This month, the FCRC Board adopted its new Strategic Plan for 2019-2021, which has been the result of a consultative process with our members. The plan acknowledges the need for sector expansion, while ensuring the wellbeing of our financial counsellors.
Through the development process, we were able to identify areas of priority such as achieving reliable and sustainable funding, and establishing value and respect for financial counsellors and the profession. These are not new areas in the organisation’s goals – having formed part of our expiring Strategic Plan of the past three years – they are indicative of the level of ongoing work that still exists for FCRC to address these points. It is worth noting that the plan was drafted with a tone of optimism ahead of the federal election outcome, and that we maintain a positive outlook for the capacity and recognition of the sector in the future.
FCRC will be focused on developing new collaborations with other sectors. We are currently drafting our submission into the Mental Health Royal Commission to highlight the mental health co-morbidities of financial stress and vulnerability, and the need for financial counselling to form part of a holistic response to mental health treatment and prevention. We will continue our work in the Aged Care and Health Care sectors, through Bernadette Pasco’s work on Elder Abuse Prevention and Integrated Models of Care (IMOC).
Sector standards is an area where FCRC will carry on its leadership role under the new plan. Having adopted the National Standards for Membership & Accreditation under our previous Strategic Plan, our focus will now shift to maintaining that high level of professionalism, with adequate supports in place to ensure quality and consistency of service delivery as we head towards expansion. Sector standards will also provide practitioners with safeguards against the risks of stress and burnout.
FCRC’s next major piece of work will be its report on sector wellbeing, in regards to worker stress and workloads. This is an area of vital importance to our members – who made detailed submissions to our survey – so we are taking our time to ensure that the information and recommendations we deliver are thoughtful and effective. Drafting of the report is now in its final stages.
All of this work, and the organisation’s strategic direction, ties in well with our conference theme for this year: Expanding Horizons. We are excited to share with you all of the new opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for the sector. Registrations are now open, and we hope you can all join us in Ballarat in October.
Researching the impact of financial difficulty assistance, bankruptcy and debt agreements
My research study
As readers of the Devil’s Advocate will know, credit and bankruptcy laws provide several options for people who are over-indebted. Many people are directly affected by one or more of these options: in 2017/18 there were 16,811 new bankruptcies and 14,834 new debt agreements, and in 2016-17 there were over 300,000 requests made to the banks for financial difficulty assistance (which may include a hardship variation).
We hope that using one of these options will help a person to stabilise their financial situation and reduce the risk of future debt problems. However, we don’t know very much about what happens once one of these options is chosen. For example, in the case of bankruptcy, does a debtor’s financial situation and financial wellbeing improve during the bankruptcy? If so, is that improvement maintained in the short and/or long-term? Or do debt problems recur? What other impacts does bankruptcy have, including on health, relationships, employment or careers, and housing? And to what extent are future outcomes affected by whether or not someone has had access to financial counselling or financial capability training, or has had to make payments from their income?
Without this sort of information, questions about whether the laws are working well, or whether changes are needed, are difficult to answer. A recent example is the discussion about the appropriate length of bankruptcy (with a proposal for automatic discharge after 12 months). Having better information about the impacts of bankruptcy on debtors could usefully inform these and other policy debates.
I’m therefore exploring some of these issues as part of my PhD research at Melbourne Law School. I’m focusing on consumer debt problems, and the impact of resolving those problems through receiving financial difficulty assistance / hardship variations and entering bankruptcy or a debt agreement.
Finding out about debtors’ experiences
To learn more about the impact of financial difficulty assistance, bankruptcy and debt agreements, I’m inviting people who have used one of these options to share their experience through anonymous online surveys. The greater the response to the surveys, the more I can be confident that the range of experiences are represented, and the more useful the data will be for policy-makers and others.
I’m therefore asking financial counsellors, consumer advocates, and other industry practitioners to promote my research to relevant clients or former clients.
If you can help by letting relevant clients (or former clients) know about the opportunity to participate in a survey, please get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org or (07) 3138 2006), and I will provide more information, including a suggested letter for clients. The study design is consistent with privacy and research ethics guidelines, and the study protocol has been approved by Melbourne University’s Human Research Ethics Committee.
Comparing the Australian and Dutch systems
As part of my study, I am also collecting information about outcomes in the Dutch debt relief system. Looking at how another country deals with similar issues can give insights as to how the local responses can be improved, as well as help develop a better understanding of the role of law when people have consumer debt problems. There is a large comparative consumer bankruptcy literature, but most of it compares the systems in continental European countries with the systems in the UK, Ireland and/or North America. Few studies compare Australia’s approach with approaches in other countries.
Why the Netherlands? Because the Dutch system has some features that are not present in the Australian system, but that might be relevant for improving outcomes.
In the Netherlands, there are two main debt relief options for people with consumer debts: a voluntary settlement option, negotiated with creditors and a statutory debt restructuring option (the Wsnp procedure). As in Australia, any debt remaining at the end of the procedure (usually three years) is discharged. However, there are some differences. For example, in both Dutch administrations, debtors have to pay any income earned above a fixed amount to their creditors, and the amount of income that can be kept is low (close to the social minimum). In addition, it is not possible to access the statutory procedure without having first attempted a voluntary settlement, and this must usually be done through a debt counselling agency. Relatedly, it is a legal responsibility of all municipalities (cities) to provide their citizens with access to a minimum amount of debt counselling. Among other things, debt counselling agencies can also ask that people undertake a budget course or similar program before they start to negotiate with creditors on their behalf.
Because of these and other differences, comparing the two jurisdictions will help provide some insights into the features that best help people to recover from consumer debt problems.
Please contact me if you have any questions, or if you can help to promote the surveys to potential participants!
Nicola Howell PhD researcher, Melbourne Law School Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology
Elyse Hoskins, Good Shepherd
What motivated you to pursue Financial Counselling?
I usually answer this question ironically with, I was once a great and wonderful skip tracer for the Probe Group before I began disconnecting people’s electricity in rapid succession at Australian Power and Gas until eventually, I found the light.
Although to answer truthfully, my path to becoming a Financial Counsellor was paved long before I began employment in Australia.
I grew up in poverty stricken Flaxmere, New Zealand. This is a place, where if you’re open to noticing the content of shopping trolleys and bare feet passing you by, a trip to the local supermarket will quite literally break your heart. In short, my upbringing like many in the sector would tick all of Consumer Affairs vulnerability categories. From family violence, to family members in gangs and prison, financial abuse and poverty to the loss of immediate family members; you name it and I’ll have the T shirt. So like others, I’m here in the Financial Counselling role because I’ve lived it, in all its shame and glory.
Please tell us about your background
I left school when I was 15 years of age and since then life has been a series of curves, bumps, inclines and the occasional “top of the hill” moment.
My Financial Counselling journey has involved understanding that to build the capacity to harness a client’s strength, I have to work through my own weaknesses.
Nowhere more so did I learn that lesson than during my time at the National Debt Helpline.
Delivering information to clients in quick succession, reframed for each individual case is a challenge that’s guaranteed to see no stone left unturned within oneself.
What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?
I would have to say my colleague’s passion. Christian and Noelene, our Financial Capability workers, quite literally serve as the valuable link between existing budgeting and debt resolution work. Playing to each other’s strengths, they’ve managed to master the art of framing financial wellbeing information to the point their clients then go out and educate others in their communities.
I also work with Peter, Natalie, Cindy, Martin, Sally, Antony and Rene who all raise the standard of practice in their vastly different approaches to resolving issues seen in our catchment area, including being willing to push back on industries.
Each member of our team asks more of the role in seeking to achieve client engagement to the point our services are no longer required by that person.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
I would have to say in short, thriving instead of surviving.
I’ve most certainly gone the journey and am continuing to grow as a person by being willing to acknowledge and work on me.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Financial Counselling sector?
Ourselves, I feel as though we have largely allowed conversations to move away from where they should be.
That, and burnout.
I have worked factory floors from sunrise to sunset, six days a week and been so tired that I’ve fallen asleep standing up! However, those previous roles do not compare to what in my experience the Financial Counselling role demands of a person. Especially given the true extent of that strain is often not acknowledged or understood.
What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?
Whilst I don’t share details with clients, without a doubt the most valuable resource I have is my life experience, well that, and google.
The greatest advice I’ve had………..it’s a jungle out there, be open to the adventure. Unknown
What book are you reading at the moment?
Re-Reading: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Thanks PH