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PRESS RELEASE: PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN THE VULNERABILITY REGISTRATION SERVICE AND SYNECTICS SOLUTIONS TO SUPPORT VULNERABLE CONSUMERS

1 October 2019 (London, UK) – Not-for-profit initiative, the Vulnerability Registration Service, today announces a partnership with Synectics Solutions, one of the UK’s leading data management and software providers, with the aim of helping to protect vulnerable consumers from financial harm.

The issue of consumer vulnerability is one that is being treated with increasing prominence by the financial services sector, partly as a result of the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) focus on the subject in recent years. There is recognition that there needs to be greater consistency across the sector in dealing with vulnerability, and the Synectics and VRS partnership will help to achieve this.

The VRS and Synectics share the view that all organisations have a social, moral and regulatory responsibility to identify vulnerable customers. Many businesses will have invested in systems which help them to deal with vulnerable consumers, but there has until now been no single point of reference to ensure all parties have the information they need without consumers repeating the same difficult conversations over and over again.

With this in mind, the VRS was set up to enable organisations to identify those registered on the VRS as vulnerable customers at the point of application or when deciding on customer engagement strategies. When organisations are aware of a vulnerable person’s circumstances, they are better able to treat them appropriately. The VRS provides businesses with the decision-agnostic platform they need to understand more about who they are dealing with at a given point in time, helping them to ensure that vulnerable consumers do not find themselves in financial hardship with which they may struggle to cope. The register is seeing increasing momentum across multiple sectors, such as consumer finance, energy, water, mobile phones, insurance services and local authorities.

James Brown, Finance Product Manager at Synectics said “Synectics looks forward to working closely with the VRS to support vulnerable consumers. Synectics is committed to protecting the best interests of this wide and diverse group, and the VRS will help to allow greater industry wide collaboration and agreement on various treatment strategies offered, which is key to achieving this.”

Helen Lord, Director of the VRS said “The partnership with Synectics is a very significant step in the progress of the VRS, and reflects the level of interest that we have seen in the register since its launch in September. We are delighted that Synectics has chosen to work with us and recognises the benefits that this initiative can bring to help businesses treat their customers fairly and compassionately. We urge other like-minded organisations to work with us to really help transform the quality of life and peace of mind of vulnerable customers”.

 

Notes to editors

About the Vulnerability Registration Service (‘VRS’)

The VRS is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and has been developed following constructive dialogue with industry and consumer stakeholders. The VRS has an Advisory Board of experts to help provide thought leadership whilst it continues to develop the service. The purpose of the VRS is to empower vulnerable consumers, allowing them either to self-exclude themselves from credit and financial promotions or to slow down the credit application process. It provides a single reference point for consumers and organisations participating in the register, enabling an individual’s vulnerability issues to be handled sensitively and professionally by credit providers. It does not claim to provide information on all credit users, but crucially helps lenders to identify the most vulnerable consumers, and meet their responsibilities towards this section of the population, a growing issue for the industry.

 

Frequently asked questions about the VRS

 

What is the Vulnerability Registration Service / VRS?

The VRS is the UK’s first centralised registration tool to help people experiencing vulnerability ensure that their circumstances are taken into account by lenders and other organisations with whom they interact.

 

Does it cost anything to register with the VRS?

No, registration with the VRS is free for vulnerable people. The VRS is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee – it does not charge vulnerable people to use its service and it never will, and all revenues from business users are used to maintain and improve the service we provide.

 

How many consumers are there currently registered with the VRS?

The VRS is already approaching 10,000 consumers registered to its service. Given the relative speed with which this number of users have registered with the VRS, even before its public launch, we would expect participation to grow significantly over the coming months.

 

What information does the VRS record?

Typically, all that goes on the register is a name, address, date of birth and contact details. We don’t record the reasons behind a registration. The VRS operates via a simple flagging system: vulnerable users can opt either to be pre-declined for certain services, or request that the organisations they deal with contact them about their registration before making a decision that relates to them.

 

How do you establish consent from vulnerable people to be on the register?

Membership of the VRS is entirely voluntary – users sign up for an initial period of three months, after which time they can require us to remove their details if they feel their circumstances have sufficiently improved.

Where a vulnerable person may be unable to register themselves, for instance if they are incapacitated or suffering from dementia, they may be added to the VRS by someone with a legal right to represent them such as power of attorney.

 

When a user registers with the VRS, who has access to their data?

Only organisations signed up to the VRS with whom the registered user has a relationship will be able to see any information – including that the user is registered at all – and only then when there is a specific decision to be made relating to that user.

Once a user has their details removed from the VRS there will be no searchable trace that they were ever registered. The VRS is completely independent of the credit reference agencies and does not share any information with them.

 

Does being registered with the VRS affect your credit rating?

Being registered on the VRS should never affect your credit rating.

 

Is information stored on the VRS secure?

The VRS takes the security of user data extremely seriously and uses the equivalent security systems as are used in online banking.

 

For media enquiries please contact:

Fraser Schurer-Lewis, Acuitas Communications

+44 (0)7961 027 281 / +44 (0)20 3687 0869

fraser.schurer-lewis@acuitascomms.com

Catriona Foyle, Acuitas Communications

+44 (0)7720 998 313 / +44 (0)20 3687 0868

catriona.foyle@acuitascomms.com

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More action needed from the gambling industry

It is an issue that continues to rear its head, and an area where it seems that far more could be done to support vulnerable consumers. A BBC News article this week explores the extent to which gambling is still big business in the UK. According to the industry regulator, the Gambling Commission, around £14.5bn was spent in Great Britain on gambling between October 2017 and September 2018.

Whilst most people aim to gamble safely, the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that gambling is a problem for about nine people in every 1,000, equalling about 1% of the population. The founder of the NHS National Gambling Clinic, Henrietta Bowden-Jones, says that problem gambling can lead people into debt, and describes gambling disorder as “a total loss of control” of how much you spend on gambling, with GamCare, who attended the recent launch of VRS, saying that they had seen an increase in enquiries, taking just under 30,000 calls in the 2017-18 financial year.

The VRS want to enable those people to take back control, should they choose to do so, through their self-registration system, and to support the gambling industry to act in a socially responsible way towards their customers. It would allow people to feel that they are having trouble controlling their gambling to ask for greater protections, and potentially to stop them from opening and using duplicate accounts.

In a recent survey conducted by ComRes on behalf of the VRS in September, the gambling industry was the second most mentioned industry by the public, out of a list of business types, when asked which business types need to do more to identify vulnerable customers, with 57% of respondents mentioning them. It is clearly therefore, an area where the public believe more action needs to be taken, and are wanting to see some urgent progress from industry leaders.

There needs to be a wider recognition within the industry that there are vulnerable individuals who may not be able to make an informed decision about gambling, and need to be treated accordingly in any communication with them. The VRS stands ready to work with more members of the gambling industry. The VRS service is provided free to those that register and the VRS service is a not for profit organistion. If you think that this would be beneficial for your business, you can learn more about the VRS and how to register here.

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VRS PUBLIC LAUNCH EVENT

The VRS was formally unveiled on Wednesday 11 September at an extremely well attended event in central London, at the Royal Society. There was standing room only at the event, with the audience made up of senior decision-makers from financial services, utilities, the third sector and other relevant bodies.

Attendees heard insightful and thought-provoking speeches from Paul Lewis; the CEO of the Consumer Credit Trade Association, Greg Stevens; Director of the Debt Managers Standards Association, Kevin Still; and Director of Christians Against Poverty, Dawn Stobart, following an introduction from Tony Leach, Director of VRS. They also watched a moving video with examples of consumers already signed up to and benefiting from the VRS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBr-4R9RpEs.

At the launch, the VRS published new survey data, commissioned from ComRes (fieldwork: 4-6 September 2019; sample: 2,009 GB adults), that clearly demonstrates the need for the kind of support the VRS tool provides, and the public desire for more significant action to be taken by businesses. The survey found that two in five GB adults have experienced a life event that left them feeling vulnerable, either financially or socially. It showed that:

  • 54% of the public think businesses definitely or probably should be required to identify whether a prospective customer is vulnerable in order that they can be better protected against harm; and
  • 50% of the public believe that businesses should have more regulatory requirements on them to identify vulnerable consumers.

The survey found that currently only 15% of the public agree that businesses do enough to protect their vulnerable customers. Payday lenders and gambling companies were particularly identified as business types that should do more to identify vulnerable customers, with 58% and 57% respectively mentioning them.

The positive response and feedback received from attendees was hugely encouraging, demonstrating that industry members clearly can see the benefits that this initiative can bring to help vulnerable consumers be treated fairly and compassionately.

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Vulnerability and gambling: the need for preventative action

The relationship between vulnerability and gambling is a particularly difficult one, which requires careful thought amongst all involved – and the reasons for this have been much in the news lately. Figures from earlier this month, for instance, show that the number of people suffering from gambling addiction being admitted to NHS hospitals in England has grown by more than a quarter over the last year, with 335 people treated for gambling-related problems in 2018.

In addition to this, a study by the Gambling Commission found last month that there are alarming links between problem gambling and suicide, with 5 per cent of gambling addicts stating they had made at least one attempt on their own lives. There’s been a steep rise too in the number of complaints against British betting firms, again according to the Gambling Commission, with a record 8,226 made last year – a striking 5,000% rise since 2013, when that number stood at 169.

It’s not simply down to how the gambling firms themselves have been behaving over that time, though – it’s a more complex picture than that. The gambling industry has grown enormously over the period since 2007, when restrictions on betting and advertising were relaxed – so there’s been a lot more betting around which complaints might centre, with gamblers losing a record £14.5 billion in 2018, almost twice as when the regulatory changes came a decade previously.

Neil McArthur, Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission, says that the increase in complaints is actually, in part at least, a positive sign that the public expects greater responsibility from gambling firms. “We are pushing the industry to know its customers, and part of this is actually, possibly, a good sign because it’s suggesting that consumers are demanding more of the gambling operators. And I would encourage them to continue to do that,” he explains.

And there are welcome signs that these growing expectations are yielding positive results. Mounting concern over vulnerable gamblers has helped spur action by the gambling industry itself to fund addiction treatment – the owners of several major firms have pledged to increase their voluntary levy on gambling profits from 0.1% to 1% up to 2023, a total contribution of £60 million.

More, however, needs to be done in the face of such alarming figures as those we’ve seen this month – and we need preventative action, as well as reactive tools like addiction treatment. The charity Gambling with Lives, which aims to support families bereaved by gambling-related suicides and raise awareness of the potential for harm, estimates that there are at least 250 gambling related suicides occur every year – and calls for self-exclusion software to be available online.

This is the Vulnerability Registration Service in a nutshell. We make no charge to vulnerable people signing up to make their circumstances known to organisations like gambling companies, and we never will. As a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, all revenues are spent on ensuring that people experiencing vulnerability can opt out of situations which may only make matters worse.

GamCare, the charity which runs the National Gambling Helpline, said of the Gambling Commission’s latest figures that “it is important people seek help as early as possible”, and we couldn’t agree more. We’re ready to play our part to help those who need it at a moment’s notice, and look forward to doing so following our launch on 11 September.

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Welcome guidance on fair treatment of the vulnerable consumer

The VRS welcomes the recent announcement by the Financial Conduct Authority, of its renewed commitment to help the vulnerable protect themselves from financial harm – on this occasion, with a new consultation on guidelines for firms dealing with vulnerable consumers. The guidance does not so much provide a checklist of required actions as various options for ways to comply with the principles set out – a flexible approach which recognises the variety of organisations who deal with the vulnerable, and one which we hope will encourage the improved outcomes we all want.

The FCA has not stinted in its expectations, however, and rightly so – indeed the paper makes plain that not only is more action needed, but that improved results must be demonstrable. “Ultimately,” the paper explains, “we want to see firms doing the right thing for vulnerable consumers, and embedding this in their culture.” That means they need “to be more focused on ensuring that the outcomes experienced by vulnerable consumers are at least as good as those of other consumers.” It’s an ambitious goal, as those working to improve treatment of vulnerable consumers know all too well, but it’s one to be celebrated.

So what does it look like in practice?

The guidelines are clear that consumers need to be confident they are dealing with firms where the fair treatment of customers is central to their corporate culture. In part, that means they must be provided with clear information and kept appropriately informed before, during and after the point of sale – and, when they do receive advice, it should take appropriate account of their circumstances. This is the VRS’ reason for being: we’re here not to try and make decisions for vulnerable consumers or the commercial organisations they interact with, but to encourage better decision-making by ensuring they have appropriate knowledge of who they’re dealing with. If we can help firms looking to meet their social obligations in this way, we’re only an email or phone call away.

As the FCA consultation sets out, it’s also essential that consumers don’t face unreasonable post-sale barriers if they want to change products, switch provider, submit a claim or make a complaint. This is especially important for the vulnerable, because where an act of financial self-harm has been undertaken by a vulnerable person and identified in good time, there ought to be a straightforward route to having it rectified – and if lenders and creditors don’t already have such mechanisms in place, it’s only right they should heed this reminder. If those unfortunate decisions can be avoided in the first place, there’s less need to go down that road.

The VRS agrees with the FCA that there are many different drivers of vulnerability, many of which can place people at risk of problem debt or other forms of financial harm. The FCA defines a vulnerable consumer as “someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care”. We don’t attempt to define vulnerability at all – we tend to think vulnerable people and their carers are the best judges of that, and leave it to them to register with the VRS as they see fit. Vulnerable people are not always best identified at a glance by strangers – vulnerability is a more subtle condition than that, to which ultimately we are all susceptible. Vulnerable people are our friends, our family, and our neighbours – indeed they are all of us at some point in our lives – so let’s empower them to protect themselves when it comes to the potentially very serious distress of financial hardship.

It’s clear that plenty of firms already have policies and processes in place to ensure fair treatment of vulnerable consumers, and there’s been good progress made by some, to whom a good deal of credit is due. But in order to ensure they’re not doing less than they believe, they need to know who they’re dealing with at a given moment, and whether that person may be in a vulnerable condition – and we only know that by asking the vulnerable themselves whether they wish to make it known.

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Destitution, vulnerability and debt: a combination to be wary of

Destitution, vulnerability and debt: a combination to be wary of

It may seem obvious that those facing destitution can be deemed vulnerable – but sometimes, when someone goes out and does the research, we actually get a clear look at the troubling reality. And, when we do, it can help guide us in our attempts to improve matters.

A new report by Christians Against Poverty shows that large proportions of those considered destitute – meaning they have trouble covering the basic necessities of life, like meals or a home – also experience one or more measurable form of vulnerability. Of the 1.5 million people in the UK facing destitution, 34% do so while also managing the pressures of lone parenthood; one fifth have a diagnosable learning difficulty; and a striking 62% suffer from mental ill-health.

There are sobering stats to consider, too, on how people in such conditions try to cope. More than half the destitute households surveyed, at 53%, had taken on debt to cover basic living expenses like a utility bill. What’s more, those suffering destitution are more likely to end up taking on forms of debt which can be punitively expensive. The report finds for instance that 40% of those borrowing from payday lenders had experienced destitution, as had 42% of those taking on debt from a doorstep lender.

This is sadly a very effective way of making a dire situation even worse – and harder to retrieve – and when people in these circumstances are in less acutely desperate straits, they tend to recognise this all too well. Where we are faced with the imminent prospect of going without food, heat or shelter – or, worse still, our children are – we naturally think in the short term.

The reality is, though, that people who are measurably destitute are frequently not good candidates for commercial credit agreements – and they need an opportunity to make that known to potential lenders when not in a state of immediate desperation. We all know what it’s like to feel the only thing that matters is getting something over the line – but in most cases that desperation will have paled in comparison to that of people who are struggling to feed their own children.

What’s needed here is a simple and effective way for vulnerable people at risk of destitution to protect themselves from unmanageable debt, before the moment of abject crisis arises. With that insulation from their own potential panic response – which comes laden with so much risk of things spiralling out of control – safer and more long-term approaches to income and debt management can be considered.

The Vulnerability Registration Service (VRS) gives people that option. People facing these difficulties – or any others they feel could place them at risk of unmanageable debt – can opt themselves out from that risk of making matters worse when those desperate moments strike. By signing up to the VRS, people can make lenders aware that they’re going through a period of vulnerability which should be taken into account in decisions over lending. It’s entirely voluntary, and any user can see who their information is shared with. Then, when matters improve, it’s a straightforward process to withdraw.

If you’d like to know more about the Vulnerability Registration Service, please see here for some frequently asked questions.

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Energy UK on vulnerable consumers

In 2018, Energy UK launched the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, to explore how customers in vulnerable circumstances could be provided better energy services in the future. The report has now been published, following a year of evidence gathering and engagement with stakeholders, and has identified seven key themes including an end to inadequate and inconsistent service, and a comprehensive regulatory framework with timely support and protection.

The report also calls for an easy identification of needs and access to support from energy suppliers, arguing that it should be easy for customers to disclose information about any vulnerabilities, with security and privacy respected, and to be given effective support.The VRS warmly welcomes this call, which mirrors the work that we are doing to support financially vulnerable consumers. It acknowledges the difficulty that energy suppliers face identifying a customer’s vulnerability, something that the VRS helps businesses to address, saying that eight out of ten customers would not tell a company if they were in a potentially vulnerable situation. The VRS helps to reduce the barriers that prevent customers disclosing information about their needs, partly by removing the concern that it will impact on future decisions made about their financial circumstances.

We are encouraged that the energy industry has acknowledged the need to improve standards in this area, and is taking active steps to do so, and look forward to working with the industry to support them in their endeavours.

The report can be read in full here

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Loneliness Awareness Week

VRS applauds the work being done by the Marmalade Trust to promote Loneliness Awareness Week this week, which is intended to increase awareness and reduce the stigma of loneliness.

VRS agrees that there needs to be more recognition of loneliness within our society, and more support offered to those in need. A new YouGov poll shows that not wanting to burden others is the main reason people avoid reaching out to seek help when feeling isolated, with 75 per cent of people saying they didn’t tell anyone despite having someone they could count on. There are some wonderful charities supporting this vulnerable sector of the population though, and some fantastic new initiatives to encourage people to reach out to lonely residents in their area. West Coast Virgin Trains designated all coach C’s on their trains as “chat carriages for the day last Friday, and in the North East there is a #chatty bus scheme, with a team riding buses to combat loneliness.

Loneliness can affect anyone, at any stage of their life, and have a hugely negative impact on health and well-being. Sadly it can also mean people are more financially vulnerable, with loneliness increasing the risk of an individual being targeted by unscrupulous predators, including financial scammers.

For some people, their most significant form of social contact comes from communication with cold callers, and unfortunately scammers, and as a result a relationship can develop that is, both financially and emotionally, deeply detrimental to the individual. A register such as the one that the VRS can provide some protection for these vulnerable consumers, ensuring that credit providers are aware of their circumstances. We will continue to support organisations working with the loneliest in society, and welcome their work in this area.

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CAP publishes ‘Stacked Against’ report

The debt charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP) have recently published a hugely insightful report on vulnerability, ‘Stacked Against’. It looks at the overuse of the term by companies and financial organisations, meaning that too many people are labelled as vulnerable, and those who are truly desperate are getting overlooked.

Whilst they welcome support for vulnerable consumers, the charity calls for a move beyond labels and silos, and a better understanding of the complexity of people’s lives and the wide variety of difficult situations that people face. They give the example of some utility companies regarding all households with a child under five as vulnerable, which in the majority of cases is a world away from someone with mental health problems or a terminal illness. The research found that the greater number of separate issues suffered simultaneously, the increasingly fragile their situation becomes.

CAP’s report researched the links between fourteen different additional difficulties faced by their debt clients. They included caring for a loved one, unemployment, poor mental health, childhood trauma and lone parenting. It found that nearly seven in ten (67%) are facing two or more issues and half are living with three or more. It also notes that while the presence of vulnerability does not guarantee financial difficulty will be present, vulnerable circumstances often have a financial impact. It notes that 735 of people helped by CAP said debt made them ill.

The report notes that it is important to appreciate the dynamics of vulnerability and that it is not a permanent state, but can be enduring, meaning that support needs to be provided for as long as is required.

They call for flexible, joined up solutions, and simple and accessible services, which is what the VRS are looking to provide for consumers, allowing them or their carers to identify themselves as financially vulnerable for however long a period that they require.

The VRS is delighted to be supporting CAP in their CAP Fresh Start Group, and welcome the important contribution to the vulnerability debate that their report makes.

The report can be read in full here

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How can we protect the vulnerable from scams and fraud?

As we age, it is a fact that we are more likely to experience circumstances that increase the risk of vulnerability, be it bereavement, cognitive decline or physical difficulty with daily living. As a result it becomes harder for these vulnerable consumers to protect themselves from fraud. Although anyone can fall prey to a scam, regardless of age, gender or economic background, older people are often targeted by particular scams and may be especially at risk because of their circumstances. Someone who has been successfully scammed is often targeted repeatedly.

According to Age UK, the average age of mail scam victims is 74, and over half of people aged 65+ believe they have been a target of a scam, with the majority of fraud incidents relating to bank and credit card fraud. A third of older people who fell for a scam may have lost £1,000 or more.

For anyone, but perhaps particularly an older person, a scam can have a terrible financial and emotional impact, with people losing their entire life savings. Whatever the amount though, such a situation can impact a person’s physical and mental health.

The link between age and vulnerability has to be acknowledged and understood by credit providers. That said, we must remember that neither age nor disability should automatically be equated with vulnerability. Many older people are more than capable at managing their financial and personal affairs, and would not wish to be seen as vulnerable.
We believe at the VRS that financial institutions should improve efforts to identify customers at risk of fraud and scams, and find more effective ways to help people to protect themselves from it happening to them. One of the ways available to them is the VRS database, whereby organisations who are signed up are notified that a customer is at risk, and promoted to take extra steps to protect you from fraudsters.

More information can be found here about what to do if you think you have fallen victim to a scam, or if you or someone you are caring for is looking to protect themselves from becoming the target of fraud. Registering yourself or someone you care for on to the VRS is Free.

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