The UK’s financial watchdog has said it will take ‘immediate action’ to help tens of thousands of mortgage prisoners unable to switch to a cheaper deal.
In a letter to Government the Financial Conduct Authority said it would remove affordability barriers that currently stop mortgage prisoners from remortgaging.
The long-awaited announcement concerns borrowers who were approved for their mortgage before the financial crash, when the criteria for lending was much looser than it is today.
140,000 mortgage holders can’t switch to cheaper deals despite keeping up with payments
After the rules were tightened in 2014 many of these borrowers were no longer able to pass the eligibility tests of their existing lenders and some subsequently slipped onto expensive standard variable rates.
To make matters worse, the watchdog estimates that around 20,000 of these customers are stuck with lenders that are no longer active – with a further 120,000 stuck with firms that aren’t regulated by the FCA.
This means there are around 140,000 mortgage holders in the UK who can’t switch to a cheaper rate despite keeping up with monthly payments.
‘We want to remove potential barriers in our rules to these customers switching to a cheaper mortgage,’ FCA chief executive Andrew Bailey said in a letter to Treasury Select Committee chair Nicky Morgan MP.
How has the mortgage sector reacted?
Mark Harris, chief executive of mortgage broker SPF Private Clients, said: ‘It has never made sense that borrowers are prevented from switching to cheaper mortgage deals because they do not meet their lender’s affordability criteria.
‘Clearly they will be better able to make mortgage payments on a cheaper rate, avoiding missing repayments and getting into debt, which will only exacerbate their situation.
‘This issue has caused extreme hardship in some cases.’
Robert Sinclair, chief executive of the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries said: ‘This is long overdue. It’s interesting that the Tresuary Select Committee has lead the FCA to this when industry has been calling for it for years. But it’s positive news.’
Nick Morrey of broker John Charcol said: ‘At least the FCA is trying to open the door that will encourage lenders to allow them to take them on. But you can’t force lenders to take on bad debt.
‘Of course, the subprime lenders could be rubbing their hands with glee. In terms a of time-frame, I’d like to see something happen before the end of the year.’
‘To help these customers, we will consult on the changes to our responsible lending rules, with the aim to deliver a more proportionate affordability assessment.
‘We intend to move the assessment from an absolute test to a relative test, thus the test would be whether the new mortgage costs are more affordable than the current mortgage costs.
‘Our focus will be on those customers who are seeking to move to a cheaper mortgage and are not borrowing more.’
In simple terms, this means if a customer has been keeping up with repayments they should be able to switch to a cheaper rate regardless of whether they meet the FCA’s tightened affordability criteria.
In May last year, the watchdog said it would discuss widening its remit with Government in order to help those outside its regulatory control, and in August banks and building societies agreed to help around 10,000 homeowners who were with still-active lenders.
Bailey added in his letter that there needs to be a ‘willingness’ from industry to offer remortgaging opportunities to customers once regulatory barriers are removed.
He added that last week the FCA held a meeting with industry figures to discuss lending to customers with closed or inactive firms, stating there was a ‘willingness to consider remortgage options’ once rules are relaxed.
The move comes after Nicky Morgan called for more action to be taken to help mortgage prisoners stuck with inactive firms in November.
The FCA will release a consultation paper this spring, meaning it could still be some time before any actual changes are brought in.
What have lenders done to help mortgage prisoners?
Back in August, trade body UK Finance confirmed that 59 lenders representing 93 per cent of the UK’s residential mortgage market had agreed a list of common standards to help the estimated 10,000 borrowers who are with still-active lenders.
The number of lenders has since risen, with banks Aldermore and TSB both signing up to the scheme following its launch.
To qualify, customers need to be existing borrowers of an active lender, be up to date with payments, have a minimum remaining term of two years, and have a minimum outstanding loan amount of £10,000.
At the watchdog’s request, lenders wrote to any qualifying borrowers by the end of the year to inform them of their options.
This should mean that anyone who qualifies should now have been informed by their lender.
Customers do not need to take any action and are not obliged to switch if they don’t want to.
How the financial crisis happened
In this episode of the This is Money podcast, editor Simon Lambert discusses the credit crunch and financial crisis with Georgie Frost.
Simon relives reporting on the crash of Northern Rock, on the credit crunch as it unfolded, the events that led up to it and the financial crisis that followed.
He also tackles the billion-pound bailout question: Could it happen again?