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The government must stop debt collectors bombarding people during the cost of living crisis

The government must stop debt collectors bombarding people during the cost of living crisis

(Alamy)

3 min read

Most of us can relate to the pang of anxiety that comes with opening a letter about an overdue bill. The red shouty text, along with the threats of court action or bailiff visits can almost instantly feel overwhelming.

But now imagine that you’re receiving a pile of these letters each day from different lenders, alongside a deluge of calls, text messages, voicemails and emails about your overdue bills. It’s not hard to see how that pang of anxiety would quickly escalate into fear, hopelessness and sheer panic.

The way people are bombarded with letters and calls about their debt is causing grave distress

Unfortunately this is the bleak reality for too many people across the United Kingdom struggling to stay on top of bills during the cost of living crisis. New research by the charity Money and Mental Health (on whose advisory board I sit) shows that nearly of half of UK adults who are behind on payments have felt suicidal due to the cost of living crisis. Terrifyingly, one in eight people who have missed one or more payments say they have attempted suicide due to the cost of living crisis.

Suicide is complex, and there is rarely a single issue that leads to someone considering taking their own life. But one important finding in the Money and Mental Health research is that the way people are bombarded with letters and calls about their debt is causing grave distress — and in some cases is even contributing to people becoming suicidal.

The research highlights cases of people who in recent weeks have received seven messages in the space of just seven hours all from the same firm, in the form of letters, texts calls and emails. People say that receiving this barrage of letters and messages each day leaves them feeling unable to cope.

Shockingly, debt collectors can get away with bombarding people in this way, because there are no specific legal rules in the UK limiting how often they can contact people about overdue bills.

 

The Financial Conduct Authority (the watchdog for financial services) does offer guidance that creditors and debt collectors should not contact people in arrears “at unreasonable intervals’. But it does not explain how much is too much — which leaves people completely defenceless against potential harassment from creditors.

This lack of restrictions puts the UK at odds with other countries. For example, even in free-market United States there are legal curbs on how regularly debt collectors can contact people.

This urgently needs to change because it’s putting lives at risk. First and foremost, the onus is on the government to take action to strengthen consumer protections against aggressive debt collection practices. It should task the FCA with putting in place limits on how often creditors can contact people — which would not only reduce distress but could even save lives.

That should be a priority for the government in the coming months, alongside publishing its new National Suicide Prevention Strategy — and ensuring that the latter has a strong focus on financial problems as a driver of suicidality.

Every life lost to suicide is tragic and preventable. It’s time for the government to stop debt collectors contributing to ruined lives during the cost of living crisis.

 

Dr Lisa Cameron, Scottish National Party MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.

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