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Why we shouldn’t let Brexit get in the way of improving support for vulnerable customers

4 min read

SNP MP Ronnie Cowan has joined calls for the Government to introduce a legal duty of care for financial service providers – such as banks and building societies – to exercise towards their customers when the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill returns to the Commons in the New Year.

It will not have escaped people’s attention that the parliamentary agenda is currently dominated by Brexit, and is likely to be for some time.

As important as these debates are, we cannot forget about the day to day issues that are affecting our constituents now. Their lives go on. And for some, that includes dealing with cancer, its treatment and effects.

Around one in every two people can expect to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. Alongside the physical and emotional consequences, cancer brings with it a real risk of financial hardship.

Research by Macmillan Cancer Support found that 4 out of 5 people with cancer are, on average, £570 a month worse off as a result of their diagnosis. Every year 400,000 people in the UK with cancer struggle to pay their household bills because of their diagnosis.

As the number of people getting cancer grows, it’s more important than ever that all sectors play their part to help people cope with the financial fallout of cancer. The financial services industry should be no exception.

As providers of mortgages and other key financial commitments, banks and building societies have an unrivalled ability to reach and support their customers with cancer, and other long-term health conditions.

However, despite some progress in the sector - such as the work Nationwide and Lloyds Banking Group have done in partnership with Macmillan - research by Macmillan shows that too often people aren’t getting the support they need.

Only 1 in 9 people with cancer tell their bank about their diagnosis: many people don’t think their bank can help them or, worse, they worry that disclosing their diagnosis will have negative consequences. Of those who did tell their bank, nearly a quarter were dissatisfied with the support they received.

That’s why I’ve joined calls for the Government to introduce a legal duty of care for financial service providers – such as banks and building societies – to exercise towards their customers.

This would give customers with cancer, and other health conditions, the confidence to seek help from their bank, knowing they’ll get tailored support to meet their needs. It would also give banks guidance on what support to provide, and help ensure consistency, regardless of who people bank with.

There’s a growing consensus that a duty of care is needed – not just amongst experts, such as the Lords Select Committee on Financial Exclusion, but also consumers themselves. Over 17,000 people have signed an open letter by Macmillan Nurse Miranda calling for a duty to be introduced.

The duty wouldn’t just help people with cancer, it would have wide-ranging benefits by ensuring the banking sector plays its part in helping vulnerable customers when they need it most.

Given this, last week I asked the Treasury what discussions they’ve had with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) about introducing a duty of care. Their response was hugely disappointing.

They highlighted that the FCA have committed to publishing a ‘Discussion Paper’ to consider the duty of care further. However, this is not due to be published until ‘after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU becomes clear’.

What this timeframe means in reality is not yet clear. What we do know is that a Discussion Paper would only be the start of a long process of consultation and legislation – meaning it could be many years before a duty of care came into effect. Meanwhile during this time, nearly 1,000 people every day in the UK will receive the devastating news that they have cancer.

Brexit will of course have significant implications for the financial services industry which will need careful thought. However, that is not a valid reason for delaying the duty of care. Action is needed now so that future changes are built on the foundation that financial service firms’ have a duty of care to their customers.

The Government has a vital opportunity to take action through the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, currently going through Parliament. Peers from all parties called on them to do so whilst the Bill was in the House of Lords, and I plan to join with other MPs to continue this when it enters the Commons in the new year.

We cannot afford to wait. The longer we delay, the longer people go without support. I urge the Government and FCA to take action now.

Ronnie Cowan MP is the SNP MP for Inverclyde

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