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The Credit Services Association (CSA)
Blog: What’s next for utility, telecoms and Local Authority debt collection?
Recent news from water industry regulator Ofwat that the cost of unpaid water bills has hit £2.2bn has led to pressure on water firms to do more to collect debt from consumers who are able to pay and deal more effectively with vulnerable consumers who are not.
Tom Somerville, Operations Director at Credit Services Association member company Orbit Collections Group, which specialises in the recovery of water arrears, spoke at our UK Credit & Collections Conference in September 2015 about their work to ensure that Ofwat’s guidelines for debt collection in the industry were amended accordingly.
The debt collection sector’s move from being overseen by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to being regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has created a ‘black hole’ that has become mistakenly referred to as ‘unregulated debt’. For those who don’t know, the FCA’s remit only covers those involved in the collection of financial services debt (debt relating to the Consumer Credit Act). This means that agencies like Orbit Collections who specialise in collecting debt that was generated outside of the financial services world, are precluded from FCA regulation and unable to apply for authorisation.
So, in July 2014, when Ofwat released its revised debt guidelines to include the clause “[water companies who use debt collection agencies] will engage a reputable company licensed by the Financial Conduct Authority to engage in debt collection,” it had huge implications for our business, our clients and most importantly the customers we deal with.
What are the benefits of debt collection agencies that specialise in a specific sector?
In order to become FCA regulated, we would have had to deviate from our specialism in the water industry. Our Board has over 60 years of water industry experience, which means we have an in-depth knowledge of the Government’s social tariffs and water companies’ individual affordability schemes, assistance funds, meter and tariff migration assessments and water efficiency assessments. This gives us a huge amount of insight when it comes to engaging with consumers who have defaulted on payments for whatever reason. We have the expertise to answer their questions about how the bills are calculated, what they get for their money and why it is so important that they either pay or confirm that they are unable to pay.
Specialist agencies working in the water industry do more than simply collect debt. The water companies do not have the ultimate sanction of turning off the supply to those who cannot or will not pay, as do the banks with credit. Our role is therefore to work with consumers to resolve their debt issues, to explore what help is available through government or specific company schemes and find more affordable tariffs to reduce their ongoing charges. Within the existing guidance from OFWAT, this specialist help would have been lost, to the consumers’ detriment.
Working closely with key industry stakeholders, we engaged with Ofwat and successfully secured their agreement that precluding specialist debt collection agencies would be to the detriment of the customer. It was confirmed that the guidelines would be amended so that ‘unregulated’ firms were not excluded but that they would be expected to follow the FCA handbook and guidelines as an example of best practice.
Leigh Berkley, CSA President commented: “We welcome this common sense approach by Ofwat, recognising the need for FCA standards of customer treatment, while understanding the important role which can be played by agencies who cannot be FCA regulated. The ultimate goal must remain that we treat every customer the same, whether dealing with a water, telco or banking debt, and we welcome Ofwat’s contribution in this regard.”
Will other ‘unregulated debt’ sectors follow suit?
Debt can be generated from many different sources: it can come from public sector organisations such as the HMRC or the DVLA; from telecomms, water companies or other major utilities; or it can be created by catalogue companies, mail order firms and other online retailers. Others within the ‘unregulated’ sector may therefore find themselves in a similar position if they don’t address any industry anomalies with their peers.
Whilst ‘unregulated’ firms are under no obligation, for example, to treat their customers fairly, nor do they have to conform to the niceties of such things as a 30-day breathing space for the most vulnerable, for most it makes business sense to do so and a focus on customer outcomes is part of their culture.
Indesser, the body set up to provide government departments with a single route to use the private sector to recover debt, has been obliged to state that it will only work with debt collection agencies that are regulated by the FCA – even though they are being tasked with collecting monies from the unregulated sector. Likewise, other utility regulators such as Ofgem and Ofcom still use FCA compliance as the closest fit, despite it not necessarily being the best fit.
It will be interesting to see whether others follow Ofwat’s lead. We may end up seeing one conduct regulator for water, energy and telecoms to help simplify and standardise the process for consumers. Whether the likes of housing associations will require debt collection agencies to be FCA regulated remains to be seen but the case for sector specialism and its benefits for the customer seem to point to a more open system.