UK 'needs Financial Health Minister'

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THE UK needs a Minister for Financial Health to ensure everyone is "connected to the financial mains", a report suggests.

The Financial Inclusion Commission (FIC) says nearly two million adults don't have access to a bank account - and around half of them chose to "disconnect" themselves from the banking system because of money problems.

But at the same time, some two million people took out a high cost loan in 2012 because they couldn't access any other form of credit.

The report suggests that since the end of the Financial Inclusion Taskforce in 2011, the lack of government-level leadership on the subject means any efforts to tackle the problem have had only limited impact.

Education for all

To that end, the FIC's main proposal is the introduction of a Financial Health Minister before the 2020 General Election, along with a "champion for financial inclusion" in each Government department and devolved Parliaments.

A financial system that excludes significant numbers of citizens cannot foster growth or spread prosperity. Competition alone will not be able to deliver the outcomes that society desires.
Financial Inclusion Commission

On top of that, there would be an independent expert group dedicated to studying and reporting on any issues and progress - very similar to the now defunct Financial Inclusion Taskforce.

The FIC say this would enable Government, regulators, the financial services industry and civil society to work together to tackle the issue of financial exclusion much more effectively.

The next most important issue as the FIC sees it is the introduction of lifelong financial education - from primary school right through until retirement, covering all the usual life stages and events, but also technical and cultural issues.

They say this is absolutely essential given that most of us simply don't understand the basics of personal finance, and tend not to think much about money management.

Banking for all

That's not helped by the fact that financial providers aren't meeting the needs of people on lower incomes.

For example, an essential part of keeping on top of monthly payments for many people, the direct debit comes in for some criticism.

The issue, the FIC says, is that the simplicity of regular monthly payments is good for providers, banks, and people with guaranteed regular incomes - but it doesn't reflect the financial messiness of those with lower or unstable incomes.

Among those who've only recently opened bank accounts - so they have somewhere to put their wages and make basic payments from, for example - around half have been hit with charges for failed direct debit payments.

What's more, 26% ended up paying more in charges than they gained by switching to direct debit.

At least this is set to change, with truly free basic bank accounts being brought in by the end of 2015.

But in the meantime only around half of us seem to think our bank is "fair and transparent" or "trustworthy" - and among the financially vulnerable that figure declines considerably.

The Financial Conduct Authority has regulations regarding the fair treatment of those considered vulnerable, and it's recently told banks they need to do more to support those customers.

The FIC, however, say "this regard for financial inclusion sits within the FCA's competition objective rather than its consumer protection objective".

So they suggest the regulator should have a statutory duty to actively promote financial inclusion - covering not just basic accounts, but savings, pensions and insurance.

Saving for all

Around 13 million people have so little put by they wouldn't last a month if their income dropped by 25%. But the people who do save tend to be those who already have a bit of money.

The Government spent £2.85 billion on tax relief on ISAs in 2013/14, and an estimated £319 million at least on pensioner bonds - benefits felt mostly by higher income households.

In contrast, those who can only afford to save a few pounds a week get next to nothing in interest, and the tax incentives don't mean much to people who pay little in the way of tax anyway.

The FIC wants to see a workplace savings scheme brought in, along similar lines to the auto-enrolment pension scheme, to make it "as easy as possible for those in work" to start putting something by.

Other options that would also help those not in work include:

Credit for all

Across the UK, 50% of households in the lower half of the income range don't have home contents insurance - meaning they'd face some potentially vicious bills if anything happened to their belongings.

That would likely lead to them joining the 8.8 million people who are already over-indebted.

StepChange Debt Charity say the people coming to them have much lower levels of consumer debt than a few years ago, but the number who are getting further into debt trying to cover essentials such as rent, energy bills and council tax is rising.

That trend looks likely to continue, with suggestions that household debt will continue to grow faster than wages until 2019.

And that squeeze has meant financial exclusion is becoming a much broader issue. The FIC quote research from Leeds City Council, carried out in 2004 and again in 2010.

The degree of exclusion worsened in areas that were already considered to be deprived - but it was also found to have spread into much more "average" communities, thought to be partly the result of the financial crisis in the years between.

Conversely, the FIC says talk of economic recovery and optimism is encouraging many to borrow beyond their means.

Meanwhile there aren't enough lines of affordable credit available to keep up with demand - and while high cost short term borrowing has increased, efforts to bring payday lenders into line have helped the resurgence of illegal (but quick) money lenders.

Leadership for all

The FIC say, the Government alone can't fix all of the issues above, and given the pressure on public finances, the report says it can't be expected to.

But it should be taking the lead and helping bring together all the efforts currently being made.

As the FIC say: "A financial system that excludes significant numbers of citizens cannot foster growth or spread prosperity."

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