Help on offer if debt firms fail
Extra support is being offered to customers of debt management firms who may find their provider has closed after failing to meet toughened regulations.
The Money Advice Service (MAS) and StepChange Debt Charity have announced a new partnership to make sure people who find their debt management firm has closed still have somewhere to turn to for help.
Tough new regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) took over supervision of consumer credit firms, including debt management firms, in April 2014.
While some debt management firms have left the market, those that are still in operation are applying for full authorisation from the FCA, which is checking that firms meet its standards.
The MAS said that while it is not known whether more firms may leave the market, it has put a contingency plan in place to help anyone who may otherwise be left without a debt management provider.
The MAS business plan for 2015/16 has £3.8 million set aside to support people who may be affected by greater scrutiny of debt management providers.
StepChange will hire more than 100 new advisers specifically to help clients of commercial debt-management providers that exit the market.
The FCA has said it expects all debt management firms to meet required standards, including that fees are fair and transparent, debt solutions take a client's circumstances into account and are affordable and sustainable, and providing trained staff whose interests are in getting the best outcomes for the customer, rather than driven by incentives.
Firms should also be telling customers about free debt services and signposting them to the MAS for more information in their first communication with the customer, the FCA has said.
But in September 2014, the FCA warned debt management firms they need to raise standards if they want to continue operating, saying "many firms are falling well short of our expectations".
Caroline Siarkiewicz, head of the UK debt advice programme for the MAS, said: "We welcome the FCA's increased scrutiny of debt management companies, bringing greater accountability, making sure all providers meet the same standards of advice delivery and protecting consumers.
"It is important that those customers whose debt management company leaves the market are able to access high quality, free debt advice to help them decide the best course of action and get their finances back on track.
"This is the first time we have worked in partnership with StepChange Debt Charity and we are pleased to be providing funding to deliver these vital additional debt advice services over the coming year."
The MAS said those affected by any potential closures of debt-management firms are advised in the first instance to visit www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/debt-management or call the dedicated MAS debt management helpline on 0300 330 2222.
Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: " Dealing with debt can be an extremely stressful and difficult time and it is essential that the people affected by firms leaving the market have somewhere to turn where they can get free and independent advice.
"This funding means that substantial extra advice and support will be available in the coming months."