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28/02/2017

Lee Carter’s EastEnders storyline shows need for better awareness of debt help options

Long-running soap EastEnders, as any regular viewer will know, often tackles real and contentious issues that its viewers may be faced with. Debt is one such topic to have been highlighted, through the recently departed character of Lee Carter, the son of the landlord of the Old Vic pub. Lee took out payday loans to cover short-term expenses, but – as often happens in real life – his debt issues spiralled out of control. (This is not the first time that EastEnders has covered debt: many years ago Ian Beale, one of Albert Square’s three surviving original characters, was made bankrupt by HMRC for a debt of over £100,000. He came out of his bankruptcy, although the storyline was not clear as to how that came about – perhaps a flashback is needed to fill in the gaps?)

So, with Lee having recently left the show, I took a look at what he has been through and where he could have turned for advice.

The storyline

For those who aren’t regular viewers, Lee is a former soldier who struggles with mental health issues. He was prescribed medication to help with depression, but hadn’t been taking it. After joining the soap, Lee became part of a couple with Whitney; a pregnancy and a marriage proposal soon followed.

Problems arose when Lee, who was working for low wages on the car lot then on a fish stall, had to pay for the grand wedding that Whitney anticipated – and with a baby on the way to boot. He tried to get a better-paid job but with no joy, until he took a role in a call centre; he lied to his family about the position, saying it was a managerial job with a good salary. Lee then took out a £2,000 payday loan to bridge the gap between what he was earning and what he gave the impression he was earning.

Whitney wanted to move out of the pub where they were living with his parents to get their own place. Lee was constantly pressured to provide more and more. He stole some charity money, his mum’s necklace, and a neighbour’s Christmas present. He also plotted to stage a robbery at the Vic, although that backfired.

Whitney then organised a family Christmas meal at their new flat, funded by Lee’s new "high earning" job. Lee tried to take out another payday loan. Eventually his dad loaned him the money to repay his debts, after Lee’s mental health deteriorated to the point that he nearly attempted suicide. Lee has now left Albert Square to make a new start in Dover.

The issues

Debt is often only part of the story. Mental health issues often arise at the same time, either caused by or contributing to the money issues. Borrowing is not a solution for a lack of income unless the situation is expected to be temporary.

Payday lenders are regulated (unlike loan sharks), and should have reviewed Lee’s income and expenditure (i.e. his ability to repay the loan) before making the first loan. Did Lee mislead the lender, as he has his family, and pretend to have a higher income than he did? The checks the lender should have made should have avoided that.

Advice

Advice on debt should not only be sought when you cannot repay it: It is essential that all borrowers understand exactly what commitments they are taking on and prepare a realistic budget so they know they can afford the repayments. Clearly Lee did not pause to consider whether he could repay the loan; he had no obvious plan, and simply wanted to have the money to use to impress his family. The lender should have insisted that a budget was prepared.

When you cannot repay a debt do not ignore the issue: Speak to the lender and/or to a regulated professional advisor or a charity. Lee ignored the lender when he was pursued for repayment and did not even speak to his family about his problems. Interestingly, a friend gave him a card for the Samaritans when he opened up about his suicidal thoughts; the charity has consulted with the EastEnders scriptwriters on Lee’s story, and signposted viewers to sources of help. If Lee had been open with his friends about his debt issues, one of them may have pointed him in the right direction for advice on debt.

The options

If Lee could not afford to repay his payday loans, and perhaps other debts we do not know about, he should have explored all the options available to over-indebted individuals. The options available for Lee would have been:

  • A debt relief order (DRO): Lee appears to have no assets and may well have an income only sufficient to meet his and his family’s reasonable needs. If that is the case then he may have been eligible for a DRO. Lee would have to use an intermediary and pay a fee of £90 to access this solution. At the end of one year, if his position had not improved, then the debts are written off. However, his credit rating would be impaired for six years.
     
  • A debt management plan (DMP): If Lee could afford to make payments from his income and his debts are low, then he should have considered entering into an informal agreement to repay his debts, or used an intermediary to put in place a DMP. Lee would then make a monthly payment to the intermediary who would distribute the money to Lee’s creditors. This would continue until the debts are repaid, although usually debts are frozen. The intermediary may charge a fee.
     
  • An individual voluntary arrangement (IVA): If the debts were material, and Lee could afford to make monthly payments from his income, he could have opted for an IVA where he would be expected to make monthly payments for up to five years, either until the debts are paid or, if he could not afford to repay them in full over that period, with the unpaid balance being written off at the end. This option will also impair his credit rating for at least six years.
     
  • Bankruptcy: Only in the last resort would I expect Lee to need to become bankrupt. A Trustee in Bankruptcy would then take control of his assets, if any, review Lee’s ability to make payments from his income, and investigate what Lee had done with his money.

Soaps love to put their characters through the wringer, and poor Lee had a sorry old time of it before he left Albert Square. However, there’s no need for any real-life Lees to find themselves in such a bad way: with proper advice from a regulated professional, early action on Lee’s part (as well as a little honesty with his loved ones) could have saved him a lot of trouble. Even now, he still has options open to him to help him deal with his debts, although the demands of the storyline meant they weren't fully explored on screen. The real message for anyone in a situation like Lee’s is not to panic, and not to run away from debt issues – help and relief is available.

  • Mark Sands is Chair of R3’s Personal Insolvency Committee, and a Partner at Baker Tilly Creditor Services.

Notes to editors:

  • R3 is the trade body for Insolvency Professionals and represents the UK’s Insolvency Practitioners.

  • R3 comments on a wide variety of personal and corporate insolvency issues. Contact the press office, or see www.r3.org.uk for further information.

  • R3 promotes best practice for professionals working with financially troubled individuals and businesses; all R3 members are regulated by recognised professional bodies
     
  • R3 stands for 'Rescue, Recovery, and Renewal' and is also known as the Association of Business Recovery Professionals.