The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Glen)
With permission, I will make a statement on supporting people in problem debt. This is an issue close to my heart. As a former member of the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty, I have seen at first hand the hardship that problem debt can cause. Now that I am in a position to bring about change, I am focused on improving the lives of the most disadvantaged.
Problem debt places a heavy burden on households and can lead to family breakdown, stress and mental health issues. The Government have taken steps to prevent problem debt from occurring and to support those who have fallen into it. We have reformed the regulation of consumer credit and widened access to professional debt advice, and we are helping to build individual financial capability. Today, I can update the House on the Government’s plans to go further, with the introduction of a breathing space scheme and a statutory debt repayment plan. I am grateful for the support of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), whose private Member’s Bill and ongoing work have made a key contribution to the scheme becoming Government policy.
For people who are just getting by, even a small income shock can provoke a cycle of debt dependence that can be difficult to escape. If then faced with invasive debt enforcement, it is no wonder that many people in problem debt simply disengage. The first step to countering problem debt is to ensure that consumer credit firms are properly regulated, because loans should not be made to people who cannot afford to repay them. The Government have empowered the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that firms lend responsibly, protecting consumers from over-borrowing. At Budget 2018, we announced new measures to increase access to affordable credit by helping foster a larger, more vibrant social lending sector.
In parallel, we have put in place support to help people make good financial decisions. The new Money and Pensions Service brings together three existing publicly funded money and pensions guidance services into one new organisation, providing free support and guidance on all aspects of people’s financial lives. Importantly, it also has a statutory duty to develop and co-ordinate a national strategy to improve people’s financial capability. Despite those preventive measures, I recognise that many people still fall into problem debt. For such people, further support is required.
Seeking professional advice is a vital step in moving towards a sustainable debt solution. That is why we have increased public funding for free professional debt advice to almost £56 million this year, delivering 560,000 sessions in England, but more needs to be done. The Money and Pensions Service estimates there are up to 9 million over-indebted people in the UK, but only a fraction of them access free debt advice each year. That is why I can announce today that, following consultation, the Government will deliver on their manifesto commitment to introduce a breathing space scheme for people in problem debt.
The scheme has two parts which, together, will protect debtors from creditor action, help them get professional advice on their debt problems, and help them pay off their debts in a sustainable way. Breathing space will provide debtors with a 60-day period in which interest and charges on their debts are frozen and enforcement action from creditors is paused. Creditors must not start new court action, communications with debtors relating to enforcement of their debt must stop, and benefit reductions to reclaim debt will pause. During the time, debtors will have to seek professional debt advice to find a sustainable solution to their debt problem. These protections will encourage people in problem debt to seek advice earlier and give them the headspace to identify the right debt solution for them.
The statutory debt repayment plan is a new debt solution that will extend the breathing space protections to debtors who commit to fully repaying their debts in a manageable timeline. Importantly, the payment plans will be flexible to changes in debtors’ life circumstances to remain sustainable over the long term. If someone’s disposable income decreases, their payments will go down, and vice versa.
The breathing space scheme will make a real difference to the most vulnerable families across the country, and I recognise the sense of urgency across the House to deliver this policy quickly. I am committed to delivering the scheme swiftly, working closely with key stakeholders to make sure that it works in practice. The Government will lay regulations on the breathing space element of the policy before the end of the year, and we intend to implement it in early 2021. We will continue to develop the statutory debt repayment plan to a longer timetable.
In addition, I am pleased to announce that the Government will go beyond their manifesto commitment in two areas. As many of us hear in our constituencies, people’s experiences of problem debt are changing. As I have seen at first hand, it is wrong to assume that over-indebtedness is simply a product of taking out too much credit. Many people struggle to meet essential bills and can end up owing money to multiple creditors in the public and private sectors. For the policy to be successful, it must properly reflect the issues that debtors are dealing with. I can therefore announce today that the breathing space scheme will cover a broad range of debts—not just financial services debts, but arrears owed to utility companies and to central and local government, including council tax arrears, personal tax debts and benefit overpayments. That broad protection will make the policy effective for debtors and fair to creditors.
The House will recognise the strong links between mental health issues and problem debt. Up to 23,000 people in England each year struggle with problem debt while in hospital due to mental health issues. The breathing space scheme must work for everyone facing problem debt. In particular, it must be open to the most vulnerable in society. To that end, I can confirm that people receiving treatment for mental health crisis can enter breathing space without seeking advice from a debt adviser, which could be a significant barrier for many.
The protections will last the entirety of an individual’s crisis treatment, followed by a further 30 days to allow them to get back on their feet and decide whether they wish to enter the main breathing space scheme or work out another solution for their debts. As mental health issues often recur, there will be no limit to the number of times that an individual can enter via this mechanism. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman), the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for their dedicated work on this issue, and I thank the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute for raising this important issue.
Millions of people struggle with problem debt and the burdens that it brings. The Government have committed to helping people take control of their finances and get back on a stable financial footing. The breathing space scheme that I have described today will help to fulfil that commitment, and I commend this statement to the House.