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.
 

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories