3.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Jeremy Hunt): I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing this debate, which follows a well-informed and informative debate in Westminster Hall. I recognise that hon. Members have been speaking for their constituents and for many people the length and breadth of the country when they talk about their commitment to BBC local radio. Just under 10 million people listen to the BBC’s national and local services, in total consuming around 90 million hours of listening every week. That is a third of the 30 million adults who listen to local radio every week, including, as the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said—I do not think that he is in his place at the moment—a number of people who are disabled, older and from disadvantaged sections of society. We have heard of numerous examples across the country of where BBC local radio has filled a gap that would not have been filled by anything else. In line with what other hon. Members have said, I need to mention the excellent work done by BBC Surrey, which I visited recently, including the excellent Nick Wallis breakfast show.

Before discussing the specific proposals the BBC has made, I want to place this debate in the context of two broader issues that have direct relevance to the issues at stake. The first is the Government’s broader policy on local media and the second is the BBC licence fee settlement, which I negotiated last October.

Let me start with the broader policy towards local media. I am a localist. I have always believed that too much power is concentrated at the centre of our country and we should trust local communities with much greater power to control their own destiny. Strong local media are a vital part of that vision. However, local media in this country are not in a healthy state. Our newspaper industry is battling to reinvent itself in the face of massive technological change. Furthermore, our independent local radio stations have struggled to be

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profitable and started to consolidate under national brands, which can make them appear less, not more, local.

Almost uniquely among developed countries, we have virtually no local television. I want to put that right. People have characterised our local media policy as simply about local television, but that is a misrepresentation. I want to use the arrival of local television next year, when we will issue 20 cities with the first local television licences, to transform our entire local media landscape to help operators to develop new business models and, most importantly, to learn to respond innovatively to the local communities that they serve in a transformed technological environment.

The objective is to increase plurality—a word that we have heard a lot of this year—at a local level in a way that is consistent with the approach laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). The relaxation of local media ownership rules is the first step, and next year’s licences will be the second step. The arrival of superfast broadband to 90% of the country by 2015—another of my departmental responsibilities—will mean that by then nearly everyone will be able to access local television over the internet. In short, as the BBC responds to the concerns raised today, which I hope that it will, the Government are doing their best to address the longer-term structural deficiencies in the local media sector.

Hon. Members have mentioned last year’s licence fee settlement. I strongly believe that the settlement is fair to the BBC and a good deal for licence fee payers. It is the first time that the licence fee has been frozen for six years, and at a time when nearly all other household bills are going through the roof, this will help struggling families and remind people that the BBC is doing its bit, too, to offer the public better value for money.

Overall, the agreement requires the BBC to make efficiency savings of 16%, which, as I said, is less than the 19% across the rest of government. I put it to the House that 16% efficiency savings over six years is not unreasonable: they are considerably lower than in many other parts of the public sector and far below those that many private sector companies have to make over much shorter time scales. The director-general of the BBC himself said:

“Anyone who believes that the BBC could have achieved a licence fee settlement at any stage and under any government, which would have called for lower efficiency targets than other public bodies were facing, is deluding themselves.”

Both he and the new chairman of the BBC Trust recognise the fairness of the settlement in challenging times.

I say to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that the Labour party also has responsibilities, and it cannot complain about the cuts without also saying whether it would reopen the licence fee settlement and end the six-year freeze. To engage in a debate about cuts and not say what it would do is irresponsible politics and undermines the excellent speeches made by Labour Back Benchers today.

The House will understand that, as mentioned, having negotiated an overall efficiency saving, it is not for the Government to specify how the BBC

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Trust spends the money. Operational and editorial independence is at the heart of the high esteem in which the BBC is held by the public and vital to the role that it plays in our democracy. Because of its fundamental importance, that independence is enshrined in its charter and agreement.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby talked about the BBC’s culture of “can-do submission” and its saying to me, “Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir.” If only that were the case. He will know that I am probably the only Member to have been called a four-letter word that rhymes with his surname by a presenter on the “Today” programme. Oscar Wilde said:

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”.

The presenter certainly cured that problem for me.

If it is wrong for the Government to compromise BBC independence, however, it is equally wrong for the BBC not to listen to, and take heed of, the views expressed by hon. Members today. I hope that the BBC will listen to the passion with which Members have spoken. I hope that it will note the articulacy with which, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) talked about local decision making at Radio Shropshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) talked about Radio Humberside. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) talked about Radio Kent, which has the longest listening hours in the country. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue)—I do not think she is here—talked about the importance of rugby league and local sports coverage. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) talked about Radio Sheffield and its reach to ethnic minorities, as well as its sports coverage. My hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) talked about the important role that the BBC plays for the Welsh language. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) talked about the importance of local identity, as well as the match reporting of Ali Brownlew.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) talked about the BBC’s brilliant natural history coverage—I think it was the first time that “criminal penguins” had been mentioned in this House. She also made an important point about the importance of the local as well as the regional, which is very much at the heart of the local TV agenda. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) talked about the fact that the BBC is not afraid to rattle feathers. In terms of local TV coverage, one of the things we need to do—[ Interruption. ] I think the phrase I was looking for was probably “rattle cages”. We want to increase, not decrease, the scrutiny of local democracy and local politics, which lies at the heart of many of the concerns that hon. Members have raised today. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) talked about the pitfalls of local radio sharing. I hope that the BBC will think about those lessons. I had not heard that “Newsnight Scotland” was called “Newsnicht Scotland”, but what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said about the dangers in the transition of BBC 2 to HD is something that the BBC would do well to listen to, because I know how important that programme is.

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I hope that hon. Members will be reassured by some of the comments that BBC management have made in response to this whole debate and the points raised. The director general said to the Public Accounts Committee that local radio was an “incredibly precious service” and that the BBC did not want to preside over its decline. Lord Patten, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, described local radio as the glue that holds local communities together and a

“more trusted way of getting information than anything else”.

I know that Lord Patten has been visiting BBC local radio stations recently to learn more about them and their role. I am sure that he will see that radio is a medium that often generates a passionate response, especially from listeners. He will see that local radio is a unique source of local information, debate and culture. He will see that it serves a crucial function in building relationships with and supporting local communities. As such, local radio is rightly valued and treasured by Members of this House, speaking up for their constituents.

3.17 pm

Austin Mitchell: With the leave of the House, I would like briefly to reply to what has been an interesting debate. We have heard praise from all parts of the House for the BBC and its role as a beacon of excellence in news, television and all the other services it provides. Some of the praise from Government Members was praise with faint damns and some of them suggested various cuts that could be made that were different from those proposed in the BBC’s agenda. In particular, we could consider cuts to Clarkson’s salary, which brings to mind an interesting proposal for a programme: “Cutting Clarkson: Women Viewers Say How”, which I can recommend for BBC 2.

It is interesting that nobody defended or justified the full scale of the cuts or the full scale of the impositions on the licence fee. The Minister presented himself in a

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more amiable light today than in those three days in October, when he must have presented himself as The Beast From 10,000 MHz, such was the terror that he produced in the BBC. However, he made what I thought were three mistakes in his presentation. I agree with him about the desire to stimulate and develop local television, but that should not be done at the cost of cutting BBC local radio, as the current proposals do. I agree that he has defended the BBC against 19% cuts, which was the average among Departments. However, if he works it out, adding the 16% cuts that he has imposed on BBC to the 3% efficiency savings that were already in train under the 2008 agreement—and which will continue until 2013—makes 19%. That is in addition to the further 4% cuts that the BBC is imposing to generate money for programmes. This is a fairly elementary mistake.

It is wrong to say that the Government proposed the cuts and that the BBC cannot interfere in how those cuts are carried out. It has to stand itself in reserve. If the cuts become damaging to the BBC and its reputation for quality, it will need a supplementary licence fee increase to save it from disaster. That is the reserve power that was asked for.

For the rest, what has emerged from the debate is stunningly clear and loud. We are saying to the BBC that local radio should not be cut in the proposed fashion, that regional television should not be cut in the proposed fashion and, most loudly and clearly of all, that the BBC should go away and think again about the scale and timing of these cuts.

Question put and agreed to .


That this House calls upon the BBC to reconsider the scale and timing of its proposed cuts so as better to safeguard BBC local radio, regional television news and programmes, the morale and enthusiasm of its staff, and the quality of BBC programmes generally, all of which have made the BBC the most respected public service broadcaster in the world.

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Debt Advice and Debt Management

3.21 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of debt advice and debt management services.

It is a special privilege for me to open this debate this afternoon—a debate called for by Members from across the House. Although we may have many differences, when it comes to debt advice and debt management services, we share a real concern for ordinary people, including some of the most vulnerable in our society who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves in crisis. Many see that crisis deepen because they do not know where to turn when they fall victim to unscrupulous practices that I am sure we would all unite in condemning.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and to the Committee members for providing us with the time to discuss the issues on the Floor of the House today.

The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills is currently undertaking an inquiry into this very matter, so I believe this debate will add value to the work being done, particularly regarding the scandalous actions of a large number of debt management companies.

Debt seems to have permeated every part of our society in the 21st century. Households are in debt; students are in debt; the Government are in debt; even premiership football clubs are in debt. Debt seems simply like a fact of life for many. Something tells me, however, that neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer nor Malcolm Glazer are subject to aggressive cold calling, excessive fees and misleading advertising by debt management companies from which many of the most vulnerable people in debt suffer. A report commissioned by the Consumer Credit Counselling Service found that 6.2 million people are financially vulnerable—in other words, they have no money left in the bank at the end of the month—and many more are on the brink. More startling is the fact that younger Britons are getting into more debt earlier in life. More than a million households in the 18 to 39 age group are already struggling to cope, with a further 893,000 at risk.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the cuts to the Money Advice Service just now and how detrimental they will be to the money advice that can be given to young people?

Alex Cunningham: I certainly am, and I am going to deal with the issue later. I understand that a considerable number of this body’s staff are to be cut, which is bound to have a tremendous knock-on effect for services across the piece, not just those for young people.

Insolvency is also on the increase. Earlier this year, it emerged that 135,000 people were declared insolvent in England and Wales in the previous 12 months—the highest figure since 1960.

It should also be emphasised that it is the legacy of debt that is the real concern. There was a huge rise in consumer debt from the 1980s until 2007, and although

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consumer spending has reduced in the last few years, the debt remains, accumulating vast amounts of interest as time goes by. Contrary to what some may think, such debt is not predominantly due to reckless overspending. According to figures from the University of Nottingham, 50% of debt problems can be attributed simply to changes in individual circumstances, particularly unemployment or a drop in wages—something that is not too uncommon in the present grim economic climate.

I know that it would be easy to start outlining why even more people will need help in the coming years as a result of the Government’s policies, but I believe that the purpose of the debate is to concentrate on how we can best help the victims. If we are to help people, we need to retain and enhance the right services and ensure that there is appropriate regulation. Tackling debt head-on can have far-reaching benefits. One pound spent on debt advice saves £2.98 in future spending. A report from the Centre for Social Justice, published in October and entitled “Completing the revolution: Transforming mental health and tackling poverty”, estimated that debt advice could save about £30 million for the national health service, £50 million in legal costs and £220 million in productivity gains, as well as providing other benefits such as debt repayments to creditors.

I am proud of the good work that the Labour Government did in helping those in debt. Since 2005 the financial inclusion fund has done tremendous work, focusing on the most vulnerable members of society and providing free advice for anyone who needs it. I was relieved when, despite the current Government’s initial decision not to maintain the fund, it was announced in February this year that £27 million would be made available so that free face-to-face debt advice could continue to be funded during the coming year. Now I am concerned about future provision, and especially about the possibility that local government—which is also under a considerable financial constraint—will be required to do more in this regard and Government cash will dry up.

The Money Advice Service, set up by the Government to co-ordinate debt advice, is evidently a new body still trying to find its feet, but we desperately need a clarification of its role. For example, if it aims to co-ordinate debt advice, does that include fee-charging services? I hope that the Minister will publish the whole business plan for the service, particularly as I understand that—as was suggested earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks)—staff numbers are to be cut dramatically.

We must also maintain the excellent practice that exists in our constituencies. In my own constituency the Cabin, part of the Stockton district advice and information service, provides targeted advice for young people. It depends on grants to survive, and I was pleased to learn that the lottery was helping to fund it, but that type of funding is extremely limited, and it will run out.

One young person who was dealt with by the Cabin had approached a fee-charging money management company. According to its assessment, he would be able to pay £100 per month, of which £29.50 was a monthly administration fee. He tried his best to keep up the monthly payments, but knew that he could not really afford them in the first place. He visited the Cabin,

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which arranged a debt relief order for him, basing his monthly contribution on his current circumstances. He was then able to put his life back on track.

The Cabin’s manager, Janine Browne, is worried about young people finding their way to the very kind of organisation that we want them to avoid. She told me:

“We find the majority of debt collection agencies are very aggressive and if young people cannot access appropriate advice and support they will try other avenues which may not be effective or necessarily appropriate to their circumstances. Without support they bow to pressure.”

What is happening with debt management companies? In 2010-11, the Citizens Advice service in England and Wales dealt with 3,155 complaints about debt management services, 5% more than in the previous year. The key complaints were about poor advice, poor service, excessive charging, cold calling, and up-front fees for services that did not materialise. Most debt firms that have been audited have also failed to comply with guidance from the Office of Fair Trading in several respects, the main problem being misleading advertising that represents their services as being free when they are not. Through up-front fees, the companies take their clients’ cash for themselves first and their creditors second, leaving people disheartened by the lack of progress in dealing with their debts. What can we do?

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Free debt advice is currently widely available and easily accessed. How will he protect and promote those services? The current system of self-regulation is failing. How will he enhance it? Will he ban cold-calling canvassing for new business and the upfront fees? Will he introduce tougher licensing and a requirement for firms to make clear their fees on any advertising and on initially meeting clients?

Gordon Banks: My hon. Friend is giving the Minister a Christmas list—and the Minister will recall that this time last year we were addressing the Postal Services Bill, which caused much amusement. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister should pay particular attention to the powers of the Office of Fair Trading? Where it has evidence of wrongdoing, it must be able to act quickly to suspend the licences of companies, rather than cases being dragged out for up to four years in the courts before the OFT can finally take action.

Alex Cunningham: My hon. Friend steals my final point. He will find out in a few moments that I entirely agree with what he says. What I do know, however, is that some Christmas list requests will not be fulfilled this year because of the levels of debt people are facing.

What work does the Minister have planned with search engines such as Google on finding ways to help people in need find the free services that are available to them, rather than the unscrupulous merchants? Will he provide the OFT with the power to investigate ruthless companies and shut them down early, rather than that sometimes taking more than two years, during which time the companies still operate, make a profit and charge vulnerable customers? I look forward to the Minister telling us what is to be done.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the previous debate, I raised the issue of the disgusting and disgraceful

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comments made by Jeremy Clarkson last night. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) directly asked the Secretary of State to address the issue in his closing remarks, but he failed to do so. Is that in order?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That is not a point of order. It is for the Secretary of State to decide whether he will comment. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks have gone on the record, however.

3.32 pm

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). I attended the Backbench Business Committee with him in order to try to secure this debate, and I am grateful to the Committee for enabling us to speak on this important issue.

Debt is not a new phenomenon, but over recent years personal debt levels have risen sharply and have become unmanageable for many. Total UK personal debt stands at £1.5 trillion, UK adults owe an average of £30,000, and the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that total household debt is set to rise from £55,000 to just over £80,000 by the end of this Parliament. My constituency of Chatham and Aylesford has pockets of severe deprivation and high levels of personal debt, and the number of new personal insolvencies there stood at 275 in 2009 alone. Those figures give a mere snapshot of the levels of debt we face in the UK, but they serve to highlight the importance of getting the debt advice right for those in need.

People can find it difficult to admit that their debts have become unmanageable. Many would rather continue as if there were not a problem with the state of their finances, struggling to make their monthly payments and racking up more debt. Typical symptoms include selectively ignoring bills, taking on more credit cards, and turning to store cards to relieve the pressure temporarily. Of course, that just prolongs the delay before the acceptance of a debt problem and worsens the situation in the meantime. Long gone are the days when bank managers took people aside, as they did with me, and cut up their credit cards, but I think many of us would welcome a return to the days when banks paid a bit more attention to personal accounts.

Although many of the individuals seeking debt advice represent a particularly vulnerable section of society on a low income, unmanageable debt is no longer confined to the least well-off. Data from Experian suggest that the biggest increase in personal insolvencies in 2010 was among middle-class families, who typically have a number of monthly outgoings to meet. Equally worrying is the number of young professionals and middle-income earners who have entered insolvency. To return to the point I made earlier about problems in dealing with debt, it is fair to say that it is such groups in society who struggle the most to admit that there is a problem in the first place.

Aside from not wanting to admit to what they see as a failure on their part, those people might be oblivious to the advice and services open to them and instead go on burying their heads in the sand. One fifth of the people struggling with debt are not sure where to turn for advice, let alone aware of the benefits and drawbacks of

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debt management plans, the meaning of an individual voluntary arrangement or the criteria for debt relief orders. When they decide to do something about their debts, information and impartial advice are key. Finding someone the right solution and getting them on to a feasible plan is vital to remedying the problem, not least as the repayment of debts owed is in the interest of not only the debtor, but the creditors they owe.

Unfortunately, customers can find themselves signed up to inappropriate repayment plans. Statistics from R3, the insolvency trade body, have revealed that 35% of individuals on a debt management plan were not made aware of alternative ways of consolidating their debts and 12% said that they felt pressurised into the arrangement by the company responsible for administering it. Up to 30% of those now declared bankrupt were previously signed up to a debt management plan. That demonstrates the clear lack of information provided and in some cases the coercion from some sectors of the debt management sector, which serves to prolong the misery for the individual and add to their debt burden.

Gordon Banks: I just want briefly to outline an issue in my constituency. One of my constituents was making payments through a payment plan and then found the same debt management company acting for the office of the Accountant in Bankruptcy when they went into bankruptcy. My constituent had no understanding of the basis on which that company was dealing with them at all.

Tracey Crouch: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We all see people in our constituencies who have been tied in and there has always been a vested interest in such programmes.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am sure that all Members will have tales to tell about some of the rogue companies that cynically take people on, take their money as an up-front fee and also charge them commission, knowing all along that that person will have to take on either an IVA or bankruptcy.

Tracey Crouch: As it happens, I was about to tell the House about an instance of which I have recently learned. An individual entered an agreement to pay back their debt through a debt management plan. The plan spanned a total of 14 years and required repayment totalling far more than the original debt. In fact, this particular individual would have found it far cheaper to declare bankruptcy. The information and advice simply were not made available to the customer, who was instead trapped in a monthly payment schedule repaying vast fees.

In the past, and certainly in that instance, debt management companies have been responsible for exploiting the vulnerable and heavily burdened with debt and it is welcome that the Office of Fair Trading has begun to crack down on rogue operations. As a Conservative, more regulation is not something I typically welcome, but, in tackling rogue DMCs it is clearly necessary. Their fees are not always made abundantly clear and cost consumers up to £250 million a year. Adding such high costs to the burden for those who are already over-indebted does not strike me as particularly helpful.

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Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills is currently undertaking an inquiry into this issue? So far, we have heard from several experts that the regulation of debt management companies of the paid-for variety is not working at all. Like her, I do not relish more regulation, but I fear that in this area we have no alternative.

Tracey Crouch: I am aware that the BIS Committee is looking into this and I hope that its recommendations when it has finished the inquiry will help the Government to form an appropriate regulatory structure, because it is clear that the current structure simply is not good enough.

Currently, a clear bias exists in favour of pushing consumers into plans that are likely to yield more in fees, rather than focusing on paying down their debts steadily over time. That is in stark contrast to the advice provided by Citizens Advice and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, which is free, impartial and in some cases anonymous. So the debt management plans are not always in consumers’ best interests. In many cases, they fail because the level of debt built up is already too great and the monthly payments are also too great.

Sadly, it is only when those DMPs fall apart that customers turn to the free services provided by Citizens Advice and the CCCS to help them to pick up the pieces. As a result, the advisers at those services see and hear some horror stories littered with shoddy advice and spiralling debt, so they are particularly well placed to comment on the sector. My local Citizens Advice recently had people with a record £3 million-worth of unsecured personal debt walk through its doors in a single week. It suffers from dealing with the impact of a dangerous cocktail—several high-cost credit shops on the local high street and the emergence of rogue debt management companies. It has campaigned heavily for the regulation of both those sectors, which I support and would welcome.

Earlier this year, I tabled an early-day motion calling for further regulation of debt management companies and for the Government to introduce a robust statutory regime under powers available in part 5 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. That would limit what such companies could charge consumers and would require them to submit self-funded independent audits to a relevant authority. If such companies are found to have breached protocol, the company’s consumer credit licence can be revoked or sanctions brought to bear. That system relies on having an effective regulator, and I am pleased that the recent crackdown on rogue debt management companies by the Office of Fair Trading, which has resulted in the worst offenders having their licence stripped from them, is beginning to fulfil that role.

What we need is a standardised service under which vulnerable consumers looking for advice know exactly what they are getting and can rest assured that it will be in their best interests. Transparency is key to sanitising the debt management sector. Regulation and strict sanctions are necessary to rein in the sector, but it is equally vital that more be done to signpost those looking for help to the right services in the first place. The Government have taken welcome steps to improve the access and

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quality of debt advice, for which I commend them. The commitment of an extra £27 million for face-to-face debt advice to be delivered by Citizens Advice and others means that access to impartial advice can be assured. That will go some way towards encouraging those in debt to seek help.

Some 90% of MPs in the previous Parliament were contacted by constituents in financial difficulty. As a new Member of Parliament representing a constituency with pockets of deprivation, I know that I will make up part of a similar statistic at the end of this Parliament, as will many other hon. Members. We are in a position to signpost constituents who are in difficulty to free and impartial services such as those provided by the Money Advice Service, Citizens Advice and the CCCS, and to steer them away from costly alternatives. That is something I will continue to do.

In my opinion, debt and debt management should be taken as seriously as the provision of high-cost credit. As legislators, we have an opportunity to do what is necessary to control an industry that can, if misused, misdirected or mishandled, ruin someone’s life. There are a variety of reasons why people find themselves in debt and they should not be judged as a consequence. Instead, we should judge those who seek to help them out of debt and we should judge ourselves as legislators if we fail to do anything about this soon.

3.44 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who made a thoughtful contribution; I agree with most of what she said. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing the debate, which is timely, as Christmas is coming up, although that is not traditionally a time when the advice agencies see people who are in debt; they see them in January, once the debts have come through.

The number of people finding their debt unmanageable can only increase; that is beyond doubt. My hon. Friend mentioned the Financial Inclusion Centre’s recent report, “Debt and the Generations”, which says that a £50 per month drop in disposable income, due to any one of a number of factors—a small drop in hours, increased pension contributions, increased child care costs, or a rise in rent—would result in 3.2 million people who are just about coping and keeping their head above water no longer being able to pay all their creditors. As has been said, we are not talking about being profligate, and buying designer trainers and large flat-screen TVs; we are talking about paying the heating bills, paying for food, and buying school uniforms. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that only one person in six seeks advice from any source. If we accept that, it means that a further 500,000 people would seek debt advice if incomes dropped by only £50 a month.

We need to target the people who are not seeking advice, as the research proves that people who receive advice manage significantly better than those who do not. The Money Advice Trust has done an interesting report called “Facing the squeeze”, which indicates that many families are managing at the moment only because they have low interest rates, are taking on additional sources of credit—some of which, unfortunately, are

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payday loans—or are cutting back on essential expenditure to the point of deprivation. All of us will have visited constituents like the one I visited the other week, who said, “I’ll put the heating on while you’re here, but I’ll turn it off when you’ve gone, because I want to save the money.”

It is incontrovertible that debts do not come singly, and that early intervention when there are debts saves money. Government policy is slightly short-sighted in removing the majority of debt issues from the scope of legal aid, and in leaving things until the point of eviction.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share the concerns of Peter Hemmingfield, a debt team supervisor in my constituency who works, under the community legal advice contract, with the Legal Services Commission to provide specialist debt advice? He is very concerned that the service that he provides will practically disappear as a result of the intended legal aid cuts. He says in a letter to me:

“A substantial amount of our work is involved in helping many clients who have mental and physical health problems, who are aged”—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Unfortunately, interventions have to be short; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is just coming to the end of his.

Paul Blomfield: You are absolutely right, Mr Deputy Speaker; I was just coming to the end. Peter Hemmingfield talks about people who are unable to manage their debts alone. Should we not be concerned about the impact on the most vulnerable?

Yvonne Fovargue: I agree with my hon. Friend. As for the idea that people can manage by themselves, that is not happening at the moment, and as a result of the cut to legal aid, 100,000 of the poorest people will lose access to advice. We need to look at where they will go, and how they will be helped in future.

Of course, there is a cost to free debt advice, and it is estimated at about £150 million a year. The credit industry contributes 3% of that amount. I would like the Minister to investigate further how a levy on the credit industry could be made to work without affecting the business model of companies such as the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, which relies on a “fair shares” principle to fund its work; I would not like such companies to go because we were looking at a levy on the credit industry. However, it is not sustainable that the industry should pay just 3% of the £150 million.

On the latest figures, Citizens Advice deals with 8,910 new debt problems each working day. The reason why it deals with that many cases, and why people go to it, is brand awareness. Some 97% of people recognise Citizens Advice, although they might not always know what it does; they sometimes say, “It tells people where to go, doesn’t it?”—well, it does not tell people where to go very often. However, people recognise Citizens Advice, and I am concerned about the Money Advice Service spending its hard-earned money on building a brand that people will recognise. I would question the need to build yet another brand. Why not use a trusted brand to deliver money advice services on the high street?

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I am pleased that there is more research on why people get into debt, and I do not think that the reasons have changed significantly over the years. As I have said, they include low income, sudden changes in income, changes in family circumstances, illness, divorce and so on. However, the type of credit that people access has changed. One form of credit that has exploded over the past five years is payday loans. There is evidence of people relying on that type of credit when they max out their credit card and have been denied other avenues of mainstream credit. They use their credit cards regularly to pay their bills.

Only this week I attended a fascinating presentation facilitated by the Centre for Responsible Credit on the international experience, particularly in the US, which is an interesting place, because different states have different regulatory regimes, so the way in which they work can be compared. The former secretary of the securities and banking council who presented the report was adamant that the sector needs to be regulated. He said that as an American citizen he is no fan of regulation, but that regulation needs to be enforced, and the regulator has to have the power to suspend companies where necessary.

I urge the Minister to consider the report and its conclusions, including limiting the number of roll-overs and a cooling-off period so that people cannot immediately take out another loan when the first one ends, then take out another one to pay off the second one. Evidence from Florida shows that capping the total amount that people can take out in any one period—for example, $500 in a year—improves their ability to pay back that loan. We asked whether that sent people into the hands of illegal lenders, but we were told that the average amount that people take out in loans in Florida is $388, which is quite a bit below the $500 limit. People do not max out their loans, which may mean that they do not go anywhere else. In California, however, where maximum loans are much lower at $250, people take out $249, which is evidence that they will look elsewhere quite quickly. It is an interesting report.

We should also consider setting up a real-time database owned by the regulator, but funded by payday loan companies, that stores basic data, including the number of loans and amounts, so that easy referrals for debt advice can be made.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the United States consumer credit market is rather different from the one in the United Kingdom? She is right to identify the difference between states, but another key difference is that there is no home credit market to speak of. There is a danger that if we over-regulate on payday lending we may shift that borrowing into other business models.

Yvonne Fovargue: I agree, but the disadvantages of the payday loan industry are greater than those in the home credit market, which is easier to regulate, because we can target it. The home credit market has been here for a long time—we all know the Provvy—and when I worked at a CAB, we could see when lenders were going around an estate, and we could talk to those consumers

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about that. If people get loans on the internet, or from high-street shops or over the phone, that is much more difficult to control.

We should consider a real-time database, because there is a lot of interesting data that could be gleaned from it. The regulator could very quickly look at companies acting illegally as a result of the information on the database. I recommend, too, the Smith Institute publication that was launched today, which is entitled, “A Nation Living On The Never-Never”. It includes a chapter by Damon Gibbons on learning from other countries. I agree: we are not the US or France, but there are things that we can learn, particularly because regulation is different in different states, so quite a lot of comparisons can be made.

That leads me into the need for debt advice, which should be free, independent and quality marked; should be funded in a sustainable way; and should meet the needs of all consumers, including the most vulnerable. Anyone who is in debt can be vulnerable. One of the most difficult cases that I saw involved an accountant, who had reached the stage where they could not open an envelope or answer the telephone. They needed the initial face-to-face advice so that someone could talk them through the situation and explain that they were not alone. They could then be referred to a telephone service and deal with things themselves, but the initial face-to-face advice had to be there.

Gordon Banks: My hon. Friend makes a forceful point. When a person is desperate and sitting at their computer searching for a solution, at that point they will embrace with open arms any organisation that responds to say that it can solve their problems, and they will jump into something that they might well regret. That is why the face-to-face advice is so important.

Yvonne Fovargue: I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North had a point when he said that we need to look at Google. When someone googles “citizens advice debt advice”, they get the debt management companies, not Citizens Advice, because those companies can afford to pay for the ranking.

Finding debt advice is not like finding a plumber. It is not possible to go into the pub and say, “I’m in debt. Do you know a good company that can help me?” That just does not happen, because people are ashamed to admit that they are in debt. They go on the internet in the middle of the night or look through telephone books because they want the most anonymous way of finding help. That is why they can fall prey to dodgy debt management companies that do not offer the full range of debt solutions. I would probably need another hour to explain the complexity of the debt solutions and the need for a coherent system. I urge the Government to bring forward plans to implement a statutory debt management plan.

Debt management companies sometimes charge up-front fees, as has been said, and sometimes take the money before referring customers to not-for-profit providers. For the average debt of £30,000, the fees are £6,000 on average, which means the client takes a further 18 months to pay it off and the creditor has to wait a further 18 months. It is not good for either party.

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Often people are unaware of the free alternatives, which is why I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to try to level the playing field for not-for-profit providers, which put all their resources into providing advice and none of it into advertising. Since I introduced the Bill, I have received many more examples from across the country of companies ripping off clients—persuading them to take out secured loans or paying the creditors only small amounts, and then going into liquidation, taking the rest of the money. People were giving them continuous authority to take the money from their bank account, which can go on long after the debt should have been paid. However, there is currently no power to suspend such companies, even though the Office of Fair Trading knows that there is considerable consumer detriment. It can take up to two years to revoke a credit licence, because there is no limit on the number of appeals, and the short-term loans industry and fee-charging debt management companies rely on that. For some of them, their business model is to make a profit in two years and then go.

The landscape has completely changed for consumers. Both in the UK and internationally, self-regulation has been proven not to work. I realise that there is a one-in, one-out policy for regulation, but in this instance I urge the Minister to look holistically at the sector. There are so many new challenges and problems that it needs to be treated as a whole new area, rather than as an area that has been around for a long time. It is so different from even five years ago. I believe that we need to provide the necessary adequate regulations and enforcement, however many it takes, to ensure that our vulnerable consumers are not ripped off by the sharks who are profiting from desperation and despair.

3.58 pm

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), whom I followed on the occasion of our maiden speeches, on her speech. It is a particular pleasure to follow her today as she was so erudite and well informed as a consequence of her employment history.

Debt management and debt advice are important concerns even in relatively wealthy constituencies, such as mine. The latest report from our consumer advice bureau shows that debt advice is the No. 1 request it receives on a daily, weekly and annual basis. I do not want to trouble the House for long, but I want to raise an issue that many hon. Members have raised in the Chamber before. Questions on this matter have been asked before by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) and for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has even introduced a private Member’s Bill on the matter. No doubt Mr Deputy Speaker will rule me out of order if the subject is not close enough to the motion before us, but I believe that the subject of bailiffs is important and germane to this debate, because many of my constituents and, I suspect, others rack up debts that they then have to refinance due to the bailiff system.

This is a complex argument, and there are two distinct sides to it. The BBC’s “Inside Out South West” made a programme on debt collectors last month, concluding

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that efficient debt collection—the threat of ultimate sanction—was important, particularly for small businesses, at this difficult stage of the economic cycle. My conversations with those closer to the Minister than I am, in the Ministry of Justice, suggest that that Department shares that concern.

On the other hand, all Members will have heard stories from many constituents about debts racked up because bailiffs’ charges have ended up way in excess of the original fine or charge. BBC’s “Watchdog” has done a great deal on the matter, and if one trawls the internet, one finds many websites that include lots of information and reflect a huge concern about the issue.

One or two of my constituents have been to see me about debt, and one who e-mailed me about a case then came to see me about her non-payment of council tax. She had missed just two £30 payments, and she knew she had, so she contacted the council to attempt to make arrangements—admittedly some months after she had missed those payments. She knew that it was her fault, but, after having her bailiff changed and trying to leave on an answerphone any number of messages to which there was never any reply, her bailiff was changed, somebody new arrived on her doorstep and she was presented with a bill for £642.

To many people that might not seem like a huge amount of money, but for my constituent it was completely insurmountable: she absolutely could not possibly pay that sort of money. We intervened, made arrangements for the local council and things were sorted out, but if we had not been there I hate to think where she would be. The answer is probably in the hands of the sort of debt management organisations that have been so well described today.

Another constituent failed to pay a parking ticket, and, after many months of dispute one way or another, with missed phone calls, missed letters and letters allegedly sent from bailiffs, she ended up with a bill for £500. A further constituent received a bill for £60 which escalated to £596. There is something plainly disproportionate about what happened in those cases. It is important that we have robust debt collection services, because we cannot allow people to rack up fines knowingly without any intention of paying them, but we have to look at the matter of proportionality, and I am worried about it.

My local citizens advice bureau has shown me two more cases that it has handled. It has one client who receives regular letters from a debt collection—bailiffs—company for her son who owes council tax, but he has not lived with her for five years, as she has made clear to the debt collection company any number of times. She has given the company her son’s address and phone number, but the letters keep on coming. She has also complained to the local authority, but it does not have the power to do anything.

The same bailiffs company persuaded another of my constituents to set up a direct debit to pay off arrears that she had run up some time ago, but the firm failed to collect the second payment, even though the direct debit was still set up. The company assured her that the direct debit was not set up, but bank records showed quite the opposite, and it has since charged her penalties for not paying an amount that it was supposed to collect and had a mandate to collect. That situation clearly cannot be allowed to continue.

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This is a difficult issue, as I have already said. It is based on law, customs and practice from many years, if not many centuries, ago and there is clearly a need for reform. The previous Government did act on the matter, putting on the statute book the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) has referred. She mentioned section 5; my point is about section 3.

Section 3, as I am sure many Members will know, has not been enacted, but some progress has been made. There is an online certificated bailiff register, so debtors can check a bailiff’s status; all bailiffs now have to pass a Criminal Records Bureau check; and minimum training and skills are required for certification. But section 3 remains unenacted. It includes measures on when and how a bailiff or a High Court enforcement officer can enter a premises, what goods they can seize and sell, and what fees they can charge.

Yvonne Fovargue: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions visits, because I have had two cases of bailiffs visiting a property, one in which they said, “You’ll be taken to prison and the child will be taken into care, and another in which they threatened to seize a pedigree puppy while a child was there. Some of their actions on visits are as bad as their letters.

George Hollingbery: A small trawl of the internet produces reports of any number of similar cases in which the circumstances are really quite horrifying. Vulnerable people standing on a doorstep, often surprised by the visit, can be bamboozled into doing all sorts of things. Indeed, in the parking ticket case that I mentioned, the lady was so upset by the situation, as was her neighbour, that the neighbour wrote out a cheque at that very moment to pay the £592 so that her friend’s car would not be taken away. These are unacceptable practices.

On taking office, the coalition said in its agreement:

“We will provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charging orders, ensure that courts have the power to insist that repossession is always a last resort, and ban orders for sale on unsecured debts of less than £25,000.”

On 22 March this year, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) asked a question of the Secretary of State for Justice about the timetable for consultation on the implementation of section 3 of the 2007 Act. He received this reply:

“The Government have given a commitment to provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs. We have identified options for public consultation on this commitment including the better regulation of bailiffs, the powers of bailiffs, their costs and how complaints should be dealt with. We are currently preparing the paper and intend to publish in spring 2011.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 971W.]

It is not spring 2011—it is early winter 2011—and that consultation is still not with us.

I must make it clear that I recognise that this is not an easy problem to solve. There needs to be a robust mechanism in place to enable those who are owed to collect outstanding debts from those who simply refuse to pay; all reasonable people would agree on that. Ministers are faced with serious difficulty in creating a scheme that has real teeth, but only as a last resort,

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without charges becoming hugely disproportionate. It is a fine balancing act, and I do not envy them the task. But if companies and taxing authorities do not have such schemes available, they could well face serious economic difficulties. It is not an easy task, and I can genuinely understand why making progress is difficult. That said, we have had promises and there is an expectation that something will happen. All I ask is that the Ministry of Justice—of course, the Minister who is with us today cannot respond on its behalf—provide some certainty for those in the industry and those who are subjected to bailiffs’ visits to ensure that we understand where we are going on this issue.

4.6 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who made a very intelligent speech about controls on the use of bailiffs that is helpful in the context of the overall picture that we are looking at.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us the time for it. The debate is timely in two ways. First, as the Chancellor said this week, we face an economic storm. Families and individuals are facing rising energy prices, higher food prices, and rocketing fuel bills. Their incomes are being squeezed, and there is a real risk that more people will move into debt. Secondly, we are now in December, with the extra pressure of Christmas hitting household budgets. We do not want a debt hangover in the new year, with its awful consequences.

When someone summons up the courage to ask for help with dealing with their debts, they need to get the best possible support from people who will help them to clear those debts, not make matters worse. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) clearly illustrated the dilemmas and problems, and the kinds of practices that unfortunately happen. At present, people who try to take responsibility for their debts can find themselves at the mercy of unhelpful, aggressive and sometimes unscrupulous practices that make dealing with debt an even more unbearable experience. In 2010, the high-cost credit industry lent £5 billion in the UK. Payday loans alone increased from £1.2 billion in 2009 to £1.9 billion in 2010. The UK now has one of the highest levels of personal debt in the world. In April 2011, the figure stood at a staggering £1,460 billion.

At this time, the future of debt advice is uncertain, with changes to eligibility for legal aid and the transfer of responsibility for debt advice to the Money Advice Service. It is important that the Government and the Money Advice Service confirm the future of the financial inclusion fund debt advice services as soon as possible, not just for next year but for future years. The funding from that is part of the overall funding of Citizens Advice services. There will be real risks if the critical mass of funding to provide advice is destabilised by further cuts in income at local or national level.

The FIF debt advice services are in their sixth year. They were deliberately located in areas such as Scunthorpe to meet the needs of communities that have difficulty accessing debt advice. Every year, those advice services have directly helped more than 100,000 people nationally to resolve their problems. Regular audits and evaluations

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have found high levels of customer satisfaction, with services exceeding clients’ expectations and effectively reaching their intended target group.

The provision of independent debt advice in my constituency is particularly worrying. The situation is in danger of being exacerbated by the changes to legal aid eligibility and reach. There are real worries about the availability and accessibility of future support. I fear that that is typical of the situation in many parts of the country.

If the FIF debt advice services cease, there will probably be no alternative sources of help. By definition, those services are used by people with very low incomes and limited means. Their inability to repay substantial amounts towards any consumer credit debt means that private sector debt management services do not see them as a profitable client group to serve. Research shows that there is little overlap and duplication between the national telephone advice services and the local FIF services. Clients often use local services on referral from other local agencies such as jobcentres, landlords and local authorities. Many of the people they serve have problems or communication needs that require support to be given face to face for it to be effective.

The quality of advice from many fee-charging debt management companies is questionable. Their fee structures mean that they get much of their income up-front. They are therefore not encouraged to work with their clients to help them manage their affairs and become debt free. A huge amount of those companies’ budgets is spent on advertising to draw in income from the indebted. That contrasts with companies such as the Consumer Credit Counselling Service and Payplan that use a “fair share” model to gain income. The incentive under that model is to work with creditors and the individual to make them better able to manage their money.

According to Citizens Advice, the majority of people in difficulty find themselves there due to changes in their life circumstances, such as death, divorce and redundancy. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, in opening this debate, drew attention to research from the University of Nottingham that underlines that finding.

With all its experience, Citizens Advice highlights three principles for taking debt advice and management services forward. First, access to free and independent debt and money advice services is vital for those in financial difficulty. Such services need to be funded in a sustainable way and should meet the needs of all consumers, including the most vulnerable. Secondly, people in financial difficulties need better options to deal with their debts so that they are not drawn into using poor-quality debt management firms or taking on high-cost credit as a coping strategy. Thirdly, the consumer credit regulator needs stronger powers and more resources to prevent consumer detriment and to act more quickly and decisively to deal with problems. I will return to the point about regulation later.

There are other things that need to be looked at carefully. We have heard about misleading advertising. Many businesses claim that their services are free when they simply are not. Fees should be clear, understandable and highly visible from the start. At the same time, free services must be made equally obvious and clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield

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(Yvonne Fovargue) has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to make advertisers signpost free advice. That is worth careful consideration.

Another issue is up-front fees. Debt management companies often front-load their charges, with customers paying several hundred pounds before they receive any advice. We need to consider whether up-front fees should be banned. We should also consider whether cold calling should be restricted.

The Office of Fair Trading lacks the resources proactively to monitor compliance by debt management companies. It has issued formal warnings to 129 firms out of the 172 that it has surveyed recently for compliance. We need to strengthen the regulatory framework. Across the House, there is recognition that this is an area in which the regulatory framework needs to be used. I draw attention to the comments of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, which made that point clear.

We can consider better control on firms entering the market, better scrutiny of business models and making the regime less reliant on enforcement action against firms that behave badly and more focused on preventing bad practice in the first place, so that bad firms do not get into the market. Consumer credit regulation needs to be strengthened, so that it has a deterrent power. At present, many firms are simply not sufficiently worried about action by the Office of Fair Trading to avoid unfair practices.

The regulator should be able to compel firms to compensate consumers for unfair practices, and there should be swifter enforcement against unfit firms. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, firms that the OFT considers unfit to hold a credit licence can continue to trade and cause consumers harm for many years as a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce-type labyrinthine process is gone through in the courts. That is not to anybody’s benefit.

Interestingly, a large number of lenders in the UK are now US companies that have come here to take advantage of the lower level of regulation. Earlier this week I met an organisation called Veritec, which said that the market was very attractive to US companies at the moment because of the lack of regulation. Five of the seven largest UK companies in the sector started in the US. It is therefore right and proper that we look at practice in the US and how it has come to regulate this fast-expanding area of business since the problems in 2000 and 2001, particularly in the state of Florida. Those problems led it to introduce a regulatory framework that appears to have some attractions.

My hon. Friend has already drawn attention to the features of the Florida model: a maximum loan of $500—we could consider the maximum being a percentage of gross monthly income instead, but $500 is Florida’s model—limits on multiple loans, the stopping of any roll-over payments, a 24-hour cooling-off period between loans and finally, a very important ingredient, the real-time information system run by a private company and paid for by the credit companies, but accountable to and owned by the regulator. The database is funded by a transaction fee.

Damian Hinds: I am pleased to see that although it is the first of the new month, the hon. Gentleman has not taken the opportunity to make his face clean-shaven.

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Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Florida measures apply specifically to payday loans, which do not account for the majority of the credit market or the majority of the debt problems in this country?

Nic Dakin: The moustache is having an encore for today and will be removed tomorrow.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Florida measures apply to payday loans, but I believe that it is worth considering how that model can assist overall. Interestingly, by 2009, 6.8 million loans had been authorised in Florida, and not a single loan was extended beyond the contract period. More than 90% paid back their loan within 30 days and more than 70% repaid on the contract end day. Consumer complaints of mis-selling dropped significantly, as did overall indebtedness, and not one borrower was indebted by more than $500 at any given time. The Florida model may well not be the answer, but I ask the Minister to what extent the Government are drawing on practice elsewhere in the world, including in Florida and in France, which has also been mentioned, to help inform how we can move forward. I believe there is cross-party consensus about the need to regulate, and as the hon. Gentleman indicated, it is horses for courses—the Florida model covers payday lending, but there are other issues to consider.

Yvonne Fovargue: The other advantage of the independent database owned by the regulator is that if anyone researches a credit reference agency database, it does not show who has been on the payday lending database. When people move from payday lending to more established forms of credit, as we hope they will, their credit reference is not affected by the fact that they have had a payday loan, or maybe 10 payday loans.

Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend makes a significant point. The devil is in the detail—I can see that the Minister is nodding. We should learn from practice elsewhere that can better assist us. It is clear that practices in some US states have created unforeseen difficulties, so there is something to learn from what works well and what does not.

I should like the Minister to address certain questions when he speaks. Will he confirm that the Government recognise the need for sustainable face-to-face debt advice provision for people who get into significant debt difficulty? Will he confirm that the Government will ensure that funding is available for that in future?

Will the Minister take steps to eliminate misleading advertising of debt advice and to abolish the practice of debt management companies charging huge up-front fees, which results in perverse commercial incentives? Will he recognise that a consensus has been expressed by Members on both sides of the House that debt advice and debt management needs to be regulated? Such regulation should not be compromised by the one-in, one-out rule, however reasonable that aspiration is. Regulation is necessary if we are to have better activity. If we do not regulate soon, we will have consequences that we would rather not have.

Finally, will the Minister confirm that he will learn from practice elsewhere in the world? I am sure he will because he is very much into learning from others.

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4.21 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this debate and on his excellent contribution, in which he referred to the Consumer Credit Counselling Service report. The problem is enormous: 6.2 million households are financially vulnerable, of which 3.2 million are already in financial difficulty.

There is consensus on both sides of the House that debt advice is a distress purchase. People do not shop around. If they hear of somebody who can help them, they will grasp at the opportunity. There is an “any port in a storm” mentality. I was particularly taken by what the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said on getting to people before they join the 3.2 million who are already struggling, because help can be afforded to them at that stage.

We have talked about who offers debt advice. Citizens advice bureaux do a wonderful job, and work with the CCCS and Payplan, which are the two free advice services. The important distinction between pay advice companies and free advice companies is that the former are funded by creditors through a fair-share system. When the debt is paid off, the company that has managed to secure the payment receives a commission or contribution. That is important. We have heard about CCCS, which is partnered with Citizens Advice, and the Money Advice Trust, a debt line that will co-ordinate the best debt advice, but the problem, to which several hon. Members have alluded, is that there is not enough information out there for those desperate people when they can really benefit from the help.

Let us look at the pay debt management companies. All the money comes from the customer—the person who is in debt. The balance of their interest comes from getting the fees. Under the fair-share system, the interest is only in ensuring that the payments are paid back because companies do not benefit unless the debt is recovered.

The structure of these fees is also of concern. Not all companies charge an up-front payment, but some will charge hundreds of pounds before they have even looked at a case. Regular commission comes from the person who is making the payments back, and that just makes the problems worse. As I mentioned earlier, what is recommended further down the line is very often something that should have been recommended in the first place. These companies all favour solutions that make them money, so they go for the debt management plan and for the individual voluntary arrangements. Very few offer debt relief orders, which are a key insolvency tool for people with few assets and low incomes.

Although many Members in this Chamber would argue that there is no place for these pay debt management companies, it is important that we consider their case and what they have to offer. The Debt Managers Standards Association, which is one of the two trade bodies, told me that its members, the good companies, offer face-to-face meetings and professional help. They will also negotiate with the debtors. It says that those companies provide that service because they are being paid.

On the other side of the coin, Consumer Focus, which was responding to the Office of Fair Trading report into the debt management sector this year, said:

“On the basis of the OFT review, fee-charging debt management is a market which, at the moment, is largely failing consumers.”

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We have heard about the rogue debt management companies and about the number of complaints that are made against them. Interestingly, people do not necessarily go to the regulator about such companies. They tend to go to the citizens advice bureau because they see it as their friend on the high street; the place where they can go to get face-to-face advice.

There are examples of companies that hold on to payments and then go into liquidation. Whatever else we do, we must tackle those rogue companies. Several Members today have called for those companies to be suspended. As soon as we discover that they are misbehaving, they must be suspended there and then before they have the time to wreak havoc and do even further damage.

As the OFT licenses debt management companies, it has certain responsibilities. Last year, it launched a crackdown, issuing warnings to 129 companies, 35 of which threw in the towel straight away. They knew that the game was up and they were not going to be able to make the sort of money that they wanted to.

Although the OFT has teeth, it could do more to regulate such companies. It is strapped for money, so it is unable to give the kind of service that it wants to give. In October, DEMSA agreed in principle that the Institute of Chartered Accountants should undertake monitoring of new and existing DEMSA members. DEMSA has an OFT-approved code of practice, so it is doing its best to clear up the industry and to provide a fair service to customers. At the end of the day, if a company rips off a customer, then they cannot pay. It is in everyone’s interests to clean up the industry.

I want to consider the options available. We could close down debt management companies altogether, but that would be illiberal and take away a service that is of help to many people in the country. Furthermore, of course, those people would simply go elsewhere. Where would they go? They could go to organisations such as the Consumer Credit Counselling Service. On the other hand, however, they might go elsewhere, including to a loan shark. If they are to use debt management companies, therefore, it is important that they have the protection that we all wish for.

Alternatively, we could work with the debt management companies. As suggested by the Debt Resolution Forum, we could require other companies to subscribe to the DEMSA code of practice and to auditing by the Institute of Chartered Accountants. My favourite option, however, would be to strengthen the OFT so that it can use its existing powers to levy a fee on debt management companies to pay for them to be audited. To ensure that it was not prohibitive for small debt management companies, the fee could be related to the number of debts under management at any one time. Consequently, the big companies would pay a larger share, and that would strengthen the OFT and enable it to do what it wants to do—ensure that these companies are properly audited.

The only other alternative is formal regulation, which could be done under existing statutory legislation. I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) about the report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and it would be helpful to take an intensive look at the matter and establish whether regulation could provide a workable

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solution. People’s lives are at stake here. We could not be considering a more important issue that is able to make a difference to the quality of life of indebted people.

4.32 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who has been a long-standing champion for this issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate on a subject in which I take a particular interest—I supported the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and have spoken in several connected debates.

This issue is important because 91% of people in financial difficulty feel that with better information and advice they would have made different decisions. Members of Parliament know through their casework of the distress in which individuals find themselves, and in times of financial difficulties their needs are even more urgent. These people do not necessarily have the time to shop around and make informed decisions, and many people get into financial distress following a significant change in their circumstances, whether it is a job loss, bereavement, illness or family breakdown. At such moments, they are not necessarily in the strongest position to address the challenges that they face.

I wish to highlight a number of issues. First, I have been a long-standing champion for the improvement of financial education, and I shall take this opportunity to plug my ongoing campaign. We need to equip people of all ages in this country with the key skills that enable them to make these important decisions, and I shall continue to press for that at every opportunity. The total costs of the decisions that people make are not necessarily displayed in a format that they understand—in plain, good old-fashioned cash terms.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): With his usual modesty, my hon. Friend just briefly mentioned the campaign for financial education in schools, on which he has led the way in the House—I think that the all-party group on financial education for young people, which he set up, is the largest in the House. Does he agree that financial education is very important to tackling the problem in the long run, particularly given that there are now so many different ways in which people can purchase things and borrow money? This education is crucial for future generations.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has been extremely supportive of our ongoing campaign. One of the driving forces behind our desire for compulsory financial education is the fact that we live in a challenging, complex world, where individual consumers are all too often bombarded by unhelpful marketing messages. Equipping consumers to enable them to pick their way through that minefield would make a big difference.

We are also seeing products becoming available that have complex terms and conditions—again preventing consumers from making informed decisions—and for which the consequences of defaulting are not clearly set out. The up-front and administration fees are not clearly shown, and too many consumers are making monthly payments to such companies without clearing the original

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debt for which they turned to them to get help. We have also seen misleading company names and advertisements. People in financial distress are under pressure from the companies to which they owe money. They feel obliged to make a quick decision, so when companies contact them to say, “We can sort this out. You just need to say yes in this phone call and we’ll get these people off your back,” it can be very attractive. We have seen excessive amounts of cold calling and dishonest texting. I agree with the request that the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made to ban such practices—I am certainly someone who is sick and tired of receiving unwanted calls and text messages. A number of hon. Members also referred to Google rankings, whereby people innocently type in “free debt advice” and are bombarded with the complete opposite. I would recommend that the Minister look at that.

I welcome the OFT’s revised guidelines, which set out the standards and expectations of debt management companies, making it clear that they must be transparent about the service on offer and the fees charged, to ensure that the advice provided is in the best interests of the consumer. It is clear that the Government—especially the Minister, who has shown a great interest in this subject—and the OFT are seeking to make a difference. However, I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will respond to when he wraps up. Some 129 businesses have already been warned, 69 of which have now exited the debt management market. Does he consider that a success?

Secondly, the process can take up to two years. What can be done to speed it up? As the hon. Member for Makerfield pointed out, not only can those businesses inflict huge damage to the most vulnerable consumers in two years, but for some of them, their whole business plan is geared towards being around for only two years and making as much money in that time as they can. I have spoken to the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, which told me that many such companies are also fleet of foot. As soon as we knock them off in one form, they reappear in another. My final question on the issue is this: how easy is it to identify some of the online operators? If they are on the high street, with nice big shiny signs above their shop doors, it is obviously easy to identify and tackle them. However, many such companies operate online, making it difficult to track them down. Is that stopping the clock ticking in terms of action being delivered?

All those who have spoken today have promoted making available free, independent debt advice—which I, too, support. I welcome the increased content available online, but we must remember that a significant number of the most vulnerable consumers—the people we will see coming into our surgeries—still rely on individually tailored, face-to-face or telephone sessions to help. I pay tribute to organisations such as Citizens Advice and the CCCS, which provide fantastic, individually tailored, free advice sessions. Those sessions are essential, because vulnerable consumers, with their individual circumstances, need somebody with the patience to go through things with them. All too often they are people who, through fear of what they are encountering, have not opened their post. They need someone to sit down with them, because online advice relies on people to know their own situation, which all too often is not the case.

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People might also feel the need to make a quick decision because the people to whom they owe the money are chasing them. A debt management company might say, “Just say yes on the phone and I’ll sort all those problems out.” When confronted with a bag of unopened post, people need somebody to help by saying, “We’ll sit down with you and get to a position where you can make a quick response.” Also, advice sessions will always take account of people’s individual circumstances, because every person is different—every person has different priorities and different amounts of debt—and will help them take the best possible course of action for their circumstances.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to secure the £27 million-worth of additional funding for the next year, but we need a long-term commitment, which is what the Money Advice Service is exploring. I urge it to continue and find what it is looking for, as this is so important. In these difficult and constrained financial times, this is an absolute priority, which I shall continue to support.

I would go further than some other speakers who talked about the need to provide access for free and independent advice. Just as we insist on having a Government health warning on all packets of cigarettes, I would like to see information published about how to access the free independent advice so that people can take a few moments out and contact those who can assist them. Too often, we have seen some of these debt management companies create spurious charities, whose people then provide the “independent advice” when they are, in fact, just subsidiaries of the company that is going after the business in the first place. Some have said that they did not want to get rid of this market completely, but wanted to be confident that every single consumer has easy access to the free and independent advice that we all believe is so important.

Finally, I want to explain how we can make a difference as individual Members of Parliament. Organisations such as Citizens Advice are under a lot of pressure: only a limited amount of funding is available and only so much time can be given to consumers who are in financial distress—effectively in a last-chance saloon—and need a quick response. When approached by R3, Citizens Advice and Nationwide, we carried out a training day, involving me as MP and all the staff in my constituency office. We were trained on how best to deal with people in financial distress. We were able to phone up the local citizens advice bureau and arrange an emergency appointment the following day, where people could benefit from a one-hour session. It provided an opportunity to sit down with the individual in advance and say, “This is what you need to bring to your session tomorrow”. The maximum help possible was provided in that one-hour session. All too often, consumers turn up at the last chance saloon without having all the information they need, which makes it difficult to give them the practical advice they need. I have been assured by both Citizens Advice and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service that they will happily provide similar training for all MPs. That shows how we can take this up to make a positive difference.

4.42 pm

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and

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Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time.

With almost £1.5 trillion of personal debt in the country and £200 billion of unsecured consumer lending, debt can clearly be a problem at all levels of society. In common with others who have spoken, I am particularly concerned about the less well-off members of society accessing sub-prime and high-cost credit. It is worth reminding ourselves that although to many opinion formers, journalists and others, this is a relatively hidden market, it is not at all a small one. The leader in home credit provision claims to visit one in 20 UK households every week. The leader in the rent-to-own sector has almost 250 stores and hopes to double that number. Payday Loans—as we have heard, a relative newcomer on the scene—already has between 1 million and 2 million customers a year.

Most people who look at this issue end up concluding that we need a three-pronged strategy to deal with it. The first is about education and advice, both before the fact and when people get into trouble; the second is about smart regulation, including disclosure to make it obvious to people what they are taking on; the third is the provision of alternatives. All three are vital, either directly or indirectly, to the provision of debt management advice—directly because advice is one prong, and indirectly because they impact on the need to have that advice. I shall talk briefly about these three in reverse order.

Starting with alternatives, hon. Members will not be surprised to hear me mention the importance of credit unions. Credit is a fact of life. Although we all occasionally meet people who say, “Well, if you haven’t got much money, you shouldn’t borrow”, the fact of the matter is that it happens at every level of society to help people get through the ups and downs of life. Childbirth and Christmas can happen to anybody—[Interruption.] I accept that childbirth is unlikely to happen to me. We need affordable and responsible lenders to operate in the market. Credit unions provide affordable loans, promote financial inclusion, get more people to have bank accounts, which has a big knock-on effect, and encourage savings. With savings, people are much less likely to find themselves getting into debt problems later.

I congratulate both the current Government and their predecessor on their support for the credit union sector. They have taken different but equally positive approaches. The new legislative reform order will mean the liberalisation and potential growth of the sector; the coalition’s £73 million modernisation fund will help it to become self-sustaining over the medium term; there is a possibility of its working with the post office network—for instance, introducing “jam jar” budgeting accounts—and there are many other interesting and exciting opportunities.

Many Members have spoken about aspects of regulation. This is clearly not the occasion on which to go into detail about the regulation of the high-cost and sub-prime credit markets, because we do not have enough time, but I should like to touch on some key points. Other Members have mentioned the potential for caps on the cost of credit. At times during our debates about this subject in the Chamber it has seemed that there may be a simple answer to the problem, but there is not.

A blunt and general cap on the cost of credit would have few positive results and many negative ones. It would, for example, push a large number of people out

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of the legal credit market and into the arms of those whose idea of a late-payment penalty is a cigarette burn on the forearm. It remains true, however, that some form of usury limit exists both in the European tradition, in countries such as France, Germany and Italy, and in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, in countries such as Australia and Canada and—as we heard earlier—many American states. That does not mean that they are all correct and we are wrong, but it should at least make us ask, as the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) did earlier, what we can learn from abroad. I know that the Minister and the Government as a whole are keen on that idea. A variable cap may well be possible, and I know that Bristol academics are considering that as we speak. I have my own particular hobby horse: I think that a limit to the annual interest rate and a separate one-off introductory or set-up fee, also limited, would be a successful formula.

Members have mentioned the way in which debt mounts up as a result of rollovers and the accumulation of behavioural problems, and that too needs to be considered. Perhaps most important of all is the need to ensure that debt is affordable by imposing a requirement to that effect on lenders. The hon. Member for Makerfield mentioned the Centre for Responsible Credit. She and I attended the launch of a report that laid bare the massive difference between the affordability of credit at the high-cost or sub-prime end of the market and its affordability at the mainstream end.

In some American states there is a requirement for operators to pool data with a central agency. That is specifically in the payday sector—the distinction is important—but in any case I do not think that there would be any appetite for such an operation in this country. It does not accord with our way of doing things, and even if it did, there would be huge IT problems, My God, imagine trying to hook up every sub-prime and high-cost credit provider in this country—not just in the payday sector—into a database. It would be a nightmare, and the fact that the credit reference system seems to work so poorly at present—some people have eight, nine or 10 loans by the time they seek help from the likes of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service—does not bode particularly well. There may be possibilities, however.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The hon. Gentleman’s speech is teaching me a great deal, but is he implying that debts can be affordable without a usury cap, or that a usury cap is necessary for them to be affordable?

Damian Hinds: Obviously credit can be affordable without a usury cap. It depends on the price that is set. I am increasingly of the view that there probably is room for some form of cap, but that it should not be a blunt and general cap that would have all sorts of unintended consequences. As I said a moment ago, I do not believe that there would be any appetite in this country for an enormous central database storing credit transactions involving every conceivable type of provider and every single citizen of the United Kingdom so that loan applications could be compared with earlier ones.

Affordability is now a principle in the OFT guidelines. There is an argument that lenders should have a general duty of care to make reasonable efforts to

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ensure that the loans they provide are affordable to the consumer, and also that the loan does, indeed, get paid down over time.

Yvonne Fovargue: At present, however, even the most up-to-date credit reference agency updates only once a fortnight. My constituent who took out six payday loans in a day would not be stopped by that. Most of our payday lenders come over from America, where they are registered with one agency that regulates only payday loans as a short-term means of lending.

Damian Hinds: That is a perfectly legitimate and credible line of argument. The hon. Lady mentioned, however, that the payday lending market barely existed in this country five years ago. There are many other high-cost forms of credit, so this market has a remarkable ability to shapeshift, and targeting just one sector will result in the growth of other sectors. Not all the states in America have the payday loans regulations the hon. Lady mentioned, but those that do have experienced growth in other areas of lending, such as rent-to-own loans. Somebody always picks up the slack in the market, therefore. I am not arguing against all regulation, but I am arguing that what appear to be easy and general solutions are usually ineffective.

Education and advice are essential. Some people would say that the best advice on debt that we could give to individuals—or to Governments—is, “Don’t.” To be a little more nuanced, we could say that capital spending—people investing in themselves through investing in their education, their home or a car that will help them get to work—is a legitimate reason to incur debt, whereas current spend is usually to be avoided unless people can be confident they will be able to pay the money back. In other words, people must ensure that in the ups and downs of life there are not only downs, but an up will come, too. We might call that a golden role. Opposition Members will recognise that term, and they will also appreciate how important it is to stick to the golden rule and not change it part way through.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) has done amazing work not only in running the all-party group on financial education for young people but in raising the profile of this issue. I agree that young people must be equipped with the necessary skills for when they enter adulthood and the marketplace, and I believe the best way to do that is through maths, because if people understand percentages and so forth, they can assess all sorts of financial products. If schools and society are doing their job well, people will understand their self-responsibility too, which is also very important.

There will always be a need for a backstop solution for when things go wrong and I believe that debt counselling and advice should be mainly industry-funded. It must also be available through all channels—online, telephone and face to face. However, we must accept that face-to-face advice is massively more costly than the other channels. The hon. Member for Stockton North cited Citizens Advice cost-benefit analysis figures in respect of debt advice, but they are slightly exaggerated as they represent not the return to the Exchequer, but a much broader view of cost-benefit analysis taking account of the

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benefit to the economy. We must accept that face-to-face advice is costly, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon rightly pointed out, it is essential to have that provision as it is important for some of the most vulnerable members of society. I am delighted that the Money Advice Service is focusing on how it can improve productivity—the case load throughput per person—in order to make face-to-face advice more affordable.

There is a role for debt management companies. There are hundreds of them and we must not over-generalise. On the other hand, a considerable number of them have got into trouble with the OFT, which suggests there might be a systemic problem in the sector. It is worth bearing in mind the circumstances of the customer that a fee-paying DMC will take on. They are, as has been said, typically not letter-openers. They often have unrealistic optimism about how the circumstances of their lives are about to change and turn around and, conversely, they have an enormous myopia about fixing today’s problem and today’s bills rather than looking at how to lay down long-term foundations. They are, almost by definition, quite easily swayed by good advertising—usually by either the first ad they see or the last. That all means that they are quite susceptible to the offer of an apparently easy solution whereby somebody else will take on the administrative burden and deal with the range of creditors on their behalf and they will focus on the smallness of the monthly payments rather than on how the alleged solution will bring them into long-term financial health.

That means, in turn, that the successful companies in the sphere tend to be those with the biggest marketing spend, the biggest promises, the longest repayment term on the loan and therefore the highest conversion rates. Although they will have a substantial drop-out rate, it does not matter so much if they have charged up-front fees that mean that they have ensured that their cash flow is safe. I hear from my excellent citizens advice service in East Hampshire that debt management companies all too often fail to consider the consumer’s overall position, the priority debts that they must pay first and their ability to pay back the loan schedule.

Yvonne Fovargue: The hon. Gentleman might be interested in a text that a colleague has just received—the Minister might be interested, too. It is cold calling from a debt management company and says that there is new legislation that means that debts can be written off. Is the Minister aware of introducing that new legislation? That is how people get drawn into the debt management companies.

Damian Hinds: Indeed. Remarkably, the hon. Lady might even discover that such texts seem to come from the Government on occasion. For the avoidance of doubt, let me state that they do not. Those are the sorts of tricks and ploys that are played, with a lot of subtle suggestions without saying anything. We probably know people who are not generally credulous who, from time to time, receive such a thing and take it as genuine.

I apologise for being almost boring in the extent to which I am going to agree with all previous speakers—[Hon. Members: “No!”] You are too kind. There is a remarkable degree of consensus among Members from all parties. Cold calling and canvassing for such businesses have no

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place in a responsible marketplace. The front-loading of fees sets apart the true interests of the customer and the provider. Although banning it might be excessive, we need to get rid of the front-loading and ensure that the operator has an incentive to see the individual through to financial security.

Finally, on search marketing and the extent to which people are actively searching for debt advice rather than being bombarded with marketing messages, I do not think we need to wait for a law or new regulation. There is only one substantial operator in that market. It is called Google and I am sure it has a corporate social responsibility department. I hope that it will read the transcript of the debate and take it on itself to ensure that although it will suffer some diminution in pay-per-click marketing fees, it can put free, respected and valued debt advice services at the very top of the list of the results when people search.

4.58 pm

Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): This has been a fascinating debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on managing to secure it now, in a week when we have learned from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others that real disposable incomes for most people in Britain will not rise much in the next few years.

We all know, through our own experiences and those of the people we represent, the extent to which unavoidable costs such as filling one’s car, paying a heating bill or doing the weekly shop are going up. As a result, I fear that many more people will find that the sums just do not add up at the end of every week or month and that they cannot pay every bill on time. It is particularly important therefore that we anticipate now, in the next few months, the rising demand for debt management advice and work out how to protect the people who need to call on that advice.

Many hon. Members are great experts on aspects of this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is a great expert on credit unions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is a great expert on financial advice and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) seems to be a great expert on everything to do with financial understanding. My interest in this subject comes from my constituency. I am lucky enough to represent the 750 people who work for Payplan in Grantham, which is an extraordinary business. It is important to understand that it is a business—a very valuable business—that does very well at making money. It does so by providing free debt management advice to troubled debtors and taking a fair share of contributions from creditors.

Payplan has demonstrated, along with the Consumer Credit Counselling Service and a few others, that it is an entirely commercial proposition to offer people advice based on the contributions received from creditors. It absolutely is not necessary to charge consumers for that advice in order to build a valuable business and make decent and respectable profits. Payplan is a partner of the Money Advice Trust and works closely with Citizens Advice and the National Debtline. I have run small

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businesses and I have many friends and colleagues who work in businesses, and I have not come across a business that makes as much money as Payplan does by doing as much good, so I am immensely proud to represent it and its employees.

The key question I want to address is the one at the heart of the debt management advice industry: what is the right economic model for that industry and should we be willing to intervene as a Government to change or specify that model? I go along with a view put forward by other hon. Members, particularly by those on the Government side, although my Lincolnshire colleague the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) also seemed to be of the same view. I am innately—I do not require the hon. Gentleman to go along with this—an economic liberal, like the Minister. I start off being sceptical of state intervention and I require that people demonstrate to me that a market failure is both obvious and substantial. I was therefore very happy, when a number of us met the Minister to discuss these issues a few months ago, to take his suggestion and look at whether there was a non-regulatory way of trying to fix the problem of cowboy companies gouging vulnerable debtors with huge fees up front and failing to fix their fundamental, underlying problem.

I was happy to look at whether there were alternative ways of dealing with the problem, and I set up a meeting with the excellent people who work in what has become known as the nudge unit at No. 10 Downing street. They are some of the most terrifyingly clever people one could hope to come across, and they are advised by one of the two authors of the original book, “Nudge”, who advise the Government on this issue. At the end of an hour in Portcullis house during which I fuelled them copiously with coffee because I knew that I would be able to make no other contribution to their deliberations, they reluctantly concluded—I think they were genuinely reluctant—that there was no obvious way of nudging this category of consumers.

Hon. Members have talked about the consumers in question, and about their state of mind and character. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire described them, and while he was doing so I realised that he could have been describing me. There was the tendency to respond to advertising, and the unwillingness to open letters. Certainly, we Members of Parliament all feel, when we get personal letters, that we have had enough letters in the week. He missed out one vital element that certainly describes me: the total brain-freeze that seizes a person whenever they have to consider their personal finances. Last year, on my election to the House, I forced myself, for the first time, to draw up a budget for the year, and it is not a process that I intend to repeat soon.

We can all understand that for a person on a much lower income than any of us in the Chamber, and for a person whose costs were much more unforgiving than ours, it would be much more difficult to make a purely rational decision. They would be much less likely to ask themselves, “How is it that these people are able to do all this for free? Where will they send that money in the first few months? How quickly will my debts go down, and will they go down as quickly as they would if I went to another provider?”. It is simply unrealistic to expect consumers of that kind, in that situation, to go through the right process of questioning.

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Is there a way of making sure that those consumers are at least fully aware of, and given all the required information about, the alternatives on offer? People have talked about Google, and requiring companies that charge consumers to mention the free advice systems. The difficulty is that there is almost no nudge that will overwhelm the advertising that could be funded by the huge fees that companies get. Even Google—a company that I admire greatly, and that is generally very keen to be socially responsible—will find it hard, on its own, to overwhelm the marketing brilliance of commercial operations that have a certain ruthlessness in their approach. As a result, I—and, more importantly, the nudge unit at No. 10—reluctantly concluded that there was no nudge available that would do the job.

As an economic liberal, I then forced myself to go to the next stage, and ask: is this market failure substantial, and is it obvious? I think that the answer is yes on both counts. It is substantial because the disparity between the information available to the consumer and the information available to the person selling to them is great. There are all sorts of areas where all of us, across the House, accept that that is the case, and that regulation is therefore necessary.

We believe, by and large, that it is important for consumers to know up front that cars have certain safety mechanisms in them, because most of us are not sufficiently well versed in checking for ourselves whether a car’s brakes fulfil the standards. We have myriad building regulations because we do not believe that consumers building, buying or moving into houses have any possibility of second-guessing whether the plumbing system will work, or blow up beneath them. We do the same with boilers, and with health care: we expect and require anybody providing laser eye surgery, or any other kind of operation, to be subject to specific regulations, because consumers cannot possibly second-guess whether those products are being provided safely. I would argue that the same applies to the consumers, and the product, that we are talking about.

We reached that conclusion a number of years ago in relation to other financial services. We decided that it was essential to regulate the fees that could be charged by independent financial advisers offering people mortgage, pension or endowment policies and products, for very similar reasons—we did not think that consumers would have the ability or information to assess whether fees were fair. Financial products are innately complicated, and we long ago concluded that consumers needed to be protected from the sharp practices of some providers.

What should the Government do? In the debate, two approaches have been proposed. The reluctance to regulate in a crude way is so deeply instilled in Government Members that they have proposed audits and restrictions on the percentage of fees that can be charged up front, on cold calls and on the worst practices of debt management companies that charge consumer fees. Listening to the debate—and I have genuinely changed my view slightly during it—I have come to the conclusion that going down that route would require enormous expenditure on regulation and enforcement. If we had to enforce measures on cold calls and on auditing everyone, as well as measures on the exact proportion of the fee taken

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from the repayment in a number of months, that would require such huge expenditure in the Office of Fair Trading that I fear it would be unrealistic.

I have concluded—no doubt the Minister will change my views yet again—that there is a simpler approach. We should take that spectacularly successful commercial model—fair-shares funding by creditors—and make it compulsory for any debt management company to make its money in that way.

Alex Cunningham: I have a simple question for the hon. Gentleman. Does he really believe that cold calling should still be allowed?

Nick Boles: I do not. I think that cold calling is a terrible idea, but I have good news for the hon. Gentleman: cold calling will die out automatically if all debt management companies follow the fair-shares model. There is not sufficient revenue available from the creditors to fund any of those dodgy marketing practices. That is why CCCS and Payplan do not indulge in those practices. To some extent, we are not here to save one commercial company and not another one, but they do not do so because their fair-share payments from the creditors do not make that possible. It is only because the fee-charging companies charge such huge up-front fees to consumers that they can afford to spend all that money to get them in in the first place.

The good news is that those bad practices would die out. On the other hand, we would have to do something else: we could not just require debt management companies to operate on that model. We would have to require creditors to make it available to all debt management companies, because none of us is in the business of somehow skewing the market towards one or two providers. We would have to require the creditors to offer that to any company that passed the basic regulatory requirements.

I understand that that would be a big step for any Government. The good news is that the legislation is already in place. The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 is already on the statute book. Part 5, which envisaged setting up regulations for debt management advice, has never been activated, because a commencement order has not been laid. My final suggestion to the Minister is that the Government should bite the bullet and lay that commencement order. They should introduce a simple regulation to enable strong, competitive and profitable commercial providers of debt management advice to flourish by offering advice funded by fair shares from creditors, thereby ensuring that the interests of some of the most vulnerable in our society at some of the most worrying times in their life are protected.

5.14 pm

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): This afternoon’s debate has shown the passion of Members across the Chamber about this important subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing the debate through the Backbench Business Committee and pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), who is not in her place, for doing so much to highlight concerns about debt advice and debt management. They are all strong advocates for their constituents, dogged

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campaigners and great champions of free debt advisory services such as Citizens Advice. We must put on the record our thanks to them for bringing such important information before the House.

Every life blighted by the spectre of debt is one too many. The human and family cost of uncontrollable debt should not be underestimated. The debate is often couched in terms of numbers and regulations, as we have heard this afternoon, but we must not lose sight of the fact that debt can often cost relationships, employment and, tragically, lives.

We come to the House this afternoon at a time of great economic uncertainty, which makes the debate even more important. Inflation stands at 5% and the sustained squeeze on wages has left many struggling to pay everyday bills, heat their homes and buy essentials. With Christmas around the corner, families will be under even more pressure as a result of financial worries.

Many consumers have got into debt by borrowing via credit cards, finance deals, overdrafts and unsecured personal loans. In numerous cases, as we have heard this afternoon, that is not down to reckless spending or people living beyond their means; too often it is due to the harsh reality of rising living costs. A recent survey found that such costs alone may force 71% of UK consumers to use savings, credit cards or overdrafts in order to meet the cost of bills—the trap of using debt to service debt. For others, it is down to a shock in their personal lives, such as unemployment, divorce, bereavement or ill health, and there is evidence that around half the people with debt problems are in that predicament because of some such tragic life event. That shows that the spectre of debt could fall on any of us at any time, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) explained earlier.

There are numerous types of debt, from bank loans and overdrafts to credit cards and finance agreements, but one of the largest increases in indebtedness is due to debt to Government Departments and agencies, which has not been mentioned today. That includes those who have accrued arrears in council tax, benefit overpayments, payments to the Child Support Agency or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and even TV licences. Most concerning of all is the number of people with high-cost credit debt who are seeking advice. Debt due to loans from payday and high street lenders has rocketed in the past 12 months. The Money Advice Trust alone has seen the number of calls it receives increase from 200 a week to 1,000. That is hardly surprising, given that it is impossible to watch daytime television without being swamped by TV adverts offering easy high-cost credit on the high street or internet.

What happens to people when they fall into financial difficulties? Debt advice plays a critical role in helping to manage financial difficulties, but often people feel that accessing advice is stigmatising. Indeed, many fall into difficulty because of a lack of financial education. We should give a strong commitment to include financial education as part of the national curriculum in order to resolve some of today’s problems tomorrow. An e-petition started by Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert has received over 100,000 signatures, so I hope that the Backbench Business Committee or the Government will find time for a debate. I commend the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) for doing so

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much on that not only in the House through the all-party group on financial education for young people, but in promoting financial education in schools.

With the OBR revising the level of personal debt in the UK dramatically upward, it is little wonder the number of people walking through the doors of citizens advice bureaux across the UK seeking debt advice remains high. Citizens Advice alone deals with almost 9,000 new debt problems every working day. It is that free and accessible expert debt advice that can play a key role in unlocking control of the debt. I would like to put on the record my thanks to Citizens Advice for the contribution it makes up and down the country in often difficult and challenging circumstances. It deserves the gratitude of the whole House.

Without access to free debt advice from organisations such as Citizens Advice, however, consumers will often seek other less affordable solutions from fee-charging debt management services in order to pay down debt—an issue that every Member who has spoken this afternoon has mentioned. Sadly, there are too many examples of abuse in the sector, and it affects some of the most vulnerable people in society.

When the Office of Fair Trading looked at such companies last year, it found more than 90% non-compliance with its own rules, noting that

“the findings from this review shine a spotlight on a market where poor practices appear to be widespread… it is clear that standards across this market are not as high as should be the case.”

There is, therefore, a strong case for Government intervention.

Following the Government’s consumer credit and personal insolvency review, the Minister committed to the development of a protocol setting out what was expected from a debt management plan, so in his response will he outline the progress that has been made on that?

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to keep the legislative angle open, but he needs to go further now and consider a proper legislative response. It is disappointing that the Government have dragged their feet slightly on the issue, but they could commit today to respond properly to the OFT’s report.

Calls for regulation in the sector have been echoed by fair-share debt operators, such as Payplan and CCCS, which provide free, immediate and ethical debt advice and repayment schemes to more than half a million people every year. They work closely with the organisations that are critical to resolving debt issues—the creditors. Much of their work comes from Citizens Advice referrals, and there is high demand for debt management plans, as every week more consumers reach the limit of their indebtedness and seek responsible solutions to their financial difficulties.

Based on information that I have received from Payplan, the number of people in that situation increased from about 300,000 at the start of 2010 to more than 560,000 by the end. Like Citizens Advice, it fears that in the absence of an effective regulatory framework many vulnerable customers unfortunately receive poor and unsuitable advice from the fee-charging debt management companies that they contact for help.

Such consumers are often charged up-front fees for services that should be free, with charges not being clearly explained before they enter into an agreement. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North gave

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some stark examples of that in his opening speech, and Consumer Focus has also expressed its strong concerns, stating:

“On the basis of the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) review, fee-charging debt management is a market which, at the moment, is largely failing consumers.”

Debt advice does not need to cost, however. The fair- share models of Payplan and CCCS are effective at dealing with indebtedness and at getting debt under control. The Minister should look at enacting section 5 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 to give consumers the statutory protection that they need through consistent industry standards, whereby only reasonable fees are charged and abuses of the system are rooted out.

Consumers who are often vulnerable need such regulatory protection. In fact, should we work towards a situation in which consideration is given to phasing out up-front charges or, even, fees all together? The idea has been highlighted in many speeches this afternoon.

Consumers need protection from the way fee-charging debt management companies advertise. During my preparation for today’s debate, I had the television on in the background, and while it was on no fewer than three adverts for debt management companies popped up during the breaks, with reassuring claims to “wipe out debts” through “easy solutions” and “one easy monthly payment”. We could be forgiven for thinking that they would solve all our financial problems at one stroke. As Members from all parts of the House know, however, that is simply not the case.

The up-front fee and structure of debt payments, whereby the companies take their cut before paying creditors, is not clear at all in the advertising. There is also no clear indication that such services can be accessed free. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington has articulated through her ten-minute rule Bill, statutory regulation, over and above the basic licensing and supervisory regime presided over by the OFT, is desirable in television advertising.

Over-indebted vulnerable customers are acting under stressful conditions and without the time or inclination to shop around. There should be adequate protection from rogue providers of debt advice, so that huge numbers of already indebted customers are prevented from falling into even greater financial difficulties. Indeed, the OFT’s report states that

“advertising is the most significant area of non-compliance, in particular misrepresenting debt management services as being free when they are not”.

The Government need to do more in this respect to ensure that consumers are fully informed about the processes and services available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North was right to be proud of the previous Government’s financial inclusion fund, which focused millions of pounds of resources on providing free debt advice to those who were most vulnerable and most at risk. It is therefore disappointing that the current Government’s record on helping with consumer debt funding is unclear. In January, they announced that funding to the financial inclusion fund would be cut, with the loss of 500 specialist advisers who work primarily through Citizens Advice,

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and then gave it a short reprieve of just a year. Were it not for the vocal opposition from Citizens Advice and other consumer debt support groups, along with hon. Friends such as, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, the Government would have pursued that devastating policy on debt advice. The £27 million that has been allocated to the financial inclusion fund has given the Government a little time to consider how they will continue to provide crucial debt advice to the public. We know that, from April next year, the Money Advice Service will be responsible for the co-ordination of debt advice provision across the UK and has submitted funding proposals to the Financial Services Authority, but it would be helpful if the Minister updated the House on when and if the funding will be confirmed.

It is vital that the funding of free debt advice is maintained, particularly given the pressure on local government budgets, which could be significantly compounded by the changes to legal aid. Ministry of Justice figures show that the legal aid budget for debt advice is due to fall by a massive 75% from 2013. Last year, Citizens Advice dealt with 64,000 debt cases funded by legal aid. A 75% cut in future funding would reduce that number to just around 15,500. Potentially, tens of thousands of people will be left without the support and advice that they need in their time of need.

It would be remiss of the House to debate debt advice and management services and not to refer to the growing problem of short-term loans and the short-term loan market, which has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Over 1.2 million people use the payday lending market, not out of choice but out of necessity. Families are using doorstep and payday lenders who charge exorbitant rates of interest on these loans, piling on an unmanageable debt burden. It is not appropriate for the Government not to act. Should they not step in and regulate these markets in the interests of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged? My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has been a thorn in the Government’s side in pursuing the high-cost consumer credit market. In doing that, a regulator could work with industry to ensure realistic reductions in exorbitant interest rates and charges. [ Interruption. ] I am delighted that my hon. Friend has obviously made a direct impression on the Minister.

There are lots of examples of solutions out there. That would not, as many fear, involve imposing an arbitrary interest rate cap that may exclude the very people who need access to short-term credit. Although tackling interest rates is crucial, it is but one strand of the many ways in which that sector can be regulated. There could be upper limits on the amount borrowed or on the number of times an individual can borrow to help to prevent multiple loans. There could be grace periods or time restrictions on paying off a loan and taking out another in order to prevent “rolling”. A balance of regulation has to be struck to protect vulnerable consumers in this competitive marketplace.

Let us not forget to mention illegal loan sharks. I am pleased that the Minister has managed to continue to find funding for the specialist enforcement teams for the illegal money-lending project introduced by the previous Government. Those teams do tremendous work and have raised awareness and understanding of illegal lending.

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I pay tribute to many of the speeches that have been made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, who spoke passionately about the effect of debt on the most vulnerable in our society. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford—I believe that she is also a very useful footballer—pleaded for the banks to be more responsible and noted that 30% of those who go to debt management companies go bankrupt; that is something that we do not want to happen. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who is not in his place, raised the subject of bailiffs, which is incredibly important to bear in mind in the context of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who is still sporting his Movember moustache—I am not, as it was shaved off by Andrew Neil this morning on the BBC—expressed strong concerns in relation to the provision of free debt advice, of which he has been a strong champion in this Chamber.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said that more information needs to be available to people when they need help. I think that everyone in the Chamber agrees with that. The hon. Member for North Swindon also deserves credit for all that he has done on financial education. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) raised the importance of credit unions and other lending organisations. I am delighted that he mentioned credit unions, because they have been left out of this debate a bit.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford explained the nudge theory in Downing street. I thought that Nudge was the Downing street cat. Nudge is obviously alive and well in the industry. He also said that Payplan is in his constituency and does a good job in regulating the market in which it operates and in dealing with the debts of many of his constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members.

This has been an important debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North for bringing the subject to the House. Given the economic outlook, the Government’s political dogma of not admitting that their plan A is not working, and the spectre of higher unemployment, lower growth and shattered consumer confidence, it is unlikely that this issue will improve any time soon. Millions of families may struggle with severe debt. Access to free and independent debt and money advice services is vital for those in financial difficulty. Those services need to be funded in a sustainable way and they must meet the needs of all consumers, including, most importantly, the most vulnerable.

5.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): This has been an excellent debate with contributions from all parts of the House. I will try to do credit to it in my response. I hope that I will be able to reflect on many of the excellent contributions.

The reason this has been such a good debate is that Members, from talking to their constituents, know that this is a huge problem. There is a rising tide of misery out there. It is incumbent on this House and this Government to respond to that in as many ways as we can. I will do my best to do that. For many years in opposition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was critical of the previous Government because they did not take action

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to deal with the rising indebtedness of many families and individuals across the nation. He feels that we need to do as much as we can in government to deal with the misery that is the legacy of that increase in personal indebtedness.

In my initial remarks, I will go through each of the contributions and pick out points and respond to them. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) asked about the future funding of debt advice. The hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) also touched on that matter. I know that the funding of debt advisers under the financial inclusion fund is of great concern. The House will know that my Department has committed to continue the funding for this year.

Money Advice Service has also been clear that it intends to renew all existing grant agreements for the provision of face-to-face debt advice next year. It is in the process of securing funding from the Financial Services Authority for that, so that people in need have access to good advice. We look forward to that being confirmed by the FSA board over the next few days or weeks. It is considering the business plan put forward by Money Advice Service. Once it has made its decision, that business plan will be published. That answers another question from the hon. Member for Stockton North.

The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made an extremely informed contribution. I would like to pick up on her point about the importance of the Citizens Advice brand. That is critical to how we address these issues. People in distress, who may be suffering from mental health problems, family breakdown or any of the other things that compound the problems of debt, often do not know where to turn. As Members have said, they can react to the first piece of advertising that they see and end up in the wrong place. We need to ensure that everyone knows of the existence of the free debt advice that is available and knows that that is where they should go. I believe that, because the Citizens Advice brand is so well known and so trusted, it is the brand on which we need to build. I am grateful to her for making that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) rightly talked about credit unions. He also touched on the research that the University of Bristol’s personal finance research centre is doing, having been commissioned by the Government to look into whether a cap on the total cost of credit is the right way forward. We will await that research before making any further moves in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) made interesting comments about the nudge unit. I do not know whether there are minutes from that meeting. He also talked about the different regulatory approaches that we could adopt. Not only will I think about what he said, but I am very happy to meet him to discuss it further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), in a very effective contribution, praised the OFT for how effective its crackdown has been. She asked for it to be given more resources and more teeth, and she gave some ideas about how we could obtain those resources.

The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who is no longer in his place, mentioned bailiffs. I will relay his remarks to my colleagues in the

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Ministry of Justice, because it was clear that the House felt strongly about the matter.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) talked about learning from other countries. The research that is being conducted on the proposal for a cap on the total cost of credit that can be charged by high-cost lenders will include a consideration of regulation in other countries, including those that have rate caps. He talked about the idea of a real-time database, and other colleagues also picked up that subject. I think it is fair for me to inform the House that the company behind that database, Veritec, has had meetings with officials in my Department, in No. 10 and in the OFT. We are considering the matter, but I am not making any commitment now—that would obviously be quite wrong. If a decision were taken to regulate the payday market more, the experience in other countries would have to be considered further.

We are opening discussions with stakeholders on how we can increase data sharing for the benefit of consumers. We will also explore the issue of credit scoring and whether high-cost credit providers should provide data to credit reference agencies. The hon. Member for Makerfield asked about that, so it is important that I make that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) again stressed the importance of education, and he is absolutely right. We are working with the Money Advice Service and the industry to see if consumers can be helped in considering whether a credit product is right for them before they purchase it. That will play a role.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh South pressed us on payday loans, as did a number of other colleagues. I can say that we have started intensive discussions with the payday loan industry to ensure that future codes of practice contain the consumer protections that we believe are needed to address the concerns that blight the market. I have personally written to the trade associations highlighting the importance of that work and my concerns about specific issues such as continuous authority. I will also meet them during the process. Payday loan companies dipping in and out of people’s bank accounts, taking money set aside for rent and food, is simply not on, and we need the codes of practice to reflect that.

I wish to turn in more detail to debt advice. Inevitably, some people will fall into financial difficulties, and when they do, I want them to be empowered to make the right decisions for themselves about their finances, and to have access to the appropriate debt advice when they need it. The Money Advice Service will take forward the co-ordination of debt advice delivery from April 2012, and my Department has provided the necessary funds to research and develop a new multi-channel debt advice service across the UK.