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’sMoney 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.
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 Advice, StepChange 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.
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
The University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC) is today pleased to announce the launch of Money and Gambling: Practice, Insight, Evidence (MAGPIE), a new three-year strategic programme, in partnership with Gamble Aware, which looks at the role that financial services organisations can play in reducing gambling-related harm.
Gambling problems can destroy lives, often leaving those affected to live with severe financial and social consequences. Indeed, around seven in ten people seeking help for gambling problems report that they are in debt, with a third of these owing £10,000 or more. Between 2007 and 2014 there were an average of 500 bankruptcies per year known to be linked to gambling – the true figure, however, may be much higher because people may not disclose that their bankruptcy is related to gambling.
While many people do enjoy gambling safely, the number of people who are ‘problem gamblers’ or who suffer negative consequences as a result of their gambling is far from insignificant. It is estimated that in 2016 nearly a million adults in Britain experienced sizeable negative consequences as a result of their gambling, with around 360,000 adults classified as ‘problem gamblers’ (Gambling Commission, 2019).
Betting on the banks?
Money and gambling are clearly intricately linked, with ‘gambling more than you can afford’ one of the key indicators of a gambling problem. As such, it makes sense that organisations that help us look after our money – the world of ‘financial services’ – might also be able to take actions to help those at-risk of gambling-related harm.
Such firms are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which in recent years has upped its focus on the way that companies treat customers in vulnerable situations – including those living with gambling problems. As a result, firms are paying increased attention to the way that they identify and support such customers.
Indeed, in 2016, PFRC conducted research with over 1,500 frontline debt collection staff working in a wide range of financial services firms, including high-street banks, lenders and debt collection agencies. This research focused on staff members’ experiences of working with customers in vulnerable situations, including those with mental health problems, suicidal thoughts and addictions, and highlighted some of the challenges that they face – whether in identifying ‘vulnerability’, starting a conversation about it, or providing customers with adequate support or sign-posting to other sources of support.
Following that research, we held a number of ‘problem-solving workshops’ with firms, charities and those with lived experience of different vulnerable situations to develop new tools and guidance for debt collection staff when working with such customers. Many of the solutions developed have now been adopted (or, in some cases, even adapted) by firms – highlighting the fact that there is considerable appetite among those working in financial services to do what they can to help such customers.
When the funds stop, stop?
Last year saw the introduction of spending controls or ‘gambling blocks’ by several UK banks – most notably Barclays, Monzo and Starling. Once turned on by customers, these essentially prevent spending on a bank card at gambling outlets (both online or in-person).
We know that people in recovery from problem gambling already use informal workarounds to prevent themselves from spending money on gambling, such as forfeiting their card to a third party or scratching off the card security number. The new solutions from banks, however, allow customers to do this more formally – and, possibly, more successfully.
But at present there is limited evidence about the effectiveness of such spending controls, nor about the characteristics of those who use them. We also don’t know much about the unintended consequences of these spending blockers (for example, whether it leads to customers withdrawing more money as cash and gambling with that).
As such, the first six months of our programme will focus on answering these questions and building the evidence-base around what works for recovering gamblers. We will use this evidence to produce practical guidance for financial services firms around the design of spending blockers.
Get involved in the research
In order to build the evidence-base, we’ll be working closely throughout the project with financial services firms – but, more importantly, our research will place those with lived experience of problem gambling at the centre of the project, as well as those with expertise in the treatment of recovering gamblers.
So, if you’re interested in being part of the research or if you simply want to be kept updated, you can join our money and gambling network by filling out this short form.
GambleAware is an independent charity that champions a public health approach to preventing gambling harms. The charity is a commissioner of integrated prevention, education and treatment services on a national scale, with over £40 million of grant funding under active management. In partnership with gambling treatment providers, GambleAware has spent several years methodically building structures for commissioning a coherent system of brief intervention and treatment services, with clearly defined care pathways and established referral routes to and from the NHS – a National Gambling Treatment Service. Follow GambleAware on Twitter: @GambleAware
GambleAware also runs the website BeGambleAware.org which helps 4.2 million visitors a year and signposts to a wide range of support services. Follow BeGambleAware on Twitter: @BeGambleAware
A future without cash seems almost inevitable. Recent statistics paint a damning picture: while cash accounted for 62% of all payments by volume in 2006, this dropped to 40% in just a decade and is predicted to fall yet further to 21% by 2026.
Digital payments, on the other hand, are trending strongly in the opposite direction. Contactless payments in December 2018 in the UK were 28% higher than the same month in the previous year (at 691m in total), while the total number of card transactions increased by 12% over the same period.
In the long term, such a shift may well have benefits for many, given the speed and convenience that digital payments offer. But in the meantime, in the next five to ten years or so, there remain lots of people still dependent on cash – particularly those who are older or from lower income households. These people, it seems, are at risk of being forgotten if current trends continue. Ironically, those who are least likely to need cash have the best access to it.
In our research, we regularly encounter people who find it difficult to access mainstream banking products, do not use digital payments because they find it easier to manage their money in cash, and/or simply lack trust in digital banking. For these people, cash very much continues to be king.
This means it’s important to understand the way in which access to cash is changing for the UK population. But much of the debate so far has focused on the overall number of ATMs or bank branches in the UK, without much understanding of the importance of geography. Where these dwindling number of ATMs are located makes a big difference.
Indeed, when thiswasstudied in the early 2000s, we learnt that bank branch closures and fee-charging ATMs were more often found in poorer parts of the country. The issue was then seemingly remedied by measures such as the “Financial Inclusion Programme” put in place by LINK, the UK’s main ATM network. This programme incentivised ATM operators to provide cash machines in lower income neighbourhoods.
In our new research, we therefore sought to reexamine the geography of cash provision, using Bristol as a case study. Through detailed mapping of the city’s cash infrastructure, we found stark differences in access to cash between different types of neighbourhood. Sites of economic activity, perhaps unsurprisingly, are well served; as were some of the most deprived, relatively central, neighbourhoods.
But we also found that areas we classify as “squeezed suburbs” – relatively deprived areas on the fringes of the city – were poorly catered for. This represents a significant challenge for some of the older and less well-off residents in these areas, who are most likely to depend on cash. We found Post Offices, which offer cash withdrawals and some banking services, are often geographically best-placed to serve these communities and could be a crucial asset moving forward, at least if used correctly.
Deprived areas worse off
There are signs that the situation is now changing again. Recent research revealed that around 1,700 ATMs nationwide changed from free to fee-charging at the start of 2019, likely the result of lower overall demand for cash and a recent drop in the interchange fees paid by banks when someone withdraws cash from another company’s ATM.
This was also noticeable in our research, as we gathered data both in October 2018 and March 2019. Importantly, we found that such changes were happening more often in deprived areas. Over two-thirds of the ATMs that became fee-charging in Bristol over this time period were within particularly deprived neighbourhoods.
This seems to be because ATM infrastructure in more deprived areas tends to be non-bank owned. Comparing a relatively affluent part of the city (Whiteladies Road in the Clifton neighbourhood) with a more deprived area (Stapleton Road in the Easton neighbourhood), we noticed that while just 29% of ATMs in Whiteladies Road are non-bank owned, this rises to 89% in Stapleton Road. Some such non-bank ATM owners have publicly stated that they will convert more free ATMs to fee-charging ATMs following the recent reduction in interchange fees.
This could have far-reaching implications for already under-served communities. So, while a future without cash may be almost inevitable, if the patterns found in Bristol are replicated nationally, it is likely that we’ll see a return to old geographies of financial exclusion, with deprived communities struggling most on the journey there.
In this post, we explore key findings from our new research, which looks at the experiences of nearly 1,600 debt advisers when supporting people in vulnerable situations.
At the recent Talk Money conference, we launched new research, in partnership with the Money Advice Trust and the Money and Mental Health policy Institute, looking at debt advisers’ experiences of working with clients in a range of different situations that might make them ‘vulnerable’.
The research was based on a UK-wide survey of 1,573 debt advisers working in approximately 400 organisations and included new data from a survey of nearly 400 individuals with lived experience of mental health problems and debt.
1. Vulnerability is an everyday occurrence for advisers
Firstly, it’s apparent that advisers across the sector are dealing with clients in very vulnerable situations on a regular basis.
Of the 87 clients that a typical full-time adviser deals with in a working month, they can expect 35 to disclose a mental health problem. A further seven clients tell them about an addiction of some sort, be it a gambling problem, alcohol problem or other substance addiction.
Each week, nearly two-thirds of advisers encounter at least one client with a serious physical illness or disability, over a third see someone with a learning disability and one-in-five help a client who is, or has been, in an abusive relationship.
Lastly, in the last 12 months, nearly three-quarters of advisers encountered at least one client who disclosed suicidal thoughts, and over half seriously believed that at least one client was at genuine risk of suicide.
2. Levels of vulnerability may have increased in recent years
As this is the first time that levels of vulnerability have been measured across the whole advice sector, it is hard to say precisely how things have changed over time.
However, there is certainly anecdotal evidence from the advisers we surveyed that they are seeing more people in more challenging situations than ever before – with the risk that financial vulnerability exacerbates other types of vulnerability and vice versa.
3. This may just be the tip of the iceberg
For the purpose of consistent measurement, we asked advisers in the survey to tell us about those clients who disclosed their situation, rather than all clients that they believed to be in such a situation. This means that our statistics could represent just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
Indeed, in our survey of advice clients with mental health problems, we found that as many as 44% of people with mental health problems may not disclose their condition when dealing with a debt adviser.
This could equally apply to a range of other situations, such as domestic abuse and addictions. Clients will not tell advisers everything just because they are there to help them and understanding the reasons for under disclosure is important.
4. More support is needed to help advisers deal with these situations
The primary goal of debt advisers is, of course, to help people resolve their debt and money problems; however, in many cases these financial issues cannot be resolved without considering the underlying situation.
Our data shows that more could be done here. For example, at present, 44% of advisers have not received any training on supporting clients with addictions and 56% have not received training in relation to gambling.
Such training though is on the way via the Trust’s Wiseradviser programme which is launching addictions and suicide prevention courses in the New Year.
It is also apparent that many people in vulnerable situations find it challenging to go through the debt advice process. For example, of those we surveyed with mental health problems, 48% reported that making initial contact with the advice agency was difficult, while 56% encountered difficulty in finding the information advisers needed from them.
The guidance and practical tools in our report can help advisers consider some of these issues.
5. But changes to debt advice alone are not enough
Our research also looked at the wider issues that affect advisers’ ability to support those in vulnerable situations. This highlighted the fact that many advisers felt they are working in an environment which makes it difficult for them to provide the very best support for their clients.
It takes time, money and resources to provide the right support, and in many cases advisers felt these are severely constrained. Advisers also noted that there are often situations where clients could benefit from the support of external services, but these simply do not exist locally or are already over-stretched.
While these bigger issues require co-ordination and collaboration from the advice sector and beyond, we hope our research and guidance give frontline advisers and advice organisations some useful additional tools and resources to support their invaluable work with clients in vulnerable situations.
Vulnerability: the experience of debt advisers was funded by the Money Advice Service. The report is available to download here, where you can also find data tables and a resource pack with additional tools to help advisers support those in vulnerable situations.