Household debt rises to post-credit crunch high

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education and social affairs reporter

Money worriesImage source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Juggling debts can be stressful

Household debt has risen to its highest level since just after the financial crash of 2008, official figures show.

Bank of England data shows personal debt grew 10.8% in the year to 30 November to £192.2bn in the UK - the highest level since December 2008.

Debt charity Step Change is calling on the government to adopt a scheme that gives problem debtors 12 months' breathing space to get back on track.

The government says it is reviewing whether to bring in such a scheme.

But that decision is now 12 months overdue, and the charity estimates that a further one million people fell into problem debt during this period.

Bank of England statistics show that personal debt, including credit cards and bank loans but not including mortgages or student loans, has been growing at a yearly rate of 10% for the past six months.

And last month the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned about the high level of debt in UK households.

Debt counsellors say many debtors are now using credit cards to pay for essential living costs, rather than luxury items.

Things are likely to get tougher for many people, with inflation expected to rise in 2017.

Step Change says lenders, regulators and the government need to ensure that the mistakes made in the lead-up to the financial crisis are not repeated, and is calling for better policies to protect those who fall into financial difficulty.

The "breathing space" scheme would give problem debtors statutory protection from the interest, penalty charges and enforcement actions that banks and credit card firms tend to ramp up when borrowers get into difficulty.

Such charges can add thousands of pounds to existing debts and push individuals into even worse financial hardship.

'Downward debt cycle'

In return for protection, a debtor would agree a formal debt management plan which sets out a schedule of payments and offers help in managing budgets.

Scotland has run a similar scheme, the Debt Arrangement Scheme, since 2004.

But under current law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, those struggling with debt only qualify for such protection if they take the serious step of becoming insolvent.

'Credit safety net'

StepChange says for most of its clients, this solution is not appropriate.

It adds that 60% of its clients' situations stabilised once creditors froze charges and enforcement actions, arguing that lenders are more likely to get their money back.

At the same time, it says, it has experienced the busiest period in its history, with more than 300,000 people calling it for money advice in the first six months of 2016.

The charity is calling on the government to keep a pledge made in March 2015 to review the possibility of introducing such a scheme.

Publication of the review's findings was expected in December 2015.

Charity chief executive Mike O'Connor said if the government is to help people who are just about managing, personal debt needs to become a priority.

He said: "Millions of people are increasingly vulnerable to changes in circumstance that could pitch them into a downward cycle of debt.

"With a pared back and unresponsive welfare system, borrowing increasingly becomes the 'credit safety net' on which people rely.

"The 'breathing space' scheme is a practical way to support those struggling at little or no cost to the Exchequer," he said.

Job loss

Peter Tutton, head of policy at the charity, said people in problem debt would be receiving letters threatening court action and enforcement action.

"What tends to trigger that is a shock to their income, such as a job loss or maybe they have a big bill to repair the car.

"For people on the edge, it is easy to fall off the cliff, and once they start falling, things can spiral very quickly."

He explained that about half of creditors tended to give debtors time to regain control of their finances, but if there are multiple creditors that relies on all of them doing the same thing.

These may be debts to High Street banks, credit card firms, local authority council tax departments and even the Department for Work and Pensions.

A spokesman for the Treasury said: "HM Treasury and the Insolvency Service are currently reviewing whether some form of 'breathing space' would be a useful and viable addition to the range of formal and informal debt solutions available to consumers and creditors.

"We are working with stakeholders with a view to identifying possible options and will report back shortly."

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said: "Most people are currently able to handle this extra borrowing, but if the economy does indeed suffer in the years ahead, these extra debts could become even more difficult to repay.

"We would urge households to review their financial position carefully before taking on any new borrowing, and consider how they would cope with the repayments in the event their circumstances take a turn for the worse."

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