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.
 

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.