StepChange welcomes Government intention to get its debt management house in order

StepChange Debt Charity welcomes the Cabinet Office’s call for evidence published today on fairness in Government debt management. For too long, debts owed to government have been subject to inconsistent and poor practice, leading to harm and potential danger to vulnerable people. Seeing the Government accepting the potential case for change is a significant step forward.

The charity strongly welcomes Government Minister Lord Agnew’s overarching introductory remark, “Together, we can build a fair, ethical and compassionate approach to debt management that focuses on getting people out of debt, not on getting debt out of people”, and will fully engage with the issues and submit a detailed response by the September deadline.

StepChange Debt Charity head of policy Peter Tutton, who is also a debt advice sector representative on the Fairness Group [see paragraph 21], says: “Not before time, this call for evidence genuinely seems to see the Government looking to learn from others what it can do better and differently, drawing on best practice and better mirroring the principles and rules that apply to regulated lending.

“The Government has some serious catching up to do. Despite bringing forward some excellent new initiatives such as the forthcoming Breathing Space scheme, the Government’s approach to assessing affordability can be poor. The inflexible mechanisms it sometimes adopts to pursuing its own debt, frighteningly but fruitlessly, from people who cannot afford to pay are long overdue for reform.

“While bailiffs are barely mentioned in this call for evidence, the Government must not wait to conclude this call for evidence about its own practices before taking specific action on bailiffs. Local authorities are the main users of bailiffs to enforce debts like council tax, and their practices can be shocking. So the approach needs to be two-pronged: improving the regulation of the bailiff sector, and improving the way in which central and local government go about debt management. These are separate but both crucially important reforms that need to happen as a matter of urgency.”