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Gift Cards

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013

It is always a pleasure, Mr Bone, to see you in the Chair. I know that many in the House are exercised by the stories we have heard in the wake of companies going into administration of people not being able to cash in their gift vouchers or losing their savings in schemes such as Farepak. It is terribly unjust and it is time that we did something about it.

My experience with Portsmouth FC has taught me that the victims of a company’s administration are not always obvious. In that case, rules that were not widely known meant that football creditors were at the head of the queue for repayment, despite the fact that the credit of others had been just as vital to the running of the club. Those at the head of these queues might receive only a tiny fraction of their investment, and those at the back nothing at all. It is devastating to be told that, through the mismanagement of others, one will not receive back a penny of one’s loan. How much worse is it to be told that money one has paid over, not as a loan but in exchange for goods, will be taken without redress?

The hon. Lady is quite right to highlight the issue of unsecured creditors losing money when companies go under. As she said, the situation is reminiscent of what happened with Farepak, when thousands of people lost their Christmas savings. It is only now, seven years later, that we have come to a very unsatisfactory conclusion. Does she agree that we should redouble our efforts, because what might seem like quite small amounts of money to some people are very significant to those whom she mentions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is absolutely right to say that this matter disproportionately affects those people on the lowest incomes. As she rightly said, the Farepak incident, which happened before I was elected to this House, has been going on for a number of years, so it is really time that the Government acted to stop such poor practice continuing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is she aware that the matter affects failing retailers as well? A YouGov poll in March 2013 found that 86% of people believed that gift cards should be regulated to protect consumers against failing retailers? Does that not show the importance of taking action as soon as possible?

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for his expertise. As I share a corridor with him in Parliament, I know that he is a champion of consumers in Dover and Deal and I am grateful to him for his support on this issue.

It is a terribly unjust position in which the holders of gift cards find themselves when the shop that issued the card goes into administration. Such people should not be treated as ordinary creditors. A grandmother who buys her grandchildren the once-ubiquitous WHSmith voucher for Christmas does not regard herself as having lent Smith’s any money. On the contrary, she has made a purchase. Indeed, her circumstances are just the opposite of a creditor’s, who might expect to receive some interest on his loan, as her gift card is worth less and less as time passes, due to the effects of inflation. It is as illogical to deny gift card holders the right to redeem their vouchers as it would be to demand that people who had bought their goods return them to the shop to help pay off the creditors. It is from that essential point that we must proceed today. A gift card is not a bond certificate; the money has not been loaned to the company. Quite simply, the collection of the product has been deferred, which is, in any case, to the advantage of the company. That principle has already been recognised at an EU level in respect of e-money, which is money put on to pre-paid cards or gift cards bought through third parties. Those moneys must be kept in segregated accounts pending the use of the cards, so that the consumer is protected.

In Britain, that scheme is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, a successor to the Financial Services Authority. Individual retailers may opt in to the scheme, but, for perhaps obvious reasons, the temptation seems to have been uniformly resisted. Although there is no mandatory and regulated scheme for cards issued by companies independently for use in their own shops, there appears to be no impediment to its introduction. Already many retailers that issue their own unregulated cards accept the regulated cards issued by third parties, such as the One4all card, including Argos, Boots, B&Q, Currys, Debenhams, Topshop and the aforementioned WHSmith. In all, the Gift Voucher Shop, which is responsible for the One4all card, has more than 1,500 corporate clients. Surely that is a double standard that should not be allowed to continue. Two customers who intend to spend their vouchers at the same shop could thus be in the absurd situation that one can have a full refund and the other receives nothing. The matter is left entirely to the discretion of the administrator.

It is true that under the Consumer Credit Act 2006, those who bought vouchers with credit cards are protected, but only if they bought between £100 and £30,000 of vouchers. The problem here is twofold: people who buy vouchers as savings, perhaps against the expense of Christmas, are very unlikely to use credit cards; and those who buy vouchers as gifts to put towards say the purchase of white goods on a wedding list are unlikely to do so to the sum of £100. Chargeback offers some protection to consumers using certain debit cards, such as Visa, American Express and MasterCard. In all circumstances, there is a 120-day window in which to make a claim for a refund, and the claim must be made by the purchaser, not the holder of the voucher. Once again, that is contingent on a given card supplier operating the scheme, and, in all circumstances, those who bought vouchers with cash, which is a likely scenario when smaller sums are involved and if the people buying them are paid in cash, are entirely exposed.

What is hard to understand is why the administrator is allowed to appropriate the money held against vouchers for the purposes of winding up the business. As I said earlier, that is akin to telling anyone who has previously bought something from that shop to return it without a refund, or the practices of the most artless playground bully.

Some administrators are prepared to accept vouchers, such as those for Nicole Farhi and Blockbuster. Holders of Republic vouchers were not so fortunate, which meant that the administrator simply took £1.2 million in advance payments. That is £1.2 million with just one retailer. The evidence of total sales suggests that there is still a demand for gift vouchers. Last year, more than £4 billion was spent on their purchase and, as they are not exchangeable for cash, one can only assume that retailers like them, too. How many of the people who contributed to that £4 billion knew that they, or the vouchers’ intended recipients, were so vulnerable?

Currently, holders of gift cards are well down the order of priority for creditors. They are on a par with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, suppliers and unsecured creditors, but behind secured creditors, the costs of insolvency, and debts due to preferential creditors and employees. I do not argue too much with the order of creditors other than to say that employees should never be an afterthought. My point is simply that gift card holders do not belong on a list of creditors at all. It is not possible to exchange gift vouchers for cash, which is further proof that they are not a form of credit as there is never any prospect of getting back one’s money. It would be bizarre if this were permitted when a company went into administration. Rather, it should be possible to redeem one’s vouchers. That would resolve some of the concerns of the Association of Business Recovery Professionals about the knock-on effects of promoting holders of vouchers up the list of preferred creditors. R3, as it is known, is anxious that were card holders prioritised, businesses and suppliers, which are currently with card holders in the fifth tranche of those to be paid by administrators, would be even worse off.

I mentioned my experience with Portsmouth FC’s administration, and I understand only too well the hardship that is borne by small businesses that must extend credit in order to get the trade they need to survive when they are left hanging on administrators’ decisions. The same goes for employees, who are placed in the invidious position of waiting in limbo to know whether they will have a job in the future or be paid for the work they have already done.

There is also a concern that preferred creditors—those who issue secured loans—would be more wary of extending cheap or reasonable credit in the future if the list of preferred creditors were to be expanded to include gift card holders. At a time when small businesses and retailers are still concerned that lending is not getting through to the degree that is needed, that concern must not be dismissed.

R3 has put forward three possible solutions—a requirement to purchase bonds against the value of issued gift cards; the ring-fencing of the money used to buy cards until they are redeemed; and the extension of the 2006 Act to include purchases under £100. However, each of these solutions has problems. In the case of the first two, they would handicap solvent businesses by restricting cash flow and they could make administration more likely. Equally, extending the 2006 Act would come into effect only if administration procedures began, but cash buyers would still be out in the cold.

If one takes all of these factors into account—the need to protect the viability of going concerns and to treat gift card holders equitably, without undermining lending or supplier confidence, or disadvantaging employees —the solution seems clear. If vouchers are allowed to be redeemed, the administrator does not need to surrender the money that it has on deposit through the sale of gift cards. Instead stock, which would be very likely to be sold off at a generous discount to raise money quickly, would be exchanged for the vouchers.

The hon. Member has made some really important points. Does she agree that, at the very least, some kind of warning should be put on gift cards or vouchers? That would be a start—telling people what risk they face if things go wrong. It would also be a good way forward.

I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady. I have already said that there are products out there that would do the same thing as some of these gift vouchers and that could be exchanged for goods at an enormous number of retailers. Clearly, if people were aware of those particular e-money products and of how exposed they make themselves by not buying them, they would go and buy them. So she is absolutely right to point out that raising awareness is half the solution to this problem.

If the gift voucher holders were allowed to redeem those vouchers in exchange for goods, that would be done at pre-insolvency prices, which is after all the basis on which the cards were bought. Therefore, the impact on the administrator would be more modest than otherwise. Furthermore, the goodwill of the card holders would be sustained. The fact that they hold vouchers for a specific shop suggests that they would like to buy its goods, and they are the very people on whom the administrator would rely during a post-insolvency sale. Indeed, treating gift card holders better could make the administrator’s life much easier.

I do not pretend that this problem is easily solved, but it would be helpful if the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognised that there was a problem and that a solution was required. I have raised this matter in the House and I have written a number of times to the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today. In one of the replies that I received, it was even acknowledged that gift cards are considered to be pre-payments for specific goods and services, rather than cash or an extension of credit—quite. However, the Department is content to continue to allow gift card holders to be treated as creditors.

I appreciate what the Minister has said to me in the past, namely, that in administration proceedings there is only so much money to go round and that administrators have to act in the best interests of creditors as a whole. However, it is apparently accepted that voucher holders are not creditors, so setting aside stock for them would not be to prefer one creditor over another. Indeed, the process might even lead to the sale of other stock for ready money. Her Majesty’s Treasury has shown a willingness to engage on this matter, and I hope that BIS will now be prepared to do so too.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I thank my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for securing this debate, because she raises an important issue. She has been a long-standing advocate for moving the holders of gift cards and vouchers up the order in which creditors are paid when there is an administration or an insolvency procedure. She has been that advocate for very sound reasons. We all understand the distress that is caused when a business—whether it is a major high street chain or a smaller local company—goes into administration. People are very disappointed if they are holding gift cards, which often have been actual gifts to them, but those cards end up being worthless. Clearly, that situation causes upset and I understand the need and the desire to address it.

Indeed, the Government are keen to try to ensure that those types of problems do not continue. A huge amount of work has been done with the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and others on the particular issue of Farepak, to try to get the best deal for those people who faced those appalling circumstances just before Christmas a few years ago. We have seen some positive moves by parts of industry that perhaps show the way for us to find some solutions to this issue; I will discuss them later. The specific solution of moving gift-card holders up the hierarchy is not necessarily the best solution; there may be other solutions and I hope to explore some of them in my remarks.

Let me address the particular issue of whether we should change the order in which creditors are paid. Both my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and I have listened very carefully to a range of views on whether consumers with pre-payment cards and vouchers should be made preferential creditors. However, the problems of doing so—some of which my hon. Friend touched on in her speech—prove that this is not a solution that is especially desirable for vulnerable groups, such as employees or small and medium-sized enterprises that had supplied goods to the business in question. Much as I sympathise with all of the people in that situation, there are individuals for whom there is a real responsibility to try to get as much money back as possible. Just looking at one group in particular is perhaps not helpful; we need to look at all the individuals who are affected by an insolvency.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend said, after an insolvency, an administration or a company not doing as well as it would have wanted to, a limited amount of money is available. Ultimately, that business has not been successful, and that money must be spread out among the creditors. The question is how that pot of money should be divided up.

Among those seeking to be reimbursed from that limited pot of money are employees who may have worked but not been paid their full wages; business suppliers, many of which may be the SMEs that we all want to support in order to help the economy, particularly in our own constituencies, and we are well aware of the challenges that small businesses face; financial institutions; and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The difficulty is that, with that limited pot of money, if we were to change the preferential creditor status to improve the position of holders of gift cards, that would necessarily make the position of those other creditors worse. Therefore, it is a win-lose situation, not a win-win situation.

I am particularly concerned about two of those groups—employees and SMEs. Just like gift-card holders, business suppliers fall within the category of unsecured creditors. Therefore, they often receive only a fraction of what they are owed in these cases. That can have a particularly disproportionate impact on their finances, and we need to ensure that that is uppermost in our minds when we consider this issue. Making gift-card holders preferential creditors could, especially if large numbers of gift cards were issued, reduce the already scarce funds available to those supplier businesses, which are arguably in as much need—if not more so—of those funds to continue operating and continue employing people. We do not want to end up with a system where more businesses are suffering financial distress. So, the suggestion that we do something that could have a negative impact on the financial viability of small businesses must be treated with a great deal of caution.

With employees, there is a slightly different situation, because they are already in the pool of preferential creditors. However, if we add more people to that pool, of course the money that is available must go further. Employees could be in an even worse situation, in already difficult circumstances. Of course, we feel for gift-card holders when a high street chain goes bust, but we also feel for the employees, many of whom have huge uncertainty and do not know whether they are going to keep their job, whether the company will be bought out or whether some branches will remain open. If they do not even get paid for the work that they have already done—although some schemes enable them to reclaim some amount towards the payment they would have received—they end up out of pocket. That is a particular concern when considering such a change.

My hon. Friend also mentioned secured creditors, such as banks, which do not necessarily always elicit the most sympathy in this House or in the wider public. However, if lenders cannot rely with confidence on the security given by borrowers, they might become less inclined to lend in the first place or might factor that risk into increased costs of borrowing. As my hon. Friend said, there are already challenges in respect of bank lending to small businesses. Putting further hurdles in the way and burdens in place could limit access to working capital for a business that might already be under financial pressure and, ironically, could perhaps hasten the failure of such a business and even its insolvency. These issues and impacts mean that that solution is not necessarily the right way to address the matter. My hon. Friend will not necessarily be happy with that answer, but I hope that she understands why the Government take that view.

I think that I am on the same page as my hon. Friend the Minister. My argument is that we should not be treating these people as creditors at all. A number of solutions have been discussed this morning. For example, the hon. Member for Newport East mentioned awareness; we have e-money products; and I have suggested that such consumers should not be treated as creditors and that they could receive preferential treatment in exchanging the vouchers for goods, which is what they originally wanted to do. I am keen that the Minister does something. There is considerable evidence that companies are continuing to sell vouchers even though they know that they are going to go into administration and cannot honour them.

My hon. Friend raises a good point. I will come to the potential solutions that we think could alleviate some of the pressure for consumers. It is quite right to say that that is where we need focus.

Some issues that my hon. Friend raised are worth pursuing, particularly those relating to the 2006 Act. I am happy to take up some of the suggestions raised by R3 and get back to her. That would help in some cases, but where payments are made in cash, which is often the case for the small amounts on gift vouchers, that protection would not necessarily be extended. Various solutions may assist.

We have been trying to work with the industry, challenging it to do more to deal with these issues and support these consumers. On whether goods will be able to be bought in exchange for gift cards, of course, it is not always the case that they cannot be. As my hon. Friend mentioned, in many cases administrators allow vouchers to be redeemed, although there is often an initial period of uncertainty, as in the example of Nicole Farhi last week, as she said. This is done for sound business reasons, where the administrator wants to preserve the goodwill of a business if their objective is to sell it on as a going concern for the benefit of all creditors. That can have real business benefits.

One challenge for businesses that know they are going into administration is that they are trying to ensure that they are as viable as possible and are maximising their business assets, which can be one reason why gift cards and gift vouchers continue to be sold. But if some other solutions could be put in place by industry, that may not need to be a problem.

There are four ways in which industry could be encouraged to think about how it can further protect consumers. First, as has been mentioned, the Electronic Money Regulations 2011 provide protection for prepayments when made in card form. My hon. Friend mentioned the One4all card and there is also a system operated by O2, where a card loaded up with money is then usable at a wide range of outlets, through the card issuer systems. It is not restricted to a single retailer or a group of retailers. Such cards are treated differently; effectively, much more like currency—like cash. If more gift cards were delivered through those open loop systems, that would be one way that the industry could help to protect consumers.

Secondly, there is the good example of the Co-op, where payments made by consumers can be held in a separate trust-protected account. The Co-op Christmas savings has now moved to this model, which is an excellent initiative. It deserves huge credit for doing this and recognising that this gives their consumers extra benefit, and it is another reason for consumers who want to save for Christmas in that way, with an organisation or a shop such as the Co-op, to do so. It is also important that the Co-op managed to do this quickly, without incurring significant additional expense and within the existing constraints of its operating systems. I encourage others to follow such a model.

Thirdly—we need to challenge the industry on this—gift card and voucher issuers should consider adopting an industry code of practice, with specific commitments on the protection of customers’ prepayments. The Trading Standards Institute has a consumer codes approval scheme, with core principles on the protection of prepayments and deposits. The widespread adoption of those principles by the industry would be a clear message to administrators about the industry view on how consumers should expect their prepayments to be treated.

Fourthly, it is also worth exploring whether industry could introduce insurance-backed protection of prepayments. This already works well within the package travel sector. Such options may be part of the solution more widely within the retail sector and may be able to protect consumers.

The hon. Member for Newport East mentioned having a warning system on gift vouchers. This has merit, because one challenge is the lack of information. People assume sometimes that buying a gift voucher is like having cash, rather than, as the hon. Lady highlighted, making them a creditor to a business. Making it clearer to consumers up front that there is a risk, although generally that risk will be small, might mean that consumers would think twice about buying a gift card from a certain company, or set of companies, and might not leave it sitting in a drawer, gathering dust for months, instead deciding to spend their gift because there is no guarantee—it is not like having cash sitting in their purse—and there is a level of risk with this product. Given that there is currently a level of risk with this product, it is appropriate that consumers should be aware of that. Informed, empowered consumers are an important part of having a stronger economy, because we need them to have confidence to go out there and buy products and gifts. Any measures that can enhance that would help.

We hope that the consumer bill of rights will be introduced later this year. Hon. Members will be aware that the draft was published a few weeks ago. It is, rightly, going through pre-legislative scrutiny in this House. A range of protections is built into the Consumer Rights Bill and the associated consumer rights directive, which has come from Europe and will be introduced in the UK through secondary legislation. Those protections relate to how prominent, transparent and up-front the information that consumers need before making decisions needs to be. Hon. Members have mentioned warning labels, or similar information—a key point—which should perhaps be included for consumers.

I hope that legislation is not the answer and that the industry is able to get its act together and recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members from all parties about this issue. I am sure that, if the industry does not act, hon. Members will wish to mention that during the progress of the Consumer Rights Bill. I hope that, by the time we get to debates on that Bill we will have some positive news to report on what industry has been able to do.

I thank my hon. Friend sincerely for raising these issues and for her campaigning and tireless work. I hope that our pursuit of a range of options, which we hope that industry will also take up, shows that there can be a positive way forward. I also hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members interested in this issue will continue to work with me and the Government to encourage the gift card and voucher industry to move swiftly to develop practical and reliable ways to restore consumer confidence and protect consumers’ money.

Sitting suspended.