It’s a well-known fact that individuals who suffer from a hampered mental capacity - be it mental health or learning difficulties - are most likely to be vulnerable in our communities. They are also more likely to be victims of miss-sold products and services by companies, even though organisations that are providing financial products and services have a duty under the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to take extra care towards these individuals.
This is what the FCA has to say about vulnerable customers:
‘ The vulnerability of the customer, in particular where the firm understands the customer has some form of mental capacity limitation or reasonably suspects this to be so because the customer displays indications of some form of mental capacity limitation (see ■ CONC 2.10)
But due to a culture of intensive selling to consumers, generated by employers placing and enforcing - often difficult and unrealistic - performance goals which are attached to tempting bonus schemes, their employees strive purely to hit sales and profit targets in order to ensure both their continued employment and earn sufficient wages to exist.
Regardless of any signs of consumer vulnerability that may be shown in front of the representatives of such businesses, any duty of care owed to the consumers ceases to be the top priority for many sales people nor an acceptable reason for not getting a sale and target by the organisations (or at least until they are challenged on it).
As a debt specialist in a local East End advice centre, Toynbee Hall, I regularly come across examples of the above. One indebted client was contracted with a top telecommunications services providers in the UK. It sold them a mobile phone contract running for 24 months, but due to her mental health issues and debt report, she obviously lacked the mental capacity to budget and make financial decisions. Thankfully I put her in touch with Tower Hamlet’s Social Services who, working with the client and her landlord, have put in place a support system where she is now helped with paying her regular bills and day to day care.
Recently, whilst I presented the Community Money Matters radio show on Betar Bangla (http://www.betarbangla.net/)
- an East London Community Radio station for the Bengali community - a caller asked me a question that I cannot forget:
‘When a neighbour is concerned about the well-being of his or her fellow neighbour what can he do when the person who is suffering does not even know that he or she is suffering from mental health?’
Also just over a year ago I advised a walk-in client who had been detained under the Mental Health Act - this is when a person could be kept in hospital for assessment or treatment in the interest of their own health, own safety or with a view to the protection of others – hence they were being escorted by their support worker. What was interesting at the time was how logical this client appeared. He was empathetic, and proactively apologetic for being in debt, so at the start I did not think to question the capacity of such an individual despite knowing he was being treated for mental health issues. It then dawned on me that mental health illness is not always as obvious as it might appear let alone knowing it’s complexity.
During my Community Money radio show on East London Radio (https://eastlondonradio.org.uk/), Felix Eyimofe, a mental health support service Coordinator for Mind the mental health charity, gave an insight into the challenges of an individual’s mental frame of mind, stating that:
‘when a person is so unwell, he is incapable of thinking about his financial matters . This person’s first and foremost priority is to recover.’
For those who wonder what immediate options are available on debt matters, it may not be as simple as it sounds when the issues are related to priority debts such as rent arrears and council tax arrears. Since there is a duty of care owed by social landlords and local authorities on vulnerable clients, there is extra support available to these residences.
However, the issue that I had mostly came to battle with local authorities is proving the client’s mental health problems. In such a scenario we do rely on documents from mental health professionals and information from support workers, such as representatives of Mind. However, from the point of consumer credit debts, FCA states the following:
the firm has been notified that the customer might not have the mental capacity to make relevant financial decisions about the management of the customer's debt and/or to engage in the debt recovery process at the time; or
the firm understands or ought reasonably to be aware that the customer lacks mental capacity to make relevant financial decisions about the management of the customer's debt and/or to engage in the debt recovery process at the time.' (see ■ CONC 7.10)
From my point of view, notifying the creditors of the mental situation of an individual has become a pivotal role to support them in difficult times in order to meet the condition set by the FCA. At this point in time, my job is to work with support workers, and other professionals to support the person for the best interest of the person. Initially, however, being able to easily identify and gain access to the available support networks would be a way to better speed the recovery process for such a person.