Even when times are hard, it is natural for the beginning of a new year to give rise to a sense of optimism.
That makes the forecast of around 400 Scots a week facing personal bankruptcy all the more painful to contemplate. This estimate from accountants PKF is a further gloomy indicator that economic recovery will remain elusive in 2013. For those struggling to balance their personal budgets in the face of redundancy or an unsustainable sole trader business, this is the worst news. For thousands desperate for work the only hope on the horizon is economic growth sufficient to give employers the confidence to begin taking on more staff.
There are now around 20,000 personal insolvencies a year in Scotland. Shocking as this figure is, what is truly disturbing is that business advisers and accountants glean a grain of comfort from the fact that the number has steadied.
Yet the annual number has more than doubled in less than a decade: in 2004 there were 9321 Scottish personal bankruptcies
The peak of 23,541 in 2009 was the result of new insolvency rules introduced in April 2008. These made the criteria simpler and sparked a surge in bankruptcies. What was expected to be a spike, however, has become a sustained flow as a result of the recession, rising unemployment and falling house prices.
As Bryan Jackson, corporate recovery partner with PKF, put it: "The reality is that 400 Scots face financial Armageddon each week."
That is not an over-dramatic description. It means that people have no prospect of meeting their bills for the absolute necessities of life: food, shelter and warmth. Every case is a disaster for the family involved, particularly if it means they lose their home.
The new bankruptcy rules have been criticised as being a soft option but the consequences are far-reaching, affecting credit rating for years to come. The procedure of taking out a Protected Trust Deed (PTD) can also be costly and last year credit unions warned of mis-selling of PTDs by insolvency practitioners and inconsistent charging of fees, in some cases almost as much as the original debt. Impartial and knowledgable advice is essential.
Citizens Advice Scotland, an organisation which has faced its own financial difficulties as a result of cuts in funding, has gained considerable expertise in debt advice and now deals with 400 cases every day. Without that invaluable service, it is no exaggeration to say the number of insolvency cases would be even higher.
That bankruptcy is the only realistic option for so many is a measure of the depth of the economic crisis but it also demonstrates just how far the financial culture of Scots has moved from their reputation for fiscal prudence.
One-fifth of Scots are now trying to repay very high rates of interest on pay-day or similar loans, compared with one in 10 across the UK as a whole, according to a recent survey by insolvency trade body R3.
Personal debt has reached crisis level in Scotland and the grim economic outlook will make it more difficult to tackle. It is time to recognise, however, that the best new year's resolution everyone could make is to live, as far as possible, within their means.
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