Payday lenders should be regulated

Companies like Wonga are currently trusted to regulate themselves, but that has to change.

On Monday Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, tabled an amendment to the Financial Services Bill which calls for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the new financial regulator, to be given the power to set the total cost of credit that a lender can charge, rather than the self-regulatory model which currently exists.

Creasy’s amendment, which would be extended to clause 22, reads:

The FCA may make rules or apply a sanction to authorised persons who offer credit on terms the FCA judge to cause consumer detriment.

This may include rules that determine a maximum total cost for consumers of a product and determine the maximum duration of a supply of a product or service to an individual consumer.

Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, back in January this year viewed the creation of the FCA as an opportunity to improve upon the way in which the Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulated financial products.

However Tyrie did also warn that:

If we are not careful, the FCA will become the poor relation among the new institutions.

Many – Stella Creasy included – were hopeful about products such as payday loans being regulated "under one roof" by the FCA, but were concerned the authority didn’t have enough teeth to clamp down on irresponsible or predatory lending.

In many ways the FCA needs to challenge the "light touch regulation" of the day. The OFT's 2010 guidance for creditors on irresponsible lenders points out that credit commitments should involve consideration from the lender to assess a loan’s affordability to a potential debtor.

The FCA needs to do more than just assume a lender will do this assessment, particularly as rollover loans benefit it to the detriment of a debtor.

Moreover, we know payday lenders do not always make good on their promise to lend responsibly.

Wonga, the payday lender, who, it has to be said, recieves all the attention over far more dangerous lenders in the market, itself doesn’t always keep its word on responsible lending.

During an interview in March 2011 with the Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman, with the opportunity to showcase some examples of, in Gentleman's words, the "web-savvy young professionals that the company believes it's catering to", Wonga decided to showcase Susan.

Gentleman writes of Susan:

She finds that with the cost of living rising, her benefits sometimes don't stretch to the end of the month, and has taken out loans with Wonga to buy food, if she's caught short. She's a bit vague, but thinks she's taken out half a dozen loans with Wonga over the past few months. . . She has had problems with credit cards before, and doesn't have an overdraft, but Wonga gave her credit very swiftly.

Not only will Susan's income be significantly less than that of the average person to take out a Wonga loan, according to Wonga themselves, she manages to be in that category of people who haven't access to mainstream forms of borrowing, has taken out nearly double the average payday loans per year per borrower (three-and-a-half), has taken out exactly double the average amount of loans Wonga customers use and is still an example Wonga felt was a “good representative.”

As FSA chief executive Hector Sands said on the release of the FCA's approach document, trust in financial services is at an “all time low”. It is the task of the FCA to find “the right balance between the benefits of early intervention and the consequent risks of reducing choice and raising costs”.

These are, of course, strong words given the context of the regulatory authority’s previous shyness towards tough action. But enough time has been spent tip-toeing around the issue; we need to learn how it is done in other countries instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

When I caught up with Damon Gibbons, Director of the Centre for Responsible Credit and the author of a forthcoming book on debt in the 21st century, he reminded me:

The Financial Conduct Authority needs to be provided with the powers to help consumers who are being ripped off by unfair charges and extortionate interest rates. In many cases, the price of credit has nothing to do with the genuine risk to the lender, but is set at a level that simply takes advantage of consumers who are on desperately low incomes and need urgent access to cash.  There is no place for that sort of profiteering from poverty in many other European countries, most US states or Canada and we should give our regulator the powers to stamp it out here as well.

The amendment which Stella Creasy has suggested to the Financial Services Bill, the response to which should be known by May, would be a good chance for the government to signal its opposition to socially harmful lending. Those on the side of fairness should hold out hope.

A payday lender in Rochdale, England. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.