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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 9 November 2010

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Vulnerable People (CSR)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Newmark.)

9.30 am

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am particularly pleased to have secured an opportunity to debate the effects of the comprehensive spending review on vulnerable people.

Some of the issues that I raise may well be raised in the more specific debate on housing benefit in the main Chamber this afternoon. For the purpose of this debate, I want to define the terms to which I have referred. The debate is, in effect, about the impact on vulnerable people of not just the CSR, but the Budget and the various departmental announcements that have been made and which underpin the context in which the CSR was announced on 20 October.

By "vulnerable people", I mean not just those in need of specific state support who are unable, through a learning disability or other forms of disability, to manage alone, but those who may become vulnerable or find themselves in significant need, housing stress, homelessness, hardship or debt. The effects to which I refer cover a wide range of policy areas. Of course, I do not intend to cover all areas of government, although vulnerable people are likely to be affected by a wide range of policies, but I am keen to cover access to housing and housing benefit; welfare, including the support and benefits for unemployed and disabled people; care for adults and children; and public transport and access to it.

By way of background, it is worth noting that no self-respecting political party would have undertaken, in the lead-up to the last general election, the kind of measures that have been proposed since, because of how our political system works. However, we all knew as we went into the general election that Britain had the largest deficit in peacetime history, the largest structural deficit in Europe, that £120 million a day was needed to service the interest on that debt and that £1 in every £4 that the Government spent was borrowed money. We entirely understand the need to put right the public finances, which is the background to this debate and the CSR.

I would like to acknowledge a number of achievements. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, it is worth acknowledging that, despite the rather austere circumstances, we have secured outcomes from coalition agreements of which I believe the coalition can be proud. I am referring to the policies of taking the lowest earners out of tax altogether, which I know will be ratcheted up over the coming years until the figure is £10,000 before tax applies; restoring the earnings link for pensioners and a guarantee of uprating with a triple lock; the pupil premium and the early years premium,
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particularly for vulnerable children; the pay protection for low-paid public sector workers; capital gains tax for top earners; and the banking levy to help to pay for many of these measures. I was also pleased to hear of the Treasury's intention to make a concerted effort to tackle tax evasion and fraud, which is essential to ensure that we get the balance right in where the finances are found.

Also by way of background, it is worth acknowledging that the Chancellor of the Exchequer repeated a theme throughout the CSR statement on 20 October-one that I entirely applaud. For example, he said at column 951 that

Equally, he said at column 956:

Protecting vulnerable people was a theme repeated throughout the statement, and I loudly applaud both those objectives.

The purpose of this debate is to ask whether that laudable and agreeable objective is achieved by the combined efforts of Government policy. If not, will the Government review their policies and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders do bear the greatest burden and that the vulnerable genuinely are protected? I doubt that, in the tribal warfare that often masquerades as debate in the House, we will do anything other than divide on pre-determined lines on the assessment behind those questions, but we can call on other commentators to contribute to the debate.

As we know, the Institute for Fiscal Studies disagreed with the Treasury's claim. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I look forward to her response to the debate. I am sure that she will respond to the IFS assessment of the combined impacts of the CSR and the Budget. The IFS disagreed that the overall package of tax and benefit changes was progressive. Carl Emmerson, acting director of the IFS, said that

The IFS emphasised the problems involved in estimating the distributional effect of changes in public services. It welcomed the Treasury's attempts to model those, but noted its finding that the public service spending cuts announced in the spending review were regressive.

Equally, the Financial Times described the spending review as

but supported the decision to cut spending, provided that growth in the economy returns. The Times said that, broadly speaking, the priorities chosen by the Chancellor were correct but that the changes could be "very painful" for the poor. The Guardian also commented that the spending review was "a major gamble"-I shall return to that concept-at a time when economic conditions have deteriorated. It said that, furthermore, the cuts would be focused on the sick, the poor and working parents. The IFS commented that the cuts in overall public spending over the spending review period would be the deepest in real terms since the second world war and that cuts in spending on services would be the largest since the four years beginning in 1975.

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As I said, housing benefit measures will be debated this afternoon in the main Chamber. Two primary changes are being made next year. The first is the capping of local housing allowance for each property, which will be implemented in April 2011. That has been a primary focus of political debate and comment in the House and elsewhere, although it will impinge on a relatively small number of properties and households. For example, just 139, all in London, receive in excess of £50,000 per annum; 11,233 are in receipt of more than £20,000 per annum, some 10,000 of which are in the London area. In Cornwall, which, as hon. Members might expect, I will discuss in a moment, 40 households are in that category. The measure would save £65 million.

What concerns me most particularly is the impact on rural areas such as Cornwall-but not just Cornwall. A focus of my comments will be the reduction in the percentile market rates used to calculate local housing allowance rates from the 50th percentile-the median-to the 30th percentile of local rents, which will be implemented in October next year. The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that that will secure annual savings of £425 million.

The nature of the debate in the media gives the impression that housing benefit is paid mainly to people who are unemployed. Because of the "tabloidisation" of the debate, the implication is that the work-shy are in receipt of housing benefit and need to be encouraged by stick rather than carrot to find work. In fact, only one housing benefit claimant in eight is unemployed. I should add that, in future, the effect of the uprating of housing benefit according to the consumer prices index rather than local rents will place further significant downward pressure on housing benefit and may well result in shortfalls between rent and the housing allowance that people are given.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that the intention of the Department is to use housing benefit to force rents down, and I can understand the logic behind that, which is that housing benefit, because of the sheer volume of those who receive it, has an inflationary impact on the rental market, particularly the private rented market. However, not all areas will necessarily respond uniformly. The changes may well work in some rental market areas, but I am not convinced that they will work in them all.

For example, according to figures published in The Guardian on 30 October, outside London, Cornwall will be the hardest hit by the changes. Indeed, 11,180 households -one third of all households with employed people in receipt of the benefit-will be affected. There will be a significant shortfall between their housing benefit and the rent that they will pay.

In Cornwall, there is a significant shortfall right now between the median rent as assessed previously by the rent office-now by the Valuation Office Agency-and what housing benefit should be in Cornwall, and therefore between the housing allowance that will be available to tenants and what is available in the market on a week-by-week basis. It is very rare indeed that a new property comes on to the market that is actually within-either on or below-the median rent as assessed by the valuation
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office. Most rents fall above it, and therefore the shortfall has to be made up by the tenant, who may be on a low income or on benefits.

In Cornwall, 57,109 people claim housing benefit; 12,972 are of working age but not working-they include those in receipt of income support or jobseeker's allowance-and about 12,000 are of working age and are working, or are on a non-passported benefit or employment support allowance, previously incapacity benefit, or contribution-based jobseeker's allowance. A similar picture is painted by one of the larger social landlords. Penwith Housing Association tells me that about 60% of its tenants are on housing benefit. More than half of those who are of working age are indeed working, and are in receipt of either partial or full housing benefit support to cover their rent.

Yesterday, Cornwall council published some information on the likely impacts on the local community of the various changes to housing benefit. Its assessment is that the reduction of the market rental from the 50th percentile-the median-to the 30th percentile is likely to have the biggest impact. It says that 10,500 households are experiencing a shortfall between housing benefit and the rental, and it is unknown what the likely impact will be on them.

The council has not yet made a calculation, but it believes that a larger number of households will experience a significant shortfall between the rent and the housing benefit available. It anticipates that tenants who will ultimately be evicted because they can no longer meet their rent payments as a result of the shortfall will be found to be intentionally homeless, according to statutory interpretations, and therefore not eligible for assistance from the local authority. There will be an increase in demand for social housing in some areas, and the impacts on local people will be significant indeed.

We are very lucky in Cornwall to have the Cornwall Residential Landlords Association, which is a responsible and well-organised band of private landlords who, collectively and individually, provide an excellent service to the local population. They look for clear signals from the Government. I believe that the Government are looking at increasing the availability of direct payments to landlords in certain circumstances. Where that is done, preferably on a voluntary basis with the agreement of the tenant, it may help to lever rents down because the landlord will have a cushion of reassurance that the payments will come to them. However, the pressures and difficulties that will be experienced between landlords and tenants will intensify as a result of the cuts.

The problem in a market such as Cornwall's-this applies to many other areas where there is also a vibrant tourism economy-is that landlords have alternatives that, frankly, on many occasions, will give them a far better income and greater certainty that they can recover the property. Many take up those alternatives. Many landlords will leave the marketplace and go for the much easier option of gleaning their income from the tourism sector.

The situation in Cornwall is not quite like the urban or suburban situation that I believe the Government have envisaged, whereby the alteration in the housing benefit arrangements and assessments will result in a levering down-a crow-barring-of the rentals in the private rented sector. It is not anticipated that that will
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happen in a place such as Cornwall, so I hope that the Government will look overall at this measure and consider that having a roof over one's head is absolutely vital for many families. We are talking about working families who are simply seeking security in life from which to get to work, school their children and establish some kind of family security. This is about penalising people not because they are unwilling to work but simply because they are poorly paid, and I am sure the Government have no intention of doing that. I think they would like to ensure that work does pay.

Looking at the situation in Cornwall, which is, I understand, the same as in North Norfolk and other such rural settings, most analysts consider that there will be few new properties coming on to the market in the 30th percentile or below. Opportunities will be restricted, landlords will be given other options, and there will be instability, overcrowding and a possible cutting of corners, with families having to move and working families under greater stress. The problem with the proposal in the housing benefit reforms to extend the single room rent to people under the age of 35 is that there is little of that type of accommodation available in many rural areas, and planning policies seek to restrict what is often referred to as "bedsit land" in some smaller towns. On the one hand we have the Government, through their planning policies, giving local authorities the right to restrict the extent to which parts of small market towns are, as they see it, ghettoised by these bedsit arrangements, and on the other hand they have a policy that seeks to encourage that, through the housing benefit system.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that when there has been a partnership break-up, the option of only a single room allowance up to the age of 35 might prevent good quality contact with children?

Andrew George: My hon. Friend makes a very good point about one of the great difficulties that occur when there is family break-up. I fear that as a result of these kinds of measures we might get more family break-ups, because of the stress and pressure under which families might be placed. In our constituency surgeries, we all see families in that very sad situation. We see single parents "without care", as they are sometimes rather unfairly described, who find themselves wanting to have contact with their child or children but being unable to do so because of their very constrained circumstances. This policy will only make that situation worse.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could look at levels of pay. In Cornwall, and similarly on the Isle of Wight, there is a higher level of pay in the summer and a lower level in the winter. Is that catered for in his understanding?

Andrew George: Other than with people who live in uncertain accommodation-winter lets during the winter and very uncertain accommodation in the summer-I am not aware of any circumstance in which people have variations in their rents, with a landlord varying the rate of rent on the basis of the tenant's income. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am afraid that the system does not allow or cater at all for seasonality in working families' employment and income.

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A further incongruous circumstance is the potential conflict between this policy and what the Minister's colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government appear to be doing regarding the registered social landlord sector. The intention is to allow, and even encourage, registered social landlords to increase the rent on their properties up to a notional 80% of the market rate for a particular location. The net effect of that-it will apply, I understand, to future new dwellings and to re-lets-is to create a rather strange circumstance: on the one hand the Government appearing to want to get the housing benefit bill down, but on the other hand one of their Departments appearing to ratchet it up. Of course, a large proportion of people in social rented accommodation-60% of those living in the accommodation of one of my RSLs-are in receipt of housing benefit, and ratcheting up the benefit in those properties would result in an increase in the housing benefit bill.

There will be other strange circumstances. People who seek to downsize their properties-for example, an older person living alone who wants to move into a single-person bungalow to release a family house for a local family-will be discouraged from doing so because the re-letting situation will mean that their rent could go up significantly if they were to pursue that otherwise relatively selfless act. By pursuing a re-let-a transfer-their rental might go up and their housing benefit might not cover it.

Because of the time, I shall quickly canter through a few other issues. First, on the wider issues of welfare reform, many of us will have read in the newspapers and heard in the media over the weekend the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation, the Child Poverty Action Group and Action for Children, all warning about the unintended consequences. I certainly exonerate the Minister and her colleagues from wishing to pursue an intentional policy of impoverishing vulnerable people; I think that it is entirely unintended.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is coming to this point, but will he talk a little about the impact on vulnerable people now and in the future of not dealing with the deficit? Will he also refer to the positive measures in the Budget for businesses in his constituency? There is the scrapping of the jobs tax, the national insurance holiday, tens of thousands taken out of tax altogether, the pupil premium and other initiatives. Surely, in any speech on this subject, all those factors have to be taken into account.

Andrew George: I am grateful for that intervention; I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman arrived late and therefore missed the part of my speech when I congratulated the Government on precisely those measures.

Clearly, we need to deal with the deficit, but the question of the speed and the extent is a debating point. I am not necessarily saying that the current speed and extent are wrong, but that judgment needs to be kept under review. Also, where do we find the money from? The hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) talked about the point that I am coming to; I will certainly come to a conclusion, which is that we need to question whether we have the balance right, so that
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those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden. I am not certain we do have it right, which is why we should be taking a measured judgment on the impact of the proposals across all income ranges.

All the groups I mentioned, and many others, have been warning about the unintended consequences of some of the welfare reforms. The Chartered Institute of Housing anticipates that by 2025 most two-bedroom properties in the south will be unaffordable to those claiming housing benefit, whether or not they are working. That will force people into areas with less employment-in other words, an unintended consequence, not making work pay by forcing people into areas where they will find it much more difficult to get a job. It will also steepen the tapers, for example, by increasing the rents on social rented accommodation. As we all know, if someone takes a job or accepts higher pay, housing benefit is often withdrawn at a rate of sometimes 80p in the pound earned, and that is on top of other benefits that may be lost, such as council tax benefit. That places people in a poverty trap that discourages them from taking the very work they are keen to take up. All those factors will lead to social impacts on stability, family security, children's education and other matters.

Other sanctions are proposed that have been mooted in the press over the weekend and will no doubt be part of the Secretary of State's statement on Thursday. We have been presented with the prospect of unemployed people wearing tabards, picking up litter from our streets as a result of some kind of compulsion. Having worked in the voluntary sector, among others, for a while before coming to Parliament, I know that the one thing we do not need is to apply compulsion or humiliation to this matter.

It is clear that the many people I speak to in my constituency who are seeking a job are extremely keen to secure not only a job but work experience. The Government's proposal to set up voluntary arrangements that enable people to undertake worthwhile voluntary work in their communities can only be a good thing. Unemployed people want well organised work and voluntary opportunities, and the voluntary sector want the willing, not the unwilling. At the weekend, the Disability Alliance argued that many people will be pushed into poverty by the changes to the employment and support allowance, previously called incapacity benefit. We await the outcome of that proposed change on Thursday.

Within the care sector, pressure on local authority budgets-26% cuts over three years-means that councils are routinely removing the discretion to give care support to those in moderate need. As costs, and no doubt charges, go up, the definition of "higher" and "severe" need could become more stringent. Budget pressures are likely to reduce early intervention for children, as Action for Children identified over the weekend, and the services available to the most vulnerable. There is a 20% cut in the bus operators' grant and local authorities are already looking at cutting some services. The young and the old will be most affected by that-those without a car, and, therefore, the most vulnerable. Other cuts, such as in the education maintenance allowance, will also affect young people.

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The questions remain: will those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden, and will the vulnerable be protected? It is important not to forget that the gambling of the rich busted the banks, which did most to drop us in this situation. We must not allow them to get away with that while the poorest and public servants are made to pay the price; that is hardly justice. On the question of measures to get the balance right between cuts in services and benefits, and of where to obtain resources to maintain services, the banking levy, although welcome, is a relatively infinitesimal gnat bite on the banking sector, given the rate at which it is set.

Julian Smith: I am glad my hon. Friend has spoken about the banking levy, because the previous Government did not do that, and I presume he will give credit to the coalition for taking aggressive action on the banks, and for the three reviews on banking reform taking place over the coming year.

Andrew George: I again remind the hon. Gentleman that, had he been here earlier, he would have heard me mention that. I welcome the banking levy and have congratulated the coalition on it; it is a move in the right direction. However, I fear that some of the most vulnerable in society may be pushed further to the margins, and we need to keep that situation under review. Equally, we need to keep under review the question of whether the banking levy has been set at a level that retrieves from the banks the resources that we believe they should be putting back into the economy, having dropped us "in it" in the first place.

The Minister is an excellent Minister and I know she is listening to these concerns. I fear that the reforms, although well intentioned, may well miss the target: they may not necessarily push rents down in the way anticipated or protect the vulnerable, and they may fail to meet the Chancellor's stated objective as given in his 20 October statement. A strong and self-confident Government can listen, reconsider, gracefully accept the situation, adjust and move on when things are not going quite according to their plan. In her winding-up speech, I hope the Minister will address those issues and reassure me that the Government are listening to these concerns.

10.8 am

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): As ever, Mr Crausby, it is a pleasure to take part in a debate with you in the Chair.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on raising this important strand of an exceptionally complex set of announcements, which have come thick and fast from the Government and are only now beginning to reveal themselves to MPs, never mind to the wider public, as the implications begin to hit home. A lot of implications will not hit home until the next financial year and then into the next few years of this Parliament, at which point I would expect growing discontent and increased shock and surprise at how harsh the Government chose to be on the most vulnerable in society through their spending policies.

The hon. Member for St Ives is being exceptionally honourable in this matter, and he genuinely feels strongly about trying to speak up on behalf of vulnerable people, but when he says that certain consequences of the
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Government measures are "perhaps unintentional", I suspect that he is being more than generous. Part and parcel of the political strategy that goes alongside the Government's supposed economic approach is ensuring that the welfare changes and reductions in expenditure hit the poorest in society who, on balance, tend not to vote for the Conservative party.

The hon. Gentleman will have greater insight than me into the Liberal Democrats' approach, although I suspect that even he might not know what is going on with those at senior levels, as they assimilate ever more closely with the leadership of the Conservative party. I still regret the choice that his colleagues made to prop up and provide the scaffolding for this harshly strategic and deliberate set of decisions. Those in the Conservative party have been planning such decisions for many years, and attempts to scale back the role of public investment in our economy have been part and parcel of their approach throughout. They are now able to unwind that approach with a certain degree of alacrity under the guise of deficit reduction.

Annette Brooke: I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's flow, but does he agree that much-needed welfare reform should be tackled? There might be questions about how to tackle it, but does he agree with the general principle?

Chris Leslie: Nobody disagrees that we need a level of welfare reform, but the question of how we do that is at the centre of the debate. We could shut down the Department for Work and Pensions tomorrow and not spend an extra penny. That would be a degree of welfare reform, but it would be so ridiculous that it would be off this planet. We could have a level of reform that was too slow and did not really bite. I believe that the trajectory of reforms pursued by the previous Administration sought to strike a fair balance.

The extent to which Ministers are reducing what is known as "annually managed expenditure" within the welfare budget has been designed around a political strategy. By taking that amount from the welfare budget, the Chancellor tried to come within spitting distance, as he saw it, of Labour's plans for deficit reduction within the departmental expenditure limits. That political strategy rapidly fell apart, particularly because the Opposition accepted the need for a certain level of welfare change.

Let us look at the points raised by the hon. Member for St Ives. If the welfare changes are not handled sensitively and their implementation is blind to the human costs involved, some of them will affect the real lives of real people. Such people will be increasingly frightened and unable to cope with some of the changes, and that will create great harm. That harm might not have the quantifiable economic or econometric measurements that we traditionally look at when monitoring fiscal and monitory policy, but it is real and will have an indirect effect on our economy.

Andrew George: I am following the hon. Gentleman's narrative, but before he strays too far from his point about the intentionality-or otherwise-of the possible consequences of the reform package, let me make it clear that I do not associate myself with his analysis. I do not believe that it is the intention of the Government or the Minister to impoverish people deliberately.

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The point that I was building towards concerns the balance of risk. Taking a risk with the poor needs to be balanced by taking a risk with the banking sector, which I do not think that we are doing at the moment. If we are to probe policy so as to get the balance right between those with broad shoulders and more vulnerable people, we must put pressure on the top end just as much, if not more.

Chris Leslie: As I said, the hon. Gentleman is being more than fair-perhaps a little too fair-in his analysis of the Government's intentions. I hope that I am wrong in saying that a measure of deliberate choice is involved. However, the weekends at Chequers during which the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister pored over the political stratagems that they could devise, having linked some of the measures in the spending review together, suggest that a balancing act was going on in the Government to think about who they could hit and get away with it, rather than the human consequences. That is a difference of opinion that we will have to accept.

Julian Smith rose-

Chris Leslie: I would like to make progress on the issue of housing benefit, but I happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Julian Smith: The comments that the hon. Gentleman made just now and at the beginning of his speech are insulting to Ministers and, certainly, to Back-Bench coalition Members.

Chris Leslie: I am sorry if I have hurt the hon. Gentleman's feelings; that would be a dreadful thing to do. However, it is far worse to hit the poorest and most vulnerable people in society through the measures that he will support by walking through the Lobby. The warm words that he espouses are all very well, although so far he has not said much about vulnerability and the impact of the reforms. He is doing his job and wants to progress through his party-I wish him luck with that-but the measures that he will be supporting will be harmful, and I am sorry if he feels that that is insulting.

Let us look at some of the changes to housing benefit. As I said, housing benefit needs to be reformed, but not necessarily at the pace and with the harshness espoused by the Minister. Some of the combined, compounding changes will come in quickly, with some starting on 1 October next year. According to the Government's own figures, the reduction from the median 50th percentile to the 30th percentile for housing benefit will affect 642,000 people. Many hon. Members, including the Minister, will be getting letters from their constituents about that. Those reforms will leave some people £39 worse off per calendar month. Some landlords might be happy to say, "That's all right; we will bear the loss", but others will say, "Sorry, that is unacceptable. Out you go." What will be the consequences for homelessness? What will the pressures be on the indebtedness of individuals who are already stretched with credit card debts and so on? Will we see even greater pain at that level?

The National Housing Federation said in the newspapers today that the reforms were "brutal cutbacks." Those are not my words, so if the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) feels that such words are
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insulting, he should speak to the National Housing Federation. It said that the reforms risk the prospect of people

That sudden drop in income and the rushed nature of reform are what the Labour party fundamentally disagrees with. Of course we accept that the deficit needs to be tackled, but we take a different view of how to do that.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): You do not know how to do it.

Chris Leslie: We have a set of strategies, but we do not have the phalanx of Treasury officials lined up behind the Minister.

Justine Greening: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will outline three or four specific measures that his party would propose to tackle the deficit.

Chris Leslie: Given that we are talking about vulnerability, let us look at the impact of the spending review. The hon. Member for St Ives mentioned the banking levy but, as we debated last night, that is a puny and pathetic attempt by Ministers to let the banks off the hook while they are hitting families and children hardest of all-[Interruption.] I am sorry that Minister does not like my example, but she has made a choice and we would do things differently. It is important that the record shows that the Government have decided to let the banks off the hook lightly.

The Minister may well bleat and moan, but she should realise, for example, that cutting mortgage interest support for the most vulnerable will, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said, help to create a cycle of despair for many people. I do not think that the archbishop is a particularly partisan individual, and it would be a great pity if the remarks of those in civil society were dismissed.

I am interested in the Government's approach to the universal credit, which they are looking to put in place as part of welfare reform. In many respects, it is a reasonable concept. However, I cannot understand why their approach is then to cut council tax benefit by 10% and to localise it, as has been announced. How is that consistent with the universal credit policy? Will the Minister elaborate on how the universal credit arrangement will come into place for the most vulnerable people when the council tax benefit is not part of it? I would like to understand the consistency, because that change will hit the poorest in society, as will many of the disability welfare changes.

We accept that disability welfare reforms are needed but, again, we must at least ask questions about the pace and harshness of some of those changes-as the hon. Member for St Ives has done. Taking out £2 billion by limiting the contributory employment and support allowance to the very disabled raises questions about how those who no longer have such support will cope. It is incumbent on those who are proposing the cut to explain where the support for those individuals will come from. Even pensioners will feel the impact of many of the changes, and they will lose out because of the four-year freeze in the savings credit element of the pension credit.

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Public service reductions will have an indirect effect. This debate is not just about welfare, because the public service reductions announced in the spending review will also have a disproportionate impact on the very poorest in society. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said,

There will also be a cut in health service spending. If we take away the social services element-it is being redefined as NHS spending, which it was not previously-and look at core NHS spending, it will fall by 0.5%. The IFS described that as the "worst settlement since 1951". Again, those people using the health service are the most vulnerable and they will bear the brunt.

There will be local government reductions, in particular for support to the voluntary sector. For example, several welfare advice centres in my constituency will no longer be able to offer help and support to the very poorest in society because of the implementation of legal aid cuts. People will be left to fend for themselves, with far less advice-[Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering away, but she will get her opportunity to speak in a moment. I hope that she can give those people an explanation of the deficit reduction choices that she is making that deliberately addresses the speed of her measures. I understand that everyone in the House wants to ensure that deficit reduction is carried out sensitively, but I cannot quite understand the voracious speed at which the Minister thinks she has to do that. Her approach seems punitive and potentially risky.

There are education changes, too, and we have also talked about policing and crime. Those who tend to need the support of the policing services are those who are the victims of crime, and most of all the poorest and most vulnerable in society. The list goes on: reductions in the working neighbourhoods fund; no more future jobs fund; and, again, some of the welfare advice changes. Those things give rise to more worries and concerns.

The IFS was right to point out the regressive nature of the Budget. All the spin and warm words that the Minister will no doubt parrot again have been unravelled by the objective and independent analysis carried out by the institute, which the Conservatives were more than happy to cite in times past, but now seem keen to rubbish. The IFS says that the cuts are the

The Government have decided to hit families with children hardest, with the health in pregnancy grant going, the taxing and freezing of child benefit, the cuts to child care help through the working tax credit, and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance. It is not necessarily those individual changes, but the compounding effect of them all happening simultaneously, with the speed of implementation chosen by the Minister, that makes them hit the most vulnerable very hard.

It was right that the hon. Member for St Ives raised the question of whether those with the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden. The Chancellor keeps saying, "We're all in this together," but that is completely unbelievable and palpably not the case.

The puny nature of the banking levy is such that even the International Monetary Fund has said that it is a third of the size that it suggested. The banks will enjoy the corporation tax cuts, as well as their deferred tax benefits. There is also, of course, complete inaction by
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the Government on banker bonuses, which will be revealed when the bonus season starts in January or February.

All in all, the set of changes is exceptionally regressive and will hit the most vulnerable in society most of all. Perhaps the saddest fact is that many of those who will be affected do not yet realise it. The changes have not necessarily been reported in detail. People might well be completely oblivious to the changes that are coming but, for example, when the housing benefit change comes in on 1 October next year, they will be faced with great difficulties.

I have urged my local authority in Nottingham to find a way of communicating with recipients of housing benefit so that they can prepare themselves for the changes that are coming. Will the Minister at the very least-even if we disagree about the speed and nature of the policies-tell hon. Members how the Government intend to communicate with people and give them a bit of a heads-up so that they can prepare themselves for some of the changes? With a little preparation, the poorest in society might be able to try their best to brace themselves for what is around the corner.

I have set out my genuine concerns. There are political differences between us, but the story is a sad one that will unravel further in the years to come.

10.27 am

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship of this important Westminster Hall debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and pay tribute to him for securing the debate. I remember that during the spending review debate and the emergency Budget debate held earlier this year, his presence in the Chamber was constant, which shows his commitment to and concern about the issues-he is right to point out that we should all be deeply concerned about them. I shall start by setting out the background to some of the measures, and then talk in more detail about the housing benefit measures the hon. Gentleman mentioned in particular.

I listened to the response from the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie). He clearly holds a different view, but I found his speech deeply irresponsible in many ways. As an incoming coalition Government, we have picked up a fiscal deficit without precedent not just in our own country, but across the developed economies of the world. His party handed over that deficit, which we and the Liberal Democrats are working to address.

Certainly, the situation we took over was grave. The hon. Member for Nottingham East talked about the speed with which we are tackling the deficit, but that very much underscores just what a serious position our country was in when we came into government earlier this year. In fact, had we not taken the steps we are taking over the coming years, our debt would be £100 billion higher and we would be spending some £5 billion more as a nation on debt interest-money we want to put into supporting our public services. Had we not taken those steps, there would have been the real risk of being unable to have as a good a chance as we now do of keeping interest rates low, which is critical for companies investing and creating jobs and for households across the country with a mortgage.

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Clearly, therefore, we needed to take action. One of the key pledges that we made as part of the spending review was that fairness would be at the heart of our decision making. The hon. Member for St Ives was right to say that despite the challenging backdrop against which the emergency Budget and the spending review took place, they included important measures such as increasing the personal allowance, which saw 880,000 people taken out of income tax altogether. Interestingly, he also mentioned that the Government's aspiration was to go further on that, which is important. The distributional analysis and the IFS modelling do not take those aspirations into account, because we have not yet announced how we will carry them forward. Nor do they take into account the benefits of the universal credit or the stimulus and support that it will provide to people who are getting back into work. It is important to bear that in mind.

As I said, one of our key pledges in the spending review related to fairness. By fairness, I mean that, across the entire deficit-reduction plan, those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden. There has been a lot of debate about the IFS, and it is interesting that we have published more distributional analysis alongside our comprehensive spending review than any Government have ever done before. There is, of course, a debate about how to do that analysis in a more refined way, and the TUC, for example, took a view in its own analysis about how to spread defence spending across income deciles. Clearly, therefore, there are methodological questions that it is worth while looking at to see how we can improve things. Hon. Members will be aware that Robert Chote, who was the head of the IFS, now heads the Office for Budget Responsibility. He is precisely the kind of person who can help us to have a more transparent, independent assessment of our policy. That will help not only the Government, but people who look at our policy to understand what it means for our country and our communities.

Fairness has underpinned our approach. Critically, we have to move to a welfare system that helps and supports the vulnerable, but does not trap them in the way the system we have taken over too often did. We need a system that supports people back into work, and that is affordable. That is important because my great concern is that we need a system that people across our country buy into. That means that the system must be fair not only to the people in it, who need the support, but to those outside it, who perhaps work and pay their taxes. Those people might be happy to pay into a system to support the most vulnerable, but they might feel that it needs to be fair to them as well as to those who get the benefit payments. They need to feel that the system improves the lives of those who receive benefit payments and gives them the chance to be independent that, for various reasons, they do not have at the moment. I will say a little more shortly about how we can do that.

We have had a test on fairness, and there is no doubt that we have had to make some difficult decisions about how to spend the small amount of money we have following the Labour party's profligacy in government. Today, in its debate on welfare on the Floor of the House, the Labour party will have another chance to set out how it would approach welfare reform. We have heard an awful lot about the fact that there is a better
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way of doing things, although we have occasionally heard from Labour Members that they do not oppose all our reforms. However, if we are to have a thoughtful and constructive debate about this important issue, it is time for the Opposition to engage more meaningfully, rather than simply setting out what they are against. They owe that to Parliament, which needs a proper debate from elected representatives, and to our country. They should set out exactly how an alternative, if there is one, would look.

I want now to look at the welfare state in a little more detail. Under the previous Government, benefit bills soared by 45%. In some cases, the benefit bill for a single out-of-work family amounted to the tax bills of 16 working families put together. To return to my earlier comments, everybody would say that that was not just unfair, but unsustainable. Given the financial position that we inherited, protecting the welfare budget was not an option. If we had done that, it would have forced more drastic front-line cuts on services elsewhere, which so many of us, including those on benefits, rely on so much. We therefore tried to focus our support on the people who need it most-the long-term unemployed, the very young, the very old, the disadvantaged and those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to work or find it hard to enter the labour market.

The spending review announced reforms to tackle welfare dependency by delivering a simplified system in which it always pays to work. The hon. Member for St Ives rightly mentioned impoverishment, and at its heart is the fact that people do not have a job. We need a welfare system that supports people back into work, and that applies particularly to people who have been on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance. In one of my first roles as a new MP in Parliament, I sat on the Work and Pensions Committee, and I clearly remember that one of our first reports looked at incapacity benefit. It was a real scandal that although jobs had been created over the previous decade, the overwhelming majority of those on incapacity benefit were left wanting to work. On Thursday evening, I met visually impaired people in my constituency who were desperate to find work and to be financially independent. Those are the people we are keen to support back into work, but they were languishing on benefits in way that was bad for not just them, but our country and communities. It was also unaffordable.

Andrew George: The Minister is making an extremely important point; in fact, it was one of the many that I made. We need to establish a bridge between dependency and securing work. That applies to the housing benefit system, and I mentioned tapers, or the rate of withdrawal of housing benefit. The previous Government did nothing about the problem, which has been going on for decades. The point also applies to incapacity benefit. There is a cliff-face between benefit dependency and being able to get work. Perhaps the Government need to look a little more at ways of establishing a bridge to help people into work, rather than impoverishing them, putting them at risk or worrying them about making the transition into work.

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman raises one of the key flaws that has existed in the welfare system, which is that it has trapped people. Going back to my
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time on the Work and Pensions Committee, I remember an inquiry that we did into Jobcentre Plus. The then Government had to introduce a better-off test to prove to people that they were better off going into work, because it was so complicated to work out what benefits people were receiving and what they would lose. It was not clear to people that moving into work would be the best thing for them financially.

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to read the White Paper that the Department for Work and Pensions will release in the next few days on the universal credit, which is intended absolutely to make sure that people who are currently on benefits know that they will be better off if they move back into work. We can move away from the situation faced by some of the worst-off people in our country, who have moved into work only to be penalised with some of the highest marginal rates of tax, which are simply eye-watering. We would not dream of putting even the highest earners on such rates, but the marginal rates of tax faced by some of the lowest-income people have been huge, and the universal credit is aimed at starting to tackle that situation.

Chris Leslie: For the benefit of hon. Members, will the Minister tell us what the marginal rate of tax will be for families that lose child benefit when they earn more than a certain amount? What will the percentage be? As I understand it, earning £1 could result in £2,000 of lost child benefit.

Justine Greening: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to consider those calculations in detail, but that brings us back to my concern about the Opposition's engagement with the subject, which was typified by his intervention. Unfortunately, it was not at all constructive but deeply negative. At the heart of my concern about the Opposition's lack of thoughtful strategy is the fact that he argues for a policy that would maintain child benefit for higher rate taxpayers.

Chris Leslie: Will the Minister give way?

Justine Greening: No; I want to make some progress.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East could have set out some better alternatives, but he failed to do so. That is a shame for our democracy. I assure him that we are tackling problems in the welfare system that the previous Government failed to tackle; I had hoped that he would welcome that. I know that the Opposition agree with some of our welfare reforms; it would help if we knew which ones, as we could then have a genuine political debate about areas of disagreement.

The universal credit will be a big step forward, and a good one. It will ensure that people are no longer trapped in welfare, as they have been. The hon. Member for St Ives said that one of our achievements as a coalition Government was to re-establish the earnings link. He is right; against the backdrop of a difficult fiscal deficit, we have maintained pensioner benefits on things such as free eye tests, free prescriptions, the free bus pass and free TV licences for the over-75s. We have also increased the cold weather payment award permanently to £25.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned social care. Again, it is symptomatic of what we have in mind that we must protect the most vulnerable. That is why we
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have added £2 billion to the social care bill, with £1 billion from the NHS and £1 billion from the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government. That is precisely to ensure that local authorities do not need to restrict access to social care. The fact that the money comes from the NHS and the Department shows that we need them to work more closely together. The reality is that health and social care are inextricably linked. Indeed, good social care can protect the vulnerable and help them maintain a healthy and independent life. As MPs, we have all seen people in our surgeries who are very keen to do that, and we have all worked to help people maintain the independence that so many want. We have therefore been particularly careful to ensure that funding for social care is supported.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman's important comments on housing benefit. In the changes that we made to housing benefit, we tried to ensure that we tackle the underpinning of affordable housing and the lack of new affordable housing. One reason why housing has become so expensive is the gap between demand and supply, and the fact that housing starts over the last 10 years have generally been lower than in the past. That was so particularly for social housing, and especially for affordable homes in places such as London.

That is the backdrop and the key reason why rents have risen and housing has generally become more expensive. The previous model of affordable housing did not work. If Government money had been thrown at it during an economic boom, we would have seen the sorts of affordable housing that were needed, but it did not happen. We therefore had to think of different ways to do it. We are working far more effectively with housing associations and other investors that want to create housing, to ensure that we get back to creating the levels of social housing and affordable housing that are needed. That means investment-£4.5 billion for new affordable homes and £2 billion for the decent homes programme. We also need a more flexible system of affordable housing to help those who need to move for work and to protect the most vulnerable, and one that is also fair to the taxpayer.

Andrew George: I acknowledged earlier that £4.5 billion will be retained over the next three years for social housing. However, the Government intend funding the shortfall by allowing social landlords to increase their rents by up to 80% of the market value. That will result in more housing benefit. Within the Treasury's modelling, to what extent does the Economic Secretary anticipate the increase in public-sector contribution resulting from the increase in the housing benefit to be paid to residential social landlords as a result of rent increases?

Justine Greening: It is important to say that the change relates to new tenants rather than existing ones. Existing tenancies will not be affected by such measures. On the question of market rates and affordability, we will want to see landlords, the Homes and Communities Agency, and the regulator, in conjunction with local authorities, talking about ensuring affordability. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that housing benefit will still be available to support people.

The challenge is to move to a more sustainable footing for housing, and particularly for social housing. That is most important for housing associations, and the need for them to keep reinvesting. We have tried to strike a
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balance that is broadly fair to those on existing tenancies and to ensure that the new stock that we seek to create-the £4.5 billion will create about 150,000 affordable homes-is used more effectively to support people. At the same time, we want to work with people to ensure that rents are affordable. Nevertheless, housing benefit will still be there.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the cap on the housing allowance and setting the local allowance at the 30th percentile rate. The reality is that people who are working must ensure that they can afford where they live. It will be difficult to ask them to pay into a system in which people on out-of-work benefits are living in areas that they simply cannot afford. The 30th percentile change is about trying to strike the right balance between what is affordable and what is fair and reasonable.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Economic Secretary for her earlier comments, which were helpful in setting the scene for reform. However, I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) about the fact that housing benefit will impact differently in different areas. For instance, in my area I obviously have winter lets, and people seem to be concerned about the smaller one-bedroom or two-bedroom properties. I know that the transitional fund has been allocated, but will the Economic Secretary explain how the problems of each individual area, as they relate to vulnerable people, will be dealt with sensitively?

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady is right: different parts of the country clearly have different housing needs and challenges. The Department for Work and Pensions will be working with local authorities through the transition period, and as she pointed out, we need funding in place for that as well. There will be £140 million of discretionary funding to support local authorities, £10 million of which is for London. It is worth pointing out that that is not the only support available for those affected.

For example, we still have many things such as the social fund, which includes budgeting loans, crisis loans and community care grants that are being maintained. We are considering how the social fund can be more localised, so we are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities to see how we can best use the money we have to support people, in a way that works for them and at the local level. Interestingly, no London MPs are here, apart from me. Depending on where one represents in the country, there is a different group of constituents, facing a different series of challenges. Therefore, ensuring that the local aspect is fully part of how we work through the transition is vital. That is why the role of the Department for Work and Pensions, working with local authorities and the DCLG, is so critical. That is also why, as Liberal Democrats will recognise, localism is a theme that needs to run more broadly through our policy across Government. That is one reason why in this area it is important.

Andrew George: That is central to the point that I was making, and it has been repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). I entirely understand that in a London setting, and perhaps in other parts of the country, this is a
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debate about the understandable sense of injustice among hard-working people, who feel that those who are not working have preferential, and indeed better, living circumstances than they themselves can afford. In my part of the country that does not apply. The key issue is that the rental properties coming on to the market are not getting close to even the median or below, which is the setting for housing benefit in my area. Understanding how the market works in our area, we know that the policy of ratcheting it down to 30% will not lever private rents downward. It will leave a large group of people-working and non-working-significantly impoverished.

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman has set out his concerns for his area. I go back to my earlier comment about the 30th percentile change. That is the right thing to do to ensure that people feel the system is fair. As for rents, interestingly, if one looks at the changes around local housing allowance, about 32% of people affected by the changes will lose money, but will still get enough to cover their rent. Because of the way that local housing allowance worked in the past-it meant that people got more than they needed to pay their rent-a third of people will not be left with a shortfall.

We talked about the discretionary fund and working with local authorities. The concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised are precisely why we want to ensure that as much of that support as possible can be localised. The reason is twofold. Local authorities might feel that the best way they can support people is to keep them in the homes they are already in-that is the decision they take. In other cases, they might feel that the best long-term sustainable situation is to help people to move to something that is more affordable to them.
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise those issues, which are precisely why we have set aside £140 million to ensure that the support is there to tackle some of those on-the-ground changes through the transition period, as we move to a housing benefit system that feels fairer and more affordable, and that does not trap people in poverty and out of work, as we have seen in the past.

I thank the hon. Member for St Ives for securing today's debate, which has raised some very important points, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. There is no doubt that the spending review will have an impact across our society-not just for the next four years, but for many to come. The decisions we have made will help to shape Britain's future. That is something of which I am very conscious. That is why we have put such an emphasis on fairness, protecting the vulnerable and supporting the most needy.

That fairness is rooted in not only supporting people today, but giving them the opportunity of a better quality of life tomorrow. We know that cuts to public expenditure have to be made-even the Opposition would agree with that-but that should not come at a cost of a more divided society, where the poorest and the most disadvantaged suffer as a result of mistakes that were never theirs. Our actions in the spending review reflect that: we have delivered a fair settlement, demonstrated that we are a progressive Government and supported the most vulnerable in our society. That was our promise when we came to power, and it is one that we fully intend to keep.

10.55 am

Sitting suspended.

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Consumer Credit Regulation

11 am

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I have tabled this debate for a simple reason. As a new MP, it seems to me to be the best way to get some answers from the Government about a matter that I know is very important to many of us in Westminster Hall today: how we support the poorest consumers in society.

Despite the pressure applied by Compass, the End Legal Loan Sharks campaign, the Better Banking Coalition and myself and others, as yet Ministers have not made any commitment to act on the issue of consumer credit regulation. I hope we can change that today, especially after the show of support by the number of Members here for this debate. I want to show how and why the Government should act, through regulation of consumer credit. I want also to highlight how important it is that that be undertaken in conjunction with a range of other measures to support people who get into debt, and ultimately to help break the cycle of debt that blights the lives of too many people in Britain.

I have a lot of detailed evidence on these matters that I want to put on the record and I know that a lot of other Members also want to speak out. Nevertheless, I hope that in 90 minutes we can make progress and have a constructive debate, and I am keen to hear what other people have to say on this issue.

At the heart of this debate is a concern about debt and how it defines the financial situation of millions of families in our country. During the past 30 years, households have become more reliant on credit as a means to secure homes, invest in education and skills and smooth out the fluctuations in income and expenditure that everybody experiences. Let me say at the outset that this is not a debate about the wearing of hair shirts or a musing on the nature of contemporary consumer society. The uses of credit that I have just described can be a powerful driver for economic growth. Therefore, ensuring access to credit and confidence in credit markets is vitally important, especially when public spending is so constrained.

However, a growing number of people have problems using credit, and the ease of access to credit also makes it much more likely that people can end up using the wrong kind of credit for their needs or taking on more debt than they can service, so that their financial fortunes become far too sensitive to changes in their circumstances. That creates a toxic mix of the wrong kind of banking and credit services, the ups and downs of life, and a small amount of financial comfort with which to cover the difference between income and expenditure.

A study by The Observer newspaper earlier this year found that for 26% of men and 34% of women, living beyond their means was the cause of insolvency. However, for many more people-indeed, for 50% of women-insolvency was caused by unplanned changes to their personal circumstances, such as divorce or job loss. So, for many people the problem is being caught suddenly with an additional expense-replacing a broken-down washing machine or a car-that means a cost to their monthly budget that they cannot afford, or being unable to manage a sudden loss of income through redundancy or family breakdown. All these factors then lead to over-indebtedness, default and insolvency.

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Just how bad is the debt problem? The UK now has one of the highest levels of personal debt in the world. In April this year, people in Britain owed more than £1.4 billion in private debt and in recent years personal insolvency has reached record highs, with more than 130,000 individuals entering a formal insolvency process this year alone. These official statistics can tell us about formal insolvency, but it is clear that that is just the tip of an iceberg. Industry estimates are that about 500,000 people are currently in a debt management plan, and independent research by R3-the Association of Business Recovery Professionals-shows that a further 600,000 people say that they have contacted their creditors for help as a result of struggling with their debts. R3 also estimates that another 960,000 people are struggling with debts but do not seek help.

Debt has become the norm in our lives in Britain, with most of us owing money on credit cards, loans and overdrafts. However, it is when those debts become unsustainable and overbearing that trouble happens. According to R3, as a result of the recession four in 10 people are now worried about their current level of debt, with 3 million people fearing redundancy and 2 million people having taken on more debt in recent months. One in 10 people frequently struggles to make it to pay day, with money tending to run out around the twentieth day of each month.

There is every indication that these problems will only get worse, especially for those who can least afford indebtedness. The Government's deficit reduction programme will put millions of people who are on low incomes under severe financial pressure, as they face reduced public services, a greater threat of unemployment and public sector pay freezes. Family Action has identified how a total of 21 different cuts, from changes to the working tax credit to the rise in VAT, will hit low-income families hardest. Crucially for those of us who are concerned by these issues, many of those are people for whom debts are a daily fact of life and for whom unemployment and cuts in income will be even more likely in the coming years, with banks and building societies remaining out of reach as a source of credit.

So it is welcome news that the Government have announced a review of credit and insolvency, and that they have made firm commitments to considering capping interest rates on credit and store cards. However, this debate is about what is not in the credit review, what the Government have not done and what they have failed to make firm commitments about. It is the millions of the poorest consumers, who end up using the so-called home credit, hire purchase and pay day loan sector, whom I want to talk about today.

The Better Banking Coalition estimates that some 6 million people are in that position. Many of them are people for whom the illegal loan sharking industry may once have been an option, and the progress made by the previous Government in addressing loan sharking must be recorded. The work of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills itself shows that about 300,000 individuals, representing about 3% of the poorest families in Britain, used to borrow about £120 million a year from illegal moneylenders, on which they ended up paying back £450 million. The work of the taskforce on illegal moneylending should be commended, and I hope
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it will be supported. Indeed, its work should be protected within the budget of BIS, especially as it has been judged as delivering value for money.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate and on campaigning so vigorously in this vital area. Does she agree with me that in combating the loan sharks, the work of local trading standards departments has been absolutely critical? Furthermore, does she agree that it would be an absolute tragedy if, as a result of the Lib Dem-Tory cuts that will affect local government, trading standards officers were held back from doing that vital work?

Stella Creasy: My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. With local authorities facing cuts of 25% or more to their budgets, it is clear that those cuts could affect trading standards and that the action now being taken on illegal loan sharking could therefore be put at risk.

We should not free communities from one form of exploitation only to allow another form to grow unchecked. Indeed, as more effort is put into cracking down on the criminal activity of loan sharks, it is all the more vital that there be greater access to affordable credit, an issue I will return to at the end of my comments.

We are here today to talk about the growth of the high-interest legal home credit market-a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK, and an industry that originated in America. As a result, many of the companies operating here are "exporters", either working online or in our town centres. A good example is Dollar Financial, a US-based lender that operates under the trading name of the Money Shop in the UK. The Money Shop has expanded from just one store in the UK in 1992, which dealt primarily with cheque cashing, to 273 stores and 64 franchises across the UK by 2009. Now, in communities such as mine in Walthamstow, these companies litter our high streets.

I want to set out the sort of products such companies sell. We are talking about pay-day lenders, organisations such as Oakum or Wonga.com. In August, the Consumer Focus group published research into the use of pay-day lending. It estimated this market to be worth £1.2 billion a year and that it was used by around 1.2 million people. Its report went on to forecast a significant growth in the market. Such loans are often short-term ones with technical interest rates of anything up to 3,500% for a five-day loan-another point I want to return later.

The Consumer Finance Association, which represents pay-day lenders in the UK, estimates that these companies' customers have an annual income of between £12,500 and £30,000, with £18,000 being the approximate average. However, research for the Friends Provident Foundation found that one in 10 UK pay-day customers had incomes of less than £11,000 per year. These are the people who can least afford to borrow at such high rates, even if it is only for a short time. The price of such lending is often as much as £35 in interest for every £100 borrowed, which simply drives these people further into debt, especially as these loans are often rolled over, one after another.

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Furthermore, these companies make a point of targeting those who are unable to access the UK banking market. Indeed, in my own constituency Oakum makes a point of hiring people who can speak two languages, so that they can target their services at communities who are new to Britain and for whom the British banking system is still alien.

In the "home credit" market, people are approached on their doorsteps and offered loans. Generally, such loans range from £200 to £500 and have to be paid back over the course of a year. Although the companies involved claim not to charge for missed or late payments, if someone borrows £300 they have to pay back about £10.50 a week, which adds up to some £540 over the course of a year. That means a typical annual percentage rate of 272%, compared with the 9% or 10% APR that is often offered by mainstream banks.

One of these companies, Provident, has 11,500 "agents" who visit some 1.8 million people a week to collect payments and offer credit. Agents work with each person they serve to judge how much credit they can buy. Some 70% of both customers and agents are women. Critically, agents are paid according to how much they collect, not how much they lend, creating even more pressure to keep people borrowing at such rates.

Or consider the antics of hire-purchase companies such as BrightHouse. Such organisations target those on low incomes who have been refused credit and offer goods for sale on hire-purchase terms. The goods, which often have a high mark-up already, are leased out at high interest rates, so that a computer costing £800 or £900 ends up costing £2,000 or £3,000. Should someone default on a week's payments, the company often imposes high penalty charges and requires the following week's or month's payments straight away, making it even harder to catch up.

Opportunities to expand resulting from the comprehensive spending review have not been lost on many of those who work in the market. Indeed, Provident's chief executive publicly stated that he expects growth in his target market as a direct result of the CSR. Another factor driving today's debate is the failure in the credit market for such consumers. The lack of competition to serve them means that it is a seller's market. Six lenders account for 90% of the home credit market-Provident accounts for 60%-so there is little competition to drive down interest rates.

Clearly, credit lent must be repaid. It is therefore inevitable and fair that interest should be charged to cover the cost of providing credit. It is not disputed that many of those on low incomes or with bad credit histories are a higher lending risk, so interest rates on products aimed at them will be higher than those for the mainstream. However, the terms on which such transactions take place are critical. It is right for both parties that credit should be affordable, which means that both sides must judge what is possible.

There are concerns on that point, because many companies, however ethical and caring they may profess to be, are not. They operate in ways that undermine that profession. A pawnshop in my constituency rings customers back to offer them unsecured loans. Some lenders make a virtue of the fact that they do not consider previous credit history or assess whether a household can afford repayments. Such lenders take high-risk customers not
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out of the goodness of their hearts but because they know they can hook families on their services, creating a long-term cash cow.

High-interest lending also adds to the difficulties faced by the public purse. Lending at high rates to people on low incomes serves only to deepen their poverty. Credit dependency, whereby such debts can never be paid off, results in debts elsewhere, such as on rent, council tax and fuel bills. It results in cold homes and people going without food. I am sure the Minister recognises that the public purse can end up picking up the pieces.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Some 10 years ago, I raised the crucial point of the capping of interest rates on loans to vulnerable households with the Office of Fair Trading, and my arguments were rebuked. The OFT maintained that, given the risk profile of the individuals involved, if usurious rates could not be charged, no credit would be available to those communities, and that some credit, even at usurious rates, was better than none. I was not completely convinced at the time that those arguments were valid, and I am not convinced at all in post-credit crunch Britain. I am pleased that the hon. Lady is raising the issue.

Stella Creasy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I will certainly come to that, as there is concern about how we might intervene in the market, but I am confident that we can and should, and that the Government should be considering it.

We are discussing, in particular, the mix of a lack of competition and a rising demand for credit, but it is better to consider the people at the heart of the issue. We can all talk about statistics, but many of us will have seen in our surgeries the people who get into such debts. There are women who get into years of debt at high rates because their next-door neighbour is a Provident home seller who tells them week after week that they need to borrow more. A constituent of mine had loans from Provident, BrightHouse and Oakam, as well as a purse full of store cards. She missed a few payments and her interest rates soared as a result. She tried to juggle all of them but did not have enough money, and ended up running up an expensive overdraft that accrued £10 a day in charges.

The costs affect not just individuals but our communities as well. A Centre for Responsible Credit survey of the Meadowell estate in 2001 found that more money was going out of the estate on payments to door-to-door lenders than the Government were putting in via regeneration budgets. Given the nature of the market and the evidence that I have put on record, will the Minister admit that many of the practices involved in high-interest, short-term money lending are exploitative and unacceptable, and that the Government should intervene to protect people vulnerable to loan sharking?

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend heard today's news that the Government will not be proceeding with the people's bank planned for the Post Office? Does she not agree that that is further bad news for people trying to access fair and affordable financial services?

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Stella Creasy: I agree absolutely. It is a travesty. This debate is not just about cracking down on loan sharks; it is also about increasing access to affordable credit, as I shall discuss later. That decision will not help the people whom we are discussing. It is one thing to say that we are concerned about the market, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: what are we doing to ensure that more people can access credit?

Given that and the concerns expressed by Members here, will the Minister make a firm commitment to consult on action to cap the total cost of all forms of borrowing-including the high-interest credit industry, rather than just suppliers of credit and store cards-in his Department's ongoing credit review? I hope he will commit to so expanding the scope of the credit review, because it would make a difference to consumers.

Before the Minister makes that commitment, I will address an issue on which many MPs have been lobbied, and which the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) mentioned earlier. It is possible to act on interest rates. I know that some of the companies concerned contacted Members before this debate claiming that such measures, although well-intentioned, would have unintended consequences. They use such arguments to justify the astronomical interest rates that they charge, arguing that any reduction in those rates would be impossible.

To tackle that point head-on, yes, concerns have been expressed not just by legal loan sharks but by organisations that work for those in debt, such as Citizens Advice. I am also aware of the work of the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Focus, which have both expressed reservations about the impact of introducing a uniform cap on interest rates. They fear that it would close down or reduce pay-day lending, pushing people into the illegal loan sharking market.

Those difficulties-which, it must be said, are disputed by other organisations with counter-evidence-do not mean that we cannot act. We know from legislation dealing with dangerous driving, the introduction of a minimum wage and fireworks safety that there will always be people who point to those who will not abide by the rules. The arguments against a cap presume perfect consumers of the services in question who can make price-sensitive judgments about what loans they can access and their own credit situation, and competition for their custom. I hope I have shown that that is simply not the case. The problems with a rate cap do not mean that we cannot act. Rather, we must work harder and learn from others how best to act.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that other jurisdictions such as Canada and the American state of Ohio, where similar objections were raised, decided on balance to cap interest rates?

Stella Creasy: My hon. Friend is exactly right. There are many examples overseas from which we can learn, and I hope to put some of them on the record.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): Is not my hon. Friend trying to make the point that in communities such as ours-Tottenham is next door to Walthamstow, and it is very similar-people need to know who they can trust? We have heard today's decision on the people's
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bank. In years gone by, my mother felt that she could trust the national savings scheme with the Post Office. It is not just about providing poor people with more information; they need the state to step in and take a view on what is excessive and exploitative in that area of the market.

Stella Creasy: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that it is possible to intervene effectively in such markets, and I shall come to that next.

In the Consumer Credit (Regulation and Advice) Bill, which is my private Member's Bill, I suggest not a blunt cap on interest rates, but a cap on the total cost of lending, which is vital. Given the experience in other countries, it seems likely that focusing solely on capping interest rates would lead some companies simply to recoup their profits through administrative and late repayment charges.

Also, as I said, the situation in the short-term loan market can be very different from the long-term compound interest that many people face. That creates perpetual rolling debts in which families get stuck. It is worth highlighting exactly what that difference is and what it means for interest rates. Some short-term loans have an annual interest rate of 2,000% or 3,000%. If I were to lend someone £100 and ask for £10 at the end of a week, it would equate over a year to an interest rate of approximately 3,500%.

We need more sophisticated tools than a blunt cap on interest rates to get around the maths and also to ensure that emergency loans are not rendered illegal or impossible when they are manageable, and that is why I propose two forms of intervention. The first is powers to intervene on the total cost of borrowing over the lifetime of a loan to set parameters within which any company can be expected to act. Such a process would examine the total lending charge and give the Government the power to stop a single loan from exceeding a certain percentage of the original value through all the costs associated with it. That could be done through the Office of Fair Trading or whatever remnant of Consumer Focus the Government leave as protection following their decision to disband it.

Secondly, within those parameters, the Government should consider caps on the interest rates that firms charge for different forms of loans-whether they are pay-day loans, longer term or for hire purchase. That would avoid inadvertently killing off the short-term emergency loan market and address the impact of compound interest.

As hon. Members have pointed out, these are not back-of-the-envelope proposals without any foundation. Just last week in Montana, alongside the mid-term elections, the public voted to cap the interest rate that lenders can charge. That makes Montana the 16th US state in which pay-day lending is effectively banned because of a 36% limit on the annual interest rate that lenders can charge. Indeed, 15 states in America have essentially eliminated pay-day lending altogether by introducing a ban or cap on the maximum amount of credit at a low level, which has driven such lenders out of business. Some 35 US states and eight Canadian provinces have introduced higher caps on the price of pay-day loans, which allows such loans to operate but
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protects consumers from extortionate lending. For example, in a number of Canadian provinces, caps have been set at between $21 and $23 per $100 lent.

Such legislative interventions have been put in place not only in America and Canada, as 14 European states have some form of ceiling on interest rates. Countries often have more than one ceiling because they are set according to the different type or size of loan. For example, there is a different loan category in Belgium for those under €1,250 and those over. Alternatively, ceiling levels are set according to the terms or nature of the loan, such as depending on whether they are mortgages, credit cards or auto loans. The number of parameters can make some ceiling designs complex and difficult to understand. Indeed, the most straightforward are the absolute ceilings found under the past tradition of usury laws, but their impact is not as effective as some of the more targeted ceilings. There are differences between what has happened in Greece and Malta, and in some of the other countries that have brought in more complicated caps, such as Belgium, Portugal, Poland and the Netherlands. Many of those are based on a reference rate, under which a multiple of average market rates can be used to set the ceiling. In France, the ceilings are set at 133% of the market average-in other words, one third above the average.

A report on the effects of rate caps in Europe is due to be published by the European Commission in February 2011. I understand that it will support the case for caps, provided that the form and level of the caps are carefully constructed. Those issues-what form the cap could take and where it could be set-need proper and full discussion. It does not take the debate forward to say that because some caps have not worked, we therefore should never have them. We should be asking where caps have worked well, how we can learn from that, and how we can apply them so that we effectively help people on low incomes in the UK. Frankly, what is the credit review for if it is not to examine how and if such approaches could work here?

The Government could learn from other countries about ways of preventing compound interest's connection to debt dependency. Indeed, that is why it is all the more surprising that the credit review does not consider such matters. America and Canada have experimented with restricting the amount that can be lent-for example, Illinois and Nevada have put in place clear requirements that a loan should not exceed 25% of a borrower's income. In Arizona, California, Colorado and Florida, the number of loans that can be provided has been limited to just one at a time. In addition, Indiana prohibits more than one loan from a single lender and limits the total number of loans to two. Alabama restricts the total number of times a loan can be rolled over to just one. Alaska allows just two, while Illinois, Kentucky and Louisiana prohibit the practice entirely.

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): The hon. Lady makes much play of the evidence from individual American states. Does she accept that one of the consequences of what happens in America is that lenders that are set up in other states are able to sell their services perfectly legally in the states in which such practices are banned? That increases the risk of illegal lending, so I am not sure that the fact that such things happen in some American states particularly strengthens her case.

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Stella Creasy: The Minister expresses concern about the nature of federal government in America, but he ignores the evidence from European states with a national system of governance that have introduced interest rate caps effectively. The best possible comparison for the UK is European states, rather than states in America and Canada, although I mentioned those cases as examples of where caps have been introduced and differential rates have been used. Frankly, the Minister should be considering such issues in his credit review, rather than them simply being raised as part of an Adjournment debate. I hope that he will rethink the credit review and expand it to consider such issues and the way in which they might apply in the home context. I mentioned such detail to show that it is possible to legislate to deal with the worst excesses of the markets and that such an approach does not increase the market for illegal loan sharks, as that is not demonstrated in the evidence from other countries.

Andrew Bridgen: I am extremely sympathetic to the hon. Lady's aims and cause. However, does she agree that some of the previous Government's policies did not help people get out of debt but, in fact, trapped them in it? In the days of easy credit, the complex working tax credit system allowed people to get into debt. Given the withdrawal of benefits, and with marginal rates of taxation of 60%, 70%, 80% and 90%, people were trapped in debt because they could never work their way out of it.

Stella Creasy: I would be interested if the hon. Gentleman could produce evidence for that, as opposed to making a supposition. It is easy to claim that working tax credit put people into such dependency, but let us consider what the loan sharks themselves have said about the comprehensive spending review. They have argued that it will increase the number of people coming to them because those people will not have money to help their families grow. That is where I look for evidence.

Considering the evidence on how we tackle legal loan sharking in and of itself is not enough to help these families. We need to stop the exploitation of low-income households in the credit market and legislate on the cost of borrowing. As Labour Members will understand-they know these problems well because they have had to deal with them-we also need to increase access to affordable credit. Those two issues go hand in hand. We cannot expand access to affordable credit while millions of people are trapped in relationships of credit dependency.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on a powerful and excellent speech. When considering help for such families, we also need to think about credit and money advice. The previous Government provided significant amounts of extra money to deal with the consequences of the recession. Clearly, we must do that if we are to deal with the problems that have arisen as a result of the CSR. An important part of this process is to have more money advice. People need proper advice about how to manage their money, how to avoid getting into debt, and how to make the right decision on loans.

Stella Creasy: As ever, my hon. Friend makes an incredibly practical and important point on these issues, which I shall come back to at the end of my comments
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when I consider the third component of the action that we can take to protect the poorest consumers in Britain.

I shall quickly return to my point about access to affordable credit. We must learn lessons and consider how to increase affordable credit access through the existing UK market. We know that that can be done, because people are already doing it. Credit unions and social enterprises such as Fair Finance are demonstrating that it is possible to lend at reasonable rates, to provide money advice services, and to help people to make credit work for them.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and I know that many of my constituents will be watching it closely. Does she agree that credit unions-including the Leeds City credit union, which has been operating for more than 20 years in my city, and the Bramley credit union-offer an excellent alternative to loan sharks? The Government could do more to support credit unions to grow, for example by enabling them to operate at all post offices and at local council facilities such as benefit offices and local libraries.

Stella Creasy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes exactly the point I wanted to mention about how important it is to support and promote credit unions. There is certainly scope for British credit unions to grow, and we are behind other nations in that respect. In Ireland, 50% of the population are members of a credit union. In America and Canada, the figure is around 40%. In Australia and New Zealand it is around 25%, but it is closer to 2% in the UK. Despite that, at least 86% of people are eligible to join a credit union in England, Scotland and Wales on the basis of where they live and the working areas that are served by credit unions. That is not just in Bramley-my excellent Waltham Forest community credit union has more than 4,000 customers.

There is clearly interest in accessing credit through such bodies. Membership of credit unions in Britain increased by 35% between March 2008 and March 2010. The challenge we face is how to scale up credit unions extremely quickly, given the CSR and the level of debt that we are facing. The question of the future of the post office network provides therefore both an opportunity and a threat to some of the excellent work that can be done in this field, which several hon. Members have mentioned.

The previous Government proposed-this is being promoted by the Association of British Credit Unions-connecting up the credit union movement and post offices, which would allow the integration of both services. A one-off investment would be needed to provide the common back-office platform that would allow the technical integration of the two services. In turn, that would allow post offices to offer a wider range of services, including those vital instant small-scale loans, as well as access to a Post Office card account. Staff at post offices could carry out transactions in real time, checking account details and giving instant pre-approved loans that were affordable and convenient. Credit union customers would be able to access their accounts and make payments through the post office. In turn, a transaction fee would be generated by each transaction
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that would provide a new stream of revenue for the Post Office. That could open up access to affordable credit and help consumers by breaking down the monopoly on supply. It is no wonder that the Finance and Leasing Association has briefed against that proposal and argued that it could restrict consumer choice and hinder competition, which is something that many legal loan sharks seem to think is okay for their specialist services.

Does the Minister stand with the loan sharks or the credit unions? What commitment will his Department make to fund the back-office integration of post offices and credit unions so that the post office network can provide credit union services and increase access to affordable credit for consumers? Those problems require us not only to legislate, but to look at what we can do for the families involved. We must not only clamp down on the exploitation practised by the firms, but extend access to affordable credit through credit unions.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Has the hon. Lady considered the implications of the Bill of Sale Act 1878, which effectively enables loan sharks to get away with much of their inappropriate behaviour? We all agree that we should not tolerate loan sharks-they are in my constituency as well as in hers and others.

Stella Creasy: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair comment. The point behind today's debate is that there is overwhelming evidence that we can and should intervene, and there is certainly concern about the situation among Labour Members. The credit review offers us, if anything, an opportunity to look at how we can intervene and how the law could be amended. The fact that that is not happening is a travesty, so I hope that coalition Members will challenge the Government to expand the scope of the credit review so that it covers these issues.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Will she join me in asking the Minister to clarify the Government's intentions on the consumer advocate? There has been some speculation that they are keen to go ahead with that position, which was first suggested in a White Paper by the previous Government, but there is still no actual detail. A consumer advocate could play a crucial role in that area, so it would be good to hear the Government's intentions on that.

Stella Creasy: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly fair point. I certainly hope that the Minister will address that, along with the credit review and the role that credit unions could play within post offices.

I certainly want more direct financial support for organisations that provide advocacy services and support people who get into debt. The model that we can learn from is that of the drinks industry. In 2007, following public concern about alcopops and the need to address binge drinking, the industry responded by setting up and funding Drinkaware, an independent charity administering grants to tackle alcohol misuse. Each year it raises around £2.6 million from alcoholic drink makers and retailers, which is then used to raise awareness about alcohol and encourage sensible drinking. My Consumer Credit (Regulation and Advice) Bill proposes that a levy should be imposed on organisations selling
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credit, which would be used to fund a similar grant scheme. That could be accessed by a range of organisations providing debt management counselling or financial literacy services. Counsellors could give one-on-one sessions to families to help them get back on their feet by negotiating with creditors, helping them to navigate the support to which they are entitled and identifying how best they can live within their means.

Supporting those whose lives are ruled by debt requires more than informal advice. R3, the insolvency practitioners' industry body, notes that one in five of their clients did not seek help earlier because they had no idea who to turn to for help. I welcome the Government's continued support for the previous Administration's work on a levy on dormant bank accounts for that purpose, but I hope that they will recognise the need for both financial advice services and specific advocacy services, such as the excellent work undertaken by organisations such as the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, Citizens Advice and Christians Against Poverty. The Moneymadeclear service, as it is currently set out, will not be the same thing, and we must ensure that both are available if we are to address these challenges. Does the Minister recognise the need to provide specialist financial advice and advocacy services to help people who get into debt, and will he commit to setting up a fund to support those services directly, as I propose in my Bill?

We have covered many complicated issues today. Just to be clear, I will end my remarks by repeating the three clear commitments that I want the Government to tell us, on record, whether they will make. First, will the Minister commit to expanding the credit review, to consulting on powers to cap the total lending costs, and to exploring caps on different interest rates for different types of loans? Secondly, will he commit to financing the integration of the post office network with the credit union network to enable them to share back-office technology and thus support each other? Finally, will he commit to a levy on those who sell credit to create a dedicated fund for debt advice and advocacy services?

Failure to act on those matters would not come at a worse time for many of Britain's families. We know that if the Government are intent on pushing their Budget on Britain, they will raise the number of families in our communities living with the daily misery of debt. They therefore must take responsibility for their actions. They must give the same consideration to the needs of those for whom the never-never is a fact of life as they do for those who have Amex cards or a trust fund. I hope that the Minister will give us three yeses today so that we can make progress on those matters.

11.34 am

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on the clear, in many ways convincing and impassioned way in which she put her case. She has had quite a double whammy over the past few days, with her ten-minute rule Bill last week and now this important debate. It is particularly timely, given the review of consumer credit and personal insolvency and this morning's statement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the future of the post office network, which, to be fair, contained rather more of positive interest to people who care about those issues than perhaps some Members have suggested today.

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Like the hon. Lady, I will concentrate on instalment credit, rather than revolving credit, although both are relevant. I am sure that the debate will be positive, but I will start with three negative points-three not's. First, this is not a party political debate. I pay tribute to the previous Government's work with the credit union sector, for example, which at the time had all-party support. I am also sure that measures to address those problems and help the most vulnerable people will receive support from across the House. I know that that is the case among many of my colleagues in the coalition Government, and it is evidenced to a large extent by the number of Members from both sides of the House who have attended the debate.

Secondly, this issue is not new, although, to be fair, it is changing. The leader in doorstep home credit has been around since Victorian times, but every few years the nature of the market changes a little. There are changes over time regarding the importance of priority debt and that of consumer debt, and there might in future be some change back towards priority debt. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the home credit market has been created by the comprehensive spending review, and everyone who has ever worked in communities that have such issues knows that well. It is also a dynamic market, and there is always something new to worry about: whenever we think we have got our heads around the market, something new comes along, be it the increasing problems with fee-paying debt management agencies, inertia selling, payment protection insurance, the growth in pay-day loans, the appearance of pre-paid sub-prime credit cards or the appearance of so-called credit rehab cards.

Thirdly, it is not all bad. Every segment of the market plays some sort of role. Even pay-day loans can have a role-for example, in avoiding excessive current account penalty charges. We also have in this country, much more so than in the European markets to which the hon. Lady referred, a pretty competitive and diverse market. The effect is that very few people in this country are totally excluded from the legal and, therefore, regulated-one might argue that it is not regulated well enough-and regulable part of the market.

There are always three key aspects to any debate on this subject. The first is the disclosure of information; education, so that people have the wherewithal to do something with that information; and the whole surrounding culture, particularly what we as a society aspire to regarding the balance between savings and debt to help people get through the ups and downs of life, which everyone has. I will not talk about that this morning because there is not much time and many Members wish to speak. The second area, which is the focus of the hon. Lady's ten-minute rule Bill, is smarter regulation, and the third is alternatives to high-cost credit. I will talk briefly about each of those aspects.

When it comes to regulation, we need to understand our objectives, of which there could be one or two. It might be either to reduce the cost of credit to people on very low incomes and who have great difficulties in their lives, or to reduce the prevalence of credit and debt for those people. That is an important distinction, because it might lead to one or two different things. For example, if one just wanted to reduce the costs, one might liberalise the rules on door-to-door canvassing for cash loans,
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because that would allow new entrants into the market more easily, which could undercut the existing players and cut the cost. However, not many of us would want to do that. If we are trying to reduce the prevalence of lending in those sectors, we might do the opposite and ban door-to-door canvassing even for non-cash loans-meaning voucher loans-because they are used, as the hon. Lady will know, as the way in to new customers, who can then be graduated on to higher value cash loans. My assumption is that the objective must always be both to reduce the cost to people who are taking on sub-prime loans, and to reduce the prevalence of such lending.

The second key question on objectives is whether we are trying to hammer a particular segment. As I said, each segment, if handled properly and responsibly, has a role. Therefore my assumption is that we are trying to target not a particular segment-for example, pay-day loans or home credit-but the principle of people paying sky-high rates for credit when they need it.

There are perennial problems when trying to make smarter regulation in this area. In particular, because it is such a diverse and organic market, as soon as we deal with one problem, another pops up. In fact, in some ways, it is because we deal with one problem that another pops up. Let me give a couple of examples. If we manage to bear down on cash lending, we will see-this is true in some of the American states to which the hon. Lady referred-an increase in rent-to-own, voucher lending and catalogue lending, with grey pricing. That is where the base price of the item is inflated such that at a 29.9% interest rate, to use a random example, the lender is making considerably more than that in terms of margin. If we bear down effectively on interest charges, there is the automatic tendency, it seems, for lenders to rely more heavily instead on behavioural penalties, which, in many types of lending, can end up costing far more than the apparent rate of interest.

With any cap that we put on the cost of lending, mathematically we will be disproportionately impacting on the highest-risk customers, which in this market means the lowest-income customers and usually the most vulnerable customers. At the extreme end, when we are talking about excluding those people, there is the danger that we will push them into the arms of illegal and unregulated moneylenders-the sort of people whose idea of a late-payment penalty is a cigarette burn to the forearm. Of course we all want to avoid that.

However, despite the perennial problems, there are still possibilities, many of which were outlined by the hon. Lady. APR is a widely misunderstood measure, and there is always the danger that anything we replace it with will also be widely misunderstood, but total cost of credit has more potential than APR to be understood.

On caps, I am a free-market Conservative, so in general I am not in favour of price controls. However, the hon. Lady made a good point in that regard. If we look throughout the European tradition world and the Anglo-Saxon tradition world, hardly anywhere has a market as liberal as ours in terms of the interest rate regime. Of course, before 1974-when there was a Conservative Government-there was a usury ceiling in this country. We have to ask the question: if we have got this so brilliantly right, how come other countries are not trying to copy us?

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I do not think it will work to go after individual markets saying, "We'll have this restriction on this product and that restriction on that product," because new products will just be invented. I wonder whether it is possible to come up with a formula that does away with the market's worst excesses, while not putting any individual segment of it entirely out of business.

I would love to hear the thoughts of my right hon. Friend the Minister on the regulation of rules and supplementary charges on loan roll-over, missed payments, minimum payments and so on. We also need to think about the way in which credit scoring works. By the time that people eventually seek help, many of them have run up eight, nine or 10 separate lines of credit. We have to wonder what the lenders of the eighth, ninth and 10th lines of credit were thinking. This is a matter of responsibility. Of course in terms of the maths, it might be perfectly rational for the lender to issue a lot of loans with relatively low credit-scoring hurdle points, in the knowledge that although they will have to write some off, that is still a more advantageous profit model than rejecting them.

Most of all, I would love to hear from the Minister on something the hon. Member for Walthamstow talked about at length-alternatives to high-cost credit, to which there are multiple aspects. For example, the social fund is probably due for a bit of root-and-branch reform. Here I am talking not about priority debts or emergency loans, but the discretionary fund. In addition, mainstream banks can be exhorted to develop bounce protection credit lines more quickly, which will stop so many people being forced into pay-day loans.

Above all, however, the opportunity is with credit unions. I welcome this morning's statement on the post office network, which gives some positive indications. Credit unions have made great strides in the last few years. Historically, they had been very strong in the west of Scotland, Manchester, Merseyside and parts of London, but not in the rest of the country. In recent years, the situation has improved, but we are still not at the point at which everyone can access a credit union.

The range of services has also improved dramatically, with the credit union current account, cash ISAs and so on. When the legislative reform order that we all hope will come along very soon is passed, that will make further strides in liberalising the common bond-in being able to pay fixed rates of interest on savings accounts and being able to bank to groups as well as individuals, which fits well with the big society agenda.

Mr Thomas: I do not seek to make a partisan point, but will the hon. Gentleman join me nevertheless in asking the Minister to clarify the future of the growth fund, which is due to end in March 2011 and provided significant money to help credit unions and other community finance organisations expand, in order to provide the access-to-credit alternatives he has described?

Damian Hinds: I am sure the Minister has heard the question and made a note of it. What I will say about the growth fund is that of course, capitalising credit unions to expand their customer base has many positive aspects. Not all credit unions were fully geared up to make maximum use of some aspects of the growth fund, and particularly the speed of the growth fund.

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I would also like to see other ways of further funds for lending going into credit unions. All of us, if we have not already done so, can open a savings account with a credit union. That is not a flippant point. We need to encourage more people at higher and middle rates of income to use credit unions as their place for savings, because then, of course, those savings become the source of loans to other people.

Credit unions do not yet exist on the critical scale at which there is mass awareness of the services available.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I particularly welcome the hon. Gentleman's observation that this is not necessarily a party political issue and that there is support on both sides of the House for many of the elements in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). There is a renewed sense of urgency about the issue, perhaps more so among we newer Members who have come by a community-organising route and have seen at first hand the effects in our communities. One thing that prevents credit unions from expanding is that they are seen as operating in charity offices and church halls and they lack the high-street presence of organisations such as BrightHouse, which can spend a lot of money on marketing and targeting people. Integrating credit unions more with the Post Office would have given them that mainstream appeal and access in all communities.

Damian Hinds: I thank the hon. Lady profusely and will remunerate her suitably later for teeing me up for my next sentence. One of the problems for credit unions, apart from lack of awareness of them in some sections of the community, is that they lack a high-street network throughout the country. Marrying them with the Post Office offers amazing synergistic opportunities for both sides. It marries the financial expertise and product base of the credit unions with the presence and trusted brand of the Post Office. We talked earlier about trusted brands.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): The point was made a few moments ago that it is important that middle-income people also join credit unions. I am pleased to have joined my local credit union, as I am sure everyone in the room has joined their local credit union, as a place for savings. The point about a high-street presence is extremely important. My local credit union in Crawley operates out of a community centre, which as we have heard is the norm. I very much support the idea of making credit unions mainstream, and it therefore becoming much more the norm for people to save and transact with them.

Damian Hinds: My hon. Friend makes a fine point, which I do not disagree with at all. I should say, for the avoidance of doubt, that my own savings account is with the United Savings & Loans credit union in Bordon. That fantastic institution has a high-street presence, but because of the rents in my part of the world, it is not the most prominent high-street presence. The established network of the Post Office could make a big difference to that. Of course, this is not just a matter of saying, "We'll work with the Post Office." It is also about the infrastructure that goes behind that-the electronics and the systems. That is why it is necessary to build a robust back-office system and interface. That takes
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money, but it does not necessarily have to come entirely from the Government, and it would be a mistake to think so. Such activities do of course carry with them a future income stream, and as everyone knows one can borrow against a future income stream. There is certainly a role for the Government in financing such a thing, but not just grant funding is needed.

Overall, the provision of alternatives is the surest and most important initiative that can be taken in this area. Whatever the regulation, people will always find ways to get around it, and we must strive to make things better.

Stella Creasy: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I understand and recognise his experience in the credit union movement. Does he agree that these are the very issues on which the credit review should be formally consulting? It should be looking not just at store and credit cards but at access to credit, and also the home credit market, pay-day lending and the many other products that may well be expanded, to try to tackle once and for all the needs of the poorest consumers.

Damian Hinds: I am supremely relaxed about the names that are given to reviews, discussions and discussion documents. The important thing is that members of the coalition Government take a keen interest in this area and are interested in making progress, and I know that they are. The name or title is of secondary concern.

The surest thing we can do is to provide a good, robust alternative, and thereby revolutionise affordable credit. We can also improve the savings culture in this country and provide a real alternative to the doorstep lenders about which we are all so concerned.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Front-Bench speakers will be called at 10 past 12, so it would be appreciated if Members kept their contributions short.

11.51 am

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)-sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, but soon to be promoted-for securing this debate. As a new Member, I am struck whenever I speak in Westminster Hall by the quality of the debates that take place here. It is such a shame that we do not have the same quality of debate on the Floor of the House, and I believe that that is recognised by all Members here.

Members on both sides of the Chamber have made good points. I know that many people wish to speak, so I intend to keep my remarks brief and largely to restrict them to the north-east and my constituency.

This problem arises in constituencies such as mine and many others because of a lack of affordable credit. People who work part-time and live on low incomes or minimum wage often find themselves with few options, which has resulted in an outbreak of high-cost credit. My constituency is large and made up of many small towns. I cannot walk down the high street of any of the small towns in my constituency without seeing an array of pawn shops that buy gold, cash cheques at exorbitant prices and generally prey on the poor in our communities who, like many hon. Members, I see in my surgery.

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In the past seven years, the number of pay-day loan users has increased fourfold and the number of pawnbrokers has trebled. That is happening in constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend. This is probably one of the best attended Westminster Hall debates that I have seen, so the problem clearly exists in other constituencies-not just in the north-east or poorer areas, but right across the country.

Irresponsible lending serves only to make things worse. Companies such as Oakam, which has been mentioned, and the Money Shop charge annual interest rates of more than 444%, despite a Bank of England base rate of just 0.5%. Borrowing at such rates can tip vulnerable people into a cycle of debt and poverty. High debt repayments are linked to rent, council tax and utility arrears, as well as other poverty indicators such as constraints on job-seeking behaviour, poor diet, cold homes, and mental and physical health problems.

The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) said, rightly, that loan sharking has not resulted from the comprehensive spending review, but the review will simply make things worse. The Government's plans to reduce housing benefit by 10% after a year will make things worse in constituencies such as mine. So far, the arguments in that debate have centred around what will happen in London, but the effects of the cuts will not be restricted to central London. In my constituency, they will mean people who are already struggling and in debt being forced to find another £15 a week that they simply do not have, and being forced to go to loan sharks and disreputable loan companies.

The north-east is a hot spot for illegal loan sharking. The North East Illegal Money Lending Team, which was set up by the previous Government in December 2007, has identified 1,083 illegal lenders-92 in the first quarter of this year; convicted 40 loan sharks; and saved borrowers more than £2 million. When loan sharks are convicted, the cases are publicised widely in the local press and on television.

Some people have argued that a cap on total lending will simply increase illegal loan sharking, but, coming from an area where it is prolific and is blighting the lives of the poor, I would argue that a cap on total lending, as well as investigating and jailing loan sharks, and publicising the cases widely, would improve the position for the poor in my constituency.

This is very much a gender issue. Fair Finance, a social enterprise bank that offers loans and debt advice, has seen clear trends in those seeking its help: 75% are women, 70% are single mothers and 80% are on benefits. The issue disproportionately affects women. In the north-east, there are recorded cases of women being forced into prostitution because of loan sharks.

All families-all of us-experience financial emergencies from time to time, but when a financial emergency hits a poorer household, it is often the catalyst that sets it into a downward spiral of debt. Many people in such situations are vulnerable at all kinds of levels. Many live on the margins and are preyed upon routinely. One of my constituents was forced to borrow £200-a relatively small sum-from a loan shark to fund a trip to Wales. His sister had been murdered by her partner, and he needed to make a trip from the north-east to Wales to organise the funeral and to settle her debts and affairs. His neighbours rallied round and paid off the loan, but
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many of them are also poor and vulnerable. If those people can see that there is an issue, surely we can, too, and the Government should act on it.

Andrew Bridgen: The hon. Lady speaks with great passion about individuals in her constituency, and I really feel for them. I hate the phrase, "This is not a partisan point," because we all know what comes next, so I shall not say it. Does she think that the previous Government's claims to have ended boom and bust encouraged or discouraged vulnerable people to gear up with more debt?

Pat Glass: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I do not think that it is relevant to the debate, or helpful.

The current situation of allowing very high interest rates to be charged to the lowest-income households leads to greater wealth inequality and greater child poverty, and it constrains efforts to regenerate deprived communities. We have heard about Provident Personal Credit, a legal loan company that operates widely in the north-east. It controls 60% of the home credit and legal doorstep lending there. It mainly offers small, short-term and unsecured cash loans. The typical annual percentage rate on a Provident loan is 272.2%, and 70% of its customers are women. The Government can address those issues and make the lives of those living in the poorest households easier.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Pat Glass: I was about to say what the Government could do, but I shall give way.

Richard Graham: On the three recommendations made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), does the hon. Lady agree that the second, which was about the role played by credit unions in the post office network, is the most exciting opportunity for combating loan sharks that we have seen in this country for a long time? The Minister with responsibility for the Post Office has already made it clear that he welcomes a future role for credit unions in the structure and distribution network of Post Office Ltd. In my constituency, the new Gloucestershire Credit Union, which is partly funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, represents an important step forward for us all in our different constituencies.

Pat Glass: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which I was going to come on to. What I will say now is that this is not either/or, and we can do both.

The Government could provide a cap now on the total lending rate that may be charged for providing credit, and on additional interest on late payments and default charges, and that could be targeted on companies that charge excessive interest-and then interest again on that charge-to customers who borrow from them. That would be a popular move. A recent YouGov poll, carried out in April 2010 and highlighted on the "End Legal Loan Sharking" campaign's website, found that 89% of the people polled would support such a move.

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The Government could also provide alternative sources of affordable credit. Many organisations have called for such action on high-street loan sharking, including Compass, Citizens UK and the "End Legal Loan Sharking" campaign. The Government need to provide local authorities with powers to enable them to restrict the provision of premises for licensed consumer credit agencies within a local area, and to give locals a say over what happens in their high street. When people are asked, they say that they do not want these pawnbrokers and "gold for cash" or high-interest-rate companies on their high streets.

I am disappointed by this morning's announcement that the people's bank will not be part of the post office network, as it could provide affordable short-term credit. Using the post office network to provide back-office functions that integrated the network's services with credit unions would help the poorest people to access credit unions, current accounts and savings accounts through post office branches. However, I welcome the announcement about bringing together the synergy of post offices and credit unions.

The credit review and a cap on interest on store and credit cards are both welcome, but in themselves will not help the poorest people in my constituency and in many others. A credit review would seem to be the right way to go, but I ask the Minister to look again at the terms of reference and to include some of the very strong arguments that have been made from both sides of the Chamber today.

The Government need to do something to stop what is happening. It seems that the only growth on high streets in my constituency and in many others is in charity shops and pawnbrokers. The Government have made a commitment to reducing child poverty and this would be a very good place to start.

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

12.2 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I shall be very brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on introducing the debate on those very important issues. She has certainly done her research. The previous Government did some very good work on the regulation of consumer credit, with the Consumer Credit Act 2006. Coming down the line in February 2011 we have the EU directive, and the main thing that that will introduce is the provision that in any credit agreement the customer has to be given standard information. I hope that that, too, will be helpful.

The quality of the contributions to the debate illustrates how complex this issue is-there are other sides to the story. I was speaking to the Finance and Leasing Association this morning, and it is concerned that excessive regulation will shrink the market. The market is contracting at the moment, and that might polarise it.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): We could be in danger of using a blunt instrument here, and as has been said, if we knock an apple down, it will bob up somewhere else as an alternative product that cannot be legislated against, so we will continually be revisiting legislation. As was mentioned, the answer is more in education, so that people get the difference between the costs of credit.

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Lorely Burt: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, it is very important to look at the whole cost of a loan rather than necessarily relying on an interest rate. The Finance and Leasing Association is concerned that if we cap the interest rate the market will migrate towards the maximum, with high-risk consumers being cross-subsidised by lower-risk ones because somewhere or other the risk has to be funded.

Stella Creasy: Does the hon. Lady share my concern that listening to the Finance and Leasing Association on how to protect the poorest consumers is a bit like listening to burglars telling us that muggers are not very nice because they take people's property to their face?

Lorely Burt: A burglar might have a lot of expertise in telling us how to keep our homes safe, so it is important to keep an open mind and listen to everybody in the argument. The point is that the association is concerned that if we over-regulate, illegal loan sharks will fill the void left behind when other, more reputable lenders leave the market.

The Office of Fair Trading did a review this year of high-cost credit products, pawnbroking, pay-day loans and home collection credit. It concluded that capping price controls was not necessarily the answer:

Were a cap introduced, there would be a risk of all lenders raising their interest rates to match their competitors, thus making access to loans more difficult for borrowers. The cost of loans is twofold-it is a combination of interest rate and length of term of borrowing-so although some interest rates are very high, that can be offset by the length of the loan. The variety of lending options ensures that the specific requirements of all consumers can be met.

I shall not go into the pay-day and home credit loans, or indeed store credit cards. The point is that they all have a role to play, provided that they are properly regulated. We have heard reference today to the review by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury. I know that they are covering slightly more than credit and store cards; indeed, they are covering an issue that I have raised in my private Member's Bill-unauthorised overdraft charges. I am very hopeful that we will now get a good resolution on that. I would, however, appreciate clarification from the Minister as to what we will be covering, because my understanding is that we could take the opportunity to consider that important and complex issue.

Finally, is not the answer to give deprived communities better access to mainstream debt? We have talked about the Post Office and basic bank accounts. Everyone has a right to a basic bank account, and that should be much better promoted. We have talked about credit unions, and some companies, such as My Home Finance, have reduced their APR to 29.9%. That might sound like a lot of money, but in the context of illegal loan sharks it is quite something. I look forward to the Minister's problems-sorry, the Minister's comments [Laughter.] He certainly has enough problems, that's for sure. In all this, it is important that we take into account the fact that, somewhere, we have to price for risk.

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Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Justin Tomlinson, you have two minutes.

12.8 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I will be exceptionally brief. My huge notes have been cut back dramatically, and I will focus on one point. First, I quickly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for both this crucial debate and the ten-minute rule Bill, the thrust of the arguments of which I support. So, there is cross-party support.

I want to concentrate on the important element of financial education. It is essential to provide financial education to equip people to make informed decisions. Working with the national financial education charity, the Personal Finance Education Group, and Martin Lewis of www.moneysavingexpert.com, I am launching an all-party group on financial education, with a focus on securing compulsory financial education in schools. It will launch on 31 January. This is a very brief plea to all Members who are still in this important debate to come and join the group, so that we can help future generations to make informed decisions.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is really important to get financial education into our schools because one of the big problems with things such as credit unions is that people do not understand what they are. Banks come into schools, but we do not know about the whole range of the market.

Justin Tomlinson: My hon. Friend makes a really important point. According to a survey carried out by the Nationwide Building Society, 91% of people who got into financial difficulty said that if they had had better financial education, they might not have made the decisions they did. The number of people who think that a higher APR is better than a lower one is worrying, and reinforces the point that financial education is absolutely essential.

12.9 pm

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I join others who have spoken in commending my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing the debate and how she introduced it, and for her ten-minute rule Bill of a week or so ago, which others also referenced. She has done a huge amount of research and has made a powerful case for smarter regulation. She and others focused on the impact on some of the most vulnerable in the various communities we represent of access to finance going wrong, and the associated issues.

My hon. Friend highlighted three specific issues that she wanted the Minister to include in his Department's review. The first was to consider regulation of the total cost of borrowing and how much interest different financial products can carry. She pointed to experience across the European Union and north America, where similar measures have been introduced. She referenced the need for a levy on those who sell credit to pay for debt counselling and advice services, and she pushed for increased accessibility of credit union services and their integration with the Post Office.

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