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.
 

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital