StepChange, a helpline charity that works to secure debt write-offs and restructuring for indebted people in Britain, is to start offering its services here in November. Its expansion is being funded by €6m in grants from AIB, Bank of Ireland, KBC, Permanent TSB and Ulster Bank.
Flac, the Free Legal Advice Centres, expressed “puzzlement” at the move, given that groups such as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) were already doing the same thing but also offered both helpline and face-to-face debt counselling services.
Flac director general Noeline Blackwell, said: “It is just curious that the banks feel it necessary to invite a UK debt restructuring agency to the field when Mabs is already here as an independent, free, tried and tested service.”
David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, which itself gets funding from AIB and KBC to assist customers in arrears to those two banks, claimed the banks were “gazumping the Insolvency Service”.
“This is about control by the banks,” he said. “This is a complete insult to those people and organisations who have been doing a huge amount of work to try and help people who have been in debt for decades.”
The banks rejected the criticisms. Their industry body, the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland, said: “BPFI-member banks remain fully committed to engaging and working with people who are in financial distress and, wherever possible, to keeping them in their homes.”
The Insolvency Service said it welcomed all efforts to tackle personal debt problems but added it was the only organisation in Ireland with a regulated network of personal insolvency practitioners, court protection for people sorting out their debts and legally binding debt resolution agreements.
Mabs spokesman, Michael Culloty, said he had no problem with StepChange as an extra choice for people trying to tackle unmanageable debts but he stressed that Mabs could do more.
“We look after people in a very holistic way. We look after their overall welfare, their welfare entitlements and all of that.”
He said Mabs, which is state-funded, took no money from banks: “We jealously protect our independence.”