The Government last week published plans to tackle the excesses of the consumer credit industry with a white paper on loans and credit.
The proposals would represent the first major overhaul of the consumer credit law in 30 years and include plans to introduce a duty to lend responsibly. It also moves to stamp out bully-boy debt collection tactics and provides for a stronger credit licensing regime, with fines for companies that breach the rules. There is a new, broader test of 'unfairness' proposed, covering contract terms and sales practices, as well as the interest rate charged on lending, and new powers for third-party action to be taken by consumer groups.
Citizens Advice Bureau chief executive David Harker welcomed the proposals and said that "abuse should no longer be able to shelter behind bad law". Last year, Citizens Advice Bureaux dealt with over a million new debt cases, with over half being consumer credit debt problems. In particular, the charity welcomed plans for fairer early settlement charges, but was "disappointed" that the white paper did not go further and decide to abolish these altogether.
According to the Department of Trade and Industry, if everyone switched to a cheaper credit card, consumers would save around £1.9bn, which works out at more than £400 per household.
Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the National Consumer Council (NCC), said the new duty on lenders to treat customers fairly represented "a major breakthrough in consumer protection", and particularly welcomed a tougher licensing regime. "Together, these measures should enable the enforcement authorities to crack down on a much wider range of undesirable business practices and exploitative credit agreements quickly and effectively," she said. The NCC also called for close monitoring of how the fairness tests work and predicted that the Government would "have no alternative" but consider interest rate caps.
The NCC argued that the new licensing regime would have to be resourced properly. Hutton said: "It must do far better than today's woefully inadequate system, where lenders pay less than £1 a day for their licence – leaving taxpayers to stump up £1m a week to police the system."