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The Woolard Review sets out how regulation can better support a healthy market for unsecured lending, taking into account the impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, changing business models and new developments in unregulated buy-now pay-later (BNPL) unsecured lending. The Review was commissioned by the FCA Board.
Christopher Woolard, Chair of the Review, said:
‘Most of us will use credit at some point in our lives. So, it’s vital that we have a fair market that works for everyone. New ways of borrowing and the impact of the pandemic are changing the market, with billions of pounds now in unregulated transactions and millions of consumers at greater risk of financial difficulty.
‘Changes are urgently needed: to bring BNPL into regulation to protect consumers; to ensure that there is secure provision of debt advice to help all those who may need it; and to maintain a sustained regulatory response to the pandemic.
‘Alongside these urgent issues the Review sets out a series of recommendations for how the FCA, working with partners, can build a better market in future.’
UK households have nearly £250 billion of outstanding consumer credit debt and more than 42.5 million people used consumer credit in 2019. The Review sets out 26 recommendations to the FCA, sometimes working with Government and other bodies, to make the unsecured credit market fit for the future, including:
- The regulation of unregulated buy-now pay-later: BNPL products which are currently exempt from regulation should be brought within the regulatory perimeter as a matter of urgency. The use of BNPL products nearly quadrupled in 2020 and is now at £2.7 billion, with 5 million people using these products since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The emergence and expansion of unregulated BNPL products gives consumers a significant alternative to more expensive credit, but this also comes with significant potential for consumer harm. For example, more than one in ten customers of a major bank using BNPL were already in arrears. Regulation would protect people who use BNPL products and make the market sustainable.
- Debt advice: The provision of debt advice will be critical to a sustainable market in the long term, especially through the recovery from coronavirus. Free debt advice services need secure, long-term funding as demand increases to as many as 1.5 million additional cases, following the pandemic. Funding needs to be in place to help the poorest pay fees when applying for debt relief orders.
- Forbearance: The FCA responded quickly and effectively in the emergency phase of the pandemic – it needs to sustain this response through the recovery, for example by looking at whether it should revise its rules and guidance to drive greater consistency in the type of support firms offer consumers struggling to pay.
- Alternatives to high-cost credit: A sustainable credit market needs more alternatives to high-cost credit. The FCA should work with the Government and Bank of England to reform the regulation of credit unions and Community Development Finance Institutions. More should be done to encourage mainstream lenders into this space.
- Outcomes focused: Regulation should be driven by the outcome being sought and how consumers use products in the real world. Regulation should deliver similar protections where consumers face similar harms. In addition to making sure products are affordable, there should be an increased focus on lenders meeting consumers needs’ for as long as they hold the product. The FCA should review repeat lending.
The FCA’s response to the Woolard Review
The FCA welcomes the Woolard Review report into change and innovation in the unsecured credit market and supports the recommendations directed to the FCA.
The Board agrees that there is a strong and pressing case to bring buy-now pay-later business into regulation.
Charles Randell has written to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury setting out the Board’s view and proposing that the FCA works with the Government to design the appropriate regulation.
Ensuring consumer credit markets work well is one of the FCA’s five priorities. The Board has asked the FCA executive to build the Review’s recommendations into its business planning. The FCA will publish its 2021/22 Business Plan in April, and will give further details of the response to the Review.
Charles Randell, Chair at the FCA, said:
‘Unaffordable credit can damage the lives of people who are already struggling to manage everyday expenses. While we have made progress in reducing unaffordable debt in the years before coronavirus, the pandemic has had an unequal impact on households. Many people have been able to reduce their debts, but some of the poorest in our society have exhausted any savings or run up more debts. All the authorities which cover debt and debt advice must act together systematically to prevent problem debt and to help people get out of a spiral of debt through properly funded debt advice.
‘Regulation should be consistent and the Review shows how we can ensure high standards in consumer credit regardless of the form of credit.
‘The Review has powerful recommendations on debt advice and insolvency including on the IVA market. We are ready to work with other regulators to reduce the harm that IVAs can produce for people that use them, and to reduce the scope for unscrupulous operators to prey on vulnerable indebted people through for-profit debt packaging.
‘As the market innovates and changes, regulators and legislators need to respond quickly and decisively to protect consumers by facilitating credit where it is beneficial and clamping down on it when it does harm. The FCA agrees that there is a strong and pressing case to bring buy-now pay-later business into regulation.’
Notes to editors
- The Woolard Review report.
- Letter from Christopher Woolard to HM Treasury on BNPL.
- Letter from Charles Randell to HM Treasury on BNPL.
- Letter from Economic Secretary to the Treasury to Christopher Woolard.
- In September 2020, the FCA Board asked Christopher Woolard to review change and innovation in the unsecured credit market and to report to them in early 2021. The Review is not an evaluation of current FCA consumer credit rules, nor does it introduce any new rules. The work of the review was supported by an advisory panel. This group of individuals brought a variety of perspectives from firms and consumers to help shape the review. Find out more about the review.
- Unsecured credit includes products such as credit cards and store cards, overdrafts, personal loans, high-cost-short-term credit, buy now pay later and home collected credit.
- Find out more about the FCA’s interventions in the high-cost and consumer credit markets.
- The current exclusion of BNPL from regulation is set out in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.
- The FCA became responsible for the regulation of consumer credit in 2014.