My Lords, the independent Financial Policy Committee stated last month:
“The overall level of consumer debt relative to household incomes was in line with historical averages”.
We set up the Money Advice Service, which spent £49 million on debt advice last year, and are creating a single financial guidance body to ensure that people can manage their money better.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, but just last week the director of the Financial Conduct Authority pointed out that domestic debt was rising by about 10% per annum. It is not irresponsible debt; it is debt on food and accommodation. The Monetary Policy Committee has also warned of these increases in personal debt. Behind these economic statistics lie great hardship, stress and concern for families. The Minister is known as a compassionate man. When the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill comes before this House tomorrow, will he impress on his colleagues the need to introduce the measure in his party’s manifesto which would give a breathing space to those with problem debt?
Certainly it is correct that the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill will introduce a number of measures that will improve the service for debt advice to those in greatest need. We stand by our commitment on the breathing space, which was in our manifesto and the manifesto of the noble Baroness’s party. We will bring forward measures to deal with it, which underscores the importance we place on dealing with debt, particularly among young people.
The Financial Conduct Authority placed a duty on banks to make sure that lending is on a sustainable basis. In the wider area, it is also important that we maintain the strong and vibrant economy that has record numbers of people in work and record low levels of unemployment. Those things are the greatest help to people’s ability to service debt and are therefore the primary focus of our attention.
My Lords, this is all about the horrible situation that people get into because of debt. It is wonderful that the Government are trying to do something to reduce it and to make people more aware of it, but what incentive will they give to people to save? The incentives to have debt are being addressed but there is no incentive at all to save.
The report referred to earlier contained the staggering statement that more than 40% of Britons have less than £100 in savings as a buffer before they get into debt. That is one reason why my noble friend will be pleased to know that we have established the Help to Save scheme. It will help 3.5 million people save £50 per month over two years. If they do that, the Government will give a 50% grant, which represents a very substantial rate of return to encourage saving.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that in our debt-dependent economy, average household debt is 150% of average household income? Unsecured personal debt is now back above £200 billion. Council tax and utility bills are at record levels of default and 40% of mortgage borrowers in our country have no experience of dealing with an interest rate rise. In those perilous circumstances will the Minister join others in strongly urging the Bank of England not to increase interest rates, which would devastate families, businesses and the economy and do nothing to diminish inflation, which is in any case largely the result of the post-referendum devaluation of the pound?
The noble Lord is a very experienced politician and will know that it would be impossible for me to comment on interest rate policy, which of course, rightly, is now set independently by the Monetary Policy Committee. A lot of the points he made are correct. These are areas of concern and happening at a time when we have historically low interest rates. There are some areas where things are better—for example, mortgage repossessions are at their lowest level since 1982—but we must do more, particularly in the area of short-term debt, which he referred to. That is partly what the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, which has its Report stage in this House tomorrow, is about.
My Lords, a poll commissioned by Citizens Advice in June found that 18% of people with credit cards who had debt problems had had their credit limits increased automatically without them even asking for it, thereby enabling them to take on even greater debt when they were already facing problems. I understand that the FCA is looking into this, but will the Minister ensure that it is asked to bring in much stronger guidelines on this situation to prevent it getting worse?
I was nodding as the right reverend Prelate made his point about this irresponsible lending—it is very tempting—but of course the Financial Conduct Authority was set up to be an arm’s-length body and to advise the Government on what should be done. As he rightly says, the FCA has produced a report, which it is putting out to consultation, and will be announcing some policy changes in this area. Previously, we have seen the introduction of things such as fee-free bank accounts, which are now benefiting 4 million people, and the cap on payday loans—I pay tribute to the most reverend Primate’s role in bringing that about. These are making a practical difference to people and we need action there too.
Is the Minister aware that as universal credit is rolled out, personal debt is going to increase to unprecedented levels? This is not the fault of the individuals but results from the fact that new claimants have to wait, on average, seven to eight weeks for their first payment. They then get a payment for four weeks. It is not possible for them to survive, and of course we know that their benefits are reduced by the bedroom tax and all the other things, and then debt withdrawals. We heard this morning at a meeting that apparently people are resorting to burglary in order to pay their debts. Can the Minister help them by consulting his colleagues?
There is no need for people to engage in any of those kinds of activities. Help is there, including in the shape of the advance, which over 50% of people now take advantage of, and which can be based on that element. We need to remember that universal credit was brought in with cross-party support, with the very purpose that it would stop the perverse incentives which meant that, under the previous benefit system, people could work more hours and be worse off, and move them to a system where people would always be better off if they worked. We now need to address the details, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is doing.
My Lords, the crisis is upon us, and it is evident that it is. Will the Minister recognise that the Government have an opportunity tomorrow to accept an amendment tabled by the Opposition for a breathing space for debtors? During the general election, of course, the Conservative Party was in favour of this proposal. Can he not see that the urgency of the situation demands that the Government act positively tomorrow?
The Bill is about improving the quality of debt advice to those in need of it and has been broadly welcomed. My noble friend Lady Buscombe has tabled a number of amendments which will be discussed on Report. As I have already said, we remain committed to the concept of a breathing space and will bring forward details on that very shortly indeed.