09 May 2019 | Posted In Money advice news

The Cabinet Office’s ‘Fairness Group’ (made up of debt advice organisations including StepChange, Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust, Money & Pensions Service, PayPlan and debt collection trade body the Credit Services Association) has released a public statement on government treatment of people in debt:

“The government established a Fairness Group in 2016, bringing central and local government, the debt advice sector, and the debt collection industry together. The aim is to continually improve how government interacts with people in debt, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances and/or experiencing financial hardship by:

● understanding the impact that debt collection practices can have and how to improve them
● implementing a joint programme of work to further examine practices in central and local government debt management which support vulnerable people, and make evidence
based recommendations for change
● applying Fairness Principles to government debt management, in line with sector best
● balancing the statutory and societal obligations of government to collect debts and
ongoing liabilities, and prevent fraudulent activity, with the need to ensure fairness.”

Kevin Foster, Minister for the Constitution, said: “I am pleased to announce a joint statement on how government and the debt advice sector work together to continually improve how we interact with people in vulnerable circumstances. The Cabinet Office plays a vital role in setting the strategy to ensure those who can pay their debts do so on time, whilst providing proportionate support to those who need it.”

Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, said: “Public sector debt collection practices should set the gold standard, but it has been widely recognised that there is a significant amount of work to do to realise this ambition. The public statement published by the Fairness Group rightly recognises the need to balance the interests of the taxpayer with ensuring that debts are collected fairly from people in financial difficulty – and particularly those who are in vulnerable circumstances. The next step will be to translate this commitment into real action for the people our debt advisers help day in, day out. We look forward to working with our partners on the Fairness Group to develop evidence-based recommendations that will improve the way that the government interacts with people in problem debt.”

Alistair Chisholm, Head of Advice Sector Policy and Partnerships at PayPlan said: “I applaud the government’s publication of this statement – it’s a welcome public commitment to contained engagement with the free debt advice sector. In recent years the policy focus has been on improving debt collection in the private sector. This joint statement is the result of positive discussions with the advice sector, and is a sign that government is looking for ways to improve how public sector bodies treat people in financial difficulty and collect debts.

“The inclusion of local government debt collection is especially welcome. Council tax debt problems have become a much more serious problem in recent years, and there is a clear need for improvement and reform in this area”

Peter Wallwork, Chief Executive of the Credit Services Association, added: “We are fully supportive of the need to apply Fairness Principles to the collection of all debts, in line with industry best-practice, since it not only reflects our own strategy of achieving a level playing field (i.e clear comparability between government and non-government debt) but will also enable the public sector to benefit from the best-practice experience and learnings of our own members. It means the customer will be treated fairly and consistently across every part of the debt collection sector. The challenge now will be whether the government will be able to put into practice its well-stated intentions, and the CSA will continue to work with other members of the Group to help government achieve a successful outcome.”