regulation for higher-risk products, such as the price cap rules for payday lenders and rent to own. Obviously, it would be difficult to apply that symmetrically in this context, but I sincerely welcome the hon. Lady’s comments later. Likewise, a more proportionate approach is right for buy now, pay later products, which we assess to be of a lower risk.

As new products enter the market, it is critical that the Government carefully consider not only how credit products are regulated, but where the boundaries of regulation should be. I note the concern that buy now, pay later may increasingly be used as a more mainstream form of credit, as has been mentioned this afternoon, and that even some banks are beginning to offer it.

Many different types of financial arrangement already make use of the same exemption, as I mentioned earlier, which currently allows interest-free buy now, pay later to operate outside consumer credit regulation—and has done so for decades. That includes arrangements used over many years by UK retailers to support the purchase of higher value items such as home furnishings and white goods, but also those arrangements which allow monthly payments for memberships to sports clubs, dental plans, other associations and certain invoicing arrangements.

In regulating buy now, pay later, we need to think carefully about all the arrangements that these changes could affect and avoid bringing activities into regulation which do not present the same risks to consumers. What is in play here is the cumulative application of the buy now, pay later product to a vulnerable group of consumers, and we need to make sure that that is where we focus the outcome. The Government must also ensure that their approach is future proof and cannot be gamed by firms operating on the margins of regulation. That is why we are engaging with consumer groups in detail to ensure that we get this right and capture the emerging products that are beginning to form.

I will give the hon. Lady several minutes to come back, but I want to mention personal debt more broadly, because it is a critical topic that comes into this discussion. I think everyone here has a desire to tackle problem debt and, as this afternoon has shown, we share an understanding of the complexity of the issue.

We need comprehensive solutions, which is why we are maintaining record levels of funding for free debt advice in England. The Money and Pensions Service this year has a budget of £96.4 million. We have launched the breathing space scheme, which gives a 60-day freedom from fees and payment requests. We are also expanding the availability of affordable credit, providing £96 million of dormant assets funding to Fair4All Finance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys talked about the Australian experience and the opportunity to cut and paste no-interest loan schemes. We have moved ahead with that, and I anticipate that it will move more quickly now. However, I want to be absolutely clear that it works in the UK context and can be scaled up quickly. I would rather it was on solid foundations, but I feel his frustration in my heart too.

I will sum up by reiterating that the Government’s view is that interest-free buy now, pay later has a legitimate role to play in the market, but its rapid growth throws up challenges. I think that consumers recognise that; they find it useful and easy to use. However, we are committed to getting regulation right and protecting consumers. The asymmetry of protections mentioned here needs to be addressed, but we want to do that without limiting the availability and cost of genuinely useful financial products.

We understand that there are concerns, which I have heard this afternoon, about the speed of the regulation. I will do this as quickly as I can, with my officials. We will report back to the House as quickly as possible, but I would welcome colleagues’ continued engagement in the weeks ahead. I recognise the risks that exist in the run-up to Christmas, and I acknowledge the legitimate warnings that the hon. Member for Walthamstow has raised.