If Wonga are trying to muscle in to the business market, we need a British Investment Bank more than ever

Payday lenders, not content with squeezing individuals, are now going after businesses too.

Anybody who lives in London and/or uses London buses will know that those ghastly Wonga adverts have been replaced. By Wonga adverts. Though this time, for small businesses.

Wonga for Business offers loans of £3,000 to £10,000 which are available for terms of between one and 52 weeks. Costs vary with an interest rate of between 0.3 per cent and two per cent which seems competitive if repaid early, but a 52 week loan, according to Tim Harford, at 2 per cent could work out to have attached to it an interest rate of 280 per cent per year.

Another estimate, this from Sharlene Goff (the FT’s retail banking correspondent), estimated that the largest loan (£10,000) for the longest term (a year) would rack up almost £11,000 in charges.

I exchanged emails with a spokesperson from the company during the week, hoping to find out some tangible figures for how well the new venture is going. All I was told, sadly, was that there have been thousands of applications thus far, and good feedback from people who have been approved, but due to the commercial nature of the company all evidence was kept under wraps.

OK so the suspicion is that it is all bluster. A commercial company with no evidence to show off saying that they're doing great to put the willies in their competitors. But I'm not so sceptical, unfortunately.

Wonga have come to be recognised as another unsavoury payday lender, and for good reason in my opinion, albeit one that is slightly more public-facing than the rest (and this says an awaful lot about the rest). Though what I've come to learn about this financial product is that it often fills in and exploits the gaps where mainstream services are falling behind.

This is the case with payday loans to individuals. And it is the case for businesses as well. Research in November by the Federation of Small Businesses showed that between 2007 and 2010 there was a 24 per cent fall in successful loan applications, while more than half of the small firms that applied for an overdraft last year were rejected.

Even in the good times things weren't sparkly. As Duncan Weldon at the Touchstone Blog has pointed out, "around 85 per cent of bank lending [had been] going to either financial companies or property" even in better financial times.

Competition in this market is rather flat as well. In 2011 the Independent Commission on Banking identified that the largest four banks account for 85 per cent of SME current accounts.

So though Wonga are playing on a very real problem in the state of play in the financial sector, the real issue lies in the failure of banks to lend to small and medium businesses – surely a vital element in our economic recovery.

But what is in our armoury? What tools can we use? It certainly didn't go unnoticed this week that Ed Miliband used the opportunity at the Co-operative Bank HQ to talk up the merits of a British Investment Bank – on the day that the Labour party published a report by Nicholas Tott, a former city lawyer, to make that very case.

Although, this case has been made again and again – why should it have taken this long? One of its most active proponents is Lord (Robert) Skideslsky. In one of his many cases for a national investment bank he exemplifies the European Investment Bank (the European Union's public development bank).

EU governments that own the EIB, in contributing an equivalent sum of £32bn, alongside the bank itself borrowing a further equivalent to £271bn from private capital markets, the EU governments were able to finance investments worth more than the equivalent of £304bn including for ports from Barcelona to Warsaw, the TGV network in France and the world-leading offshore wind industry here in Britain, creating jobs along the way.

Another example, in Germany, is the Kreditanstalt fur Wiederafbau (KfW), a second tier bank, provides cheap loans (liquidity loans at low rates and long maturities) to SMEs using the commercial banks as intermediaries. In 2010, KfW financed loans worth a record €28.5bn for SMEs, creating 66,000 jobs in addition to the 1.3m jobs it helped maintain (which has been on Labour's mind since Lord Mandelson made it the model de jour).

Why has it been most pertinant that Miliband raise the spectre of a British Investment Bank at the time he did (even though he, and others, commissioned the report by Nicholas Tott in December 2011)? Because as Skideslsky notes:

“The financial crisis has left the impression that the main purpose of the banking sector is to enrich a tiny elite at the expense of taxpayers.”

We may all understand in principle that a functioning financial system is crucial to the national economy, but we can hardly attest to this happening in practice (consider, if you will, the NEF calculation that for every £1 paid to “elite” city bankers £7 of social value is destroyed, as well as the damning verdict of Adair Turner, the chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, who views the past decade of financial innovation as mostly "socially useless").

In short, a British Investment Bank is something that could gain cross-party consensus, provide a real solution to the lending shortfall, build up SMEs, jobs and growth – and allow entrepreneurs to avoid the lending freeze or risking it all with expensive business loans from Wonga.

As a parting shot the Wonga spokesperson told me that we can expect to see “more products from us before the end of the year, but I can't give you any hints I'm afraid”. Perhaps if we are diligent enough we can spot the financial shortfalls before Wonga get there first.  

A payday lender. 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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.