Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [Lords] DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Jeremy QuinMain Page: Jeremy Quin (Conservative - Horsham)
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I do not mean that debt is higher as a proportion of income; I meant that it is higher as a percentage of disposable income, which the Minister will find it is.
The Government need to do three things with the scheme if they are properly to grant the breathing space people need. First, the scheme must be applicable to all relevant debts, including central and local government debt. To take one example, I recently met the organisation Every Child Leaving Care Matters, where I learned about the problems some care leavers face with things such as council tax obligations. After years of having these bills paid for them, they can often find themselves with mounting debt and without the support, including family support, that many of us here take for granted. That is why I was delighted when Labour-led Hull City Council announced recently that nearly 350 youngsters leaving the care system in the city would not have to pay council tax in Hull until they turned 21.
The scheme will be one of the first policies of its kind in the country when it starts next April and could mean that each of these people saves at least £900 a year. That is fantastic news for Hull but unfortunately not for the rest of my constituents in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council. We can end this unacceptable postcode lottery by supporting the Bill today. It is not just care leavers who are affected either—many people owe money to central and local government—and by ensuring that these debts are included in the breathing space scheme we can help care leavers and many others keep their heads above water.
Secondly, the scheme must make sure that the Government’s consultation, while thorough, is carried out as quickly as possible. There is a danger that the words,
“As soon as reasonably practicable”
in clause 8 will allow the Government to drag their feet in deciding whether to introduce this breathing space scheme. That must not be allowed to happen. The Secretary of State must act quickly to make sure that a scheme is put in place and that support is offered to those who need it now.
Thirdly, the scheme must ensure that the breathing space is long enough to provide time for families to stabilise their finances and that support is in place to allow them to pay their debts in a manageable way. It is no use holding back the creditors from the door for a randomly chosen six-week period if, at the end of those six weeks, the family can still not pay. If we are to set a breathing space, we must get the period right.
We must get this right. Not to do so would not be in the interests of our economy, which already struggles with high personal debt; it would not be in the interests of creditors, who, according to statistics from Scotland, collect more of what is owed to them when a payment plan is followed; and it would definitely not be in the interests of the many families in my constituency drowning in an ocean of personal debt. On clauses 7 and 8 at least, the Government find themselves in the rare position of enjoying cross-party support and with a rare opportunity to make my constituents’ lives a little easier. On their behalf, I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State to act quickly and, further to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) from the Front Bench, to take on board my points and grasp the opportunity being offered to help so many people.
I welcome the chance to speak in this debate. I will make a short speech on a topic that has been touched on by Members on both sides of the House. We seem to agree that the introduction of a duty of care for financial service providers would be a good thing. That is not currently in the Bill, but the Bill gives us a vital opportunity to take steps towards introducing such a duty of care and, in doing so, transforming the support that customers receive from their financial service providers.
As is recognised in the Bill, ensuring that people have access to the right help and advice as soon as possible is essential to stopping financial problems escalating. For people who are ill, or who are considered vulnerable in other ways, it becomes even more important. It is well known that being diagnosed with a health condition such as cancer can come with a huge and sudden financial impact. Research by Macmillan Cancer Support found that four out of five people with cancer are impacted financially by their diagnosis, which makes them, on average, £570 a month worse off. That impact, as one would expect, leaves many people struggling to keep up with their financial commitments.
Banks, building societies and other financial services providers are in a unique position to step in. They could offer short-term measures, such as flexibility on mortgage payments or interest freezes on credit cards and loans, as well as ensuring that customers are signposted early to financial help, which can help them to avoid problem debt. Some banks have made progress on that. For example, Lloyds and Nationwide have worked in partnership with Macmillan to deliver specialist support to customers who are affected by cancer. However, the overall picture is still mixed. Only one in nine people with cancer tell their bank about their diagnosis. Many people do not think that their bank can help them, or, worse, they worry that disclosing their diagnosis will have negative consequences. Of those who did tell their bank, nearly a quarter were dissatisfied with the support they received. That, to me, seems like a huge missed opportunity.
When someone is living with a long-term health condition such as cancer, the last thing they should be worrying about is money. But if people do not feel comfortable accessing support, or the support is not there when they try, their financial worries can quickly escalate. If financial service providers had a legal duty of care towards their customers, people would be given the confidence to disclose their diagnosis, knowing that they could trust their bank to act in their best interests.
For banks and other providers, that would mean being ready to respond to their customers’ needs, and designing the vital products and services that would help people focus on their health. Of course, the duty would not just help people with cancer. It would have wide-ranging benefits because it would ensure that the banking sector played its part in helping customers, particularly those who might be vulnerable, when they needed it most.
As Members may be aware, the Financial Conduct Authority has committed to publishing a discussion paper on the duty of care. Although that is welcome, I and many other Members have significant concerns about the timescale. The discussion paper will form part of the FCA’s handbook review, which will not take place until after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is clear. What that timeframe means in reality is not yet clear. What we know is that a discussion paper would be only the start of a long process of consultation and legislation, so it could be many years before a duty of care came into effect. Meanwhile, during that time, nearly 1,000 people every day in the UK will receive the devastating news that they have cancer.
This is key. Often when we discuss such issues to do with financial regulation, the debates are technical and can feel removed from the general public. The duty of care is different. The public are starting to take a real interest in the issue, and those who see the terrible impact on people of conditions such as cancer are demanding that we take action. Take Miranda, a Macmillan nurse. In her role helping patients, she sees the financial impact of cancer at first hand. I want to share a couple of quotes from Miranda with the House:
“It’s enough to cope with the effects of the treatment and the psychological effects of the diagnosis, without having to worry about money as well”.
“To relieve the pressure of not having to pay your mortgage for six months or so…will be a tremendous help to people.”
Supported by Macmillan, Miranda has written an open letter in support of a duty of care. It has been signed by nearly 20,000 people—that is 20,000 people who want action. They do not want to wait years for change. What would the Minister say to those people? How would he justify any delay to them?
Of course, we all appreciate that Brexit will have significant implications for the financial services industry and that they will need careful thought, but that is not a valid reason for delaying the duty of care. Action is needed now, so that future changes are built on the foundation that financial services firms have a duty of care to their customers.
I urge the Minister to listen to what is being said today and to commit to working with the FCA to deliver faster action on the duty of care. He should listen to the cross-party concerns that have been set out here and in the other place. He should listen to the numerous organisations that have supported the call for a duty of care, to the Lords Select Committee on Financial Exclusion, which recommended its introduction, and to the 20,000 people who have called on the Government to take action. I thank Macmillan Cancer Support for its parliamentary briefing, which has contributed in a big way to my speech. Finally, will the Minister meet representatives of Macmillan Cancer Support to discuss the introduction of a duty of care?