Can Wonga lecture on responsible finance?

And more importantly, would you let them do so to your children?

In the 12 months ending in Q3 of 2011, 1 in 364 people became insolvent. To put that into context, the average in the past 25 years was 1 in 1,655.

This is how Conservative MPs Andrew Percy MP and Justin Tomlinson MP chose to open their report on financial education in schools (found on this website), and apt I think it is too, because shocking figures like this ought to move the government to doing something about the deficit of this type of education today.

It has cross-party appeal. When I spoke to Ian Murray MP, the Shadow Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer & Postal Affairs, he agreed that in order to make effective changes to credit and debt issues today, we have to go "right back to the start".

Financial education in schools, he said, should be perceived much like the obligation to deliver sex education:

Where there is better sex education in schools there is less teenage pregnancies. The same with financial education – where there is better exposure to this, earlier on, it should follow that there are fewer problems later on.

It is certainly not before time. When I spoke to Rod McKee, the Head of Financial Capability at ifs School of Finance, he told me:

When I visited a school in Hackney earlier this year, when we set the students a task of researching financial terms on the internet the only one they didn’t need to look up was loan shark! I do not know if this was because of what they see on television or from local knowledge, although my impression was it was the latter.

Derek Twigg MP went a stage further, agreeing that financial education needn’t be limited to school-aged people alone:

Further education colleges should open up more financial education courses for adults. These could be linked up to crisis support by a local authority for when someone approaches a council debt advice service or their MP.

Twigg suggested that there could even be a levy on banks to fund the courses – part of a bank's commitment to outreach and financial education.

I think this would suit public sentiment. Rather than banks themselves delivering what they perceive to be good financial advice and support for youngsters, they be obliged to fund rigorous educational materials, taught by the likes of Rod McKee – whose school is currently the only specialist provider of GCSE, AS and A level equivalent qualifications in personal finance and financial studies - to get a balanced view.

And if I’m correct in thinking this is the public sentiment, I would like to see the response by parents if they were to find out that Wonga, the online payday lender, were delivering financial literacy skills for school children – as their chief executive Errol Damelin has recently made plans to do.

As part of their charm offensive – which has also seen a controversial partnership between them and Medway Citizens' Advice Bureau to survey those at risk of spiralling debt – Wonga intend to do something they describe as "innovative and educational in a digital capacity" that will help "kids … to know what all the credit alternatives are".

As pointed out on this site last month, Wonga find it difficult to maintain the fabrication that they are just lending short-term loans out to "web-savvy young professionals" – for this reason, allowing them to be trusted with creating a balanced financial education for children should stick in the throats of any parent.

An education... but in what? 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.
 

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation