Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Silence isn't golden

Perhaps you thought I was too embarrassed to speak, tweet or blog? Well, think again! 

Last week I came across a blog post (and after a little bit of digging, hundreds more, courtesy of affiliate marketing sites) from one Leicester based, Steve Thatcher of Help with Debt (UK) Ltd. Something about it just did not ring true – perhaps because it was too easily tailored to St Albans (and then Rochdale, Abingdon and Peterborough etc – you get the picture), or more likely because its only reference to the major advice charities was that they were so overloaded that consumers needed a more immediate solution...

I Tweeted about it. No one else seemed to have heard of Steve either. I e-mailed Advice UK about “The Debt Standard”, which Steve had claimed one of his companies had been awarded. So what have I learned?

1.The Debt Standard was launched in July 2008 to champion good practice from commerical debt counsellors. Fourteen months later, the site remains live, but Advice UK (originally quoted as supporting it) tell me that the initiative launched by Nottingham based TDX failed and is therefore no longer active. It is important to set Advice UK's support in context. They were doing as any reasonable charity would and commenting that regulation was a good idea. Still, the position now is that anyone can visit http://www.thedebtstandard.com/ and with a little help from Google Images, do as I have done to save the logo gif to “My Documents”, enabling them to verify status:

2.

My first question is, do charities like Advice UK need to be overlaoded with tracking down mis-use of claims to regulation like this? 

3.Despite Steve Thatcher's claim to The Debt Standard, neither of his companies, Help with Debt Ltd (formed August 2006, in Nottingham, Company number 05897921) or Help with Debt (UK) Ltd (formed November 2008, in Leicester, Company number 06755405) is listed as qualifying for it on “The Debt Standard” website. In all fairness to Steve, who has yet to contact me, he claimed the standard for Help with Debt Ltd last autumn and the landing page for this site is now under constructon, so changes may be afoot. Even so, the fact that he uses a dot org URL for what is essentially a commercial practice seems incongruous.

4.As you'd expect, if you were looking for debt advice, both direct.gov and the Financial Services Authority provide links to reputable agencies. The Institute of Financial Planning appears to be a main recommendation for securing paid advice, as it keeps the Register of Certified Financial Planners. However, Advice UK also referred me to DEMSA and the Debt Resolution Forum as the two main fee-charging professional associations for debt advisors, although neither of these has links from any government website. Furthermore, I could not find evidence of either Steve or his two companies being registered with any of these professional associations.

Given the unequivocal recommendation by Citizens Advice that there is a need for statutory regulation, my second question is, why do tax payers need to pay for government consultation about basic registers to verify the authenticity of debt management companies?

5.The fact is, we shouldn't have to. Registers of licenced debt counsellors already exist with the OFT and since in order to manage a debt, one must first advise on it, debt management companies must surely hold such a licence? This seems all the more a prerequisuite when, providing Category E commercial debt counselling or category E2 non-commercial debt counselling without a Credit Licence is a criminal offence.

Still, back to my original investigation: try as I might, with every variation of Steve Thatcher and Help with Debt I could think of, I could not find evidence of any Credit Licence being held.

6.Finally, to add grist to the mill of continued confusion and guilty silence when it comes to speaking up about dodgy debt ads, not one of the comments I posted on Steve's blogs, asking him to give some evidence of his Credit Licence Category or his professional associations has been posted. 

I had so hoped to end up with egg on my face after naming names so shamelessly, but for now it seems, my questions simply do not exist.

As I said at the NFPTweetup in London, last Thursday, I am one person, living in a council house, just off benefit and back to work, typing my blog and my tweets on a beat up old Dell Latitude D600, with no sound. For my questions – which I don't think are all that unreasonable – to be asked and indeed answered, I need you to retweet, redirect and generally regurgitate everything I have found out over the past week. I pledge wholeheartedly to apologise in full and in writing to Steve Thatcher if I find anything to the contrary of what I suspect. Afterall, it stands to reason that anyone who genuinely wants to help debtors will also want to promote fair and easy access to good quality and reliable information for getting out of that predicamment.

My final question? How much less will debt cost us when we have some regulation of how to find help with it?

Posted @ 11:10:13 on 30 September 2009
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