You are here

A personal debt crisis looms - unless we are willing to take action

by Myles Fitt, CAS Strategic Lead on Financial Health.

This article first appeared in the Herald on 29 July 2020.

A tsunami of personal debt is about to hit our shores, due to the aftershock of the economic earthquake caused by Covid-19.

Many people have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic or seen a fall in income and a great many others are expected to follow, particularly once the UK government’s furlough scheme comes to an end in the autumn.

This raises a very real risk that hundreds of thousands of households may be plunged into the misery of crisis debt, a situation that should concern us all.

Over the last few weeks my Citizens Advice Scotland colleagues have set out in this column how we can truly build a better, fairer economy n the wake of the pandemic - if we are prepared to be bold in public policymaking. So far they’ve covered housing, employment and social security. Today I want to show that the approach taken on personal debt is another vital element of this.

The lessons from the 2008 financial crash tell us that people with decent incomes will pay their debts off quicker, or increase their savings to stave off the effects of a financial shock. 

People on low incomes don’t have that option. They will juggle and prioritise their payments as best they can but at some point they will have to stop making certain payments in order to put food on the table. These are the people who will be the first to be pushed into unmanageable debt.

The second group affected will be those who have long carried some debts but who have also had regular incomes to help them comfortably manage it. An income shock will take many of these people, too, over the cliff edge and into financial crisis.

When the pandemic first hit, many people were helped and indeed rescued by the government’s furlough scheme and assistance for the self-employed, while banks and lenders have been mandated to help people with payment holidays.

In addition, local authorities have been flexible in helping people make their council tax and rent payments. This is all welcome, though it hasn’t helped everybody and many jobs have been lost already.

But when the tide eventually goes out on these support measures, redundancies and mounting bills will immediately impact on people’s financial well-being. And people are worried about this. A recent survey by CAS revealed that 27% of people in Scotland are concerned about making debt repayments during the pandemic. An earlier survey showed that 41% are concerned about their income amidst the outbreak.

Since lockdown began and people’s finances were thrown up in the air, our network has seen increasing demand for advice on benefits, employment and how to pay bills. Debt itself has not seen such a rise in cases, as there is always a time lag between income shocks and debt developing, and the main catalyst – furlough ending and jobs being lost – is still to come.

In other words, the debt tsunami will not hit shore for a while yet due to this time lag, with a further lag in people only seeking help once they get to a crisis point where their debt becomes unmanageable.

So we have some time. What we need to do is to heed the lessons from the 2008 crash, which give us a route map of how and where personal debt will emerge and a guide to how it can be tackled.

Firstly, the government must continue to support individuals and businesses for as long as it takes, through income support measures like furloughs. We also need them to be flexible in applying this support, responding to the varying needs of different sectors.

Secondly, individual households must get ongoing help with making critical payments and paying back Covid-19-related arrears. Creditors must take a realistic approach to a crisis that is, after all, not of their debtors’ making.

Efforts to pursue arrears should take into account ability to pay and ideally re-payments should be spread as thinly as possible. Meanwhile, local authority debts over five years old, such as council tax or rent, should be written off altogether where recovery is unlikely or uneconomical.

There is also a need for greater public awareness of where people can turn for debt advice and also, critically, of the need to seek that advice as early as possible before their debts spiral out of control.

If people are struggling with money and debt problems the Citizens Advice network is, as always, here to help. Our expert advice is free, impartial and confidential.

But advice agencies also need help. We need governments and the financial sector to invest now in free debt advice, enabling us to build our own capacity so we can help as many people as possible.

Otherwise advice agencies risk getting caught up in the tsunami too.