£1 trillion and rising: British households pass debt milestone

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The Independent Online

The British economy has passed another extraordinary milestone - but no one will ever hear it exulted by Gordon Brown in one of the Chancellor's Budget speeches.

Last month - most likely on Thursday 24 June - the mountain of debt carried by British households broke through the £1 trillion mark - £1,000,000,000,000 - almost the entire output of the British economy last year. Equivalent to £46,000 for each of Britain's 21.7 million households, it demonstrates the apparent determination of families to continue racking up debt.

Such behaviour has helped to keep Britain out of recession, but there is growing anxiety among experts that, with interest rates and borrowing both rising, many households will soon face a personal debt crisis that could pitch them into the sort of disaster not seen since the last consumer crash - the property price slump of the early 1990s.

There has been an exponential growth in the availability of easy cash - the number of credit, debit and cheque cards has reached 160 million. Nearly a third of credit cards now offer interest-free periods of up to six months. But with easy borrowing has come hard misery.

Citizens Advice, the new name for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, said it had received a 44 per cent surge in the number of consumer debt inquiries since the credit boom began six years ago.

"The credit boom is taking a huge toll on those on the wrong side of the narrow dividing line between successfully managing credit commitments and plunging into serious debt," a spokeswoman said.

Rachel Lomax, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, is the latest senior official to warn that indebted households could suffer "financial distress" if unemployment started to rise or house prices fall.

One victim is Sam Jones, 37, who owes £50,000. A year ago he thought suicide was his only option. "My life is insured," he said. "I felt that if I covered up a suicide, then at least my family wouldn't have to cope with this awful situation and I wouldn't have to face the future."

He is now undergoing debt counselling: "I live with this 24/7 and it will be a monumental job to sort it, but I am tackling it, and in the meantime I have started doing the Lottery."

The only reason that interest rates, currently at 4.5 per cent, are not already at 6 per cent is that the Bank is worried about how people will react.

The Bank believes that the greatest pain will be suffered by the poorest in society, who have racked up some £175bn on unsecured non-mortgage debt - some of which is owed to loan sharks and other unscrupulous lenders. According to Leeds University's business school, the amount of debt being chased by bailiffs has increased by 70 per cent in just two years.

Citizens Advice is calling for an effective strategy to tackle irresponsible lending and borrowing, the lack of access to affordable money and the system of benefits and tax credits.

THE BORROWING BOOM

Homes Last month homebuyers borrowed a further £6.6bn and mortgages rose at a record rate of 15.3 per cent a year. In May, 211,000 people took out new mortgages. First -time buyers borrowed an average of £103,000.

The Bank of England is worried at the prospect of a fall in house prices and interest rates are expected to rise. Lenders repossessed 3,490 homes last year. Six million families have problems repaying debts.

Consumer Consumer credit rose by £1.58bn last month. In the shops the spending bonanza continues. The retail sales index showed strong growth in May, up 7.4 per cent on 2003. Each week shoppers spend £4.6bn.

Plastic We slam nearly £20bn each month on the plastic.The average spend is £60.19.

Financial Services Financial services is now 10 per cent of all television advertising.

Sources: Nationwide building society; Financial Services Authority; Bank of England; Halifax bank; Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Office of National Statistics; UK Insolvency Helpline; Direct Debtline; Association for Payment Clearing Services.

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