Despite personal debt levels in the UK now having returned to pre-credit crunch levels, new figures released by the Improvement Service, reveal that free, local authority-funded debt advice services have now seen their funding cut by more than 44 per cent in the last three years. The latest figures paint a picture of services that are not only lacking capacity to deal with current demand, but should Scotland face another personal debt crisis, will not cope with future demand.
The tragedy of this is the modernisation and humanising of Scotland’s personal debt laws was one of the earliest and most notable achievements of the Scottish Parliament, from the abolition of poinding and warrant sales to the introduction of a new debt management scheme, known as the Debt Arrangement Scheme. Even Scotland’s bankruptcy laws were made more consumer friendly, making it easier for those with no other options to be permitted a fresh start, whilst free debt advice services were heavily invested in between 2003 and 2007.
By 2011, the progress that had been made meant it could reasonably have been stated Scotland had some of the most forward-thinking and progressive debt laws in Europe with well-funded advice agencies that could deal with the modern-day problems of over-indebtedness.
The benefits of this were all too evident in the aftermath of the credit crunch, when hundreds of thousands of Scots accessed both formal and informal debt solutions, and substantial levels of unmanageable consumer debt were addressed.
Then in 2012-13, the Scottish Accountancy in Bankruptcy (AIB), the agency which leads on debt policy for the Scottish Government, removed the wheels from these progressive policies that were driving such change. It concluded the law had become too debtor friendly and less than five years after the credit crunch, decided the law had to be re-tilted back in favour of banks and other financial institutions.
The effect was that within a year of the new rules being implemented in 2015, the numbers applying for bankruptcy fell by 44 per cent, whilst the numbers applying for the Debt Arrangement Scheme fell by 49 per cent.
It is now reasonable in my opinion to state the system is broken, incapacitated by funding cuts, but also by laws that have become the victim of “agency capture” by the AIB and are now developed to satisfy institutional needs of slotting everyone into formal solutions that can generate fees, rather than developing a system that benefits the whole of the community.
An example of this was evident last week, when the AIB declared the Debt Arrangement Scheme was a huge success, as it had recovered £200 million for creditors, whilst overlooking the fact more debt programmes had failed than had been successful.
Also, the Improvement Service produced another report that showed of the 49,000 people in 2016-17 who had sought advice from free, council-funded debt advice services, fewer than 21 per cent had their problems addressed through a formal solution, but more than 50 per cent had relied on their free sector advice agencies to negotiate solutions on their behalf.
It is now these free advice services that are facing cuts, with North Ayrshire Citizen Advice Service and Renfrewshire Law Centre only the latest to go in another round of cuts, closing their doors last week. More inevitably will follow.
Our debt laws may be world-recognised, but unless there are adequate resources and political will, they will not work.
The problem is they are no longer working and when Scotland faces another personal debt crisis, this will become all too obvious, but by then, it will be too late.
First published in The Herald, 4th April 2018