FSA clampdown on firms poor arrears handling

This action comes as new data on mortgage lending, published yesterday by the FSA, shows the number of consumers facing arrears and repossessions continues to increase.  It also follows two warnings by the FSA last year that failing to treat customers in arrears fairly was unacceptable.  The warnings were set out in an earlier survey of arrears handling and in a letter sent to the chief executives of all mortgage lenders and administrators.

The latest review focused on specialist lenders to the impaired credit market who are no longer lending, and on third party administrators (TPAs) contracted to handle mortgage arrears and repossessions work on behalf of lenders.  It also looked at arrears charges and the treatment of borrowers whose mortgages have been securitised.

The review found that poor practice was still prevalent among specialist lenders and TPAs including:

-operating an approach focused too strongly on recovering arrears without reference to the borrower’s individual circumstances;
-being too ready to take court action;  
-imposing arrears-related  charges unfairly; and
-specialist lenders not exercising sufficient oversight of contracted TPAs. 

And it identified terms in securitisation covenants which could lead to inequitable treatment of borrowers in arrears, by restricting the scope for the lender to exercise flexibility and forbearance, for example by prohibiting an extension of the loan term, or conversion to interest only for a period.

Lesley Titcomb, FSA director responsible for the Mortgage Sector, said:

"In current market conditions, with our data showing more people struggling to meet their mortgage payments, it is vital that firms treat customers who get into arrears fairly.  It is unacceptable that some firms are applying fees unfairly and pushing customers towards repossession without considering alternatives.  The steps we are announcing today demonstrate that proper handling of arrears is still a high priority for us and will continue to be so until the necessary progress has been made.

“The focus of today’s report was specialist lending but the messages apply equally to other mortgage firms.  As a result of the Dear CEO letter sent to all lenders and lenders and administrators last November, follow up action is underway with a number of firms and the industry as a whole can expect continued intensive scrutiny of its arrears handling processes." 

To help firms with their mortgage and repossession handling, the FSA has outlined some examples of good and poor practice.

The FSA understands that customers in arrears are a vulnerable group who need help and advice.  It has a wide range of mortgage material on the Moneymadeclear website, including the "What to do when you can’t pay your mortgage" guide, which offers practical help for people who are struggling with mortgage repayments.  The FSA requires firms to send this guide to consumers who fall into arrears.  Consumers who are having difficulties meeting mortgage payments should talk to their lender immediately and may also wish to contact a free independent advice agency.  If a borrower believes they have been treated unfairly by their mortgage lender, they should pursue their complaint through the firm’s internal complaints procedures.  If they are not satisfied with the firm’s response, they may refer the complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

The arrears review is part of the FSA’s ongoing programme of work designed to monitor the effectiveness of its regulation of mortgage lending, to address key issues in the mortgage sector and to ensure that consumers are treated fairly and can make informed decisions.  The issues identified during the review are being factored into the FSA’s comprehensive Mortgage Market Review on which a Discussion Paper is due to be published in September.

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