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Unauthorised Overdrafts

Volume 621: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fees and charges on unauthorised overdrafts.

Overdrafts are one of the most widely used credit products in the market. Almost three in 10 people in the UK with personal current accounts have been overdrawn in the past year. Overdrafts can be a flexible form of borrowing, and most people use theirs for only a couple of months in the year. However, a significant minority of people—around 10%—are much more frequent users and regularly go overdrawn for nine months or more each year. There are also people who regularly go over their overdraft limit and are hit by exorbitant and disproportionate charges. The major banks make more than £1 billion per year from charges on unauthorised overdrafts—the majority, according to the head of the Competition and Markets Authority, from financially vulnerable customers.

StepChange Debt Charity estimates that 1.7 million people in the UK are trapped in an overdraft cycle and consistently use overdrafts to meet essential and emergency costs. For many vulnerable customers who are already struggling, regularly having to go into an overdraft or over an overdraft limit can lead to and exacerbate financial difficulties. Many hard-working families live constantly on their overdrafts, and those in chronic financial difficulties often face impossible choices between meeting the costs of essential bills and going further overdrawn or over their overdraft limit. Those people can struggle to get out of their overdrafts, as fees and interest build up over time and make it increasingly difficult to get out of the red. Those households are also more likely to be on the edge of their overdrafts, and if they go over, they face substantial and punitive charges that push them into difficulties. If people do not have the means to get out of their unarranged overdrafts, that can lead to persistent charges, which make it successively harder for them to avoid financial difficulties each month.

Last year, StepChange surveyed its clients with overdraft debt to explore their experiences of overdraft charges. It found that people with overdraft debt who contact the charity regularly go into the red. On average, those people had been in an unarranged overdraft for 11 of the past 12 months. Almost two thirds—62%—of the people StepChange helps with overdraft debt regularly exceed their arranged overdraft limit as they struggle to make ends meet; they did so on average in five of the past 12 months. Borrowers face average charges of £45 a time for slipping into an unauthorised overdraft. That adds up to a massive £225 a year of unauthorised overdraft charges on average.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the cap on payday lending has actually worked quite well and stopped unaffordable charges, so in its review of high-cost credit, the Financial Conduct Authority should look at introducing a similar cap on overdraft charges and more affordable ways of paying down debt?

My hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this area, both as a Member of Parliament and before she came to this place, and she is absolutely right. I will come on to the difference between caps on overdraft charges and those on payday lending.

Research published today by Which? found that consumers needing as little as £100 could be charged up to £156 more by some major high street banks than the Financial Conduct Authority allows payday loan companies to charge when lending the same amount for the same period. For example, Which? compared the cost of borrowing £100 for 30 days and found that some high street banks’ unarranged overdraft charges were as much as seven and a half times higher than the maximum charge of £24 on a payday loan for the same period. And because bank overdraft charges apply to monthly billing periods, not the number of days money is borrowed for, consumers who need £100 could pay up to £180 in fees if they borrow over two calendar months from their high street bank in the form of an unarranged overdraft.

A constituent of mine was made redundant and wanted to get back on his feet, so he set up a small business—a soft play area for kids, which was essentially a cash business. For every direct debit he paid, he had to pay 40p. For every automated debit and every internet payment, he had to pay 40p. Every time a payment was made to his account, the charge was 22p, and for every £100 paid to his account, he was charged 66p. Those are obscene amounts for what is essentially a cash business. I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to put that on the record.

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking on behalf of her constituent. We have all experienced people in our patches being ripped off by banks. Frankly, that is not what people expect. They expect to be able to trust their high street bank to give them a good deal and treat them fairly, yet in my hon. Friend’s constituent’s case, that just is not happening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. She talked about the Which? report. She will be aware that NatWest customers face fees of £180 for exceeding their limit by £100 for 30 days, and that Lloyds and Santander demand £160. That is completely uncalled for.

Order. I remind Members that interventions need to be very short and punchy, particularly when we have only half an hour.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a situation where people can be charged £5 or more per day by many high street banks for going just a few pence overdrawn. Those charges rack up very quickly. The issue is that they are totally disproportionate to the offence. Going just a few pence over an overdraft limit in one month could mean £100 of charges, and as she says, the charge for doing so over two calendar months is potentially £180.

It is simply not acceptable that banks are making large profits at the expense of pushing the most financially vulnerable people deeper into debt spirals. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria de Piero) gave one example, and StepChange has told me about two other cases. The first is of a 42-year-old man who racked up overdraft charges after losing his job. Interest on his overdraft and persistent charges for going over his limit meant that on average, £80 a month was added to his debt. Over a year, his overdraft debt increased by more than £1,000 because of interest and unauthorised overdraft charges. The second case is of a 38-year-old woman who faced spiralling overdraft debt after getting divorced. The increased burden of managing financial commitments on her own meant that she slipped into an unplanned overdraft by £90. That led to a cycle in which she was constantly in and out of an unarranged overdraft, and her overdraft debt increased to £1,000 due to interest and charges.

Those people, like so many others, were already in difficulty and trying to manage their debt from day to day. The banks should have a responsibility to help them manage their finances and help them out of their cycle of debt rather than sending them deeper into crisis with extortionate charges. The banks know that those customers are financially vulnerable and struggling, yet they do nothing to help—in fact, they do the exact opposite by making it harder for them to get a grip of their finances.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this timely debate. Does she agree that it is sometimes in the banks’ interest to allow customers to run massive overdrafts so that they can push them on to even higher personal loans and other products, which they might not need and might not be right for them in the circumstances?

I agree. What really worries me is that most of the £1 billion that is made every year from unauthorised charges is made on the backs of those who are most financially vulnerable. It is a bitter irony that it is now a better deal for some people who need short-term credit to go to a payday lender rather than their high street bank. Most of us regard banks as more reputable and fairer to customers, yet for many people that is just not the case.

Huge progress has been made on the charges faced by people who access finance through payday lenders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) mentioned, with the introduction of a cap following great work by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), so why are banks still allowed to get away with these unfair practices? There was some hope last year that this problem would be addressed when the Competition and Markets Authority undertook a review of the retail banking market. The CMA recognised the issue and the inquiry’s chair subsequently told the Treasury Committee that unauthorised overdrafts are

“the biggest single problem in the personal banking market”.

The CMA published its review of retail banking on 9 August, but frankly its conclusions and proposals were a missed opportunity. It found that overdraft users make up almost half of those with personal current accounts and that many find it hard to keep on top of their arranged or unarranged overdrafts. It acknowledged that failing to do so can be costly, since overdraft users can accumulate high costs from the complicated mix of interest, fees and charges.

The review goes on to say that overdraft users, like other personal current account customers, have very low switching rates, which is particularly striking given that they often have the most to gain from switching. One reason for that is that overdraft users can be uncertain about whether they will be able to obtain an overdraft facility from a different bank or when such a facility would be made available to them and are therefore worried about moving accounts,. Anyway, none of the major high street banks has a great offer for customers who are financially vulnerable.

When it came to remedies, the CMA’s proposals, quite frankly, fell well short of the mark. Some measures will go some way to addressing problems for some people, but not for those who most need support. One proposal says that customers need to be given clear notice when they are going overdrawn and that banks will be required to notify customers when they are going into an unarranged overdraft. Customers also need to be given the opportunity to avoid incurring charges, and the alerts that banks will be required to provide will inform them of a grace period during which they have an opportunity to avoid charges by paying more money into their account.

Critically, the CMA fell short of proposing an independently set maximum cap on the charges on overdrafts, as we have with payday loans. Instead, the report said that banks will be required to set their own ceilings on their unarranged overdraft charges in the form of a monthly maximum charge. However, most banks already have that. The problem is not that banks do not have a maximum charge—they do, and it might be £5 a day or £90 a month—but that the maximum charge is much too high.

The major four high street banks, which make up 77% of the current account market, already set their own caps on charges, and those charges can be up to £100 a month. The CMA’s proposals represent little more than business as usual for those banks. Competition in this section of the market is weak, and in the past few years it has got weaker still with the merger of many of our high street banks. Heavy unarranged overdraft users are the least likely to switch banks accounts. Banks make more than £1 billion from unarranged overdraft charges and, given the substantial revenues they generate, there is little financial incentive to lower existing charges.

Ultimately, the proposals in the CMA report might take small steps towards helping some, but for the majority of people who are already struggling and do not have the means to prevent unauthorised overdrafts even if they are alerted to them, they will do little, if anything, to help. The monthly maximum cap as proposed by the CMA will likely do nothing to stop the deepening of a person’s debt crisis, with punitive and disproportionate charges.

I do not want to deny the banks the right to charge for the services they provide, but I do want some fairness and proportionality. It is not fair to charge £5 a day or £90 a month for being a few pence over an overdraft limit, and it is not fair to whack charges on customers who are struggling with debt, in the knowledge that the charges will make their problems worse, not better. Banks need to take some responsibility for their customers.

As the Competition and Markets Authority admitted at a meeting of the Treasury Committee, the measures proposed in the report are geared at everybody and not in particular those who are financially vulnerable, for whom no direct action is proposed. When I asked whether the banks were taking advantage of financially vulnerable customers, it conceded that those customers who are least likely to switch are a “captive audience” for the banks and their excessive charges.

Ultimately, the Competition and Markets Authority report was a huge opportunity finally to put an end to what it calls “uncomfortably high” charges and to address what it said was the

“biggest single problem in the personal banking market”.

However, the opportunity was squandered. In effect, it passed the buck by asking the Financial Conduct Authority to respond to the recommendations. Peter Vicary-Smith, the chief executive of Which?, said to the Treasury Committee that the Competition and Markets Authority had left the heavy lifting and the difficult decisions for the Financial Conduct Authority to make. In response to that buck-passing, the new chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, Andrew Bailey, has made the welcome decision to include this issue in its ongoing review of high-cost short-term credit, which will report later this year.

The Financial Conduct Authority needs to do more to tackle the detriment caused by persistent overdraft use. I have been pleased by the focus that the FCA has placed on this issue so far, picking up where unfortunately the CMA left off. StepChange Debt Charity says that the review

“should include looking at what more can be done by lenders to support people who are trapped in an overdraft cycle and give them better and more affordable ways of paying back their debts.”

Does my hon. Friend consider that what the banks are doing is insidious, bearing in mind that they and the Government can borrow at very low rates of interest?

My hon. Friend is right. The bank rate is so low and banks are being given access to money at such low rates from the Bank of England. The problem is that they are not passing that on to their customers, and certainly not to those who most need it. The banks should be doing much more to ensure that those low interest rates are passed on, because that would give the whole economy a boost as well as helping those people who most need it.

I have been calling on and will continue to urge the Financial Conduct Authority to look at setting a cap for banks on unauthorised overdrafts as has already been done for payday lenders. It must look at such lending by banks in exactly the same way and not shy away from setting a cap for banks, too.

I also urge the Government to take action, because while the Financial Conduct Authority undertakes its review, every single day more financially vulnerable customers are being exploited and more and more are being pushed further into a cycle of debt. That is simply not acceptable. The justification for a cap in these markets has been made with the introduction of a cap in the payday lending market, and those are two different sources for the same short-term credit for people who need it immediately. They can either go to a payday lender or go into an unarranged overdraft. Whichever option they decide on to meet their short-term needs, they should not be exploited. The Government recognised that for payday lending and now need to recognise that on unarranged overdraft charges.

Frankly, it is a disgrace that the banks are charging more than payday lenders for short-term lending and getting away with it, so the Government should take action. That is why I am calling on the Minister and the Government to legislate for a cap on overdraft fees and charges, as they have already done for payday lending through the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013. That would allow the FCA to implement such a cap without delay and without the risk of the banks taking the matter to the courts.

It is not right that the banks are making huge profits at the expense of the most vulnerable. Anything less than an independently set cap on overdraft charges will not be enough. I urge the Minister and the Government to act now, and I ask that as a first step the Minister will agree to meet me and representatives of Which? and StepChange to discuss this issue further so that we can ensure that all customers are afforded the protection they deserve.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing this important debate on an issue that we share a keen interest in. I am here to listen and, hopefully, to be helpful.

It is clear that we all share a commitment to ensuring that people across our society can rely on the financial services that they need to manage their money effectively, securely and confidently. We want an economy that works for everyone. For most people, the bedrock of that is a transactional bank account that enables them to manage their personal finances on a day-to-day basis. Access to credit, including the use of an overdraft facility, is an important part of that.

For that reason, the Government are committed to doing two things. First, we will support and encourage competition among financial services providers, not only so that people have more choice over who they bank with, but because we know that more competition inevitably means better options on offer for customers, who can then vote with their feet. Secondly, we want to make sure that British customers are supported in the important financial decisions they make.

The hon. Members who have spoken have expressed the same aims, and I want to discuss the key issues that have been raised. I thank the hon. Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for making some thoughtful points, sharing their constituents’ stories and making some more general observations. I am sure that the FCA, which is reviewing high-cost credit, will listen carefully to the debate.

The hon. Member for Leeds West rightly discussed the Competition and Markets Authority. A key question is how to ensure that there is competition. That is why we set up the CMA in the first place as a single stronger and independent competition regulator. It is the CMA’s role to review the market, assess how effectively competition is working and, where appropriate, propose remedies to address any issues. Hon. Members have referred to the CMA’s retail banking market investigation, which was published last summer. I am aware of the variety of opinions on that. It represented a thorough analysis of how competition is working in retail banking, including the role of both unarranged and arranged overdrafts.

The CMA concluded that the retail banking market is not working well for overdraft users. To tackle that, it is imposing remedies to improve overdraft transparency, including setting a monthly maximum charge for unarranged overdraft charges. It also looked closely at whether a hard cap on overdraft fees was necessary on competition grounds, and reached the conclusion that it was not. However, as hon. Members may know, it also recommended that the FCA should assess the ongoing effectiveness of the monthly maximum charge and consider whether other measures, including the introduction of rules, could be taken to enhance its effectiveness further.

The hon. Members for Leeds West and for Makerfield mentioned the action of the Financial Conduct Authority. It is true that the FCA has an important role to play in relation to overdrafts. It is worth pointing out, of course, that it has a much broader set of statutory objectives in relation to financial services, duties, powers and tools than the CMA. It has the power to cap the cost of all forms of consumer credit if that is deemed necessary and proportionate to tackle risks to consumers.

I thank the Minister for his response to the substantive points that I and my hon. Friends have made. Does he think it is inconsistent that the Government have set a monthly maximum charge for payday lenders, but not for high street banks in relation to unarranged overdraft charges? If he does, is it time for the Government to act by setting a monthly maximum charge for unarranged overdrafts as well?

I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. What I think is appropriate is for the Government to listen carefully to what the FCA comes up with later in the year, and to act in consumers’ best interests. I am sure we both agree on that. There is clearly an inconsistency; otherwise we would not be having this debate.

The Government welcome the fact that the FCA is looking closely at what action might be necessary on overdrafts, considering the twin objectives of enhancing competition and protecting customers. That is why, in the light of the CMA’s recommendations last November, the FCA launched a consultation on high-cost credit, including high-cost, short-term credit—payday loans—and overdrafts. The FCA’s call for contributions remains open for another week—until next Wednesday, 15 February. I encourage those watching or listening to the debate, or reading it afterwards, to contribute to that, so that the FCA will be fully informed of the variety of opinion.

Today’s debate is timely, in view of that. It has—and I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West for this—attracted quite a lot of press interest; the subject is obviously of interest out in the real world. I am certain that hon. Members’ views will be heard clearly.

I get the idea that the Minister is wrapping up. At the end of my speech, I asked whether he would meet me and representatives of Which? and StepChange. I hope that he will accept that invitation and that the meeting can be arranged soon.

I am not quite ready to wrap up yet; I have a few things to say that I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to hear. I should be delighted to meet her and representatives of Which? at an appropriate point—the most constructive time, when we can make the most difference. Obviously, while the FCA is considering the matter and the consultation is still open, the appropriate time may not be next week, but I should be delighted to work with her to come up with a solution that benefits everyone.

I think it is safe to say that the Government will be working alongside the FCA to understand the issues in the market. We will continue to do so, to ensure that it has all the appropriate tools at its disposal to take action where problems are identified. We have heard about some of the issues that people face when taking on overdrafts or other forms of high-cost credit. I can reassure hon. Members that the Government will closely monitor the work of the FCA in looking at that area. I am sure that the views expressed by hon. Members this morning will be taken into consideration as the regulator carries out its work.

We in the Government will also continue our efforts, complementing the work of the FCA. We have taken steps to encourage competition, to support credit unions and to improve financial education. The Government will, through that comprehensive approach, continue to take steps to make sure that British customers have quality choices, good information and strong protection.

It may be helpful if I say, in closing, that the CMA is not the final word in competition. There are important areas outside the scope of its work and the Government will keep a keen eye on the entire area. The Government will take the necessary action to ensure that our banking sector is not only the most competitive and innovative in the world, but fair.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.