The Daily Mirror, John Denham MP and fee-charging debt management companies

Andrew Smith, marketing director of ClearDebt answers MP John Denham remarks about the regulation of debt management companies in an open letter.

Dear Tricia and John,

I read both your pieces in the Daily Mirror:

No room for debt rogues

I do agree there’s no room at all for rogue debt management services – and I strongly believe that the coming 12-24 months will see the industry I work in and believe in contract to about half it’s current size – at least in terms of the number of companies trading.

That could be a disaster for debt advice in the UK, of course, because the free-to-client sector tells us they can only deal with half the demand.

But, I believe fee-chargers will be able to take up the slack and that they will do so without causing consumer detriment. Tricia, I believe we are on the brink of being fully regulated and that we will thrive as a result.

John, it was good to see you say that there are some “excellent companies out there”: I really believe that, not long from now, it will be only those companies that are left.

Debt advisors with training and standards

The industry is taking pains to be able to show consumers that we are worth our fees – with a 210 hour study, properly examined, Advanced BTEC qualification for the advisers employed by Debt Resolution Forum (DRF) members, with a truly independent complaints process and with annual independent inspection by a government trusted regulator (the Insolvency Practitioners’ Association).

Debt Advice is not enough

Much of the advice provided by the fee-free sector just stops at advice. Good advice – but that’s all. Often clients aren’t given the robust friend they need to ensure they pay their contribution monthly and that it gets distributed to creditors. And, one can’t be sure it’s always the right advice either. In their 2010 annual report, one of the largest free sector organisations, which advises people at every income level, says that it advises Individual Voluntary Arrangements – a really good deal for creditors and debtors who are suitable – in about seven per cent of cases. That ‘s probably three or four times lower than it should be.

….40 minutes or so on the phone. Roughly half our well-trained advisors time is spent giving good advice for which we will never charge a penny.

Oh – and the advice? Clients sometimes can’t get that either from the free sector. The same organisation’s report says it only offers advice at time of first call to 25% of enquirers. Face to face advice offered by services like CAB is unable to deliver the volumes that are necessary, and, in any case, people with debt problems often need multiple sessions in order to understand their own situation.  Almost all fee-chargers offer this call for free to all their enquirers – and it usually represents 40 minutes or so on the phone. Roughly half our well-trained and yes, well-paid, advisors time is spent giving good advice for which we will never charge a penny.

You both mentioned the OFT found 129 firms in breach with action being taken against 54. And that they didn’t name and shame. I agree – there is a dilemma here, but many breaches were minor – a significant number had already been corrected and, as in every other sector in which they work, the OFT consider revealing names to be a presumption of guilt – and everyone is allowed a fair hearing, right?

Well – I think there will be many more who do lose their licences or who are required to change the way they work and that will be a good thing. But there are also many (take DRF members for instance) who are committed to fairness, transparency and high standards.

Debt procedures could change

Now,  John, I have to take you up on your politics too. You say that Labour left the Tories with the opportunity to act as a result of your 2009 consultation.

If this is the Ministry of Justice consultation on regulated debt management plans then, I believe, it was completed in 2009 and it was a Labour ministerial decision NOT to publish: I may be wrong – but I don’t think I am. It’s now, I’m led to believe, with the Insolvency Service and, I think, likely to form part of a consultation later this year that has a chance of radically changing the landscape for debt solutions. So, the effort’s not wasted. Credit where credit’s due too: The OFT’s new debt management guidance published last week was a result of work almost all of which was done while the last Labour Government was in office.

I absolutely agree with John that simply providing guidance on money isn’t the way to go: time and time again we see debtors situations go from bad to worse if all they get is guidance or advice.

People with debt problems need solutions as well as advice.

Some debtors can afford to pay and there is no reason why creditors shouldn’t pay in almost every case (after all, having priced their products on the basis that they have a good inkling of the proportion that will fail to repay, any return the banks and credit card companies get from debt collection is bunts).

The ultimate disappearance of the OFT is, by the way, probably a good thing for the tighter regulation of the debt resolution sector. Under the Financial Conduct Authority (or whatever it’s called today) we’ll fall under a rules based regime that will make compliance even more central to the way we work than it is today.

For many, the fee-charging debt resolution sector provides good advice and well-managed solutions. Well managed companies in the sector should be working more closely with the publicly funded and creditor funded organisations.

Without us, many would simply go unadvised and more would get good advice, but no real debt help. A move to funding the Money Advice Service might see that get worse.

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