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Fears for struggling borrowers as Bank pushes up interest rates

By Claire McNeilly

Consumers in Northern Ireland have been warned to brace themselves for higher bills, following the first hike in interest rates in over a decade.

Householders on variable rate mortgages and people with other debts will be hardest hit after the Bank of England base rate increased to 0.5% from the record low of 0.25%.

It's the first time the rate has gone up since 2007, which means many borrowers will have never been in this situation before and may not be prepared for the financial hardship ahead.

But it also means that those with savings might finally see their rate tick upwards after years of stagnation or decline.

Kathy McKenna from Citizens Advice Northern Ireland told the Belfast Telegraph that the 0.25% rise could be "significant" with serious repercussions for borrowers across the province.

"If rates, particularly on things like credit cards and pay day loans, start to increase, it is going to exacerbate people's problems," she said.

"At first it was people in crisis, who had lost their job or had a relationship breakdown, who would have presented for debt advice.

"Now we are seeing more people who have been struggling for a long time and it has got to the point where they cannot manage."

Last year, Citizens Advice helped more than 6,700 individuals with money and debt issues, according to Ms McKenna, an experienced Money Advice Coordinator.

She said that many clients are working on tight budgets with very little surplus income at the end of the month, so any small increase could tip them into financial difficulty.

"In the last week, we have already been contacted by clients who are extremely anxious about any increase in interest rates," she said.

She added: "One client had recently negotiated a repayment plan with his creditors using his monthly surplus income of £20 per month, but the increase in interest rate will mean that his mortgage payment will now absorb his surplus, leaving him with little or nothing to offer his creditors.

"He will now need to review his debt options and seek further advice."

Consumer borrowing is growing at 10% a year and inflation has hit 3%, so the Bank of England's decision on interest rates yesterday was widely expected by industry experts.

Those at the front line of Northern Ireland's debt problems have warned that this rise will turn up the pressure on people who are already struggling to get by and those already grappling with the pressures of inflation pushing up their monthly bills.

Many young people have never known an interest rate rise, and have grown used to the availability of cheap money and benign mortgage rates.

If interest rates are now increasing, then homeowners on variable rate mortgages or coming out of a fixed rate may see their monthly repayments increase, reducing the amount of disposable income left at the end of the month.

Nationwide Building Society has said that on the average mortgage of £125,000, an increase of 0.25% would increase monthly payments by £15 to £665, amounting to an extra £185 per year.

However, householders who have a mortgage advance of £150,000 could eventually pay as much as £161 a month more if rates increases continue to move up towards 2%, according to figures supplied by the Halifax, which is Britain's largest lender.

The Money Advice Service published research earlier this year showing that 15.29% of Northern Ireland adults (or 217,205 adults) were currently struggling with money and debt worries.

Kathy added: "We would encourage anyone who is concerned about the increase in interest rates to contact Citizens Advice for free on 0800 028 1881 to speak to an adviser today."

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