Marlene Shiels: Reassurance vital in anxious times

One of the most unsavoury aspects of modern life is the speed with which we try to apportion blame when things go wrong.

Marlene Shiels, chief executive at Capital Credit Union

Corporate life is full of this lack of accountability and responsibility and the financial services sector has once again been in the spotlight recently for governance, systems and service failures. This has been an all too common occurrence in the last few years, as long-suffering customers will know.

The sector has indeed endured some turbulent times and often the finger of blame for consumer woes is pointed at companies for their failings (and rightly so, in many cases). But it is easy for all to be tarred with the same brush.

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In the past couple of months I have become increasingly concerned that the government and wider financial services sector has not been meeting people’s needs. At Capital Credit Union in Edinburgh we have been picking up the pieces of widespread and increasing worries of large sections of the population.

We are living in nervous times. I have read much in the business and political press about the impact of Brexit on companies, but the effect on individuals has largely been ignored. Political uncertainty, whether we are referring to Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory in the US election or even the prospect of another independence referendum, is worrying and damaging. And political point scoring fuels concerns – politicians take note please.

We saw an unexpected spike in personal borrowing ahead of the Brexit vote. I am still trying to decide whether this was a rush to take out personal loans just in case things went downhill, or a reflection of confidence that nothing would change in the aftermath and that borrowing commitments wouldn’t be a cause for concern. The reality after the EU referendum was in stark contrast, with borrowing down against our forecasts and an air of nervousness taking hold.

We have recorded a marked increase of late in the number of external agencies contacting us and referring people to us. Churches, local authority advice shops, charities and housing associations have all asked for an increased credit union presence and not just in the more deprived areas. They are not only looking for more leaflets and promotional material, but a physical presence that they say will reassure anxious consumers.

The number of these requests and from different areas and agencies over the last few weeks has resulted in a change of focus.

One area of particular concern that has been highlighted is the issue of lending in retirement, a topic I know is exercising the minds of a couple of the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA’s) statutory panels. This has been raised with us separately by two Edinburgh housing associations with accusations that the financial services sector is simply not looking after older people in the way it should.

This takes me back to the twin themes of accountability and responsibility and the need for the sector as a whole to address these urgently. Politicians of all parties both in Holyrood and Westminster should also take note and play their part if we are to look after people properly and dispel this air of nervousness that has engulfed us.

Marlene Shiels is chief executive at Capital Credit Union