Charities and financial advisers are calling on the government to use the Queen’s speech to address the “bubble” of unmanageable debt that households are rapidly accumulating.
Unsecured consumer credit – including credit cards, car loans and payday loans – is this year expected to hit levels not seen since the 2008 financial crash.
There has been concern in the Bank of England that consumer spending is being underpinned by debt, amid comparisons to the run-up to the financial crash. In addition, figures published last week show inflation reached a four-year high in May, meaning shopping is getting increasingly expensive, further intensifying the squeeze on household budgets.
Debt advisers are urging the government to make good on fulfil a promise in the Conservative manifesto to introduce a scheme where those in serious debt are protected by law from further interest, charges and enforcement action for up to six weeks. Many campaigners would like to see this extended further, to up to a year.
“It would be excellent if the government in the Queen’s speech committed to helping households who are struggling with debt. It really is one of the great problems of the time that politicians have to grapple with,” said Peter Tutton, head of policy at debt charity StepChange. “We are seeing more and more households struggling just to make basic ends meet – to pay their rent, to pay their council tax, to pay their gas bill. We would like to see the government say, ‘we need to do something about this’.”
The charity estimates that 2.9 million people in the UK are experiencing severe financial debt in the aftermath of the recession. One reason is that many who lost their jobs found new jobs that were less well paid.
Sara Williams, the author of Debt Camel, a blog advising on money problems, said: “The recent large increases in consumer credit … look alarming to debt advisers – very much like a bubble building up.”
Martyn James, from online complaints service Resolver, said the website had seen a sharp rise in the number of grievances about financial difficulties over the past few months. “There is a large amount of credit out there and a large [number] of people who are trying different types of credit as a way to keep afloat,” he said.
Store cards in particular appeared to be re-emerging as a problem, James added. These cards are often offered with incentives by retailers, such as an introductory discount at point of sale, although interest rates tend to be far higher than on normal credit cards.
“Undoubtedly, there are huge numbers of people relying on credit and we are hearing that many of them are concerned that they will not be able to pay if interest rates go up slightly, or if there is a rise in their mortgage rate. So people are very much up to the line,” he said.
Last week the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee left interest rates on hold but it took City analysts by surprise because three of the eight committee members wanted to raise them. Analysts had expected only one member to vote for a rise, which would push up the costs of mortgages and other credit for many borrowers and could lead to further repayment problems.
The Financial Ombudsman Servicecorrect reported last week that complaints about payday loans had risen sharply and were nine times higher than two years ago. It received 10,529 new complaints about these short-term credit products in the 2016-17 financial year. This was a rise from 3,216 complaints during the previous year.
Tutton said that while there was generally more credit available to consumers, the interest rates were not necessarily cheaper. “There is a picture here of a large group of households struggling with their fingers on the edge,” he said. “Credit is becoming more available. Our worry is that if households are already vulnerable, you put those two things together and it creates a different problem.”
The Treasury did not respond to queries about whether the issue will feature in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday.