MABS: “Suffering continues for many Waterford families.”
With 33,000 households nationwide estimated to have mortgage arrears running to two years or more, a Waterford-based money advice expert believes hundreds of indebted households across the city and county are ‘suffering in silence’. Speaking to The Munster Express as Waterford’s Money Advice And Budgeting Service (MABS) marks its 25th anniversary, its Money Advice Co-ordinator Anna Walsh believes many households have yet to engage with agencies which are “all too willing” to help.
“As things are, our service remains flat out,” said Ms Walsh. “But we’re no longer getting a huge number of new clients coming through our doors: to be honest it wouldn’t have been possible for us to continue to take the recession-level numbers we dealt with at a time when the solutions weren’t there to deal with all the cases that landed on our desk. But it’s also worth pointing out that there are other solutions on the market available now to people in financial distress that just didn’t exist in 2008 or 2009.”
However, Ms Walsh added: “When you take into account a Central Bank finding that by the end of 2016, nearly 40 per cent of borrowers in long-term arrears hadn’t engaged with their lender, it’s safe to assume that such borrowers haven’t engaged with services like MABS either. On that count, you could be talking about hundreds of households here in Waterford alone who haven’t contacted us. But nobody should feel they have to suffer in silence. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re a free service and we’re here to help.”
Coinciding with its 25th anniversary, MABS welcomed Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty to the Granville Hotel yesterday (Monday), where it also launched its Personal Insolvency Practitioner (PIP) Research report. At the time of writing, it didn’t appear the report’s findings would be immediately and fully implemented by the Government, even if the work of Waterford MABS researcher Louise O’Brien appears to have found a kind ear in Minister Doherty’s.
The most significant recommendation was the appointment of a free Personal Insolvency Practitioner within the MABS network, with one such PIP to be based in each of the redrawn eight regional ‘companies’ MABS will be based in as of October 1st. “This research came as a direct response to the difficulties low income clients experience in assessing insolvency under the Personal Insolvency Act (2012),” she said, “and there aren’t tissues on Anna’s desk – or any of our desks – without reason. The effect that mortgage arrears and insolvency has on individuals, couples and families and the detrimental impact it can have on relationships cannot be underestimated. We in turn have felt very limited in terms of what we can do for our clients so Anna took the decision to budget for this piece of research.”
Anna Walsh added: “The heading of this research could well have been ‘Too Poor To Be Insolvent’. We acknowledge that there are excellent commercial PIPs out there, and they have to make a living so, as you’d expect they have to charge for their service.” Said Louise O’Brien: “MABS is a free service and we have 100 per cent funding through the Exchequer. The only cost incurred by any of our clients who apply for a DSA (Debt Settlement Arrangement) or PIA (Personal Insolvency Arrangement) through MABS is €10 and that’s not to MABS – they need to have their signature witnessed on a statutory declaration, for which a solicitor receives €10, a fee that more than a few of them waive, I should point out.” For a “nominal amount of money – it differs from case to case – we found that we could settle quite a number of the debts that were being presented to us,” said Ms O’Brien. “In some cases, you’d be talking about €170,000 or €180,000, much of which would have been residual mortgage debt – they’d already lost their homes by then and were having to try and come up with solutions in relation to their secondary debt, which would have been the remaining part of the mortgage, which in itself could have been significant.”
According to Anne Galvin who chairs the PIP Research Project Steering Committee: “Effectively, the most vulnerable are condemned indefinitely to insolvency and financial hardship. This group need a high level of on-going support going through the insolvency process and thereafter. It is our hope that the recommendations of this report are implemented with expediency.” Louise O’Brien stressed: “The PIP we’re recommending for a national roll-out evidently isn’t in place yet – hence the report being prepared in the first place – but we hope that this report represents the foundation stone for developing this service for MABS clients wherever they may be. In some regards we’re very lucky here in Waterford because we can offer the (PIP) service to all of our clients.” “In fact,” Ms Walsh added: “We’re the only service in the country that’s in a position to offer the full suite of options under insolvency. We’ve taken bankruptcy cases, but we take them as a last resort: we do our best to explore all available options.”
Since MABS originally opened at an office in Ballybeg back in 1993, the service has assisted over 20,000 people in the Waterford area. Anna Walsh, who has been on board since day one, said the service has evolved considerably over the past quarter century.
“The need for our services was never more evident than during and following the financial crisis in 2008. The housing market collapse and mortgage arrears crisis led to a marked increase in demand for the services of MABS nationally.
“Yet, even as the country returns to economic prosperity, problem debt is an issue for a significant cohort of people and we are as in demand as ever.”
Ms Walsh concluded: “MABS is proud to have helped the people of Waterford for a quarter of a century and our service offering will continue to grow in line with their requirements.”