Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 13:12 UK

Crackdown on credit card cheques

Cash in pocket
Consumer groups wanted a new ombudsman

Unwanted credit card cheques are set to be banned and a new post created to help ripped-off consumers get their money back, the government says.

Measures to assist people facing difficulties with debt and at risk from rogue traders are also in the plans.

Figures from the Bank of England show that UK residents owe £233bn on credit cards, overdrafts and other loans.

There has been a mixed reaction to the plans that include the creation of a Consumer Advocate.

Under the plans outlined in a White Paper, the Advocate would raise awareness of consumer issues and take cases of "national importance" to court on behalf of groups of consumers seeking compensation and refunds.

Credit cards

Outstanding credit card debt in the UK has reached £54.4bn - a figure that has started to rise in recent months after falling back in the course of last year.

These are particularly tough times for consumers and these measures will give people stronger rights to take action
Larry Whitty, Consumer Focus

The government wants action to make lending practices more responsible, with concerns raised about debt levels during the recession.

Credit card cheques are blank cheques sent out by card issuers to their customers, often with a statement, giving them an alternative way to spend on their card account.

They have proved to be controversial because consumers incur handling fees for using them, there is no interest-free period as seen with a card, and they do not command the same level of protection for customers if things go wrong.

The government has been under pressure for some time to ban them. It announced earlier in the year that it was planning to stop companies sending out unsolicited credit card cheques and it now says these will be banned unless a customer specifically opts-in to receiving them.

Research from the price comparison website, Uswitch, suggested one in five people had seen their credit card limit increased in the past 12 months without them asking for it.

The government has also announced a review of card fees and charges.

Help at hand

Consumer groups have also called for more help for consumers to resolve issues with businesses who they believe have ripped them off.

How much is this idea going to cost me and every other taxpayer?
Mark, Nottingham

Citizens Advice wanted a Consumer Ombudsman who would resolve individuals' complaints and take command of group action by consumers.

Instead a Consumer Advocate role will be created by early next year. The aim is to fill the role with a person who is comfortable taking part in high-profile consumer campaigns as well as representing large groups of consumers in court seeking compensation.

Disgruntled customers who have been ripped off by a business can opt-in to a group legal action led by the Advocate when it first goes to court - or at the point at which a case is successful, according to the plans.

"These are particularly tough times for consumers and these measures will give people stronger rights to take action, backed by tough legislation and a powerful Consumer Advocate," said Larry Whitty, chairman of watchdog Consumer Focus.

Ron Gainsford, chairman of the Trading Standards Institute, which represents trading standards officers, said: "The Consumer Advocate proposal is really good news because it will help to further foster a healthy balance between consumers and businesses."

However, the Advocate is unlikely to have legal powers as soon as he or she enters their post - as consultation and a new law would be needed first.

Mixed views

The British Retail Consortium said that the new position should not just be a "gesture" and the Advocate should be completely independent.

Credit cards
Credit card debts have raised concerns

"Most consumer problems are sorted out face-to-face in store but improving access to the other options that already exist is good for customers and retailers when it leads to a speedier more efficient resolution," a spokesman said.

And Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of the consumers' association Which?, said: "Many of the measures are overdue but welcome. The important thing is that no time is wasted in turning these proposals into tangible benefits for consumers.

"The jury is out on the creation of the role of Consumer Advocate, for the devil is in the detail. It will be interesting to see how the role will fit in with the organisations and roles that already exist."

Affordability issues

Consumer Minister Kevin Brennan said the plans would cost about £3m a year by 2010/11. He said the funds were available, but he refused to outline whether cuts would be made elsewhere to pay for them.

Also included in the proposals are:

  • A new team to tackle internet-based scams
  • A fresh look at protection for consumers who paid for goods that were not delivered because the business went bust
  • A credit card comparison website set up by the Financial Services Authority in 2010
  • Talks on credit card and store card charges - such as whether minimum repayment levels are set too low
  • A review of high-cost credit, such as payday loans and doorstep selling.

These short-term high interest loans, with an APR of more than 50%, are often aimed at those who cannot get credit elsewhere.

But the government fears that caps on interest rates could push sub-prime borrowers to illegal loan sharks instead as the market would shrink.

Fiona Hoyle, head of consumer finance at the Finance and Leasing Association - which represents lenders, also warned that borrowers could face higher bills.

"The industry strongly supports responsible lending and we welcome some of the measures in the White Paper. But we already face a barrage of new regulation. There are now real risks for consumers who face reduced credit availability and higher prices," she said.

But Louise Bond, of Uswitch, told the BBC that the proposals were welcome, but said that the government could have gone further by studying issues such as the cost of using credit cards abroad and the number of days offered to pay off debts.

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