Debt Management Companies: You get what you pay for…

ClearDebt interviewed on BBC Radio 4 – and here are all the things about debt management plans we wish they’d given us the time to say.

When it comes to dealing with your debts I strongly believe that much of the fee-charging debt resolution sector does an excellent job for it’s clients – and I was pleased to be invited onto BBC Radio 4’s “Your and Yours” programme this morning, to defend this position.

My co-interviewee was John Fairhurst from Payplan, a company in the creditor-funded sector – he’s a guy I have a lot of respect for, so, it was a bit disappointing to find ourselves on opposite sides of an argument for a change. But, we did our five minutes with Winifred Robinson and then plonked ourselves down in Caffe Nero in Manchester’s Oxford Road and set the world to rights. Well, almost.

He and I do have a different perspective on some things. Where we don’t differ is for the need for my whole industry to pick itself up and ensure we are offering the quality service clients have a right to expect and that there is some sort of quality mark that ensures consumers don’t get taken in by cowboys.

John, whose advice is paid for by the people you owe money to, thinks this should be done by new laws. I think, working with bodies like the Office of Fair Trading, that the industry should sort itself out. That’s what the trade body ClearDebt belongs to, the Debt Resolution Forum (DRF), is trying to do.

Our piece lasted five minutes or so, which is way too short to deal with all the relevant issues. I think there are some big differences between the creditor-funded and charitable sectors and people like us, who charge fees – and i think you get what you pay for. So, here are all the things I wish I’d had time to say this morning:

  • Come to ClearDebt and you get free advice – up to the point where you start paying into either a debt management plan or an individual voluntary arrangement (IVA). Then we charge, but in the case of IVAs, finish the plan and it’s the creditors that, effectively, pay the fees.
  • Go to Citizens’ Advice and, most of the time, you get a DIY debt management plan and no help with making distributions to creditors. Worse, most creditors won’t freeze interest and charges on a CAB DIY DMP.
  • The Ministry of Justice thinks some creditors are adding the payments they make to creditor-funded debt management companies to peoples’ debts. Not so free after all.
  • Why, if the creditor-funded sector is so effective, aren’t the banks and credit card companies offering to allow ethical companies from the fee-charging sector access to the so-called “fair-share” club?
  • Why do so many creditors freeze interest and charges on DMPs put forward by companies like ClearDebt? Surely they wouldn’t if they thought we were doing a bad job?
  • Why is it that (John’s figures these) the proportion of debt plans written by fee-chargers has gone up from about half to around three-quarters? We mystery shop all the time, and we see that it can often take days to get a telephone appointment to speak to an advisor from a creditor-funded DMP provider – We’d be appalled if we could not pick up the call and give advice there and then. One of the most senior individuals in the charitable sector has said they can only deal with half the enquiries they receive. No wonder our share is increasing.
  • All ClearDebt’s advisors have CertDR after their names. They have done 120 hours study and taken three exams with a 70% pass mark in order to do their job properly. This certainly isn’t true of, for example, Citizen’s Advice’s thousands of volunteers, who provide a very patchy service. (I’ve blogged about this before).
  • Roughly one in five/six of the schemes we put forward are IVAs (Individual Voluntary Arrangements), not debt management plans. IVAs are, often the best and most certain solution for someone who owes money they cant repay. Anecdotally, we are only passing a slightly higher percentage of our cases as IVAs than the industry as whole. Why then does one of the largest not-for-profit providers say that it only passes 2% – if they are speaking to the same people we are, they should be advising IVAs up to ten times as often as it appears they are.
  • Every time someone in debt goes to Citizen’s Advice it costs taxpayers hundreds of pounds (there is a recent National Audit Office Report on this). Perhaps it is also moral and ethical that the people who got into debt – and their creditors – should pay to get out of debt, rather than (especially right now) it be another charge on the public purse?

I am proud of what we do. It was great to have an opportunity to tell BBC Radio 4 listeners a little about what we do. Those who know me will testify I can talk about debt help until the cows come home.

I wish I’d had that opportunity today.

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