The great credit card scandal

Companies defy ministers by increasing charges despite plunging interest rates

Credit card companies are facing an investigation by competition watchdogs after defying government warnings to improve their lending practices.

An analysis by The Independent has found that the cost of card borrowing has risen over the past three months despite three cuts to the Bank of England base rate. Cardholders are now facing average interest rates of 17.7 per cent on credit cards, up from 16.6 per cent 12 months ago.

The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, had given providers two weeks to come up with fair principles to help cardholders manage their debts following a summit with card providers in November. By Thursday, the Government is expecting proposals from the industry on how it will implement fair principles on existing debt, responsibly provide credit and support households in difficulty.

Failing to do so could see the card companies facing investigation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), but so far card providers have made no move to reduce the expensive lending rates which so often plunge debtors into further financial hardship.

One government source said last night: "We are not backing off. If the companies don't move, if necessary, we will go down the OFT route."

Only two cards, those designed to track the base rate, have reduced rates since Lord Mandelson's ultimatum and Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank have gone ahead with increases to the rates and fees they charge their Gold Mastercard customers. Halifax and the Bank of Scotland have also increased balance transfer fees.

A spokesman for Clydesdale Bank said: "The changes in our rates were announced in October and our rates remain very competitive. We fully support the Government's initiatives for helping people in difficulties."

Store card debtors are facing even higher rates despite cheaper borrowing for lenders. The average cost of borrowing is now 25 per cent a year, up from 23.9 per cent this time last year, with no sign of a cut in rates even though the base rate has dropped from 5.25 per cent to 2 per cent over the same period.

But based on the industry's response this week, Lord Mandelson and the Consumer Affairs minister Gareth Thomas are expecting to produce a plan to address the dramatic increases in some cardholders' bills.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said: "We've asked lenders to report back by the end of this week and have been in continuing talks with industry following our summit [on 26 November]. We have every expectation that industry will come back with proposals to stop the pockets of bad behaviour that we have identified in risk-based repricing and will continue to work with them to ensure borrowers are treated fairly, responsibly and consistently."

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, said: "The Government has got to get tough with credit card companies determined to make a quick buck out the millions of people struggling to make ends meet. Tough words are worthless unless they are backed up with real action."

Alan Duncan, the Conservatives' business spokesman, accused ministers of pumping out "hot air". He said: "The Government's policy after the banks' bailout has clearly not reached the credit card sector. It has done nothing to clamp down on credit card ownership – particularly by the most vulnerable people."

Industry leaders have been summoned to another meeting with Mr Thomas on Thursday.

Apacs, the UK payments association, denied interest-rate rises were the problem. "Risk-based pricing is not about the base rate at all," said a spokeswoman. "This is about a customer with a card whose APR may go up as a consequence of changes to their circumstances. It is a feature of credit cards that the interest on this unsecured borrowing may be adjusted. If the customer can't pay, the provider has no security on getting the money back and may decide to re-price the cost of using the card. The agreements that were made [at the summit] were about breathing space for customers in difficulty."

Critics of the move believe a half-hearted approach will make little difference to consumers. Martin Lewis, of Moneysavingexpert.com, said: "This ultimatum is absolute nonsense, and shows that Lord Mandelson has never had any connection to credit cards in his life. Is he saying that credit card companies should drop their interest rates in line with the base rate drop, from an average of 18 per cent to one of 15 per cent? To make this work they would actually have to cut their interest rates by 60 per cent to mirror the real changes in the base rate, so if even if every credit card on the market took 3 per cent off their interest rates it would mean nothing."

Credit and store card companies have long been accused of employing dirty tricks to boost income. The order of payments is regularly skewed so that the most expensive debt, with the highest interest rate, is paid off last.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

    £30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

    Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

    Recruitment Genius: Tax Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Tax Assistant is required to join a leading ...

    Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project