We need to do more than simply launch another debt advisory service

A solution for many struggling families feels as far away as ever

3rd October, 2016
Fitzgerald and Varadkar launch Abhaile Pic: Fennells

Later today Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar will officially launch a new financial and legal advice service for people dealing with problem debt.

An advance notice of the launch sent to journalists last week stressed that the main objective of the new Abhaile advisory service, which launched on a pilot basis earlier this year, was to keep people in their home wherever possible.

A state-backed advisory service for struggling borrowers, a good idea surely? Such a good one in fact that various governments have trotted it out repeatedly.

Back in September 2012, the then Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton launched a new scheme, that would provide free, independent, professional financial advice to borrowers in mortgage distress.

Under the terms of the scheme, banks were required to pay accountants to provide independent financial advice to borrowers about potential long-term solutions to mortgage debt. If borrowers availed of the service, lenders had to pay €250 to an accountant of the borrowers' choice.

However, the take-up of this scheme was dismal. In December 2014, I reported that just 1,207 distressed borrowers – a tiny fraction of those in mortgage arrears – had sought independent financial advice from the government’s panel of accountants in the more than two years ago that had passed since the scheme’s launch.

To add insult to injury, official figures revealed there were more accountants available to provide advice than borrowers seeking advice, with more than 2,000 accountants on the advisory panel.

Then, just before Christmas last year, the then tánaiste Burton unveiled another advisory service for those in mortgage distress, this time provided by MABS, the state’s money advice service.

The last few years have also brought an overhaul of personal insolvency rules and the launch of a bank-funded telephone advisory service for struggling Irish debtors via British debt charity StepChange.

Confused? I know I am.

As many as 82,000 families are still dealing with mortgage arrears

It’s a patchwork quilt of a solution if ever I saw one, and a needlessly complicated landscape for the 82,000 families still dealing with mortgage arrears to navigate.

Figures released by the Central Bank last month highlighted the continued decline in the number of cases of mortgage arrears. However, there are still a lot of households weighed down by problem debt, and for many of these a solution – whatever avenue it is sourced from – feels as far away as ever.

So the government needs to do more than simply launch another advisory service. It needs to take a holistic approach to the various interlinked problems in Ireland’s housing market.

By now it should be abundantly clear that a siloed policy approach to questions of housing and lending and banking simply does not work. So please ministers, it’s time for less photocalls and more joined up thinking.

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