The FCA published on Thursday 25th June a damning thematic review on the quality of debt management advice, concluding that the quality of advice was of an ‘unacceptably low standard’. Advisors often did not make an adequate assessment of individuals’ revenues and expenditures or give balanced information about insolvency alternatives. For example, they often reinforced customers’ initial reluctance to consider bankruptcy and played on misconceptions about bankruptcy to deter them from this alternative. The FCA reported ‘many instances where customers were recommended very long-term debt management plans (often many decades…) when debt relief solutions are likely to have been more appropriate but adequate information and advice was not provided”(para 4.55). In one case a debt advisor failed to correct a debtor’s misconception about the effects of bankruptcy and recommended a debt management plan lasting 125 years! Firms often had incentive structures for selling debt solutions.
The study was primarily of the fee-charging debt management industry but it was also critical of those firms providing free debt advice to consumers, indicating that there was ‘scope for material improvement’.
These findings are perhaps not surprising given the continuing concerns expressed about practices by some debt management companies by Parliamentary Committees and the Office of Fair Trading. Studies in other countries have raised similar concerns. In a recent article Stephanie Ben-Ishai and Saul Schwartz studied how not-for-profit Credit Counselling Agencies in Canada gave advice to individuals with debt problems. Using carefully scripted mystery calls to credit counselling agencies Ben-Ishai and Schwartz found that the agencies surveyed did not present the options for dealing with a debtor’s financial in a complete and impartial manner and did not present bankruptcy as a viable option. The focus was on ‘fitting the caller into the requirements’ of a debt management plan. They concluded that although the agencies portray themselves as debtor-friendly they operate rather as collection agents.
A fundamental concern in England and Wales raised by the FCA report is whether these practices by debt management companies are undermining public policy on debt relief by steering individuals to debt management plans rather than permitting individuals to make a ‘fresh start’ through bankruptcy or a debt relief order and becoming productive again. Joseph Spooner and myself have commented elsewhere on whether England and Wales has struck the right balance between the wide variety of repayment plans, sometimes lasting many years, and the straight discharge of most debts. Almost one-third of Individual Voluntary Arrangements fail to complete. Many individuals may choose a repayment plan because they assume it will be better for their credit rating (and they may be able to retain their home) but credit reference agencies make little distinction between bankrupts and those who have been on repayment plans. The complexity of the English system with its many alternatives also creates difficulties for individuals choosing the best option, and increases the power of private and public intermediaries in the system, whose financial incentives may not align with public interest concerns.