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Credit Unions

Volume 739: debated on Thursday 19 July 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the next actions they plan to take in support of the continuing development of credit unions.

My Lords, credit unions provide people on low income with access to financial services and loans. More can be done to support credit unions to modernise, serve more people and become self-sustainable. Therefore, on 27 June, I announced that we are going to provide £38 million to fund a new credit union expansion project and that the Government will be consulting on credit union interest rates, as recommended in the credit union feasibility study published on 10 May.

My Lords, in the UK today, 1.4 million people have no bank account and 7 million people use high-cost credit, whether it is payday loans, home credit or pawnbrokers. My frustration is that development is still very slow and more could be done to develop the sector. Will the Minister agree to look at what contribution the high street banks could make towards developing the sector? In particular, could they be persuaded to second staff to work in the sector to aid its development? I believe that our banks should make a contribution to the sector to provide financial products at an affordable cost that they themselves will not provide.

My Lords, we have a procurement function going on with the credit unions, which will start shortly, in terms of how they can modernise and improve. It may well be that there are contributions that are not financial but intellectual that the credit unions can add. We are currently having a series of working parties with the retail banks as we develop the requirements for universal credit and financial inclusion.

My Lords, I greatly welcome my noble friend’s commitment, but can we accelerate things? In this age of rapacious loan sharks, credit unions could be of real help to many people who are struggling on very low fixed incomes. Could we please have a little more expedition?

My Lords, the whole point of this exercise is to expedite the growth of the movement. There are currently 1 million members of credit unions. The target that we have set is to double that within five to seven years and to make credit unions self-sustaining, which they currently are not.

My Lords, I am very glad that the Minister has given us that target of 2 million people but, in the light of the figures given by my noble friend Lord Kennedy, if 7 million people are using high-cost credit at the moment, with the extortionate interest rates of doorstep lending, is 2 million too unambitious a target? Should the Government not be shooting for a far higher figure?

My Lords, we have to build an industry that is self-sustaining. That is the vital priority. It is no good piling money into an industry that cannot effectively absorb it. It is vital that we get this right, and this expansion project is the right way to go.

My Lords, my noble friend’s announcement of the extra support for credit unions is immensely welcome, particularly because after April 2013 the discretionary social fund will no longer be available to give community care grants or crisis loans. Will some of the £38 million that he has announced, which is extremely welcome, be used to advertise the existence of the social enterprises that usually constitute credit unions? One of the biggest problems is that people do not know about them. If Jobcentre Plus and prime contractors to the work programme were made to advertise the availability of these services, it would help them enormously to make progress in future.

My Lords, that is something that we need to look at closely. One of the things that we are doing in the housing demonstration projects is tying the credit unions into the direct payment structure, and that has been very helpful. As we build out that system, the role of credit unions can be used and advertised in that way. As for the £38 million, that is for the credit unions themselves to decide how to use, and we will be taking bids and working out that process over the next half year or so to find out how that money can be used most effectively.

My Lords, welcome as the consultation is, it should include something about children getting involved. In St Albans District Credit Union, in which I declare an interest, there is a nice scheme going on where youngsters come in on a Monday, give their money and get that put in their book. Establishing the pattern of saving, which is one of the key principles of credit unions, could be an advantage if people were exposed to it nice and early. Will the Minister discuss with his friends in the Department for Education the possibility of getting into schools and working with credit unions in that way?

My Lords, something over 10% of members of credit unions are youngsters—over 100,000. That is useful and valuable for youngsters. However, I emphasise that what we are looking at now is trying to build an industry that can sustain itself. That must take priority, and that is what the money is for.

My Lords, while I, too, welcome the Government’s support for the growth of credit unions, and recognise that some changes in the regulations are going to come in this September, what will the consequences be for the very smallest credit unions that are still serving some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society?

My Lords, what we are looking for in the bids is substantial change. Smaller credit unions can take part in those bids in combination with groups of credit unions. In fact, we are expecting consortia to form to use this money most effectively.