Monday, 28 November 2011

Participation for the Nation! #MALG11

Zero-credit's Emma Bryn-Jones reports on her day at the 2011 MALG Conference.

When we’re sitting on £1.5 trillion in personal borrowing, you would hope that some of the people who manage our repayments get together once in a while. Perhaps a room full of lenders, collectors, advisers, credit checkers, regulators and ombudsmen is not your idea of a great day out, but bear with me! The Money Advice Liaison Group invites open dialogue and this year’s conference, “The changing debt landscape – a change for the better?”, was no exception. 

2011 has been a tumultuous year in credit and debt. First, we had the £27 million Financial Inclusion Fund for face to face debt advice pulled and re-committed, then came news of a national debt advice gateway to be handled by the Money Advice Service from next spring. Throughout all this, the Office of Fair Trading has been developing new credit and debt related guidance, aimed at increasing consumer protection. The Crunch affects us all.

Operating Queensbury style rules of engagement, MALG insists on fair comment - no dissing absentees who cannot defend themselves, for example. From this alone, it is useful to observe who attended the conference and if I were in the market for credit, I’d want to know my lender had been there. The same goes for anyone seeking money or debt advice.

As far as I could tell, the day had two key themes: how we design services using less money for more people, and how we ensure that with fewer resources, vulnerable people remain protected.

Both concern consumers, because the channels for accessing information are in question here. It never ceases to amaze me, for instance, that the Internet is heralded as a key solution, when only a small handful of professionals tweet from events like this  - #duecredit @Debtology @tvl_info @CCCSPressOffice @kermitbantam @nwpearson and @ExperianJames.

We could argue the politics of a cash strapped economy all day, of course, but it won’t change the immediacy of problem debt. When you are up to your eyes in defaults and arrears, sitting on the steps of Saint Paul's may be the last thing you are able to do. You want charges dropped, interest stopped and a realistic conversation about what is possible. Due credit to all who attended the MALG conference, this is precisely what they were there for.

However, a key issue that worries me is the suggestion that, irrespective of how borrowers prefer to access advice - in person, over the phone, or online - their direction to one of these channels must be based on need. This does not sit easily with what we learned from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to my mind. Despite MALG and the College’s best efforts, we are still not entirely sure of how far problem debt increases the likelihood of mental illness. 

A strong consumer voice is essential to these debates and I hope that others from our Coop will join me at the MALG conference next year. The overriding impression I take away from the event is that the professionals can be as vulnerable as we are. From the debt collector I met, who was worrying about fines for the Congestion Charge, to an ombudsman who had argued the toss about bank charges, we are all consumers of personal finance and there's a certain equality in that.


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