Consumer Credit Reforms

I spoke in parliament yesterday about consumer credit reforms to make simpler information available to mortgage and credit card customers.
National Consumer Credit Protection Amendment (Home Loans and Credit Cards) Bill 2011
21 June 2011

The Australian dream of owning your own home is usually only possible through a home loan, yet taking out a home loan can be the biggest financial commitment that most Australians make. Credit cards promise that bit of help to manage the family budget. Whether it is helping to get access to cash in an emergency or helping to pay for those little extras like a holiday, accessing quick and easy credit is an attractive option for most. But, in the excitement of thinking about a first home or a new home, or the possibilities of what can be bought with a credit card or an extended credit limit, the obligations that banks and other credit providers place on consumers can be forgotten.

When you are thinking about moving into your first house, the last thing you want to do is read through the fine print in a dense home loan contract. When you are planning your overseas holiday, you do not read the clause about the additional charges associated with a cash advance. The changes proposed in this amendment are part of a broad suite of reforms that seek to increase fairness for consumers seeking credit, help to better educate consumers about what it is they are signing up for and create a set of uniform laws across Australia.

It can be extremely difficult to work in an area where every day you see people suffering from extreme financial hardship.

I would like to use this opportunity to commend the consumer rights advocates in my electorate for their hard work. Some of the groups doing marvellous work include Moneycare, provided through the Salvation Army, Street Law, the ACT Welfare Rights Centre and Care Inc., which includes the financial counselling service and the Consumer Law Centre for the ACT.

My friend Liz Dawson has shown me around Moneycare at their Dickson offices and I have seen how hard they work to provide assistance to people in the community who are under pressure from their debts. Moneycare reminded me that many people suffering from financial difficulty as a result of credit card and home loan stress often end up with depression or anxiety as a result.

Care Inc. is the main consumer law advocacy body in the Australian Capital Territory and also provides advice and assistance to consumers. They wrote a submission on the financial services and credit reform green paper that preceded the range of legislative reforms. They rightly point out that, even though low-income earners carry less debt than high-income earners, the potential for that debt to have a negative impact on their lives, families and general wellbeing was far greater. Here in the ACT we boast some of the highest living standards in the country. But even in a relatively well-off electorate like Fraser there is still disadvantage, and we need to remember that, even though those generalisations about Fraser might be true for many, they are certainly not true for all.

Care Inc. told me that a local elderly woman on a pension was given a mortgage for the exclusive use of her son to purchase a business. The son was unable to repay the mortgage and the elderly pensioner was at risk of losing her home because of the loan, which she clearly could not service and from which she received absolutely no benefit. Care Inc. also told me that they had a client who was a homeless man living off a credit card. The man was unemployed and had a range of financial and other legal difficulties, yet he was still given a credit card.

In addition to low-income earners suffering from mortgage and credit card stress, financial counsellors agree that in the last five years there has been a significant increase in the number of middle-income earners suffering mortgage stress. One way that we can help people, regardless of their level of income, to avoid financial stress due to debt is to assist them to understand what it is that they are signing up for. The Gillard government have introduced a range of measures through the National Financial Literacy Strategy—measures that Tony Abbott included in his 'hit list' to pay for the flood reconstruction. The government are doing this in recognition of the fact that this is an important way of helping Australians to understand and pay their debts.

Requiring banks to provide their information in a simpler and more concise format is one part of how the government are helping consumers. We need to remember that the most vulnerable members of our community are the ones least able to access legal advice to assist them to understand their rights and obligations. The most significant changes—the changes that will provide genuine assistance to vulnerable consumers—are requirements to provide consumers with information that is easy to understand.

The key facts sheets to accompany a home loan will enable consumers to better compare home loans and better compare the loans offered by the big banks with loans offered by credit unions and other smaller providers. Potential credit card borrowers will also be provided with a key facts sheet showing interest rates on purchases, cash advances and promotional offers. These facts sheets will help those who do not have the ability to wade through pages and pages of complex legal and technical terms to understand what they are signing up to.

In the House Economics Committee's inquiry into this bill—ably chaired by the member for Dobell—we heard a range of witnesses support this measure. In fact, research by University of Queensland law lecturer Paul O'Shea, referred to in the explanatory memorandum, has taken an innovative approach to assess the impact of simplified disclosure statements. He has shown that, when a sample of respondents were presented with current disclosure statements, only 37 per cent correctly answered a question about the maximum interest rate. With a redesigned disclosure statement, 80 per cent answered the question correctly. On a question about the time to pay off the credit, only 13 per cent gave the right answer when presented with the current disclosure statement, as compared with 100 per cent when given a redesigned disclosure statement. The research provides empirical support for what many of us would have intuitively thought—better disclosure improves customer knowledge.

It is important for us to encourage banks and other lenders to produce their material in a format that is comprehensive yet easy to understand. This is just as important a part of developing financial literacy as teaching consumers how to read complex credit contracts. We are going to ensure that loans are easy to compare by ensuring that all financial providers—banks, credit unions and building societies—have to put their key facts sheets in the same format. That will mean that consumers can compare like with like.

Care Inc., the local service I mentioned earlier, rightly points out that financial service providers can afford lawyers to draft their standard term contracts, whereas the most vulnerable in our society do not have the capacity to obtain legal advice on their rights and obligations prior to entering into credit contracts. Care Inc. also notes that in their experience their clients do not read the contracts in full and several do not even keep a copy of their contract to refer to if required to challenge any of its terms.

The changes to ban unsolicited offers to borrowers to increase their credit limit are also important to help consumers understand their financial obligations. Credit limit increases are targeted to consumers with outstanding credit card balances who are struggling to maintain their repayments. They target people with an immediate need for credit, and agreeing to the offer is often made very easy. The decision to increase credit is not done in a competitive market with an ability to compare interest rates and card features to take the most financially appropriate option. The people targeted by such offers are often not in a financial position to benefit from a competitive market.

Letters offering increases are presented as marketing or promotional material rather than as an application for additional credit. This is misleading. Many consumers assume that the financial institution has done an assessment of their capacity to repay before sending out the offer and they have an unrealistic expectation of their own capacity to repay. The bank nominates the amount of increase and it does not necessarily reflect the financial capacity of the consumer. This is almost a predatory practice that preys on the most vulnerable members of our community. This bill will stop lenders from placing consumers in further financial hardship. I used to think that it was really important to educate people to understand complex financial documents. I thought we should be encouraging citizens to see the importance of carefully reading each and every document, regardless of how dense and confused these might be. But now I take a different approach. My philosophy now is that, rather than forcing consumers to do the hard work, we should be looking at reducing complexity. Why do we need to have confusing documents rather than easy-to-read tables? Sure, there is still a need to understand contractual terms, but a one-page document will enable consumers to understand the most important points, and they will know where to look if they need more advice, detail or information.

There are so many interesting things to do and to read in life: brilliant literature, trashy fiction as a guilty pleasure, movies to watch, sports to participate in and families to spend time with. Why should people be forced to spend their valuable leisure time wading through complex documents? I would rather we encouraged people to read for pleasure, rather than spending excessive time on financial contracts. Put another way: we should look at financial literacy as an obligation for lenders as well as for consumers. Through this bill and previous changes to the National Consumer Credit Protection Act, Labor has demonstrated a commitment to eradicating predatory lending practices and promoting better information for consumers. As the Treasurer said in his second reading speech, this bill 'is part of our commitment to always stand on the side of consumers'. I commend the bill to the House.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.