I beg to move,
That this House has considered the rent-to-own sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Mr Hollobone, and to see the Minister in his place.
As is not traditional, I shall start with a string of apologies, particularly to the UK public affairs sector: it has experienced great confusion over the past week, having seen the title of the debate and been desperate to tell me all about rent-to-own home ownership. It will be fascinating to see whether the Opposition speakers have been similarly wrong-footed and have furiously to rewrite their contributions.
My second apology is to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), because I unwittingly gazumped the topic of the report published just before the election by the all-party parliamentary group on debt and personal finance, which she chairs. I discovered that only after I requested this debate a few weeks ago. I know that she will have plenty to say—indeed, earlier we discussed the fact that the two of us could debate this issue for an entire day. The Minister will be relieved that we have only 90 minutes, but I am sure that we can fill them. The hon. Lady will have to forgive me if I occasionally borrow from the APPG’s quality report.
The real inspiration behind this debate is not the public affairs sector—thank goodness—or even the APPG: it is what I see in my constituency on a day-to-day basis. I see families having to cope with the unexpected financial shocks that occur in day-to-day life. We often see the rent-to-own sector as a key component of that unexpected shock—when these things happen, the RTO sector becomes part of an almost transformative experience in how people deal with personal debt. I have spoken to my local food bank, citizens advice bureau and credit union, and they all tell me the same things.
I get frustrated when Members simply read out a list of case studies—I could easily do that for 20 minutes; I want to read out one that encapsulates the problem. The person in question has mental health problems and physical disabilities, and he is highly vulnerable. He does not understand contracts and finds it very difficult to assert himself and say no. He made a purchase from BrightHouse, and when he goes in each week to pay off his debt he comes under pressure from the sales team to buy something else. He finds it very difficult to cope. He has bought a laptop, a TV, a DVD player and a tablet, even though he cannot do emails on a computer and just uses Google.
As soon as he paid off the laptop, he came under immediate pressure to buy something else. The sales team know that he gets mobility allowance, and seem to think that it represents acceptable funds. He struggles to pay the rent and top up the electric meter. He defaulted on the payments for his mobile, which was repossessed. He was pressured into joining Utility Warehouse, so cancelled with BT, but because he cannot understand contracts, he did not realise that that would involve an £800 financial penalty for leaving his contract early. He is now having to pay off that as well. He still goes into BrightHouse every week to pay off his items, and finds it a stressful and fearful experience.
I could fill the rest of the 90 minutes with similar case studies. I am particularly troubled by the suggestion that those who are most vulnerable, who have the mobility allowance, are somehow fairer game than any other set of customers when it comes to extracting the extra few pounds a week that they rely on. Nevertheless, I should make it clear that I am not here just to bash BrightHouse or the wider RTO sector. Theirs is a legitimate business; there is a case for providing short to medium-term credit to people who need it. I recognise that, with a 70% market share, BrightHouse will get more than its fair share of horror stories, but the sector employs many people across the country, fulfils a consumer need and occupies space on the high street that might otherwise go vacant. I recognise all that, but it does not change the fact that vulnerable people are being exploited in troubling ways.
The challenge for the sector is how it can adapt what it does in order to continue to perform its role without taking advantage of people. I want to consider the extent to which the private sector models are truly broken, if they are; whether they are appropriately regulated, and how that regulation can be improved; and whether alternative, socially-funded models are viable, adequate and the right way forward. It is worth pointing out that not all private providers are the same. A firm called Buy As You View already adheres to much of the findings in the APPG’s report. It actually argues for better regulation, but regulation that is also proportionate and fair.
There needs to be some consistency with the principle that credit has a role to play if the object for which someone seeks credit will retain value after the credit has been paid off. In other words, credit is probably not appropriate for things such as food or electricity bills, but it may be for a consumer good. There is also a wider issue about how we ensure that markets function in the best interests of the consumer. That is a key Conservative principle, but I do not want a partisan debate because this is a cross-party issue. We all have vulnerable constituents who are at risk of being sucked into a situation that they cannot get themselves out of. I cannot possibly hope to encompass the entire debate in my short contribution, but I do want to set out a handful of areas that the Government should pay particular attention to and to encourage the Financial Conduct Authority to focus on them as well.
In the centre of Blackpool are the bus stops where people get on the buses. It is a complicated one-way system: people get on at one place but the place to get off is half a mile around the corner. Where people wait to get on the buses is a branch of BrightHouse. There will be dozens of people standing at the bus stops and admiring the scene inside BrightHouse, which has lots of cheerful, bright consumer goods. There are bright-coloured sofas, settees and beds, and enticing goods such as TVs and iPads.
I am sure we can all imagine the range; it is very attractive and fetching. It is bright and modern, and it entices people with what they want in their lives. We live in a world where we are almost defined by what we own. I am tempted to stray off into a spiritual discursion about whether we are measured by what we own and whether that is good for us spiritually, but that is way beyond the Minister’s remit, and even that of the House. We will leave that to God himself.
People aspire to own, not to rent. I am concerned that the idea that the answer is to abolish the sector entirely, with people just renting, misunderstands people’s aspirations to own consumer goods. We should not place an artificial cap on what people want to own in life. Doing so would be a “nanny knows best” approach that fails to respect individual dignity. People on low incomes deserve the opportunity of ownership, but not in an exploitative market. When I think of my constituents and look at the typical customers in the RTO sector, there are broad similarities: 78% are female, 60% have children and 94% are in rented accommodation. Only 1% have hitherto used a payday lender. It is worth reflecting on that a little: although only 1% have used a payday lender before they go to an RTO provider, how many are using a payday lender by the end of their RTO experience?
The bulk of customers have an average of only £19 a week of disposable income to pay for these purchases. That does not represent a great degree of financial resilience. The rent-to-own model is about buying more and more goods over time, and they can quickly mount up. Of course, it is an appealing way to access credit. That misleading low weekly payment does not reflect either the entire cost after three years or what will happen as new items are taken on. I retain a degree of concern about how staff in these stores are being incentivised to sell more and more to each individual. Such incentives lead to perverse outcomes for the individuals concerned—they are not necessarily a good thing.
I will probably keep saying this for the next five years, but I represent the second most deprived Conservative constituency, which contains the fourth most deprived ward in the country. Right behind the Imperial Hotel—many will have been there over their time in the House—is Imperial Street, on which is a mother and baby sheltered housing unit. I have no doubt that some in that sort of sheltered housing may be transient and have experienced family breakdown, or worse, and will often need to furnish their houses rapidly and fully. They will need the full complement of consumer household goods. They cannot just buy one thing and then wait a few months, so they are often driven towards the rent-to-own sector, which is not always the right thing for them. It is a captive market: providers have no incentive to lower prices. Competition is neither transparent nor evident to such individuals, who may not have the necessary financial literacy to understand how to navigate their way through the market. The Blackpool, Fylde & Wyre Credit Union wrote to me and said:
“Some people do not understand the full cost, others do not believe they have a choice because they are frozen out from mainstream credit and have a lack of knowledge of alternatives such as Credit Unions.”
Some in the RTO sector take advantage of the lack of legal understanding of how the system works to encourage payments.
The pricing is unclear. I sent Zach from my Blackpool office on an undercover mission—it was actually rather transparent—to the BrightHouse around the corner to find out what was going on and to look at some of the prices. Zach spotted a Samsung TV on display with a product price of £1,053.13, but the total payable after three years of weekly payments of £18 was £2,808, including what they call “Five Star Service”, which is neither optional nor separately priced and appears to add some £400 to the product price. Just down the road in Tesco, however, the same product was available off the shelf for £1,049 with optional insurance extras. It is worth noting that insurance in the RTO sector also seems to attract interest payments.
The different elements, such as the goods themselves, the warranty cover and the insurance, are all lumped into one tempting weekly payment. After years of pressure, it remains hard to compare properly the products available in the RTO sector with what can be obtained by other means. The product codes remain different due to slight tweaking of the products, such as a different-coloured fascia which might add something to the end of the code meaning that it cannot be directly compared with what one might get in Tesco.
Second-hand or repossessed goods are sold as “pre-loved”, often costing more than a brand new item would somewhere else. The APPG found that about one third of products on sale in the RTO sector were pre-loved. That is not necessarily a bad thing if the credit is made more affordable as a consequence or if it meets the consumer’s need better and more cheaply than a hi-spec alternative, but that depends on the ethics, systems and processes in place in each individual RTO provider.
Getting someone to pay for goods and then repossessing them and selling them to somebody else for twice the price is a wonderful business model. Offence was taken when I mentioned that during the inquiry, but we have not yet been able to find out the providers’ break-even point, which is obviously commercially sensitive. There will be a break-even point, but providers can sell goods to someone else once they have been handed back voluntarily after, say, a year.
I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution, with which I have a degree of sympathy. Equally, an ethical provider bartering a customer down, because the pre-loved item is a better deal for that individual, can have a role to play. The hon. Lady is quite right, however, about the lack of transparency in the sector and the difficulty of assessing what different providers are actually doing. One cannot regulate in a non-transparent market, which may go to the heart of the matter.
The hon. Lady will perhaps make this point herself, but ownership requires one to make all the payments. One cannot own two thirds of a television. Some providers may seek to make exceptions when almost all payments have been made, but someone could make half the payments and still find themselves losing the product. I am unsure whether the regulations are clear or being applied consistently across the market. There is no mandatory health warning, as I believe payday loans now have—the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) will tell me if I am wrong—saying that goods are at risk if payments are not made.
Shorter loan periods are certainly not advertised, and three years is the default option. I understand that shorter periods increase the weekly payments and make the deals less attractive to consumers, but why not sell products with more modest specifications or de-bundle the warranties or insurance, as companies such as Buy As You View already do? The three-year contracts matter dreadfully because of the nature of poverty. Child poverty has been discussed a lot recently due to the Government’s changes to the measurement—for the better—but behind that decision was some excellent investigative work about the ingrained nature of poverty and the churn rate. Around half of those in poverty in one year are not in poverty the following year. Around 10% are in persistent poverty, meaning three years out of four. If someone submits to a three-year contract, the probability that disaster could strike in one of those three years vastly increases. If more people could access one-year or two-year deals, the likelihood of having a problematic year might be reduced.
My local credit union said to me:
“The bigger issue we have seen is that people are not just sold one item. We have seen people with multiple debts to a weekly pay store. One customer on benefit income was paying for 8 different items at a total £120 per week (£520 per month) which would stretch the budget of the average full-time working person to breaking point, let alone the low-income people who tend to be the users of these stores. The fact that the goods may then be repossessed for non-payment introduces an element of fear that prioritises these payments in the customer’s mind causing them to pay the weekly pay store and falling into arrears with other essential bills.”
That might particularly be the case when customers have multiple disadvantages, such as mental health problems or a learning disability. It is simply unclear how such companies are protecting the vulnerable people who come through their door seeking to own a consumer good. No obvious assessment of affordability is built in to the selling process in some firms. I recognise that Buy As You View does assess affordability and rejects some 70% of applications, but it is almost unique in the sector in applying that degree of toughness. Such financial vulnerability goes beyond merely an inability to understand the annual percentage rate, and the cost to the taxpayer when vulnerable individuals reach crisis point has not been assessed. How vulnerable customers best access credit for goods is perhaps a separate issue, requiring particular attention, from the wider market of roughly 13 million low-income individuals who need to access low-cost credit for consumer goods.
I welcome the fact that the Government have extended local social welfare funds. It was a matter of controversy in the previous Parliament, but I am glad that they have taken that decision. Such funds are well used and well spent in Blackpool. Many councils may not be doing such a good job, but such funds should be maintained where they are well spent. We must consider the alternatives, however. The Minister is something of an expert on credit unions, some of which have tried to set up RTO providers. The APPG mentioned Smarterbuys in County Durham, which was set up by the Prince Bishops Community Bank.
Those are interesting models, which have something to offer, but I have concerns about their scalability and about the creation of a national network of different providers, all with slightly differing rules and regulations. The scalability is problematic, but I recognise that credit unions have an important role to play, in part because they often have to sweep up the consequences of an engagement with the rent-to-own sector that has not gone well.
What role might Big Society Capital play in inspiring innovation in the sector? Buy As You View is keen on a comparison website and, in the short-term credit market, the Competition Commission encouraged lenderscompared.org.uk, which is a properly regulated, independent price-comparison website in that sector. I can see no reason why we cannot have a similar website mandated by the Financial Conduct Authority or another body in the rent-to-own sector. It would be a great deal of help—in particular because many people use their mobile phones to shop—so that people can make the comparison at the same time and understand the best option.
I hope that the Minister accepts that there must be a fair regulatory playing field for the not-for-profit sector and the for-profit sector. We are not talking about bashing for-profit providers, simply because they happen to be for-profit providers—that would be a dangerous path to go down. There is already broad variety in the sector. We need well understood regulation that puts consumer needs first. I hope that the Minister, or the appropriate Treasury Minister, will meet me, perhaps the APPG members, the charities involved such as StepChange, the companies involved, and the regulator to look at how conduct can be improved across the board.
Will the Minister put on record his view that the FCA needs to focus on fair outcomes for the consumers, rather than only on inputs and what occurs before the individuals take their product away with them? We need to ensure that proper competition and choice for the consumer are the key indicators of effective regulation.
I would be grateful for some thought on how the sector can improve data sharing, not only to identify poor risk and prevent people from getting into problems, but to help the financially vulnerable, so that they can be identified and offered alternative means to access the goods that they need. I hope that the Minister agrees with me that bundling expensive warranties as a condition of the loan seems to contravene the principle that lenders ought to treat consumers fairly, which has to be at the heart of all regulation. Things should be transparent and clear for day-to-day consumer engagement in the shops, but in my view that is not occurring.
I want the Government to press the FCA to work more closely with the industry, to accelerate what it is doing and to ensure that we are as diligent on RTO as we were in the previous Parliament on issues such as payday lending. They are all part of the same financial resilience package.
Will the Minister also outline what steps the Government might take to improve people’s ability to manage their debts? Does he share my concerns about the examples that we have heard today of vulnerable people facing life-changing amounts of debt because of what is to all intents and purposes the mis-selling of consumer goods, credit and insurance?
Will the Minister also review the advice available to people in debt? Managing one’s own money involves getting out of debt in the first place, then being able to manage the money. That is really important. A recent report on fee-charging debt management showed that 60% of the fees put people in a worse position, so we need to look at the availability of the free advice sector.
I am sure that the Minister heard that question. I am now trying to reach my conclusion rapidly, because I have been going on far too long.
Lord Freud has met with the debt-management charity, StepChange, but will the Minister agree to convene a cross-departmental working group consisting of the Departments for Business, Innovation and Skills, for Work and Pensions and for Education, and sector representatives? The issues stretch across Government and are not confined to the Treasury alone.
To finish, I want to make a point of principle with which I hope the Minister will agree. About four or five months ago I remortgaged my property, but it has never taken me so long to do so. I was locked in my bank for about six hours, or that is what it felt like, going through every last iteration. I understand why that is: we have to improve safeguards for borrowing, we have to reduce risky borrowing and we have to ensure that the banks are sustainable. Yes, my mortgage payments are a substantial element of my outgoings and part of my financial arrangements, but why are we not as careful about RTO-types of credit as we are about mortgages? If someone’s available disposable income is only £19 a week, even £12 a month is a sizeable payment. There ought to be a point of principle: it matters as much to those people how their consumer credit is regulated as it does to me how my mortgage is regulated.
We as a Government need to look much more closely at how we encourage financial resilience. We need multiple bulwarks for families against the unexpected—too often the unexpected leads us down a path to perdition financially. Proper and proportionate regulation, which does not seek to condemn the private sector simply for being the private sector, is the best way to allow people to fulfil their legitimate aspirations to own consumer goods.
I have asked a lot of questions and I have talked a lot today—I apologise to those present. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Minister to his place—it is all the better that he was a member of the all-party group on debt and personal finance in the previous Parliament. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on obtaining this important debate.
The rent-to-own sector is not well understood. People think it is relatively new on the high street, but when I was a citizens advice bureau manager I had run-ins with Crazy Georges, the precursor to BrightHouse. In many ways the sector operates under the radar and I hope that the debate will raise the profile of the issue.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the all-party group undertook an inquiry into the sector towards the end of the last Parliament, producing a report in February. We did so because we were concerned about a number of the issues, not least the fact that rent-to-own customers seemed to be paying about three times more for their televisions, fridges and sofas than they cost on the high street or elsewhere.
I hesitate to say this, but the pricing structure is complex and possibly deliberately so: not only is the base price of the goods high, but customers pay a hefty interest rate on the loan taken out. BrightHouse, Buy As You View and PerfectHome charge annual interest rates ranging from about 50% from Buy As You View to a 94.7% annual percentage rate, or APR, from BrightHouse. As the hon. Gentleman said, the interest is usually charged over a period of three years—not only on the price of the item, however, but on the expensive warranty-style service agreements, insurance and the delivery charge. Everything is bundled together.
The latter items are the most troubling of the whole package, because deals are almost impossible to obtain from the leading firms without those expensive extras. The firms vary on whether such additions are compulsory or optional—in fact, BrightHouse has agreed to make them optional—but in all cases linked insurance and service cover are being sold at the point of sale: it does not matter that the customer is already covered by a statutory guarantee or might have home contents insurance. Moreover, there is little chance of a new TV or washing machine breaking down these days, but the selling is such that the emphasis is on people wanting peace of mind—“Complete peace of mind for you.” Everything is bundled together.
Furthermore, the insurance policies only cover a single item against fire, theft and damage—nothing else. By contrast, a single home insurance policy might cover any number of items up to a value of £50,000. For example, in BrightHouse a £490 double bed costs £55 a year to insure against fire, theft and damage; I have not actually set fire to my bed recently, and it has not been stolen, either, but there we go. Cover for a £725 fridge-freezer would cost £80. By comparison, both those items, up to a total of £50,000, could be insured by Direct Line with a similar level of cover for £118 a year. The more items there are, the more problems there are. There are very few circumstances in which customers get better value for money from insurance than through a single home contents insurance policy. When multiple items are purchased, the value for money will obviously get worse.
As I said, the total cost is higher. In September 2014 a Samsung freezer with a five-year service plan was £644 at John Lewis—Which? found that when it shopped around—whereas at BrightHouse the total repayable over three years was £1,716, three times the price. I accept that people cannot always afford to pay up front, but we need to look at making something available that allows those customers to shop around for goods.
As the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, weekly instalments are appealing because they give customers the ability to spread cost. The stress put on weekly payments is what is most attractive to customers, which is probably why BrightHouse still advertises itself on its website as “Your Weekly Payment Store”—it does not advertise its prices but the ability to pay weekly. The payments seem affordable—£5 or £10—but amount to a sizeable expense over a few years, as the hon. Gentleman said. For people on low incomes, that will often mean going without elsewhere. It also means that many rent-to-own contracts are left unfulfilled, as customers do not make their payments and goods are returned. As the hon. Gentleman said, two thirds of a TV is no TV at all. The payments are lost, and there is nothing to show for them except, perhaps, a shadow on the wall.
The irony is that the people who can least afford it end up paying the most. That is probably not surprising, as they have little choice but to go somewhere such as BrightHouse and pay those prices. The rent-to-own firms have them over a barrel. That lack of choice for consumers is why I believe that this market in particular needs to be regulated. They are often from low-income households, and many are significantly reliant on benefit income. The typical customer is young, female and has children, and almost all live in rented accommodation. When I spoke to the chief executive of BrightHouse, he said that the firm bundles everything together because it knows its customers are female, and “females like things simple.” Simple, but a little expensive, I would say.
Failure to pay rent-to-own debt means that customers face losing goods. That puts pressure on money available for food and household bills. The average rent-to-own customer is substantially worse off than the average payday loan customer, yet they probably feel they have made a better choice, because of the publicity surrounding payday loans—rent-to-own, as I said, has operated under the wire.
The all-party group was concerned that the financial promotions downplay or ignore relevant costs and risks. Full ownership has to be the target with rent-to-own, surely—owning is in the name—yet the advertising focuses on the weekly payments and does not draw attention to the risks, namely the total cost of the credit and the fact that the goods can be taken back.
At the APPG inquiry, the Financial Conduct Authority said that it shared concerns about how firms advertise the deals and the prominence of the weekly repayment. The emphasis on the low weekly cost could be why so many customers get into debt: according to the FCA, 50% of customers get into difficulty with their rent-to-own commitments. That is a really high proportion of people who cannot afford to pay. I agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys that it raises the question of what affordability checks are being done.
The all-party group owes a debt of gratitude to Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit, and the Stockton-based community group Thrive. Their efforts led to the three large firms promising to improve their operations and an agreement was reached for a customer charter, although that was then reneged on—another reason why the APPG undertook our inquiry. That proves that perhaps voluntary agreements do not always work in this sector. The Centre for Responsible Credit and Thrive also gave evidence to our inquiry. Unfortunately, they said that little had changed.
We also took evidence from the three big firms in the sector: BrightHouse, PerfectHome and Buy As You View. They defended their business model on the basis that their customers had peace of mind because of the extensive service contracts. That may give some peace of mind, but what peace of mind can there really be when people cannot afford the goods, as the deals are so expensive, or when, as we heard from Thrive, two big lads turn up late at night to take away the fridge-freezer—“voluntarily”?
We also took evidence from Linda Woodall of the FCA, who said that the practices were ringing “alarm bells”—that was her actual phrase—at the regulator, which is concerned about the high level of repossessions and incomplete transactions as well as the warranties and insurance. The FCA has engaged with the issue: since the publication of the report I have had a meeting with Linda and can see that the FCA is taking the issue seriously. I thank it for that.
The FCA’s intervention has helped to elicit changes in the market, not least on price transparency. Firms are now breaking down the prices they charge for the goods, the loan and the warranty, and we welcome that. BrightHouse has also stopped requiring customers to take out its insurance product compulsorily, if they can prove they have their own household insurance. However, the extended warranty remains compulsory with both BrightHouse and PerfectHome.
I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman; we have seen rogue managers. For example, a manager at PerfectHome actually took a customer’s house keys before handing over the goods, so that they could go into the house. PerfectHome said that was a rogue manager, but it shows that the stores are perhaps not being operated as they should be.
The FCA should go further. I would like to see it ban expensive warranties and insurance as compulsory parts of a rent-to-own agreement. I would love to see some mystery shopping, as well, to look at the staff and staff incentives. The FCA may need to be given a wider statutory remit to do that, so perhaps giving it that remit would be a way forward. However, even within the current FCA rules, surely the current bundling offends against the idea of a credit agreement’s fairness? The FCA took action against compulsory single payment protection insurance premiums, so why does it not have the powers to prohibit credit agreements sold with compulsory service charges? I would like to see those people who were sold such products after April but who already had home insurance come forward, as I think they could reclaim.
The FCA has also said it is concerned about the high level of goods repossessed or surrendered before the agreement is completed. Twenty-two per cent. of customers have their goods repossessed or surrender them—more than one in 10 of all agreements. BrightHouse said that it never repossessed goods, but having looked at its practices and received some information, I have found that it has its own companies that collect debts, Caversham Finance and Sigma. One term in the contract with those firms is for repossessing goods. Caversham is a branch of BrightHouse, and Caversham Insurance is registered in Malta.
I wonder about the idea that customers would give up their goods voluntarily. That beggars belief. Let us say that someone with three children, who will need a washing machine daily, pays hundreds of pounds for one—the idea that they would then happily give it back, leaving themselves without after paying for it for two years, stretches credibility. The firms defend the high levels of surrenders by saying that customers often think of themselves as renting the goods, and happily give them up to move on to something else. Well, possibly, if it is something like an iPad, but not if it is a washing machine, a bed or the sofa. The customer expects to see something at the end. The whole point, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, is that it is “rent to own”—they expect to own the goods at the end.
Thrive gave evidence of people who were extremely distressed when their goods were taken back—or “voluntarily” surrendered; their arms were twisted somewhat. Surely if people wanted to rent, they would go to a specialist rental outlet and pay the lower charge. I have done some comparisons with that sector. The high level of repossession shows a failure of the initial affordability checking, the forbearance procedures or both.
We should also look at whether the companies give people who get into difficulties breathing space. As has been said, over three years people at that income level are likely to get into difficulties. That is not acceptable; the FCA should look at producing sector-specific safeguards to protect people in financial difficulties against the loss of essential items. There are rules that set out that some bailiffs cannot repossess essential items, such as children’s beds, so surely there should be rules for this sector as well. We also think there should be health warnings on rent-to-own stores and websites to ensure that customers are aware of the cost of the agreement and the risks of repossession.
The FCA prefers to promote a supervision-led approach, which elicits a voluntary agreement from the firms to behave more reasonably. However, as I have said, we have tried the voluntary agreement route. The Centre for Responsible Credit and Thrive had a voluntary agreement arrangement, but it did not work. The FCA thinks rent-to-buy is a small sector compared with other, bigger sectors, but it is growing. BrightHouse’s model is to open a new store every fortnight, often in areas of the highest deprivation. Its stores are in prime locations in our towns and cities—particularly in areas of deprivation—and they prey on the poverty and desperation of many of our constituents, who are charged exorbitant prices for goods that they may never own.
We have to promote the alternatives to the rent-to-own model to allow people to obtain a more reasonable deal. We also have to ensure that people who are forced into the sector have some control over the worst aspects of the market. Those customers, as has been said, are particularly vulnerable. The FCA has a particular responsibility to give them a higher level of protection than other customers. We look to the Government and the FCA to protect customers who are not able to go elsewhere and therefore need our protection.
Order. Under the new arrangements, in which the third party can also contribute to the debate, the remaining Front-Bench time is meant to be split equally between the three Front-Bench spokesmen. I want to leave three minutes at the end for Mr Maynard to sum up the debate. Over to you, Ian Blackford.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing the debate. He spoke with passion about this important matter, as did the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue).
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said that non-transparent markets cannot be regulated, but our discussion this morning has highlighted the need for effective regulation. The fact that so much of it is not transparent—we are talking about protecting the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most disadvantaged in our society—means that the Financial Conduct Authority has got to take proper responsibility for this growing market, for all the reasons that have been set out.
We all recognise that the FCA is in its infancy, and that it has had a number of major tasks over the past few years. In our opinion, the FCA has got to take far greater responsibly for ensuring that the sector is effectively regulated. One of the issues is what has been described as the bundling of services. As we have seen in other areas of the market, there has to be an unbundling of services. It has to be made explicitly clear why the consumer is charged for each part of the service provided in the rent-to-own sector.
The Government must look at what legislation is required to force the FCA to take effective action to protect the consumer in this important area. We all accept that there is a need for the rent-to-own sector in our society. There are people who will be tempted by the desire to pay weekly for products. The sector has existed for a long time, but it is important that it is effectively regulated. I will confine my comments to that.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and it is a genuine pleasure to take part in this debate. The Treasury Minister might be surprised to see a shadow Minister from the Business, Innovation and Skills team but, as he knows, I have form in this area. I am secretly delighted that he is now in the Treasury, especially on the issue of debt. I hope he will be the cuckoo in the nest of the Treasury when it comes to getting right the issue of how we help people in debt.
First, I acknowledge the work that the all-party group, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) have been doing in this area. I want to talk a little about some of the work that was done on this issue for the Consumer Rights Act 2015, and I also want to say something about the broader context in which the firms operate. Finally, as I always like to be helpful, I would like to suggest some proposals for making progress on this issue to the Minister, and test whether he is willing to support them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys on securing this debate. He said he is concerned that shadow Front Benchers may not be aware of these companies and may make the same mistake that others have made in thinking that the rent-to-own sector is about housing. Let me reassure him that the Opposition call a spade a spade. Legal loan sharking takes many forms. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield and I are as concerned about the rent-to-own sector and debt management companies as we are about payday lenders. That is why we have been campaigning for a number of years for reform of the sector.
Hon. Members will recognise concern in my part of town about what we call the “BrightHouse knock”—when we are knocking doors during campaigns, we have to be careful not to knock like the bailiffs, because people think we are BrightHouse coming to repossess their goods. I may have expressed some surprise when my hon. Friend cited BrightHouse’s statement that it does not repossess goods—it seems, then, that that is happening only in my part of town.
Rent-to-own companies are legal loan sharks. They operate in exactly the same way as the payday lending industry and a number of other consumer credit industries. They lend in a way that is designed to encourage a persistent relationship. The problem is that they lend in a way that does not ensure that people have access to fair credit, but ensures that they continue to pay something back weekly. They make sure they always get money out of people. In what other industry is there such a high default rate, yet such high profits to be made? That should surely tell us that it is not a competitive industry, and that there are problems that need to be addressed. We have all seen at first hand people in our communities who are exploited by that predatory model of lending.
I apologise for not being on time, Mr Hollobone. I flew in this morning. We stayed for 12 July, which, as hon. Members will know, is a special day in Northern Ireland.
I, too, have great interest in this issue. My constituents regularly come to me when they have entered into hire-purchase arrangements, and sometimes arrangements with loan sharks as well. What I see is their desperation. They have made a decision based on what is right at that moment in time, rather than what is good for them in future. Does the hon. Lady have any idea about how the Consumer Rights Act can be better utilised, or how someone can control it, to ensure that when people make such desperate decisions, we can help them at the right time?
I do not want to keep the hon. Gentleman on tenterhooks. I have some ideas, growing on the work that the all-party group and my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield have done on the industry. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we can do things to change the situation. We need to recognise that it is predatory lending. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys talked about vulnerable people being exploited, and that practice is much more widespread than people realise.
The hon. Member for Strangford is right; people make what is probably the right decision for them at the time about where they could get a freezer, cooker or other basic consumer goods that their family need to live. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys was tempted into a discussion about consumerism and modern life, but the reason we began campaigning on legal loan-sharking in my community was that we could see that people were trying to make ends meet and needed to be able to wash their kids’ clothes so that they had school uniform. Those companies were their only option, and the method of lending increasingly prevented them from going to other companies. It affected their credit histories so they could not borrow from other parts of the industry.
Frankly, it is very expensive to be poor in this country, and the problems are compounded by the companies in question and by predatory lending. Consumers lack choice, and that distorts the market price that they pay. Some hon. Members have already talked about the method of selling, “pay weekly”. For the shadow Front Bench the issue is the mindset—lending to people in a way that means they cannot get away. We have all seen examples of what has been mentioned, when people pay double the cost of a washing machine, cooker or TV, and then some, only to have the goods repossessed like that—I do not know whether Hansard can record my clicking my fingers, but it is that quick. As soon as someone falls behind for a week the company comes round. There is no breathing space or recognition that something about the lending may have got people into difficulty so that they cannot make their repayments. There is no such responsibility.
The Opposition have tabled several proposals to deal with the companies in question, and other legal loan sharks, for some years. The Minister is aware of that and I know that he shares my concern about the companies. We may differ on how best to deal with them and with predatory lending, but he too is concerned about it. During the passage of the Consumer Rights Act we tried to address the issue of warranties and insurance sold with products, and how that breached people’s consumer rights. They would be sold a product with a requirement that created a lack of clarity and transparency about what they were buying. I recognise that some companies now say that those things are not compulsory, but we all know about the hard sell. I remember the Minister talking about his experience of being on the BrightHouse mailing list. I am interested to know whether he has finally managed to disentangle himself from that. He will know how hard the companies push the products, as part of the original deal that was agreed to. Even if they are not now compulsory, the arrangements are still difficult for consumers to get out of.
The Minister may take the opportunity, now he is no longer in coalition, to suggest that he was held back by his former partners in his attempts to deal with the problems, and say that he is now free to get to grips with legal loan sharks. He is among friends as far as wanting that freedom to be exercised. During the passage of the Consumer Rights Act, Jenny Willott, the then Under-Secretary, said:
“If a warranty provides no more than the statutory rights and there is a charge associated with it, whoever is selling the warranty may well be in breach of consumer protection regulations. When shops sell goods and the warranty is purchased at the same time, the full cost must be disclosed and consumers must be informed of their statutory rights. Consumers also have the right to cancel the extended warranty within a set period, and those rights must be made known to the consumers when they purchase the warranty.”—[Official Report, 13 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 623.]
The Under-Secretary was adamant that our proposals for prohibiting such agreements were covered under the consumer rights measures that were being introduced, so one of my questions to the Minister today is what he knows about the implementation of such rights since then. After all, the Act has been passed, and the Government set up a consumer rights implementation group. Is the issue of rent-to-own companies being investigated by that group? How are we making sure that consumers can exercise the rights they now have under the Act? That would also extend to marketing methods—the Minister will know about marketing lists—and how companies tell people their rights and make sure they know that they do not have to take out insurance or an extended warranty. Often such warranties are not worth the paper they are written on and offer consumers no additional protection or benefits. Is that being made plain to people?
Why does all that matter? Why must we get to grips with those companies? It is because we know the issue is fundamentally about debt. Consumer and personal debt in this country are rising into what might be called uncharted territory. Since March, unsecured personal debt has gone up £48 billion. Personal debt is rising three times as fast as wages. The Minister and I disagree about the Budget and whether it will make things worse or better, but we know people are finding that there is too much month at the end of their money. Therefore the companies we are talking about—and their credit agreements and their predatory lending behaviour—are here to stay, unless we show the political will to tackle them and unless we recognise how they make people’s already difficult situation worse. I may disagree with the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys about the Government’s decision to abolish the term “child poverty”, but we can all agree that making it difficult for people to make ends meet by leaving them stuck with companies that exploit them and squeeze out every last penny will do no one any favours.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys talked about mortgage debt, and many people with mortgages go to the companies because they have no alternative. If interest rates go up just 2% families will have to find £1,000 extra a year in interest alone, to keep a roof over their head. If they are also trying to pay off an expensive cooker or freezer, we can see what is coming down the road for them. Some of us who fought to retain the social fund will know about the lack of alternatives. Many credit unions do wonderful work trying to come up with alternatives, but the lack of options is compelling people towards the companies in question. In the context where personal debt is rising—and that will cause a massive economic problem for us and put our recovery at risk—there is a compelling case to be much more proactive about predatory lending in the consumer credit market.
With that idea in mind perhaps I may give the Minister some suggestions for things to do, and things to raise with the Financial Conduct Authority. He will know that I have a slight sense that the Financial Conduct Authority is playing catch-up. If the banks were tyrannosaurus rex, legal loan sharks are the velociraptors of the consumer credit market. They are fast, nimble and ever-evolving, and that is evident when we compare the rent-to-own sector with the way lending is done by the lumbering beasts of banks. That is why voluntary action is not enough to deal with the companies. Will the Minister make a commitment to work with the Financial Conduct Authority and to get it to expand its remit, to look at the industries in question and how they can change? In particular, could there be a requirement on lenders to provide pre-contractual information on both the cash price of goods and the total cost of the credit agreement: the difference between the price at the start and what it could be by the end of the agreement? If consumers could have that up-front they would know exactly what the cost would be, including any additional fees and charges.
Companies could be banned from requiring consumers to take out additional products alongside the initial credit agreement—separating out the insurance and warranty to make it clear that, aside from its not being compulsory to buy them, it would be illegal to try to sell such additional products at the same time. The companies could be required to undertake affordability checks based on the possible total cost of the agreement rather than the initial up-front price of the good, so that companies would have to reflect, when doing the affordability check, on what debt people could possibly get into by borrowing in that way, and whether they could pay the money back. We clearly need to change the way affordability checks are done. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that they already do this, but clearly they do not, given the levels of debt that people are getting into. We need to recognise that it is possible for affordability checks to deal with the potential cost of the goods—the doubling of prices—rather than the minimum that someone could pay. They should deal with the maximum that someone could pay.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield made a powerful point about breathing space. The companies do not give people breathing space when they get into financial difficulty. We want the Government to make a commitment to end fees for debt management. The fact that people have to pay to get out of debt compounds the issue, and I would like a time scale for that change. We recognise that the debt advice industry needs to grow. We would like the Government to use the levy—in fact, to double the levy on the companies—to pay for that. The Minister may want to take up that idea; I do not know. However, we all know that having to pay to get out of debt extends the debt. It makes it harder for people to get into a debt-management agreement. With the companies we are talking about, it would be good to stop the clock once people start the process of getting a debt-management agreement, so that no more interest would be accrued, and there would be no more pressure, visits or BrightHouse knocks on the door.
I encourage the Minister to go further and talk to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about a reinstitution of the social fund—funding for alternative ways in which people could get white goods in particular. I am sure that the Minister will know from his constituency that people cannot go without a washing machine or cooker. We may disagree about iPads but we can certainly agree that there is a case for basic white goods to be provided.
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister about the commitment that the Government made last year to reviewing personal debt. We have not seen any further information, so will he update us on that review and the work that is being done? There is also the issue of how credit histories are affected by this form of predatory lending, because, even if customers get out of payments required for an individual credit agreement, if that affects their future ability to borrow and to go to alternative or mainstream providers, there is a problem.
I apologise again for not being here for the whole debate. I am conscious of how many good groups there are—I have them in my area—such as the citizens advice bureaux, Christians Against Poverty, the Churches and many others. They offer good advice and can often come to an agreement with the hire purchase companies or mortgage groups to reduce the fees to a payment system that is manageable. Does the hon. Lady think that it is important to recognise what such groups do to help people in poverty and debt?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my final point, which is that what we really want is an alternative, but for an alternative to exist, it has to be funded, because this is not a fair fight. What I have noticed, as we have exerted pressure on the Government to tackle the payday lending industry, is that it is retreating from our high streets but that it is being replaced by the rent-to-own industry. This industry and legal loan sharking have evolved because there is no reform. We need an industry that works, because we need people to be able to borrow in this way to make ends meet—because they are not earning enough—and we need to end legal loan sharking by reforming the way in which these companies operate. That requires alternatives. However, our credit unions, housing providers and alternative forms of financing are struggling in an environment in which these companies are making a great deal of money from exploiting people. That is why it is right that the Government not only step in and are much tougher about regulating—learning the lesson of capping the cost of credit by capping what these companies can charge—but look at how we support the alternatives to grow and how we can level the playing field.
My final point is about the particular case for mainstream credit providers. Will the Minister commit to talking to mainstream credit providers, particularly to our banks, to ask them to review how many of their customers have entered into these agreements? I think he would be surprised—just as we found with payday lending companies—that half a million customers from one bank alone, who could have gone to it for a personal loan, were going to payday lenders. We need to make the case that these forms of lending and problems with debt are now so mainstream in Britain and so much part of modern life that there is a case not to see this as separate, small industry but part and parcel of how we help people to make ends meet. The mainstream credit providers have a vested interest in working with credit unions and providers—the Hoot credit union, for example—who do alternative forms of white goods provision to help their customers, because the consequences for the mainstream providers will become apparent when people default on their mortgages and personal loans.
This is not an either/or any more. We have to end legal loan sharking in Britain in its many forms. I hope that the Minister will take in good faith those examples of things that he could do now and accept what the priorities are. I look forward to a positive response from him and hope he will join the Opposition, as the cuckoo in the nest, in saying: let us end predatory lending in Britain once and for all.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone; I think it is the first time I have served under your chairmanship in this way.
I start by congratulating my actual and honourable Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on bringing this important subject to Westminster Hall. I also thank Mr Speaker for granting time for the debate. It has been good to hear from all the other contributors to the debate. There was the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), representing the SNP, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—the renaissance man of the 2010 generation in respect of the breadth of subjects on which he contributes in this place; he should be much congratulated on that.
It is always a joy to hear from the shadow Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who brings a great deal of personal experience to these subjects from her time with Citizens Advice. She has been a great campaigner on fee charging, debt management companies and other aspects of the broader sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys spoke powerfully and persuasively about the market—not only through personal stories, anecdotes and his experiences with his constituents, but far more broadly. He raised a number of very important points on disclosure, affordability, comparability, repossession, debt advice and financial management. Others have also touched on those subjects; I hope to cover most of them during my remarks and come to some others at the end.
On my hon. Friend’s point about meetings, the Government are always open to hearing from him and other colleagues who have special knowledge and interest in this area, because we have a shared objective to minimise consumer detriment and generally make the market work better.
The Government are committed to supporting hard-working people to be financially independent and resilient, and to save for unexpected events and for the future. Financial matters, as we all know, can be daunting, and making a poorly informed or sometimes just bad financial decision can have far-reaching consequences over a long period. The Government have taken a number of significant steps to improve the consumer credit market and ensure better outcomes for consumers. As well as fundamental reform of the regulatory framework, there is now, as we have heard, a cap on the cost of payday loans to help protect consumers from harm.
Crucially, the Government are also committed to ensuring that consumers are given the education that they need to make better informed financial decisions. Financial education is now on the national curriculum—something that I know a number of hon. Members campaigned for over an extended period. Pupils now learn about the importance of budgeting, sound management of money, credit and debt, as well as how to understand different financial services and products. It is really important in financial education to understand the principles behind these things and not just the products that might currently be on the market. If we had learned about the financial services products on the market when we were all at school, that would have been of absolutely zero relevance to the world we find ourselves in today: we have to learn about the principles of sound personal financial management and budgeting.
The Government are committed to providing sustainable financial services that give customers greater choice in accessing credit. With greater choice comes greater competition, and from greater competition should come—and generally comes—better outcomes for consumers. For example, the Government have already introduced several initiatives to support the credit union sector, including the credit union expansion project—up to £38 million—and the raising of the maximum interest rate from April 2014, which makes it that bit more possible for the credit union sector to compete in higher-cost, higher-customer-risk markets. That will help to allow consumers access to more alternative forms of consumer credit. For example, a consumer may now use a credit union for a loan to buy a household product, rather than go directly to a rent-to-own store.
That said, as my hon. Friend and, I think, the hon. Member for Walthamstow acknowledged, the rent-to-own sector is an important and legitimate part of the consumer credit landscape, allowing people to purchase essential items that they would otherwise have difficulty in finding the lump sum to buy. However, it is important that consumers who use rent-to-own agreements are protected appropriately from harm and adverse outcomes. There are times when unexpected, one-off expenses mean that consumers require access to credit—that happens throughout the income scale in different ways—either to fund shortfalls in income or to replace essential goods. Rent-to-own agreements allow payments to be spread over a long period, which is valuable for some customers on low incomes who do not have access to more mainstream forms of credit such as credit cards or overdrafts, and who lack the savings to be able to purchase household goods up front.
To help deliver the Government’s vision for a well functioning and sustainable consumer credit market that is able to meet consumers’ needs, the Government have fundamentally reformed regulation of the consumer credit market. That has created a new, more robust regulatory system and transferred regulatory responsibility from the Office of Fair Trading to the Financial Conduct Authority on 1 April last year. The new regime has been designed to strike the right balance between proportionality and consumer protection. The Government have ensured that the FCA has the robust powers that it needs to protect consumers. It will thoroughly assess every firm’s fitness to trade as part of the authorisation process and has put in place binding standards on firms. It proactively monitors the market, focusing on the areas most likely to cause consumer harm, and it has a broad enforcement toolkit to punish breaches of its rules. There is no limit on the fines that it can levy and, crucially, it can force firms to provide redress to consumers.
In the evidence session for the all-party debt and personal finance group’s inquiry into the rent-to-own sector, the FCA expressed concern about firms in the market. It stated—this quote was used earlier—that practices in the sector “rang alarm bells”. For that reason, it has brought forward the authorisation period for these firms to this summer. Rent-to-own firms that wish to obtain authorisation needed to apply by 30 June. That will ensure that any firms that do not reach the rigorous standards required are not able to continue in business and that poor standards start to be driven out of the market.
With regard to the price of credit, the Government believe that consumers should be protected from unfair costs and charges in the market. The Government showed their commitment by legislating to require the FCA to introduce a cap on the cost of payday loans, which came into force on 2 January 2015. The Government were clear that an interest rate cap or a cap that covered only some of the fees and charges that payday lenders may impose would be ineffective; I remember discussing some of the finer points of that sentence at some length with the hon. Member for Walthamstow. The FCA therefore designed a cap to include all fees and charges that may be incurred in relation to a payday loan, including arrangement fees and default penalties.
The Government legislated to give the FCA the power to cap the cost of all forms of credit. They have placed a duty on the FCA to use that power to impose a cap on the cost of payday loans because of the clear evidence of consumer detriment in that sector. The objective was to target payday lenders. However, the FCA retains the power to cap the cost of all forms of credit if it thinks that that is necessary to protect consumers, and it has said that it will keep the issue of capping the cost of credit in other markets under review.
Can the Minister set out for us, then, what evidence he would look for in order to introduce a cap on the charges that the rent-to-own sector may impose? I wonder whether he has a note that will help him to explain what levels of detriment, of costs, would have to apply. Some of us may argue that the cap on the payday lending industry is a little high at the moment, but it could be brought down. The Minister makes the point about a test. What tests would he set?
The test would be to appoint a regulator that we believe in and give it the tools to be able to make the decisions—give it the enforcement powers and the analytical capability—rather than, as a Government, meddling in the individual decisions on the details of the regulation. Appointing a regulator is historically how we have done things in this country, not just in this market but in others. It does not always please everyone all the time. Sometimes, people may feel that things should move more quickly or more slowly or be somewhat different, but in general it is a good way to protect consumers.
If at some point we think that the regulatory system in toto is not working, we change the regulatory system, but I do not think that it is right for Government necessarily to have a prescriptive answer to every subsection of the market; as the hon. Member for Walthamstow rightly said, this market, in its broader form, has a remarkable ability to shape-shift. If we go very specifically after one part of it and try to change one specific practice, we will find that something else changes somewhere else that we did not know about. That is why it is important to have this broad regulatory framework that includes high-level principles of fairness to the consumer, with the regulator stepping in to license and delicense operators when it feels that that is necessary.
Obviously, the Minister will be conscious that doing nothing has consequences, too; we have seen that in relation to all the people we have been talking about today, who have been ripped off by these companies. The Minister will also be aware that, on payday lending, the Government did not accept the argument that he is putting forward—that the Government should not intervene and set a cap—and did recognise the need to set a series of tests. Opposition Members would be incredibly sympathetic if he wanted to break his vow of libertarian conservatism and say, “Actually, there is a need to intervene because we see this predatory behaviour in this industry.” I want to press him. Is he saying that he would be opposed to learning the lessons from payday lending and to the Government’s stepping in and introducing proposals for a cap on the rent-to-own sector, despite the consequences of doing nothing, which we are seeing now?
The hon. Lady, although passionate, is not right when she says, “The Government did specifically this.” The Government put a duty on the FCA with regard to that part of the market. They also, at the same time, gave a power to the FCA to do something in parallel, in other parts of the broader consumer credit market, if it deemed that necessary.
Ultimately, individual organisations make their own commercial decisions on prices, interest rates and default fees for their products. However, the Government believe that it is in the interest of lenders to consider the impact on their customers and, of course, to treat them fairly.
On the affordability of credit, rent-to-own firms must fulfil a number of requirements. When the responsibility for regulating consumer credit transferred from the OFT to the FCA, the FCA turned key elements of the OFT’s irresponsible lending guidance into binding rules. Those are enforceable with the full range of FCA enforcement powers. They set out that a firm should assess the customer’s creditworthiness, having particular regard to the potential for the commitments to impact adversely on the consumer’s financial situation and taking into account information that the firm is or ought reasonably to be aware of at the time and the consumer’s ability to make repayments as they fall due. The FCA’s rules are aimed at strengthening consumer protection and are based on the simple principle that money should be lent only to a person who can afford to repay it. Firms are also provided with greater clarity on what is expected of them and the sanctions if they lend irresponsibly.
Rent-to-own firms, like all consumer credit businesses, are required to make affordability checks for consumers taking out an agreement. The FCA makes it clear that a firm should lend responsibly and should take reasonable steps to assess the customer’s ability to make repayments in a sustainable manner, without undue difficulties and without having to borrow further. Ultimately, credit should be extended to a consumer only if they can afford it. The extent and scope of affordability checks are determined by a number of factors, which include, as well as the financial position of the customer, their vulnerability and in particular whether the firm understands that the customer has some form of mental capacity limitation or reasonably suspects that to be so. Some of the casework examples given by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys throw that requirement into sharp relief. In addition to that, on 23 February 2015 the FCA published a paper on consumer vulnerability and a practitioners’ pack to assist firms in addressing the needs of customers in vulnerable circumstances.
Some concern has been expressed that rent-to-own agreements are not always adequately explained to consumers before they enter into them. That point was made from the Opposition Benches. The FCA requires firms to provide adequate pre-contractual explanations to enable consumers to assess whether the proposed credit agreement suits their needs and financial situation. Consumers can compare the cash price quoted in the pre-contractual information with the price of equivalent goods elsewhere to decide on the best deal. That ensures that consumers have the ability to make the financial decision that best suits their needs.
The Government are aware that consumers are sometimes required to take out insurance and service deals when entering into a rent-to-own agreement and that that could cause consumer detriment. Although there is concern that those deals raise the total cost of an agreement, the Government have ensured that where insurance is required as a condition of credit, the cost of the insurance must be factored into the APR, so that consumers can make a comparison on the basis of total costs and make informed decisions about the agreement that they are entering into. Furthermore, when firms sell insurance products, they must do so in line with the FCA’s requirements about assessing consumers’ eligibility to claim on a product.
The reforms made to consumer regulation by the Government and the FCA have given consumers new protections, and the regulatory framework means that consumers will continue to be protected in the future. It is important that avenues of credit remain open to those who need them, while consumers are protected from harmful practices.
I have asked the Minister about the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the commitments given to hon. Members by BIS Ministers that these practices—the selling of warranties and insurance products—would be covered by consumer rights legislation. The things that he is saying do not quite match what those Ministers said. Can he clarify whether he has spoken to the Ministers in BIS about the Consumer Rights Act and its role in tackling the bundling up and selling of insurance products and warranties, and will he commit to raising that issue with the consumer rights implementation group? If nothing else, he could get that group to look at whether being required to buy an additional product when someone simply wants to buy the original product breaches basic consumer rights.
I will have to write to the hon. Lady about the details of the regulation on bundling. In general, price bundling in markets is not illegal, but on the specifics of this market I will have to get back to her.
The Government have set up the Money Advice Service, which provides a single point of debt advice for consumers and allows those who face problems with debt to obtain free and impartial money advice. This year, MAS will spend £47 million on debt advice, delivering through its third sector partners an increase of almost £9 million on the previous year.
It is important to take a joined-up approach to the provision of free debt advice. Following the independent review of MAS, the Government welcomed the creation of a debt advice steering group, which will help to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of free debt advice provision by bringing together senior representatives of the debt advice charities, high street banks, water and energy bodies and devolved organisations.
I welcome the fact that there will be a body, but is it not appropriate to get local authorities involved as well, because they quite often fund free debt advice in their areas? I also feel that the Local Government Association needs to be involved in the body.
The steering group will be an open forum to involve all relevant and interested parties, and I take on board the point that the hon. Lady makes. I wanted to come back to a point that she raised earlier, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys also mentioned: where the consumer stands in relation to part-paid goods. The Consumer Credit Act 1974 states that in a hire purchase agreement, a court order is required to repossess goods if a third of the total cost has been repaid. Furthermore, where 50% of the total price has been repaid, a consumer can return a product without penalty and the agreement will finish.
One thing that we see with such companies is that they move the goalposts with consumers. First, they do not tell consumers that a court order is required to repossess goods. Secondly, the amount that constitutes 50% moves, because of some of the charges applied. Will the Minister commit to reviewing that area? As he says, consumer protection exists, but because companies change how they lend to people, consumer rights are not being upheld.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. It is one thing to have rights, but another to know what they are. That is not restricted to the rent-to-own sector or to consumer credit, and organisations such as Citizens Advice have an important role to play in making that plain. It is an important part of disclosure for firms to make that known. The regulatory regime and enforcement are designed to provide confidence that that is happening in reality.
That brings me to my more general concluding point. We are in a new era, with a new framework. I pay tribute to Martin Wheatley and the FCA for the speed at which they have introduced a more positive framework. Many of us have taken an interest in consumer credit issues and detriments in the market over several years, and the FCA framework now contains a lot of what people have asked for. In addition, I pay tribute to hon. Members from all parts of the House who have taken a constant interest in the subject and kept it at the forefront of public policy debate.
None of the issues that we have talked about today is new. The leading home credit provider first came into being in Victorian times, catalogue lending has been with us for as long as anybody here can remember and rent-to-own shops existed long before 2010. Moreover, the market can and does change; we talked earlier about its ability to shape-shift. The Government have adopted a proportionate approach to the market. The hon. Lady suggested that I might have felt constrained by being in coalition between 2010 and 2015. I wonder what constrained her, or her colleagues in the Labour party, for the 13 years before 2010, when they did not do all the things that she is now demanding from the Government of today.
More broadly, I think that the approach has to be a judicious combination of financial education, sensible regulation and ensuring that alternatives are available. In all three of those areas during the past five years there has been a significant shift, with the inclusion of financial education on the national curriculum, the new FCA framework, Government support for the credit union sector and the accompanying regulatory change.
Rent-to-own is an important part of the consumer credit market. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys is absolutely right to keep our focus on it, and we will continue the dialogue.
Members will be glad to hear that I have only three minutes, so I cannot go on and on. I thank all hon. Members who have participated today, particularly the Front-Bench spokespeople and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who was quite right to point out that the sector may be relatively small—indeed, it is—but it has a massive impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people if things go wrong.
I should like to focus for a few seconds on the word “vulnerable”, which we have heard so much today. It is a word that is being devalued in modern politics. Everybody, suddenly, is vulnerable in some way or another, which almost strips the word of its meaning. I would rather think of people who have poor financial resilience, but who can function effectively in the market. They are not vulnerable, by my definition. The ones who are vulnerable are those who, for whatever reason, cannot function effectively in the market. We need to recognise that quite precise distinction.
I commend the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on her undoubted vigour on these issues. I think, however, that the Minister in his concluding remarks made an important point: the answers to the problems that we have talked about today involve the judicious application of a range of measures. The hon. Lady needs to be alive to the nuances of the debate as she seeks to shoehorn it into her wider national narrative of us all going to hell in a handcart. Occasionally, we need to focus on some of the precise issues in the rent-to-own sector. There are alternatives to the BrightHouses of this world, and consumers need to be made aware of them. That is why I put such importance on the need for a comparative website.
I welcome the Minister’s offer of further engagement, and I look forward to that engagement. I join him in praising the FCA. It is at the start of a journey, and I see a role for Members from all parts of the House to urge the FCA along the journey as best we can, paying attention to the nuance of the rent-to-own sector as well as the wider debate about consumer debt. I thank all hon. Members for attending today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the rent-to-own sector.