Sam Dunn: Beware of forfeits if you play a bankruptcy game

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The Independent Online

To take part, simply tot up the value of your debt - including mortgages - and turn it into a point for each pound. Then award yourself an extra 100 points for each different source of your debt - whether credit card company, bank, building society, retailer, family or other.

You also qualify for a 500-point bonus if you've taken out insurance on any part of your debt, more commonly known as payment protection insurance (PPI).

Winner gets free drinks all night (they clearly need the cash); loser gets to pay.

Now before I'm pilloried for making light of debt, this game is more than a parlour fancy - I recently watched it boisterously played in a bar by a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings.

The king debtor owed £244,900 or thereabouts: taking away her £220,000 mortgage left her in debt to the tune of £24,900, an ugly sum to spoil any evening.

Not this one, though. The jolly proceedings carried on as the crowd dug themselves deeper in debt for another few hours.

Whether you think this scene is morally reprehensible will come down to your opinion about personal responsibility.

I had no idea about the the financial circumstances of the "winner", or those of her friends, or any notion of steps taken to try to redress the balance. But I was taken aback by the levity with which the huge sums they all owed - for the record, the smallest debt was a mere £14,000 - were bandied about. Jokes about bankruptcy were all-too-familiar too.

Our traditional disapproval of debt softened years ago but it's hard not to worry anew when how much we owe becomes part of an evening's entertainment.

Pinning down the reasons for the change is difficult. But KPMG, the accountant, is on to something when it describes the soaring number of personal bankruptcies as consumers simply "turning themselves in".

Not so much waving a white flag after a hard-fought battle to shore up your finances, then, but a deliberate surrendering to heavy debt and, in the worst cases, to bankruptcy.

For that to happen, we need to have changed our attitudes to an extraordinary degree. The latest figures underline this. In the three months to the end of September, there were 9,418 personal bankruptcies, the Government revealed on Friday - up by over a third on the same period last year.

The cause is twofold, KPMG stresses: the continuing consumer debt crisis and the greater leniency towards bankruptcy recently adopted by the state. Crucially, those made bankrupt can now receive a discharge, cancelling their debts, in under a year.

This change was introduced as part of the 2002 Enterprise Act and intended to encourage companies back into business. But by making it easy for individuals to discharge themselves, the Government is not encouraging them to take proper responsibility for running up huge debts.

The perils of bankruptcy - potential loss of home and job, salary squeezed for repayment, higher rates for loans and credit - are great. However, it's always worth a reminder. It's really no game to play at all.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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