A rising tide of vulnerability? – [FULL INTERVIEW]

The full conversation with Helen Lord, CEO of the Vulnerability Registration Service (VRS). We discuss some of the recent trends they have seen on vulnerability levels in the UK.

The pandemic has had impacts and they are expected to continue, if not increase in the near future. It is equally affecting young and old alike.

Helen provides some real insight (and data) on what this looks like across the UK today, together with thoughts on how this may evolve in the future.

Find out more about VRS-> Here.

Interview Transcript

Everyone, I’m here with Helen Lord, who’s the CEO of the vulnerability registration service. Alan, thanks very much for joining me today. Really appreciate it.

Thank you for having me.

So today we’re gonna talk a bit about, I suppose, vulnerability and VRS and some of the things that you see what are some of the, the trends you’ve seen, I suppose, over the pandemic, and, you know, over the last 12 months or so, I mean, vulnerability has been a bit of a topic, but I suppose it’s also gonna be a bit of an increasing topic, too.

It is an increasing topic, I think the main thing that we’ve seen in terms of people registering with us is there is a bigger tendency to refer to mental health issues, which I think we can all relate to the circumstances we’ve been in, obviously, indebtedness, and a concern as much as anything else about falling into debt, things around falling into debt in terms of rental or mortgage payments, and cancel tax payments, that type of thing. And certainly a larger pit. We did a we did a recent survey. And I think about 10% of people actually had a fear of failing to make payments on their home falling into the potential for eviction, which is a scary amount of people really. And I think the reality is, you know, furlough coming to an end, all those sort of payment, holidays coming to an end, we’re going to see more unafraid around indebtedness, and people being in vulnerable positions because of

that. Have you seen the change sort of all the mixer in particular, like types of vulnerability change over the last sort of 12 months? We’ve gone through this? I mean, I was looking at some of your data. I mean, COVID did come up as one of the reasons actually. But also there’s there’s mental health and everything’s kind of linked. I mean, have you seen sort of changes and mix as you sort of gone over the last 12 months?

Yeah, I mean, we’re a growing database, and more and more people are registering. And I think that the trends and what people highlight to us will change over time. But the biggest area is undoubtedly mental health and mental health tends to be coupled with indebtedness often. And I think we know, we know that from previous surveys, previous steps that have been done, but people just aren’t vulnerable with one thing, it’s one thing leads to another. And that’s undoubtedly the case.

And you think that’s going to change going forward, as we sort of as we go forming. There’s more stress on people now than there was, say, a year ago, let alone like two years ago,

we talk about the pandemic and the stresses and strains that people would pick, people render, and we all face that. But I think there was a little bit of a stay of execution. In some respects, people weren’t going out doing things, you know, the day to day pressures, in some respects were taken away around things like that, and that sort of thing. And that’s coming back to roost. So I think we’re gonna have a long way out of that in those terms.

And of course, you’ve got the end of some of the furlough supporters been sort of tapering for a while, but I mean, that’s, that’s coming up potential changes, and things like Universal Credit, do you think that will flow through,

I definitely think it’s all going to have an impact. I mean, if people were having problems, I mean, furlough, as I say, Is it almost a delaying tactic in the in that sense, and in terms of collections and stuff, that’s, you know, gonna come back thick and fast, and it is going to impact people coming from all directions, in a sense, because the normal sort of flow of collections etc, is going to start from all organisations all at the same time. So when we talk about people being overwhelmed, when dealing with debt, they are going to be overwhelmed, because if they owe pockets of different organization’s money, that’s all going to come in impact. At the same time,

we’re looking through some of that some of the data that you had out there as it was quite interesting in terms of like the age range around vulnerability, but one of the areas that I thought was of interest, and it seemed like it was you had it in that sort of like 25 to 35 kind of range. And that kind of surprised me a little bit, I suppose, versus, you know, maybe looking at slight, slight, slightly older demographic versus not I mean, is that just the function of the data that you’ve got, or, or is like a root cause in there with?

I think it’s telling us something, I mean, if you look at a graph, of the people that are registering with us, it’s a downward curve, it’s a straight downward curve from the younger part of society down to the older group. Now, clearly, we know that older people are going to be more likely to be in vulnerable situations, you only have to start to look at the amount of people over 85, you know, 850,000 900,000 people suffering from dementia in the UK. But clearly younger people are more comfortable, I would say with identifying and putting their hands up and say I’ve got a vulnerability issue. Now that might partly be just the way society is it may be that older people have a bit more of a stoicism around it put the hand up and say they’re vulnerable, but certainly younger people and again, particularly in relation to mental health issues, they are the ones that are identifying as vulnerable. And I think the other important thing to bear in mind, that is these are very often people that aren’t on the credit ladder, they might be venturing out for the first time going lines of credit etc. So their vulnerability can be almost less visible in the checks that we normally make around things like financial services, insurance. utilities, all those areas.

And I suppose that kind of age group is also tends to be quite a time of peak financial stress as well, because we’ve got families they’ve got outgoings they might have rental, they’ll have been they have less savings, those kind of things as well. I mean, probably links to that as well.

Yeah. Sometimes still still sitting on the student loan waiting, waiting to be paid back. So, yeah, it is a lot to deal with all at once. I mean, in some ways, I think we need to see it as a positive in younger people are comfortable with volunteering, the fact that they may have difficulties, and I suppose that the whole concentration we’ve had around mental health is driving towards that and, and saying, you know, you need to be able to talk about it, whereas perhaps the older generation aren’t comfortable with it.

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And do you think that comes from so? So traditionally, we’ve always thought of vulnerability as something that people don’t want to talk about, you got to get permission to record it. And it’s like, then people are very recent around talking about there. Do you think attitudes that are changing? And again, you had another stat around that 56% of people were quite happy to say that, you know, their circumstances have changed, they might be in a vulnerable situation, which, which was higher than maybe I had originally thought. I mean, do you think there’s a much greater acceptance now than there’s ever been? And do you think it’s driven by that younger demographic, as you just said,

I do. I think there’s a certain amount of stigma always attached to sort of putting your hand down or admitting to things, but I think there’s a little bit of us assuming that people aren’t prepared to say, the vulnerable, there’s a lot of discussion that we have about whether we should use the term vulnerable. And I, I buy into that, and I understand that, but we have to call it something we have. And vulnerability is a term that’s used, certainly in financial services in in energy and all those areas. So I think by starting to call it something different with perhaps detracting from providing those people with the support they need and making it even more difficult in the short term. And yes, so a lot of people 34% of the people that we asked would say that they are in a vulnerable situation, that doesn’t mean to say they all want to go on to a register. But a lot of those people said if they were asked, they would be prepared to say so in order to get organisations to take their circumstances into consideration and felt indeed, that if that information is held, it should be taken into consideration and factored into their dealings with them. So if there’s a preparedness out there to volunteer that information, then you know, I really feel it should be used.

And you think that is that translating to to more people to come into you as a service source, like self identify and sort of that process coming through

the more end users, the more more clients if you like that we have that are checking our register, the more justification I’ve got to go out and shout about it and say, Look, you want to register with it with us because the organization’s you’re dealing with are checking, and they will take that into consideration. Yeah, we’re seeing an upward curve of registrations from individuals themselves. We’re also very keen to encourage people where there’s a power of attorney in place where somebody is a carer for somebody to register on their behalf, because obviously, those people are very vulnerable. But there’s an upward trend generally in the people that are registering with a stroke from whatever source that might be.

What’s been the reaction from a business point of view from people like taking the service because, you know, obviously, it provides an extra piece of information layer information, to understand your customer base, but potentially at least get get insight into it. When are you seeing greater acceptance of that? Is that do you think that the pandemic in particular, do you think that’s that’s going to drive it even further, as we sort of go forward?

The pandemic has undoubtedly driven it forward. Regulator pressure is the is the big influence on organisations starting to act more than that more than anything else, receptiveness. It varies, organisation to organisation, and sector to sector, some sectors are better than others than really engaging. I think the barriers to making things happen and start using this sort of data are primarily a fear of data protection that we are GDPR a couple of years ago, and I think it scared everybody to the extent that they think they can’t share data, whereas the reality is course they can, as long as it’s done in the right way with the right safeguards, there’s nothing to stop that happening. And of course, we’re very conscious of that. We, I mean, we know that we’re sitting on a database without sort of extreme detail about individuals, but we know it relates to vulnerable people and we have to be cognizant of that all the time. And then it’s priorities and resource as with anything else, it’s how much effort is involved in integrating our database into the decision making process or the customer journey journey of organisation so what we really try and do with that is it is as simple as we can make It’s reasonable in terms of price. We’re a not for profit organisation, but also working as much as we can. And it’s a sort of work in progress, we will work with organisations that already provide solutions to companies, whether that be affordability, whether it be credit, referencing fraud, prevention, anything like that, if we can provide the vulnerability data through those sort of intermediaries, if you like, it makes it simpler for the end user to work with us as well.

As becomes an extra external piece of information to to then drive just to drive decisions or drive conversations to then drive a decision, I would say to like, how do you segment and just make sure you get that flag up front?

Yeah, and I think the other thing is, we get questioned whether our database is too big to be manageable, or too small to be manageable. I mean, the reality is half the population, half a customer base isn’t going to register as vulnerable, you are going to get some of your customers are going to be identified as vulnerable. And those are the the people that need specialist attention, they may need communicating within a different way. And they need to be managed in the right way. But it shouldn’t be ridiculously resource hungry, it just needs the right processes in place to manage.

And I suppose if someone self identified even when they then call in if they weren’t, if it wasn’t then flowed through that self identify anyway. So it’s kind of like it’s you just getting pre warning the what’s at what the situation is anyway?

Absolutely, the difference may be that they’ve spent half an hour on the phone that they might not have needed to do, it might be appropriate to refer them through to somebody and it may be that they’ve given offered the wrong sort of product or service, when that could potentially but be bypassed. I mean, one of the conversations I have a lot is we know who our vulnerable customers are, well, yes, you might and that’s, that’s great, but that customer of yours is going to have touchpoints or relationships with at least another 10, probably 20 different organisations. And it will be great if they don’t have to repeat that to all of those 1020 other organisations that are

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supposed to do it, rather than going through the same information that they’ve gone through 10 or 20 times before, you can just get straight to the point and sort of have an informed conversation rather than having to gather all that information.

So lately, and that I think that is the one biggest frustration that is ever communicated to us from people is that I mean, it’s certainly if say it was a mental health issue, or if it’s a relationship breakdown or something like that, you don’t want to speak to four people in a customer service team, and tell them the same thing before you get to the right person.

Yeah, so rather than driving decisions that can drive the process to make the process more efficient, for a better outcome get to the outcome, better, a better outcome a quicker,

absolutely. And I think it’s the outcome that’s important. I mean, registering is vulnerable, doesn’t mean you’re going to get, you don’t have to pay your debts back, or anything like that, it just means that the way that is handled can be dealt with in a more positive way,

as we come out of the pandemic, do you think that financial services or utilities, we’re gonna have to deal with collections processes, and particularly our accounts in arrears in a different way than we’ve done before? Do you think it’s gonna change strategy? Or do you think it’s just going to change? Maybe the nature of things? I mean, what’s, what’s your kind of view on that?

I don’t, I don’t know if it’s just because of the pandemic, I just think there’s going to be more of it. And I think it’s going to be a sort of intense effect on a lot of people and I know, organisations that are and there’s a lot of consideration about this, how do we communicate with people, what’s the best way to communicate with people, and that’s different people circumstances are different, you can’t predict how somebody is going to then react. So obviously, an elderly person, on the whole, not always, but may not want to be driven down the internet get to get help. Similarly, somebody in debt might not want to be having that face to face conversation with somebody who might want help on it in a in an online environment. You know, it’s really adjusting to that and taking that into consideration. And I know there’s an appetite to do that at the moment. And there is a focus on on how best to talk to people and how best to deal with people.

I was thinking really around, I suppose Yes, strategy and whether vulnerable is going to become much more of an interest an important strategy. You know, and where does it go from here? I suppose we you know, we’ve talked very much around vulnerability has been on the on the regulator radar for for quite a long time. It’s been pushed, pushed within the industry, the industry has had to respond. You know, it’s been extended from, you know, maybe vulnerability around age, it’s being centred around vulnerability around you know, potential illness too. We got mental health don’t include gambling so included, there’s lots of areas of others areas of vulnerability that have been included in where do you think we go from now?

The reality is that there needs to be more action. So there’s an awareness out there. A lot of organisations have put together their vulnerability teams. There’s a lot of recognition that those individuals dealing with vulnerable customers need need to have the appropriate level of training but give it lip service and just saying, Well, I’ve got a vulnerability team doesn’t actually answer the question this needs to be broader than that. And it needs to be more embedded in the organisation. So it really takes action. So I think there’s there’s two things that I’ve seen, there’s what we’re doing in terms of identifying vulnerability. And I think what we do is actually flagger genuinely vulnerable people. And those are people that need their story heard or need to be understood, you’re talking about people with quarter protection orders, who shouldn’t be applying for finances, he’s a financial affairs are being managed by somebody else who, you know that the anecdotal thing that always crops up is, you know, these people are going out and getting mobile phones left, right and centre, and they shouldn’t be in and that can be flown to, we’re taking on data in relation to people that are in abusive relationships that are suffering from financial abuse, that data is not available anywhere else, we’re starting to work in terms of victims of loan sharks, who, quite frankly, have got more worries than whether they need to pay their utility bill or not. So it needs to be embedded. And I suppose the other thing that’s happening a lot, which I would embrace is, there are a lot of models being built around predicting vulnerability, but that’s going to be financial vulnerability, you can’t predict if somebody is going to be bereaved, you can’t predict if somebody is going to be ill, you can’t predict how somebody is going to be affected by something in terms of their mental health. So I think you balance the two things, you use those predictive models, but if you have got a fact in front of you saying this person is in this situation they have saved going back to the court protection order against them.

And how far do you think those models can go? Right? So I mean, they’ll always be cases you say, of ones, where you have models are never perfect, right? And, and and you’re going to have instances where people are, you know, life situations, as you just explained, or maybe court situations, those are always going to be sort of out from elsewhere. And and there’s financial vulnerability, and then other types of vulnerability, almost like potential vulnerability, how far do you think the models could go to predict some of that, at least to give you another? And it can that kind of data that you’ve got be helpful in almost like solving for some of that as well?

Because I would say it’s almost like, the data that we’re sitting on is enriching those models, I guess. And so the analysis that we’ve done, where there are vulnerability, identifying vulnerability models, it matches with what our data is telling us. So our data is the factual the predictive models do seem to work and do seem to be given indication of who could potentially be in a vulnerable situation. And what you

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think the unreported vulnerability is, you’ve obviously got reported vulnerability, and you create the models around that. But then if you flow that through against a wider portfolio, you’re going to get what what is the unreported vulnerability as well, which is the piece that’s hard to get to is like, how many people do you think are, are in vulnerable situations? And don’t say anything, probably, which is kind of a concerning population, we don’t know enough to be able to then do something about

No, we don’t. And I think there’s still a massive gap, we’ve got an awful, awful long way to go. But I think if somebody is vulnerable, in one circumstance, they’re going to be vulnerable in several different circumstances. So my ideal I guess, is to work with as many organisations that are offering support to individuals to try and do as much of a catch all as as possible. So we speak to charities all the time, if you’ve got charity, supporting elderly people, you know, somebody with dementia, whether it’s just somebody dealing with a carer or somebody with dementia, and you sort of pass it all on, you know, you’re going to eventually sort of try and reach critical mass and enabling people to communicate, you can’t or I mean, you can’t make people volunteer the fact that they’re in vulnerable situation, if they don’t want to, I think my argument always is, if they’ve gone to the extent of doing so then that’s let’s take it into consideration.

And that’s where you get into potential concerns around privacy and those kind of things and of like sharing that information, which your argument is it should be shared, I suppose.

Yeah. And most of the time, it can be done with explicit consent, or the consent of somebody who has authority over somebody who would only be in extreme circumstances where somebody is it’s a risk to the individual or otherwise that it would be chaired. But that’s also you can also do that, within the confines of data protection law, if it’s done in the appropriate safeguards.

What’s the strategy around just getting greater awareness around vulnerability? Do you think we’ve done enough as an industry, I mean, the regulator’s done a lot to mandate it for the industry. But do you think it’s done enough publicly to get people to recognise that if you’re in a vulnerable situation, you need to say something? Have we done enough publicly, like from a PR point of view for the population?

I mean, again, going back to our survey results, they would indicate that a lot of people don’t think it’d be taken into consideration. If they did volunteer it there’s kind of no point in, in flagging it up. I’d go back to my point. I think, to an extent there is a Lip service around dealing with it. And I think the regulator’s encourage very, very strongly that the best treatment of vulnerable people, but there isn’t a great deal of action that’s going to be taken if it’s done wrongly. And that’s what drives organisations to act as if there’s regulator action at the end of the day. So Financial Conduct Authority, for example of I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of work huge amount of good work they’ve done around vulnerability, but they’re not mandating that companies have to proactively identify it. So in simple terms, were sitting on it on a register of vulnerable people that should be used, but there’s nothing to mandate a company to proactively come and come and check it at the moment.

What about international? I know that you’re, you’re a UK based charity, looking at UK, if you look at this sort of like the international landscape, the treatment of vulnerability seems like it varies by country. Do you ever have any other contact with with with other markets, or I’m just looking at similar kind of initiatives from from elsewhere? From

what what I’ve seen that there is, there isn’t a model exactly like VRS internationally out there. But I think there’s varying appetites if you if you like to start to do it. So I mean, the little I know about, say, Australia, then moving towards more regulation around it, there’s more more focus. There’s been talk in Northern Europe about it. And in the US, I think these sorts of models will, will move forward gradually,

I do think it’s gonna be an interesting time. I think that the next six, six to six to eight months, typically, the furlough ends, I suppose here, and then we sort of like it sort of flows forward. And those impacts kind of float through the collection cycle. How long do you think we’ve gotten to we would see a spike in volume, do

you think? Well, I think if you think back to when we had the credit crunch and those issues, and back in the sort of 2000s, I don’t think we saw the impact of that until a couple of you know, I think that’s sort of fed out over a couple of three years. Because immediate things happen, the impact of that doesn’t stay in it immediately. So somebody is in massive debt, now. They’ve got organisations starting to chase them now for their debt that the result of that might not play out for another 1218 months, and we might see more evictions, we might see more homelessness, I hope now, that will happen. So

you just feel like, you know, the impact. So we seem a lot slower than we think. Right? So we always like rushed as they were like there’s gonna be an impact in this point. But actually, they get spread out on a much longer timeframe than the maybe we anticipate repeatedly. Right.

Yeah. And I think it’s, it’s because headline news is was all around the pandemic, I mean, those headlines or disappear, the the After Effects, or the fallout four, it probably won’t hit that and they won’t be visible,

will be seen real sort of people impacts for a while. Yeah, it looks like so thanks very much for making the time. I really appreciate it. And you guys have got a great insight in terms of what’s happening with vulnerability in the UK. You know, and certainly you can sort of see it in terms of like, they’re providing information to really sort of help us on what type of precipice of you know, some some further change that we’re seeing in the in the UK market, at least anyway. So I really appreciate the insight is fascinating.

Thank you very much.

Thanks very much. Speak to you soon.


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