It may be almost a decade since the global financial crash of 2007-8, but the impact on our savings habits is still being felt. A combination of stagnant pay, slow economic growth and low interest rates mean that fewer people than ever are putting money aside. In fact, almost 16.8 million people in the UK have less than £100 put aside for a rainy day.
And that’s a problem for us all. Whether it’s a car breakdown or sudden changes in our employment situation, three quarters of people experience at least one unforeseen expense per year – and without savings to cushion the blow, the result can be significant financial hardship or a spiral of expensive debt. Duplicate that effect across communities or regions, and it’s easy to see how a short-term economic shock can floor entire local communities.
The Government recognises this, which is why earlier this year it announced a Help to Save scheme, which will reward low-paid workers who regularly save with a bonus of up to £1,200.
But as details of the scheme emerge, there are concerns that the Government isn’t doing all it can to help savers make the most of the opportunity.
As traditional banks abandon large areas of the country, it’s credit unions who are stepping in. As financial co-operatives which are owned by and for their members, and run on a not-for-profit basis, in many cases they’re able to offer financial products that meet the specific needs of low-income households – and often better rates of interest on savings too.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking Help to Save is a huge opportunity to further support and expand credit unions – a sector which, in the decade between 2004 and 2014 more than doubled its membership and trebled deposits.
Unfortunately, Theresa May’s government doesn’t seem to see it that way, with a model squarely based on the same old for-profit high street banks who have let so many people down in recent years.
Over the past week, Co-operative Party MPs have been using the second reading of the Savings (Government Contributions) Bill – the legislation behind Help to Save – to urge the Government to think again.
Co-operative Party Chair Gareth Thomas has called for credit unions to be able to offer Help to Save financial products alongside traditional banks, commenting that “I fail to understand why credit unions cannot be allowed to offer the service to communities” and calling on the Government to reconsider the point.
In the same debate, Gareth Thomas also called for legislation to boost saving by obliging employers to provide a payroll deduction service to employees. Such services, which are offered by large employers including local councils and – thanks to a Co-operative Party campaign – the Ministry of Defence, employees can request to have money deducted from their pay at source to go directly into a savings account. In his response, Government minister Stephen Kirby agreed to meet to discuss the proposal further.
Such services have proven highly successful in boosting credit union membership and encouraging saving. Gareth Thomas’ call was supported by fellow Co-operative Party MP Stephen Doughty who pointed to the example of Canada and Germany as countries where there is “diversity in savings, and where much stronger credit unions are available to a much wider group of the population”.
As the Bill continues to progress, it’s clear that if the Government is serious about Help to Save making a real difference for Britain’s low paid workers, then credit unions must play a key role – not be excluded from it.
Financial resilience matters. Having savings means a degree of financial security, and with it, the ability to make longer-term decisions, to get through short-term personal and family crises, and to approach financial risks and opportunities with confidence. If we’re serious about building a stronger, fairer, and more dynamic economy, then this is a good place to start.