My Lords, my noble friend’s Question is timely as the Office of Fair Trading has just released the findings from its review of the high-cost credit sector. Many noble Lords will be aware that I am a long-standing campaigner for consumer rights in this area, and I see this review as an opportunity for Government to reflect on these very high rates of interest and consider whether there is a better way for us to approach this market.
Is my noble friend aware of the growing number of companies, some of which advertise on television, which offer short-term loans at extremely high rates of interest—in one case the APR is 2,689 per cent—plus an arrangement fee? Does she share my concern that a small short-term loan could very quickly turn into a very large lifetime millstone?
My Lords, many of us have seen on television these advertisements by payday loan and instant loan companies offering loans at what seem to be huge rates of interest, running into thousands of per cent. This is a complicated market. The APRs may not be the most suitable method for measuring the cost of these products. For example, borrowing £100 for five days from a company attracts an APR of 3,253 per cent, as the noble Baroness said. That sounds an enormous amount, but in fact the borrower will pay a total of £111—just £11 for borrowing £100—which is less alarming than the APR might suggest. However, that said, we are always looking for ways to try to make credit and lending available to people at all levels in our society. I know that the previous Government and the Government before them struggled with whether to cap lending or let it run free. It has always been the policy of the previous Government, the Conservative Government before them and consumer groups that at least if people have access to some form of credit, they are not being forced on to the black market and loan sharks.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that this type of advertising for these loans is rather misleading and that the Government should step in to regulate the content of the adverts, insisting that a significant proportion of them—on TV and in newspapers—is allocated to spelling out what consumers are letting themselves in for? I pre-empt the noble Baroness’s answer by saying that this is not a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority or the trading standards people. Can we also consider a 30-day cooling-off period when the consumer can change their mind at no penalty to them?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question and for actually giving part of the answer. The line to take on this is that advertisements for high-cost credit, such as those for instant loans, should carry a wealth warning. We are looking at that interesting idea. The Office of Fair Trading has just made a report which we will be looking at to find a way forward on all of this. This issue affects all of us and it does not matter which side of this House we are on. We all understand the idea that people have to have access to some form of lending and credit, but I can quite understand that seeing these advertisements on the television has upset an awful lot of people, who think that it sounds far too easy. We are and will be looking at ways to see if we can make clearer the information that the general public get, in a language that they can understand.
My Lords, can I receive an assurance that every help and assistance will given to community-based credit unions which do excellent jobs and give people in the poorest areas an opportunity to have a say in the running of their own financial affairs?
I am delighted to hear someone mention credit unions. They are a wonderful idea. When I chaired the National Consumer Council, we did our very best to get people interested in credit unions. They work extremely well in Germany and Canada, but for some reason they have never taken off as well in this country as we would like. It is a very simple form of people coming together, putting the money together and getting a loan when they need it. We will try again to see if we can market this idea better. It is a wonderful way and we do so hope that we can manage to bring this forward. I know that the previous Government tried as well.
My Lords, will the Minister comment on the Chief Medical Officer’s recent comments that financial exclusion, which is encouraged by high interest rates, is a major cause of ill health? What plans have the Government to increase the incomes of the poorest so that fewer visits are made to the doctor?
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. How shall I answer it? First and foremost, it is important that all people have access to the help that they need, with information that allows them to make a good, informed decision. Getting into serious debt is a worry for all of us and can affect people’s health. We must, wherever we can, encourage people to save and to move away from debt as much as possible. However, when people do get into debt, short-term loans, in particular, can be a help rather than a hindrance so long as they are well described.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that since the very first Consumer Credit Act—I think that there have been two or three versions in my time—I have campaigned against the formula which is represented by the APR, as it is totally incomprehensible and does not fully warn what the debt situation is? Does she agree with me?
The noble Baroness was chairman of the National Consumer Council before I was. She was also the consumer Minister and speaks with an amazing amount of authority on this subject. There is no way that I would go against anything that she says and I am absolutely sure that she is right.