Bishop of Rochester welcomes Government plans for breathing space for those with problem debt

On 6th October 2020 the House of Lords approved the Government’s Debt Respite Scheme (Breathing Space Moratorium and Mental Health Crisis Moratorium) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. The Bishop of Rochester spoke in the debate, in support of the aim of the Regulations:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I broadly and warmly welcome the provisions in these regulations. While the effects of the pandemic certainly give increased importance to these provisions, the issues are, of course, of very much longer standing. I pay tribute to organisations, including the Children’s Society, which have long campaigned on these matters, as well as to the honourable Member for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, my own Member of Parliament, who, before she was made a Minister, proposed a Private Member’s Bill in the other place to address some of these issues.

It is estimated that 2.4 million children in England and Wales live in households with problem debt. Some 600,000 families spend more on overdue bills than they do on food. This issue has devastating social consequences for families and for wider communities, as well as for businesses, contributing significantly to mental ill-health, homelessness and relationship break- down. The matter is urgent.

Therefore, in welcoming these regulations, I want to touch on the implementation date. If it is not possible to bring this forward, I urge that it is not delayed, despite any issues there may be about implementing it. Rather, that date should be protected with vigour. I also urge that serious attention be given to connecting this with other policies and provisions to support those, especially families, experiencing debt and financial crisis. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has already referred to the connection with housing issues, and there are others.

It is encouraging to know that there is support for these provisions from within the enforcement sector, and to read about some of those organisations’ guidance to their staff on how they should act properly and in accordance with humanity and with these regulations. I applaud, and am a committed supporter of, organisations in the debt advice sector, many of them charitable. I am pleased and proud to see many lay people within congregations in my diocese volunteering to be trained as debt advisers, many of them with backgrounds in the financial world. Also, a number of churches host debt advice centres, many under the umbrella of CAP— ​Christians Against Poverty—an organisation with a long track record in debt advice. These and other such institutions and initiatives will need to be sustained, and of course funded, if these regulations are to achieve their intent.

I have a handful of concerns or questions to raise. It is good that benefit and council tax debt is included in the definitions of debts to be covered by these regulations. I hope, however, that Her Majesty’s Government might think again about the exclusion of debt that arises from advance payment of universal credit. Such debts are not insignificant and, again, can contribute to the problem. The 60 days provision is, of course, welcome; I believe that it is an extension from an earlier proposal. However, I would welcome some assurance from the Government that this will not be reduced in any future review of these regulations.

It is important that those delivering this scheme locally are able to refer indebted people to other sources of support and sound advice, whether from local authorities or from within the charitable sector or other places. Clear guidance about this for debt advisers—those who are offering the advice—would be incredibly useful. That is probably not something for government to mandate in detail, but rather to make sure that it happens in particular local areas so that people can be clearly signposted to organisations that can support them beyond the debt advisers themselves.

I am sure that this is not the last time we will debate these issues; the current circumstances mean that debt will continue to be an issue on the national agenda. However, I welcome these regulations as a good step in the right direction.

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Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con) [Minister]:…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester asked about the inclusion of universal credit debts. Universal credit overpayments will be included in the breathing space scheme from day one. Universal credit advances and third-party deductions will be included in the breathing space scheme on a phased basis as early as possible after the policy starts. These two additional aspects require significant IT changes, which need to align with the requirements of the wider UC programme. The Government recognise the importance of including all universal credit debts in the scheme as soon as possible…

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester asked about training. Government support for debt advice has already seen an extra £37.8 million support package made available to debt advice providers this year. The Government are working closely with MaPS on training for debt advice providers to help ensure that they will be ready to offer the scheme.​..