Tackling financial exclusion: A country that works for everyone?

The House of Lords Select Committee into Financial Exclusion, of which Chris is a member, published their report “Tackling financial exclusion: A country that works for everyone?” on 25th March. The report calls on the Government, the Financial Conduct Authority and banks to give greater priority to tackling financial exclusion.

While the UK has a world class financial services sector, it is failing those customers who need it most. The Committee heard that more than 1.7m people in the UK do not have a bank account, and that 40% of the working age population had less than £100 in savings. Estimates suggest at least 600,000 older people are financially excluded, while 51% of 18 to 24 year olds regularly worry about money.

The report says the Government should show its commitment to addressing this issue by broadening the remit of the FCA to give priority to tackling financial exclusion, and working with the FCA to establish new rules requiring banks to have a duty of care towards their customers. This would strengthen the protection offered to customers and reduce the potential for unfair practices.

The Government should also appoint a Minister for Financial Inclusion and report annually to Parliament on progress made toward addressing financial exclusion.

The report highlights that regulation has proved to be effective in tackling abusive practices by pay day loan companies since the Government asked the FCA to cap interest rates. The Committee recommends that similar restrictions should be introduced for other forms of high cost credit. The Committee calls for urgent action to introduce new controls on ‘rent to own’ products and unarranged overdraft fees.

Better financial literacy is identified by the Committee as a key priority for reducing financial exclusion. To achieve this the report says financial education should be introduced to the English primary school curriculum and that Ofsted should assess the extent to which schools provide young people with the necessary financial knowledge and skills.

The Committee also considered the relationship between disability, mental health issues and financial exclusion. It calls on the Government, the FCA and the British Bankers Association to carry out a review of reasonable adjustments for disabled customers and to publish that review within 18 months. The Committee points out that banks are required by law to make reasonable adjustments when communicating with disabled customers but do not appear to be doing so.

The report also identifies the accelerating trend for banks to focus on online services at the expense of their branch network as potentially excluding older people and others who lack access to the internet – 53% of UK bank branches closed down between 1989 and 2016. The Post Office now has more physical outlets than all the high street banks combined, and can offer banking services for 99% of current account customers in the UK, although awareness of this service is very low at present. The Committee calls for the banks and Government to fund a major publicity campaign to address this, and to help the Post Office provide services to those customers who have lost their local bank branch.

The Committee also considered the impact of Universal Credit on financial exclusion and highlighted the six-week gap between claiming Universal Credit and receiving the first payment as a period during which people were at risk of taking on unaffordable debt or falling into arrears. To tackle this the Committee recommends the Government abolish the seven-day wait before a claimant becomes entitled to Universal Credit, and also that it should allow more flexibility about whether payments are made monthly or more frequently. This flexibility is already in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

A Room of One’s Own

The Pocklington Trust is a UK charity providing housing, care and support services for people with sight loss. Chris was surprised and delighted to learn that staff had voted to name a meeting room at their central London offices in his honour and went along to check out the space. Chris is a great admirer of the work of the charity and hopes that such a useful and flexible meeting space will be well used. Chris addressed the staff and expressed his honour that he was chosen saying “I’m just a working class kid from the Midlands so to have these kinds of things happen is extraordinary.”

Pocklington Trust Room opening

Lord Chris Holmes opens meeting room named in his honour

We must do more to welcome International Students

Obviously the Brexit Bill is the one that’s getting all the attention at the moment, but another Bill currently making its way through Parliament is the Higher Education and Research Bill. Last night the Lords voted on an amendment to that Bill that, if accepted by the Government, would be a great benefit to our country and would preserve our long history and clear leadership in offering a first class education and warm welcome to international students. The amendment was tabled by diplomat Lord Hannay and would ensure that international students are not treated as migrants. I believe this is essential to reassure any potential foreign students that they are welcome and to reverse the worrying decline of recent years; figures for non-EU students are down by between 2% and 8% and the number of students from India is down by a half. The Prime Minister of India, Mr Modi, said of the UK; “you want our trade, you don’t want our children”. If that is the impression being received in India and other nations around the world, how can we possibly expect to attract the brightest and the best to come to study in the United Kingdom? That is what we need and want. Our doors and our arms should be wide open to the brightest and the best to come to study here because there is no downside to that. This is not an argument about migration, or about government targets to net migration – that is a conversation for another day – and in any case changing the way students are classified will have little effect on the Government’s ability to control medium to long-term net migration. This is about recognizing and promoting the significant benefits international students contribute to the UK in terms of education, soft power and cold hard cash. Many universities are able to subsidize their outstanding facilities through the income received by international student fees, but, I believe, the benefit to our educational establishments extends beyond the financial to the whole character, quality and calibre of the university. The soft power argument is perhaps most strikingly made by the fact that 55 current heads of state benefitted from an education in the UK, the value of these interactions and relationships, again, cannot be measured in financial terms but is surely significant. Finally, looking at what can be measured, a report from the University of Birmingham found that just eight additional international undergraduate students would add £1m to the economy. At a time of uncertainty in what precisely our global future will look like this is a powerful message I hope the Govt will be prepared to send.

Watch the debate

Listen to summary on Today in Parliament

Launch of Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology

Chris is APPGAT launchdelighted to be Co-Chair of a new All Party Parliamentary Group on assistive technology. The group aims to disseminate knowledge, generate debate and facilitate engagement and a greater understanding of assistive technology amongst members of parliament. The group is supported by a number of organizations ranging from academic institutions to manufacturers of assistive technology and disability charities. On the day of the launch a group of key stakeholders met to discuss aims and objectives. One key issue raised was the unacceptably high disability employment gap (40% of disabled people are unemployed compared to 5% of non-disabled population) and the role assistive technology can play in providing solutions. Questions were also raised over what was perceived as limited dialogue between the industry and government, and departments with government, it is hoped that this group will help address this communication and understanding gap and lead to far greater access to assistive technology for far more people. The group had invited Hannah Rose to share her experiences of using assistive technology after she was paralyzed from the neck down at the age of fifteen. Thanks to various products including mobility aids, environmental controls (allowing her to turn off the lights and switch TV channel independently) and drag and dictate software (allowing her to use a computer) she enjoys a significant degree of autonomy and loves her job at Cheshire Police HQ – she jokes about how difficult it was to convince officers that she had found a job when she was trying to sign off incapacity benefits. Access to employment is important but assistive technology is not only about jobs. It is about enabling people in a far broader sense, to live independent and fulfilling lives. It is about finding and making available the tools that allow people to overcome barriers and Chris relishes the challenge of  working with the group to make sure that happens.

 

Keynote speaker at Adidas Diversity Day Event.

Adidas Keynote

Chris was invited to speak at a major diversity and inclusion event at Adidas HQ on the topic of inclusion for innovation. The corporate focus was on the belief that the best teams are diverse teams, that the company should mirror the society they serve and that for change to happen, it must be actively pursued. In the words of the CEO’s father: “it takes a long time to do something you’re not really working on.” Chris was delighted to deliver the keynote and so much of the power of his personal experiences and philosophy spoke perfectly to the themes of the day. More than most, Chris understands the power of sport to change lives; his own story of adjusting to the unexpected shock of losing his sight as a child to become one of the country’s most successful Paralympians illustrates a deep understanding of inclusion. As he says, making a case for staying in his mainstream school and continuing in his swimming club were experiences of diversity and inclusion “before the terms really existed”. Chris goes on to discuss the various ways technology can be used to innovate for inclusion – from cassette tapes to Bluetooth beacons! – but also makes the point that innovation of thought is as important as the practical tools. A commitment to welcoming and supporting diversity is the major requirement for successful outcomes. What is often viewed as bold, brave, risk-taking he argues is not actually risk-taking when it’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. He gives many fascinating examples of successful inclusive and innovative achievements around the London 2012 games.  As Chris says “it’s not easy but it is essential”. When thinking particularly about the power of digital to disrupt, his passionate exhortation is to “become diverse or die.”

Seeing isn’t believing"Ted" talk

Later on in the day Chris delivered another short presentation, “Seeing isn’t believing” which focused on his sporting achievements and was inspired by his popular TedX talk.

Chris really enjoyed all the connections and conversations throughout the day and wanted to thank everyone who came to say hello. Discussions covered many aspects of the diversity and inclusion agenda but Chris was delighted by the enthusiasm for one of his key messages; that change can happen when one person believes that things can be other than they are.

Adidas Meet

Chris interviewed for launch of podcast on eye health and sight loss

VISION 2020 UK, the umbrella organisation which leads collaboration in eye health and sight loss, has launched a podcast. This new platform will look at the major topics of interest within the eye health and sight loss sector, with expert analysis, opinion and debate. The podcast is an educational forum for professionals, service users and carers as well as those with no knowledge of the topics.

Hosted by John Welsman, Guide Dogs Policy Business Partner, the podcasts will be released on a monthly basis and will focus on one topic or interview per episode, highlighting the work of the VISION 2020 UK Standing Committees, as well as discussions with leaders in the sector on topics such as rehabilitation, dementia, children and certification.

The first two podcasts are now available through the VISION 2020 UK website, on audioboom, and will soon be found on iTunes (search ‘VISION 2020 UK’). These episodes feature Mercy Jeyasingham, CEO, VISION 2020 UK and Chris! Chris gives listeners an understanding of his background, his achievements to date and his areas of concern and interest around eye health and sight loss. One of his major areas of concern is the issue of shared space.

John Welsman, commented, “Podcasts are a great way of discussing complex topics as well as being entertaining and informative. The ability of people to listen to the podcast on their commute, in their car or at home is a great way of communicating these issues. I look forward to working with VISION 2020 UK to create an engaging and professional podcast”.

Listen to Chris’s interview

 

“Pubs are for everyone; Why being accessible is important.” Guidance launched.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has published updated guidance for pubs to help licensees make their venue as welcoming as possible to those with access needs. Chris was at the launch and is delighted to endorse the guidance saying it “provides lots of useful information for licensees to help those with access needs enjoy the Great British pub.” The foreword to the guidance is written by Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson DBE, who points out that “accessibility is not simply about physical access to the pub, but rather it is about creating the best experience for all who visit”. The guidance gives six key features for an accessible pub: 1. Access ramp at door 2. Hearing loops on bar 3. Large print menu 4. Accessible toilet with disability sign on door 5. Staff trained to meet needs of disabled customers 6. Layout – easy to navigate and clear of obstacles.Let’s hope the guidance is circulated widely and embraced by all pubs. Read the guidance in full.

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