A new “breathing space” scheme has begun in England and Wales to shield people in problem debt from further interest and charges.
People receiving debt advice can apply for the break, which lasts for up to 60 days, to prevent them falling into a spiral of debt.
The Treasury has estimated that up to 700,000 people could be helped by the scheme in its first year.
People receiving treatment for mental health issues can get more help.
The separate system for those receiving mental health crisis treatment lasts for the length of that treatment, plus another 30 days.
Debt charities have campaigned for years for the full introduction of a breathing space scheme, after watching people borrow more money to pay the interest and charges on existing debt.
Under the scheme, these extra costs will be paused and no enforcement action can be taken, if a debt adviser agrees that a breathing space period is appropriate.
It can only be used once during a 12-month period, and the government has stressed that it is not a payment holiday. Regular bills such as mortgage, rent, utility bills and taxes should still be paid.
“If you have unmanageable debts, the new scheme could give you the time to get the advice that will help, and to start taking action,” said Lorraine Charlton, a debt expert at Citizens Advice.
“Breathing space isn’t a temporary fix to simply keep your creditors at arm’s length. You’ll need to work with your debt adviser to try and make a plan to deal with your debts.”
A similar system is already operating in Scotland.
Joanna Elson, the boss of the Money Advice Trust, which runs the National Debtline added that the launch marked a “a major milestone in improving the help available to people struggling with debt.”
John Glen, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, said: “This scheme will give people a breathing space from charges, distressing letters and bailiff visits, so they can tackle their problem debt with support from a professional debt adviser.”
There is greater support under the mental health breathing space system. It is more open-ended and someone can use it more than once a year.
Under the scheme, an approved mental health professional can certify that an individual is receiving treatment and then a debt adviser can consider whether they are eligible for the scheme.
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