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Duty of care to tackle debt crisis

Tim Sutcliffe of the PI Consortium says lenders must share responsibility for consumers’ spiralling borrowings

I am appalled by the ease with which people are able to accumulate huge debts. It is all very well putting the responsibility on individuals for their own financial circumstances but many young people have little financial acumen.

There is no formal financial education or assistance for young people in managing their finances. They leave school and find money being thrown at them. I strongly feel that banks and lenders must bear some of the responsibility for the climate of debt problems and introduce steps to end the spiralling debt misery by tightening their lending policy.

Personal debt in the UK is at an all-time high – it is estimated that UK consumers owe about £1,200m, more than 50 per cent higher than total company debt. A large amount of responsibility lies with the lenders for throwing money at consumers.

For the first time since the last recession, householders are showing signs of increasing difficulties in paying off their debts. Data from the Council of Mortgage Lenders reveals repossessions totalling 10,250 by the end of 2005 while the number of households in arrears on their mortgage payments had risen to 105,990. This in no way compares where 1992 figures, where repossessions reached 64,000, but it is still a bleak reminder of a situation that could recur.

It is terrible that such huge figures are now involved, with an average person owing more than £10,000 on credit cards. We all know the results of overspending – escalating debts cause stress and anxiety, often leading to arguments and breakdowns in relationships. Debt and its associated stress can ruin family life.

One of the problems is that people, providing they are able to meet repayments and keep creditors off their backs, believe they are in control of the situation. When unforeseen circumstances, such as redundancy or illness strike, the scale of the problem becomes insurmountable.

Banks and lenders advertise credit as available funds and people are spending without considering payback time. Credit and loans are so easy to obtain that it makes a mockery of the application system.

Young people are, especially, being targeted and often end up down a slippery slope which leads to debt and depression.

It is important for banks and financial institutions to take more responsibility. We need to see a more robust system which does not throw money at vulnerable members of society who are not in a position to meet borrowing commitments but helps them recognise that the money must be paid back and looks at the affordability of the debt for each individual.

Personal bankruptcies hit an all-time high in 2005, with the Department for Trade, and Industry recording a rise of almost 30 per cent in the number of people going bankrupt.

Many students are forced into debt through a series of loans to pay tuition fees and struggling to meet simple living costs. Combine this with the pressure to take out store and credit cards and many are leaving college with debts of more than £20,000. One of my best employees found herself with debts of over £10,000 when she left Manchester at 20. High interest rates on store cards left her struggling to clear her debts over a period of six years and although her original debt was £10,000 she eventually paid back more than £16,000.

Interest-only mortgages are another burning issue which I feel may come home to roost in the next few years, with many people never pay- ing off their homeloan debt.

There is a delicate balance in play and a sudden hike in interest rates could leave many people in financial ruin, with a recurrence of the 1992 repossessions just a small step away.

It is not acceptable to put all the responsibility on individuals for careful money management. Many of these debt-ridden people have barely left school or entered adulthood and are not in a position to deal effectively with the vast quantities of credit on offer.

It is the bankers and lenders that make profits from these people’s misery.

The situation is intolerable and all lenders must take some responsibility. It is time to take a more ethical and responsible approach.

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