Debt advice can be life-changing, but advisers can’t work miracles

By Sharon Collard and Jamie Evans

Two years on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, at least 8.5 million people in the UK need debt advice from a regulated provider, fuelled by a cost of living crisis that is stretching the finances of millions of UK households to breaking point. Even so, our research suggests that only a minority of people who would benefit from debt advice will actually seek it – a conundrum that has exercised the debt advice sector, creditors, regulators and governments for decades. Where people do seek debt advice, the evidence shows that only a minority get all the information or help they feel they need.

The Coronavirus Financial Impact Tracker was commissioned by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust in March 2020 to capture the financial impact of pandemic on UK households through a series of periodic cross-sectional online surveys conducted by YouGov and analysed by the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre. Five surveys were conducted over the course of the pandemic, the last one in October 2021.

One of the things the surveys ask about is whether people sought debt advice from any free-to-use debt advice providers (such as Citizens Advice, National Debtline, StepChange Debt Charity) or fee-charging companies. Looking at the survey findings from October 2021, we see that only 5% of UK households said they had received any spoken advice about their financial situation since the start of the pandemic; 7% had received online advice (e.g. via by WhatsApp or webchat); and 4% had received both spoken and online advice (Table 1).

Not surprisingly, households in worse financial situations were more likely to have received advice over that period – 17% of households classed as ‘in serious financial difficulty’ had received spoken advice; 26% had received online advice and 13% had received both spoken and online advice (Table 1). That still means most households ‘in serious financial difficulty’ did not get any information or help about their financial situation from a debt advice provider, even though 93% of them said thinking about their financial situation made them anxious, 85% were struggling to pay for food and/or bills, and 55% were in arrears on at least one bill/credit commitment.

It could be that government financial support and payment deferrals from lenders helped many of these households weather the financial impact of the pandemic, but such assistance is unlikely to have resolved underlying debt problems. They may also have relied on self-help and obtained the information they needed from other sources that we did not ask about in the survey.

Table 1

We also asked advice-seekers whether they received all the information or help they needed from the debt advice provider they contacted. Almost half (46%) of all advice-seekers said they only received some of the information or help they needed; and a further 14% said they received none. This picture was amplified among advice-seekers who were ‘in serious financial difficulty’, where only a quarter (25%) said they received all the information or help they needed (Table 2).

Table 2

These findings raise some fundamental questions about why people aren’t seeking help who seem to need it; but also why most advice seekers are not getting all the information or help they feel they need – particularly those ‘in serious financial difficulty’.

Despite all the positive help that debt advice agencies provide, there are limits to what can be achieved for people in serious difficulties who have little or no spare income to pay back what they owe and for whom bankruptcy or debt relief fees may be prohibitive. In some cases, debt advisers may be able to do no more than confirm there is no real tangible help available or any recourse to additional financial support. This points to the need for wider reforms outside the debt advice sector such as adequate state safety nets, real living wages and better access to debt relief.

In addition, advice-seekers may need other services such as welfare benefits advice or legal help with their debts that debt advice services can’t offer. It could also be the case that people have expectations of debt advice services that exceed the reality of what these services can offer. Addressing these questions is important to ensure that debt advice reaches more people who need it and delivers good outcomes for the people who use it.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on undergraduate student accommodation

By Katie Cross

Since 2014, we have surveyed undergraduate students at the University of Bristol to help us understand the impact that finances have on the experience of studying at the University. Our latest survey, conducted in May 2021[1], allowed us to ask students about their financial experiences of the 2020-21 academic year, more than a full year after Covid-19 first hit. As part of our survey this year, we incorporated several questions specifically on student accommodation, namely where respondents were living at the time of the survey, whether they had lived anywhere else during term-time, whether they had an adequate provision of study whilst at alternative accommodation and what impact Covid-19 had on their accommodation costs. We also allowed students to comment qualitatively about their accommodation experience.

Over the summer of 2020, Covid-19 restrictions were gradually eased: we emerged from the first national lockdown at the end of June with pubs, hairdressers and restaurants reopening in July, and in August, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was introduced, to encourage us further back into pubs and restaurants[2]. In May 2020[3], the University of Bristol announced that it would be open to students from the start of the 2020-21 academic year, offering a blended approach of campus and online education; large-scale lectures would be moved online but face-to-face small group teaching and mentoring would go ahead.

With that in mind, many students moved to Bristol for the start of the academic year, either for the first time or as returning undergraduates. However, further restrictions on the number of people allowed to mix indoors, along with the national lockdowns in November 2020 and January 2021 meant that much of the 2020-21 academic year was again heavily disrupted for students. Although urged to stay in Bristol until the end of Autumn Term, many students went home before the lockdown restrictions came into force in November. Others locked down at University and waited until the Christmas break to travel home. After Christmas all students were advised not to return for their second term, and the Government announced that in-person teaching would not resume again until the 17th May 2021 at the earliest[4].

Many were frustrated that they were required to pay for University accommodation that they weren’t  living in and even prior to the November national lockdown some students were frustrated by having to self-isolate within halls[5]. Controversy had arisen over the quality of foodboxes provided to students required to self-isolate[6], although some were pleased with what they had received[7]. Many students were also angry at how little face-to-face teaching they were receiving and by the 24th October 2020, over 1,000 Bristol students had signed up to the University of Bristol Rent Strike campaign[8]. The students were calling for rent reductions, no-penalty contract releases and better conditions for those living in halls during lockdown (Figure 1). While some concessions and rebates were won, by May 2021 students and the University of Bristol were still in dispute[9][10][11].

Figure 1: Rent strike Bristol demands

This turbulent year for students has had a real impact on student mental health, which we will explore in a separate blog. Here, we focus specifically on the student experience in relation to their accommodation; patterns of movement and how students felt about living arrangements during 2020-21.

Movement of students

When we ran our survey in May 2021 over three quarters (77%) of first year students were living in halls, 10% were renting privately and 12% were living at home with parents. Second and third year students on the other hand were much more likely to be renting privately (86%), with only 5% in halls and 7% living with parents. The percentage of students in all years living with parents was higher in May 2021 than it had been pre-Covid (Table 1) from our previous annual survey two years before, although still only a minority of students were living at home.

Table 1: Student accommodation type by year group – 2019 vs 2021 (annual survey comparison)

Around half of students reported living in different accommodation at some point during term-time

We asked students whether they had lived anywhere else that academic year during term-time (other than where they were living in May 2021 – when the survey was taken). For instance, this could refer to students who lived in halls before Christmas but were at their parent’s home by May 2021, or those who were living in halls in May but who had moved home to live with parents earlier in the year, e.g. during lockdowns, and then back again to Bristol.

Given the lack of in-person teaching and restrictions, it is perhaps surprising that fewer than half of students overall (48%) reported living in different accommodation at some point that academic year. First year students were significantly less likely (44%) than second and third years (51%) to report moving accommodation during term-time. This is again unexpected, given that first year students were more likely than their second and third year peers to live in University-owned halls, and therefore to be offered some form of rebate (as seen below in Table 2). In contrast, those living in private accommodation were required to negotiate with a range of private landlords for any such rebate. It may be that remaining on campus was more important to first year students, trying to settle in, than those with a year or more to embed themselves in the University student community.

The impact on study provision

Around half of students who moved (47%) reported having inadequate provision for study at their alternative accommodation, with a lack of adequate space (36%) and of adequate broadband connection (26%) being notable issues. Qualitatively, some students reported difficult living conditions at home as a reason for returning to campus despite the lockdown, amid concerns over the potential impact on their academic performance.

  • “I live in a basement flat and my room is very small with no natural light. It is depressing and I have nowhere else to work, so my motivation to complete my degree has plummeted. As a third year, I really feel that this has therefore had a substantial impact on my grades. Without a comfortable or acceptable working space it has been a nightmare to concentrate” – Year three female

Many students paid for unused accommodation  

Despite the University offering rebates[13], these were only for those living in halls, so primarily first year students. Unite owned halls also offered rebates to students[14]. However, according to our survey, very few (4%) second and third-year students were offered a refund for their accommodation (Table 2), as they were much more likely to be renting privately (Table 1). Many second- and third-year students reported spending little time, if any, within their Bristol accommodation but still having to pay their rent there in full.

  • “I have had to pay for a flat that has gone entirely unused while also paying money to live at home with my parents” – Year three, male

Our research indicated that only around a quarter of students (26%) received some form of refund, while a similar proportion paid for University accommodation in full despite not living there at certain periods (25%)[15].  As mentioned, this varied greatly by year group with nearly half of first year students (49%) receiving some form of refund, compared to only 4% of second and third year students (Table 2). Separate research conducted nationwide by Save the Student, estimated that students spent £1bn in a year on empty accommodation and that the average student spent £1,621 in rent for unrefunded rooms[16].

Table 2: The impact of Covid-19 on accommodation costs (2020-21 academic year)

Uncertainty over level of in-person teaching

Importantly, students may have made different accommodation choices if they had been prewarned clearly how little face-to-face tuition they would receive, difficult though that would have been for the University. Instead, under uncertainty they could respond very differently, as these two responses show.

  • “The university told me that it was highly advisable to live in Bristol if possible. So, I’ve ended up paying 12 months rent for flat that I’ve lived in for 3 months” – Year two male
  • “Because my course was online for term 2, I was able to go home, save the rent money that can be used for my summer rent at the 2nd year house” – Year one, female student

Lockdown living

Some of those who remained in student accommodation during term-time found it very isolating, and this could have impacted on their mental health. This was particularly true for first year students, who had not yet had the opportunity to build support and friendship networks.

  • “I lived on my own for 4 months with no flatmates, in a national lock down. It was not the best experience” – year one female
  • “Not been able to meet people outside of my flat really. Very isolating and limited” – year one, female
  • “Living in a house of 9 people was very uncomfortable when COVID-19 was extremely prevalent. Due to COVID-19 infections our house had to quarantine for about 3-4 weeks. After being locked in a house with no garden and really poor facilities I travelled home because it was mentally no longer feasible to remain in Bristol” – year two male

Others noted that some of the key social facilities normally offered as part of their accommodation had been closed e.g., common rooms or study rooms, and so felt they had paid for something they didn’t have access to. Some also found that the maintenance of the accommodation was poor, as a result of the Covid rules.

  • “It resulted in us paying for facilities (gym; music rooms; common rooms; hall bar; study rooms) that we were promised but have never had access to” – year one, female

Greater financial and emotional support needed for students

Overall, many students understandably expressed their disappointment with their accommodation experience over the past year. It has clearly been difficult for students academically, socially and in terms of mental wellbeing, and it is important that the University listens to and learns from their experiences. Whilst it would have been impossible for any university to know ahead of time precisely how its 2020-21 academic year would play out, there needs to be greater recognition that much of the adversity was borne by students, particularly first years with no prior familiarity with the University or their fellow students, who might reasonably have been expecting a greater duty of care to be shown to them. The pandemic was obviously very unsettling for academic, administrative and support staff as well, but not only did almost all have previous experience of working under lockdown conditions from 2019-20 but also had local homes to work from and supportive local communities, so were not faced with a parallel set of decisions and realities over the upheaval to their Bristol-based accommodation.

With hindsight, greater financial hardship support could have been offered to students who were struggling to pay for their rent; those who couldn’t work as they expected (either in term-time or the holidays) or whose family income had dropped because of the pandemic, for example. And while lockdowns were not within the control of the University, how it  communicated with students about these changes was. Some students were left feeling that the University was more concerned with its own finances than with the health and well-being of its students, especially when, in May, 2021, it turned to third party debt collectors in response to the rent strike.

It was a very difficult year for both staff and students at the University, and greater mutual empathy and understanding could have gone a long way in supporting each other in a crisis.


[1] Fieldwork was conducted between 27th April and 1st June 2021.

[2] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/timeline-lockdown-web.pdf

[3] https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2020/may/covid-update-academic-year.html

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-56731330

[5] On the 9th October the University shut “The Courtrooms” residence (which had over 300 students) because 40 students had Covid.

[6] https://epigram.org.uk/2020/10/20/bristol-uni-rent-strike-on-course-to-be-the-biggest-in-uk-history-after-1000-signups/

[7] https://thetab.com/uk/bristol/2020/10/09/uob-freshers-are-being-given-incredibly-posh-food-boxes-full-of-soy-sauce-and-propercorn-42271

[8] https://twitter.com/rentstrikebris

[9] https://www.bristol.ac.uk/accommodation/coronavirus/20-21/rent-rebate/

[10] https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/01/britains-historic-wave-of-student-rent-strikes

[11] https://epigram.org.uk/2021/05/08/rent-strikers-face-third-party-debt-collection-from-bristol-university/

[12] Questions on student accommodation are asked annually as part of the student survey. March 2019 is the latest survey available prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2020 survey was asked slightly later in the year (May as opposed to March) and so embraced the first lockdown of universities under Covid-19, in late March 2020

[13] https://www.bristol.ac.uk/accommodation/coronavirus/20-21/rent-rebate/

[14] https://epigram.org.uk/2021/03/06/unite-students-announces-a-further-rent-reduction-for-march-2021/

[15] Not all students living in halls would have automatically received a refund. The first two rebates given by the University were automatically provided but students were required to apply for the third rebate by a specified deadline.

[16] https://www.savethestudent.org/accommodation/national-student-accommodation-survey-2021.html

Open Banking for Good – making a difference during the pandemic

By Sharon Collard and Jamie Evans

Nationwide Building Society’s Open Banking for Good (OB4G) – an initiative to use Open Banking technology to help ‘financially squeezed‘ people – ran from 2018 to early 2020. With around 4 million UK households currently struggling to manage financially, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of these propositions as well as presenting opportunities and challenges for the fintech Challengers in terms of their ability to grow and scale.

Open Banking for Good (OB4G) was launched by Nationwide Building Society in 2018 and ran throughout 2019 into early 2020. It brought together user experts (charity partners), solution experts (fintech Challengers) and process experts (Nationwide’s OB4G team) to solve real-life financial challenges for people who are ‘financially squeezed’.

Our newly-published evaluation of the impact of the OB4G programme shows that it largely met the expectations of the five fintech Challengers that completed it, by creating time and space for innovation though collaborative learning with user experts. As a result, all five Challengers successfully developed and tested propositions that tackle real problems which were grounded in the experience of people who are ‘financially squeezed’.

The COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, just as the OB4G programme was wrapping up. The economic and social impact of the pandemic has fallen especially heavily on OB4G’s target audience with an estimated 4 million people currently struggling to manage. While the pandemic brought home the potential value of the propositions that were developed in the OB4G programme, it also impacted the OB4G Challengers in a range of different ways:

  • Income smoothing challenge: Trezeo brought forward the development of its sickness insurance for independent workers and gave existing members complementary cover from early March to the end of June 2020. The pandemic also meant it had to delay its next funding round and put on hold its partnership with an online employment platform.
  • Income and expenditure challenge: Both Ducit.ai and OpenWrks saw increased demand for their Income & Expenditure propositions as the pandemic led to large-scale drops in earnings and people turned to creditors for forbearance and support. OpenWrks also created a payment relief solution that enabled lenders to offer an automated online channel for customers to apply for mortgage and consumer credit payment deferrals.
  • Money management & help challenge: The first national lockdown in March 2020 – when 2.5 million people were advised to stay at home or ‘shield’ – highlighted the value of Touco’s ideas for using tech to provide a safe way for individuals to give money to a helper to spend on their behalf. The pandemic also created significant challenges for Touco’s planned user testing of the new version of its app. The major changes to people’s spending patterns also had implications for how people interacted with Tully’s Money Coaching app, and in particular the spending challenges they might set.

Nationwide asked us to evaluate the programme so that they could learn and improve the current Nationwide Incubator which is focussed on addressing the challenges of living in financial difficulty. Our evaluation of the OB4G programme is also important as it helps build a new evidence base around the potential of technology and innovation to ‘move the dial’ on big social issues. This knowledge sharing has become even more important in the wake of COVID-19, which brings opportunities to use a Grounded Innovation approach to ‘build back better’ and improve the UK’s financial wellbeing.


Read our report: Open Banking for Good: Making a difference?

Still excluded from support

By David Collings and Sharon Collard

The speed and success of the UK’s vaccination rollout programme offers some hope of an improved economic outlook. But the short-term picture for employees and the self-employed remains mixed, with up to 3.8 million people in the UK excluded from financial support.

On the upside, it is reported that 56% of firms planned to hire during the first quarter of 2021, while the OBR predicts that unemployment will rise by 500,000 to 6.5% by the end of the year (which is lower than previously estimated). The Chancellor has announced a rise in the National Living Wage, as well as an extension to furlough and self-employment support through to the end of September.

However, since the pandemic began significant gaps in financial support have arisen. Our analysis of Standard Life Foundation’s Coronavirus Financial Impact Tracker shows that up to 3.8 million people who have lost income have been unable to benefit from either the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) – a group known as ‘the excluded’.  There are two broad reasons why some financially-impacted working people have remained ineligible for support:

  1. Exclusion for practical reasons, such as the difficulty of administering schemes, or tax system/data constraints. For example, the newly self-employed were originally excluded because HMRC did not hold complete 2019/20 tax return data for this group.
  2. Exclusion for ‘policy reasons’, where groups were deemed to fall outside of a scheme’s stated objectives. For example, self-employment support was initially designed to target those “most in need, which underpinned the decision to cap SEISS eligibility at £50,000 of annual trading profits.

How did the March 2021 Budget help the excluded?

There was good news for many of the newly self-employed: SEISS eligibility has been extended to include 2019/20 tax return data, which means that up to 600,000 more people will be eligible for a grant. But beyond this, there was little in the Budget to extend direct financial support to the excluded, because these limited extensions fail to help those with more complex patterns of employment.

For example, the self-employed who have less than half of their earnings from self-employment – including many freelancers and gig economy workers – will continue to be excluded. This exclusion arose because the Government was keen to make sure only the genuinely self-employed [would] benefit. But this fails to take into account the lived reality of the labour market for people who are piecing together an income from different sources, including having earned some of their income during the year as an employee and some from self-employment. There are no practical constraints preventing this adversely affected group from being supported, and the cost of doing so would be relatively minimal. Similarly, no tapered support was offered to the self-employed with previous profits of £50,000 – a hard cut-off that has led to some stark inequalities both between CJRS and SEISS and within the SEISS.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gaps in Support has proposed a targeted support grant support scheme package, including greater support for limited company directors, and other groups not covered by the CJRS or SEISS. Northern Ireland has already rolled out a Limited Company Director’s Support Scheme, which suggests there is scope for similar schemes in England and the other devolved administrations. However, the Budget did not take forward any of these proposals. The longer people continue to be financially impacted by the crisis, the harder these exclusions are to justify.


Read our report: Who are the excluded?

The price of poverty: why being poor still costs more

By David Collings and Sara Davies

Over 14 million people in the UK population live in poverty, and many more live on low incomes. Unfair poverty premiums – the additional costs people on low incomes incur when paying for essential goods and services – put undue strain on the household budgets that can least afford it, locking people into cycles of poverty. Since we published our 2016 research, the nature of the poverty premium may have changed but it certainly hasn’t gone away. And according to our latest research for Fair By Design and Turn2Us, a national charity providing practical help to people struggling financially, people already struggling financially are paying almost £500 more for essentials like energy, credit and insurance.

The average premium is almost £500, and reflects the current market and regulatory landscape

In 2019, Fair By Design and Turn2US asked us to explore recent changes to the poverty premium landscape – including both regulatory and technological changes – to understand if they are having an impact on the cost of poverty premiums or the number of people paying them. To do this we surveyed 1,000 people living in low-income households who had contacted Turn2Us for help. Our research showed that low-income households incur an average £478 of extra costs through energy, insurance, and credit poverty premiums:

  • Car insurance was the biggest contributor to the premium in 2019 at nearly £500 – some pay nearly £300 more per year because they live in a deprived area, and additional charges for paying monthly instead of annually could add a further £160. This premium is markedly higher than it was in 2016, when together these cost an extra £155.
  • Credit is particularly expensive on a low income, in whatever form it takes. For example, a sub-prime credit card costs around £200 more per year on average, and personal loans cost more than £500 extra.
  • And we found similar inequalities in relation to energy; the best prepayment tariff could still be around £130 more expensive than the best online-only deal, and paying on receipt of bill could cost an additional £143 more per year. However, the drop in the premiums incurred via energy costs since 2016 suggests that the tariff caps implemented by Ofgem have had a positive effect.

Of course, while £478 is the average premium, there is no such thing as an average low-income household. The extent and experience of the poverty premium varies widely between groups and families.

Unfair poverty premiums are yet another example of the inequality of poverty

Our research was undertaken in late 2019, before the onset of the pandemic. However, recent evidence shows that the economic and social consequences of Covid-19 are being felt most keenly by those on low incomes, with lower-paid workers more likely to have been furloughed or to have lost their jobs. Coping with tough times is hard enough when approached from a generally constrained financial position, but the finances of low-income households had already been worsening in the years leading up to 2020 – real income growth stalled in 2017-18, something that affected the poorest the most. And the social safety net had been badly damaged, with cuts to working-age benefits and tax credits further pushing down the incomes of low-income households. Seen in this context, poverty premiums are yet another example of the inequality of poverty, compounding and extending hardship at a time when increasing numbers are experiencing major falls in income, perhaps tipping people over from just about managing to not managing.

What happens next?

We can be certain that the pandemic’s economic impacts are with us for the foreseeable future. But while much in 2020 remains outside of our control, the poverty premium was and remains a solvable problem. Regulators and policymakers should now work together to find solutions for people struggling across all markets. In recent years we’ve already seen the positive impact of such interventions, most notably in the form of price caps. So what more can we do now?

We’ll leave the last word to Jamie Greer of Turn2Us:

“Stronger regulation of financial products, an improved social security net with crisis grants and protective changes to the energy market would mean we can start eradicating the poverty premium.”


Read the report and executive summary

‘Zealous and unsympathetic’: are Government debt collection practices outdated?

By Jamie Evans

In what many will consider a somewhat worrying sign of the times, in the UK, job adverts for debt collectors surged in August. This comes after news that during and following lockdown, households receiving financial support from the Government were increasingly likely to have missed debt repayments or fallen behind on household bills.

Where the UK’s economy heads next is something that will cause concern for many of us. Financial difficulty and, in particular, debt can be a major source of stress and poor mental health – and can also impact on numerous other aspects of our lives, including our relationships and productivity at work.

But, while debt itself can be problematic, the actions of creditors when collecting money owed to them are just as – if not more – important. Where good debt collection practices will hopefully help the debtor find a route out of difficulty, poor practices will simply make problems worse.

Government debt collection practices ‘worst in class’

As I outlined in a new briefing paper for the House of Commons Library, the debt collection practices of central and local public sector bodies have increasingly been called into question in recent years. There are reported to be as many as 500 different public bodies that an individual might owe money to, including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the NHS, and local authorities.

In 2019/20, public sector bodies were owed an estimated £16 billion across several types of debt – including benefit overpayments, council tax arrears, benefit advances, criminal court financial impositions, and rent arrears on local authority housing. The total value of all debt owed to the public sector, however, is not currently measured.

While commercial lenders and debt collectors have begun to improve debt collection practices in recent years – mainly as a result of regulatory action from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) –government bodies have been heavily criticised for not following suit.

Debt advice charities, including Citizens AdviceStepChange and the Money Advice Trust, have all called on the Government to improve practices – and their calls have been echoed more recently by the Centre for Social Justice and a growing number of MPs and Peers. In 2018, the Treasury Select Committee concluded that public bodies are “often found to be the most zealous and unsympathetic of creditors in collecting arrears” and more recently former Conservative MP Nicky Morgan (now Baroness of Cotes) wrote the following:

“Regrettably, the public sector continues to lag behind. Despite glimmers of progress, the Committee’s verdict in 2018 that the public sector was ‘worst in class’ for debt collection remains sadly accurate.”

Aggressive practices causing downstream problems

Criticisms of the public sector’s approach to debt collection have focused on their perceived heavy-handed nature, with a reliance on enforcement agents (bailiffs), rapid escalation of debts (including the use of imprisonment for non-payment of council tax debt), and increasingly aggressive practices as the financial year-end approaches.

Overall, it is argued that a short-term incentive to collect money owed as fast as possible may come at the cost of longer-term sustainability and may in fact lead to a lower likelihood of all money being recovered or of individuals being able to escape the cycle of problem debt.

These issues are exemplified by the BBC’s docudrama ‘Killed by my debt’, which tells the real-life story of 19-year old courier Jerome Rogers who found himself in debt to Camden Council as a result of two minor traffic violations. In 2016, after the two initial £65 fines he received spiralled to a £1,000 debt and bailiffs clamped his motorbike – his primary means of making a living – Jerome sadly took his own life.

Jerome’s case raised awareness of the issues associated with debt collection and prompted Camden Council (and others) to introduce formal policies related to the treatment of vulnerable debtors. Nevertheless, according to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by the Money Advice Trust, in 2018-19, English and Welsh local authorities used bailiffs 1.1 million times to collect council tax debts and 780,000 times for parking debts.

Important geographical differences

The aforementioned FOI requests also highlight the variation in practices across the country, with bailiff use increasing in some areas but not in others and some local authorities adopting ‘good practice’ measures (such as policies for supporting vulnerable individuals). The Money Advice Trust have mapped these practices across England and Wales, as shown below.

Differences also exist between the constituent nations of the UK. England, for example, remains the only country in UK (and, more widely, in Europe) to imprison people for non-payment of council tax. Wales abolished this practice from April 2019, with Mark Drakeford describing the sanction of imprisonment as ‘an outdated and disproportionate response to a civil debt issue’. Scotland and Northern Ireland also have very different rules around the enforcement of debts more generally.

Recommendations for change

While the Government has already made some changes in this area, including reforms to the bailiff industry in 2014, it recognises that more can be done. In June 2020 the Cabinet Office published a consultation on fairness in Government debt management.

Campaigners argue that the Government needs go much further. In particular, there have been calls for independent bailiff regulation and an end to the practice of imprisonment for non-payment of council tax, as England is the only remaining country in Europe to continue using this type of enforcement. Campaigners also want to end rules which make individuals liable for an entire year’s council tax payments after just one missed instalment, as this fails to offer those having repayment difficulties a route out of debt.

Additionally, a group of 55 cross-party peers and MPs have written a letter to support the idea of a ‘Government Debt Management Bill’. This would place current codes of practice on a statutory footing and more generally ensure consistency across public bodies (and across the country) in the way that they calculate repayment affordability and treat those in vulnerable situations.

With the impact of the pandemic potentially leading to an increase in those facing financial difficulties, such calls for change are only likely to grow louder.


About the Author: Jamie Evans is a Senior Research Associate at the Personal Finance Research Centre, within Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences. He is currently on a part-time Parliamentary Academic Fellowship at the House of Commons Library within the Business and Transport team. For more information on these fellowships, please visit UK Parliament’s website.

Suggested further reading

Evans, J. (2020) Debts to public bodies: are Government debt collection practices outdated?. House of Commons Library briefing paper number 9007. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9007/

Evans, J., Fitch, C., Collard, S., & Henderson, C. (2018)  Mental health and debt collection: a story of progress? Exploring changes in debt collectors’ attitudes and practices when working with customers with mental health problems, 2010–2016. Journal of Mental Health, 27(6): 496-503. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2018.1466040

Anderson, B, Langley, P, Ash, J, Gordon, R. (2020). Affective life and cultural economy: Payday loans and the everyday space‐times of credit‐debt in the UK. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 45: 420– 433. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12355

García‐Lamarca, M. and Kaika, M. (2016), ‘Mortgaged lives’: the biopolitics of debt and housing financialisation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41: 313-327. doi:10.1111/tran.12126

“Now is literally the worst time in decades to be entering the work force”: the impact of COVID-19 on university students’ finances

By Katie Cross and Sara Davies

As students return to University campuses, the discussion has largely focused on worries over increased COVID-19 rates. But our survey of University of Bristol students suggests their approaching financial position should also be cause for concern. 

The economic impact of COVID-19 has been both rapid and widespread. By June, the economy was around 17% smaller than it had been in February. The sharp increase in Universal Credit claims after lockdown was unprecedented, with almost 2.5 million household claiming between mid-March and late June. And the Office for Budget Responsibility is projecting an unemployment rate of 11.9 per cent in Q4 of 2020. It is a very uncertain time for all.

But one group whose financial position we have heard less about during this time is that of university students. Each year we conduct a survey for the University of Bristol’s Widening Participation team to look at the impact bursaries have on students, comparing the financial experiences of those from low- and middle-income backgrounds who receive financial support from the University, with those from higher-income backgrounds[1], who do not. This year the timing of the survey allowed us to ask students about their financial experiences both pre- and post-COVID, and to look at how they may have fared during the crisis.

Financial impacts so far

As with the wider UK population, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown has had an unparalleled impact on student employment. Prior to the pandemic half of students surveyed (51 per cent) were employed in some form. Since the outbreak however, over two thirds of those previously working were no longer doing so, with a further 12 per cent working fewer hours than before. Of those no longer working, two thirds said this was due to their employer being closed (either temporarily or permanently). Although the majority of students receiving some form of maintenance loan, earned income is still important to students in order to manage financially, particularly among those who are not in receipt of a bursary, where this loss of income could be worryingly detrimental.

My maintenance loan does not even cover my rent which means I have to borrow money from family and work in order to cover my rent and food.”  – Year two, unfunded

Overall, the impact of coronavirus on the students we spoke to had been fairly evenly split across those finding it easier to manage financially (30 per cent), much the same (40 per cent) and harder to manage (30 per cent).

This means that, for the majority of students, COVID-19 had not had any major negative impact on their financial situation. Indeed, nearly half said they had been able to save money as their costs had generally reduced – a finding which is perhaps unsurprising as lockdown prevented social spending. A third also reported not having to pay for their final term of accommodation, representing a further considerable saving. This does, however, still leave 65 per cent of students paying for at least part, if not all, of their accommodation for the summer term, despite no physical teaching and (for the majority) returning home. Unsurprisingly the majority (95 per cent) of those who weren’t required to pay for their final term of accommodation were first year students (typically living in University owned halls), as opposed to second and third year students who were more likely to rent privately.

“No change at all despite the fact that our bills are included in rent so we are paying more for water, electricity etc that none of us are using (no one living there at the moment). When we contacted to ask for some reduction in rent, we were told that the property is the landlord’s primary source of income (seems an irrelevant argument) so we wouldn’t get any reduction.” – Year two, funded

Overall, 3 in 10 reported their costs and outgoings being harder to manage due to the outbreak. This rises to over half for mature students (who were more likely to have financial dependents) and around two-fifths for those who had lost income from employment.

Support from family

Many students rely on financial support from their families and friends to manage. Indeed, eligibility for bursaries and maintenance loans is based on parental household income from the previous tax year, and there is an expectation that those from higher-income households will receive support from their family. Almost two thirds of Bristol students who were ineligible for bursaries relied on support from family and friends, with 19 per cent having their accommodation paid for and 57 per cent receiving a set amount of money each week or month. Since the outbreak, a small number of (mainly non-bursary) students had received additional support from family or friends. Mature students were also more likely than younger students to have turned to family and friends for financial support since the lockdown, whereas beforehand they were significantly less likely to have done so.

However, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 – particularly once the furlough scheme comes to an end – may have dramatic impacts on family household income, and the worry is that students may fall through a gap, without university funding or family support.

“[I have] concern over lack of employment for my parents, who I rely on financially to pay for my living and accommodation in Bristol, as my maintenance loan was significantly lower than my accommodation cost.” – Year one, unfunded

Prospects

While almost a third of students were currently finding it harder to manage financially, even more were worried about the coming academic year. Half were concerned over their lack of paid employment/income during the holidays or coming year and 41 per cent were worried about how they would manage financially in the Autumn term. Those who usually rely on paid work may run into financial difficulties, particularly if they are unable to return to work or find alternative employment. In our survey, over a third who worked considered employment income ‘very important’ to financially continuing at the University.

It is also important to consider the longer-term financial impact and job prospects for students. The unemployment rate is expected to rise to almost 12 per cent by the end of the year, and those who have recently left education are likely to be disproportionately affected. We are already seeing a reduction in job vacancies and in our survey 69 per cent reported being generally worried about their future, with nearly four in ten third-year students concerned over their post-graduate prospects since COVID-19.

Now is literally the worst time in decades to be entering the work force.” – Year three, funded

Given the general worry about the future, concern over personal and familial health, uncertainty around teaching in the coming year and reduced socialising with friends, it is unsurprising that some students also commented on the negative impacts on their mental health.

“Due to some of my family members being high at risk to corona, I am increasingly anxious as to what is going to happen to them. My mental health has suffered a lot from being very isolated over the Easter term. I am worried that the global economy is about to collapse and the whole world is going to go into recession. So all in all, quite a lot to be stressed about.” – Year one, funded

“My depression has got much worse, my father is at risk, I am struggling to focus at all so I am behind in all of my work and I don’t know how I will cope financially if I cannot work in the summer” – Year two, funded  

Overall, the student community has faced an unprecedented situation with remarkable resilience, but it is apparent that the challenges brought by COVID-19 will impact students for a long time to come. It is crucial that universities understand that, for some students at least, it will be much harder to manage financially than in previous years, and institutions therefore need to provide an appropriate level of practical and pastoral support to help them.

Firstly, we need greater recognition of how important earned income is to students’ financial position and participation at university. Secondly, the increased likelihood of financial difficulty among families of students should be considered, and the impact of this on students – both financially and emotionally – given the role that family support plays in getting by while at university. This suggests that there will be a need for a well-funded and accessible hardship fund in the coming years, because increased financial difficulties may well effect likelihood of withdrawal from studies.

Some students will need more help than others; previous surveys have found that bursaries appear to have some protective effect, therefore attention should also be given to those from higher-income households, particularly those just outside of eligibility, as they are more likely to rely on income from employment. Mature students, who we have previously found struggle financially more than their younger peers, are already turning to their families for support in greater numbers, but what about those who do not have people to turn to?

Finally, the ongoing emotional toil of dealing with a global crisis should not be underestimated. It is worrying enough leaving university in normal times, let alone doing so during a time of recession and increasing unemployment. Giving students as much support and guidance as possible, both to manage during their studies, and to help them to prosper as they leave, is going to be vital over the next few years.


[1] Low income = Residual Household Income (RHI)  > £25k; Mid income = RHI £25-44k; Higher income =RHI £43-80k

Introducing Katie Cross, PFRC’s new Research Associate

Katie Cross

By Katie Cross

When I applied for a job at the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC) three months ago, I never expected my first week would be spent working from the comfort of my own home. No commute, no struggling to navigate my way around campus and no face-to-face introductions with colleagues. Instead I find myself writing this blog as a way of introducing myself to everyone at the University and to those within the wider research community.

So hello, I am Katie the new Research Associate at the PFRC. My background is in quantitative, policy-focused research, most recently working for the Association of Convenience Stores, a trade association that lobbies government on behalf of small shops. The best thing about working in an applied social research setting is that your research can have a direct impact; the intention is that the findings you produce will be used to inform and drive change. This was just one of the reasons I was drawn to working for the PFRC.

Moving into personal finance and being able to work at the University is an extremely exciting opportunity, which will bring with it a whole host of new experiences. But researching small shops has more in common with personal finance than you might think.

Access to cash

Firstly, during my time at ACS I saw how many people were dependent on the financial services that local shops offer, including post offices, cash machines and bill payment terminals. From a business perspective it is important that offering these services remains viable, as retailers can end up operating them at a loss, replacing ATMs with pay-to-use models or removing them all together. From a personal finance perspective, the removal of these services can be detrimental, especially to the most vulnerable. Almost half of the UK population (47%) believe it would be personally problematic if there was no cash in society and 17% (over 8 million adults) would struggle to cope without it. These figures were reported prior to the coronavirus outbreak, which will only have brought this into the spotlight even further. With hygiene concerns around the use of cash, an increase in the contactless card payment limit and more shops only accepting card, it is now even more important that we do not leave those who rely on cash behind. This makes the work that the PFRC and Dr Daniel Tischer are doing with the Financial Conduct Authority, Payment Systems Regulator and various industry stakeholders on mapping access to cash across the country even more valuable.

Helping people in vulnerable situations

Secondly, helping people in vulnerable situations is a top priority for the PFRC, and the same is often true of local shops. I was always impressed by how much local shops do for their communities, whether this is through delivery services for the elderly, training staff to become dementia friends, or just being there for people who don’t have anyone else to talk to. This has become more apparent during this unprecedented period, with shops going even further to get vulnerable customers the help they need. With Coronavirus pushing many more into vulnerable situations, this is now more important than ever. If the virus has taught us anything, it is that our lives and personal circumstances can change quickly, and sometimes with very little warning.

It is with that in mind that I start my new role.

I am really looking forward to working within the area of personal finance, especially at a time of such great economic uncertainty when we need this research more than ever. I can’t wait to use my past experience and research abilities to help inform all areas of personal finance and help drive change for those who need it.

Mind the (data) gap: we need national statistics on people’s banking experiences

By Sharon Collard

Since lockdown, millions of UK adults are reported to have switched to mobile banking as banks close branches or restrict their opening hours and struggle to cope with high call volumes. However, we seriously lack data on how people are coping with banking – both offline and online. From a policy and advocacy perspective, these important data gaps need urgent attention, especially as the UK’s ‘new normal’ will almost certainly mean ‘online’.

The UK has pretty good data on people’s internet access and – by extension – their capacity to bank online. This also tells us who the banks are leaving behind in their digital transformation programmes, which have been given an extra boost by COVID-19.

According to Ofcom, while 90% of the UK adult population used the internet in 2018, this falls to 67% among people with a disability. The gap in smartphone use is even bigger, with 78% of UK adults saying they personally use a smartphone compared with just 45% of adults with a disability.

ONS data shows that women and people aged 65+ are also less likely to use the internet. And, while 69% of adults bank online (rising to a whopping 93% of 25-34 year olds), this falls to 47% of 65-74 year olds and 23% of 75-79 year olds – although there are reports of growing numbers of older people registering for online banking since lockdown.

The two most common reasons people gave (pre-COVID) for not using the internet were lack of interest and lack of digital skills. Lloyds Bank estimates that nine million people are unable to use the internet or their devices without assistance; and 6.5 million cannot open apps (which presumably includes banking apps). CapGemini highlights cost as an important reason for ‘digital disconnection’ among young people.

This begs the question: how are non-internet users and others who find digital difficult – including consumers in vulnerable situations who physically can’t get to a bank – coping with banking in lockdown? Despite interesting innovation, the worry is that people resort to risky workarounds like sharing their PIN number or bank cards, exposing them to the threat of financial abuse.

There is some excellent ‘lived experience’ data as well as a whole range of new COVID-19 studies looking at its impact on every aspect of people’s lives – including the financial impact. However, none of these seems to shed much light on how people are coping with ‘offline banking’.

It is also hard to find any publicly available data on people’s experience of online banking. The most recent waves of the Financial Capability Survey of UK Adults and Financial Lives Survey (both fantastic data sources) don’t cover online banking in any detail – although future waves may do – and they are biennial. In the meantime, while banks have their own data and can pay for other data, these data are not freely or publicly available.

From a policy and advocacy perspective, these data gaps need urgent attention, especially as the UK’s ‘new normal’ will almost certainly mean ‘online’.

Lessons learnt so far on spending controls for gambling transactions: an update from the MAGPIE research study

By Jamie Evans and Sharon Collard

Yesterday’s move by the Gambling Commission to ban gambling using credit cards is a welcome public health intervention and one that now shifts the focus onto other ways for people to control their gambling spend. ‘Spending controls’, offered by a growing number of banks, provide one such solution, giving customers the option to block gambling transactions from their accounts. But how can banks maximise the effectiveness of such controls? In this blog, we provide an update from our strategic partnership with GambleAware, which aims to answer this and other questions about the potential role of financial services firms in reducing gambling-related harm.

In September 2019, we officially launched ‘Money and Gambling: Practice, Insight, Evidence (MAGPIE)’ – a three-year programme between the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC) and GambleAware, a charity who fund research, prevention and treatment into the harms of gambling. The programme is designed to explore and improve the way that financial firms tackle gambling-related harm.

Since then, we have been busy working on the first of several projects within the programme. This considers how ‘spending controls’ – otherwise known as ‘gambling blocks’ – that are available on a growing number of debit and credit cards can be as effective as possible in reducing gambling-related harm. To do this, we have conducted expert interviews with banks and other key stakeholders; consulted people affected by gambling through Advisory Boards and interviews; and reviewed academic and other literature on this topic.

We are also working with banks that have launched spending controls to understand patterns in customer data and are running an online survey of people affected by gambling to find out more about their views and experiences of spending controls. Collectively, we hope the new data collected from these different sources will help improve the industry’s understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to spending controls.

So what spending controls currently exist?

Customers of several UK financial services firms now have access to gambling blocks on their accounts (as shown in the below diagram) – and we know of at least one other firm that offers a similar service on request if you telephone them. Blocks on credit card transactions should, in theory, be unnecessary once the wider ban on gambling with credit cards is introduced in April 2020.

The diagram shows that gambling blocks differ in terms of their ‘cooling off’ period (i.e. the length of time after choosing to turn off a gambling block that someone would have to wait until they can gamble again on their account). Some currently offer no cooling-off period, which means that a customer could use the card to gamble as soon as they turn off the block. CashPlus and HSBC both have a 24 hour cooling off period; while Lloyds Banking Group (including Lloyds Bank, Halifax, Bank of Scotland and MBNA) and Monzo require customers to wait 48 hours before they can gamble again.

This cooling-off period is generally recognised, by banks and treatment providers, as a crucial component of an effective gambling block – especially for customers engaged in more high-risk gambling behaviours. As such, we are very likely to see more firms incorporating this kind of ‘friction’ into their spending controls in the near future.

More than the ‘cooling-off’ period…

While obviously important, our work recognises that an effective gambling block is about more than just its cooling-off period. Friction can come in many forms and there are some really interesting ideas on the horizon about the shape that these could take.

There are also a range of other fascinating, albeit challenging, questions that we need to answer. For example, we need to understand more about the customer’s engagement with staff if and when they try to turn off the block, or what happens if they try to gamble when the block is turned on. How are gambling blocks being communicated to customers, and how do financial services firms reach the right people? Who even are the ‘right people’?! It might be the case that a whole spectrum of products and services should be made available to customers engaging in a wide range of gambling behaviours, including those who might not be engaged in risky gambling behaviours right now but may do so in future.

And there are questions that may stretch beyond the usual remit of the financial services sector. How, for example, might unscrupulous gambling operators try to circumvent such spending controls, and – crucially – what can we do about this?

Lessons from the literature

There exists a rich body of academic literature about gambling and ways to reduce gambling-related harm.  To bring this literature to a wider audience – including financial services firms – we have published a Roadmap which sets out the rationale for our programme and summarises some of the existing evidence that is relevant to spending controls. It highlights, for example, the importance of viewing spending controls as one tool in a wider harm minimisation toolkit, as well as the importance of considering the other people affected by gambling (such as partners, families, friends) and the help and support they might require from financial services firms.

You can read this roadmap document here and sign-up for updates about the programme here.


This article was originally posted on the MAGPIE blog. Read the original article here.