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Debt Management Organisations

Volume 755: debated on Monday 28 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that debt management organisations serve the interests of their clients.

My Lords, the Government have given the Financial Conduct Authority responsibility for protecting customers of debt management firms. Debt management firms are subject to binding FCA conduct rules and must treat customers fairly. FCA prudential and client money requirements are also being introduced to protect customers’ money. The FCA will thoroughly assess every debt management firm’s fitness to trade as part of the authorisation process from October this year.

My Lords, half of the clients of fee-charging debt management companies do not know that there are equivalent free services. These clients are mostly recruited by cold calling and 31 million cold calls were made last year. The FCA says that it does not regulate these calls. Can the Minister say who does regulate them and are cold callers required to advise of the existence of free debt management services?

On the second part of the noble Lord’s question, debt management companies will be required under the new rules to signpost consumers to free debt advice, which will be a major improvement. There are two elements of regulation of cold calling and unsolicited text messages. The ASA has some responsibility in that area and it has already taken action to ban payday lenders’ use of unsolicited text messages. As with its regulation of other financial services markets, the FCA is committed to ensuring that cold calling by phone, text or e-mail makes the identity of the firm and the purpose of the communication clear to those being called.

In a recent Parliamentary Answer I found out that since 2005 companies in the financial services sector have been fined £1.2 billion. Will the Minister agree to look at the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and maybe use a small portion of those fines to fund good charities, good organisations and credit unions which actually help people who are in debt?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the Government are already committed to funding credit unions to a considerable extent. On the issue of free money advice, the Money Advice Service has allocated some £38.1 million this year to fund free debt advice, which will be given through organisations such as Citizens Advice and StepChange.

My Lords, I had just such a cold call this morning and the person who made it did not leave their address or their name. It was a tape-recorded message. Is there anything that I can do about that? Can the Minister say what will be done to protect people who have pension funds from being scammed? There was a lot about that on the radio this morning.

The FCA has very considerable powers to regulate all financial services firms in this area. In the sector we are looking at, it took on responsibility earlier in the year. It has introduced stricter rules and is putting in place new authorisation processes. But if the FCA finds that despite the way in which it is tightening up its procedures, there are still significant problems in respect of cold calling, it has the powers to intervene further.

Is it possible for my noble friend to insist that somebody who is either erroneously or speculatively called and does not want the services of a debt management organisation can dial 1471 and get the number so that we can put a stop to some of this calling? I have tried to do it; it does not work; and I am fed up with it.

My Lords, it is clear that many noble Lords share my noble friend’s view that unsolicited cold calling is a nuisance. I think that people find this in a whole raft of areas, whether it is double glazing salesmen or this one. The absolutely crucial thing about cold calling is that, certainly for financial services products, those making the calls should be absolutely clear who they are calling from and why they are calling so that people have the opportunity to put the phone down quickly.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of StepChange, the debt charity. Is not the problem with debt management companies that the regulatory functions, as the Minister said, have only just started and that we are not taking advantage of some of the measures that already exist in the United Kingdom? Has the Minister looked at the situation in Scotland, where statutory relief is available to those who get involved in free debt advice schemes so that they are not charged additional interest and the pressure from people such as cold callers and others is reduced?