Tories may be wrong on national debt, but some are right on personal debt

The Bright Blue conference revealed some allies in the fight against the payday lenders

Last week I attended a conference run by the Tory "Fresh" group Bright Blue. There were plenty of faces I recognised and not all of them belonging to the "left wing" of the Tory party. After a few conversations it had become apparent that there is an anger across all wings of their party regarding the continued employment of George Osborne.

For the Tories, who fancy themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility (though as a Labour party member myself, I remain skeptical), the perception of Osborne's continued weak effort is the source of much frustration.

However to suggest that Osbornomics is the sum total of the financial thinking within the Conservative party would be an error. Take the area of finance that I'm interested in for example, that of personal debt – many in the party who are driven by principle rather than pride tend to sit on the correct side of the tracks here.

Justin Tomlinson MP, for example, the member for North Swindon, is one of the most vocal critics of the payday lending industry in parliament.

Earlier this year he addressed parliament during the debate on the clauses in the Financial Services Bill in support of imposing a total cost cap on loans that lenders can deal out to consumers. This, for him, is one way to ensure exploitative companies don't make life harder of those who are most vulnerable.

But Tomlinson understands that this cannot be a single policy enacted in isolation. This was why he, along with fellow Conservative member of parliament, Andrew Percy, authored a very interesting report on financial education. For them both, more focus on finance early on, can better gear up people when they are older to make healthy financial decisions – which can be hard to come by if times are tough on the pocket with more and more payday lenders popping up on our high streets.

With Percy, his interest in bad debt stems from his own problems with it. Though he has never had to take out a payday loan, he has been in the position of owing tens of thousands of pounds – for which as of 2011 he was still paying off.

"I now pay about £600 a month to clear off all of my credit cards which I've had to roll into a loan since my election", he told the BBC last year.

Another Tory MP, Tracey Crouch, member for Chatham and Aylesford, also came into focusing on debt issues as a consequence of her own past. When I spoke to her earlier this year she told me that her debts were down to "youthful stupidity" and her £15,000 credit card and store card debt was largely the outcome of living a lifestyle she couldn’t afford, which some of her peers could.

Crouch insisted that there is a positive side to credit, indeed most regard it as the sign of a healthy economy. However she herself has seen the negative side of it. She is particularly concerned about those who are termed the "underbanked", namely those those who still have bills to manage and cashflow problems to overcome, but are restricted in their access to mainstream credit products.

Given the rate at which the payday loans industry is growing, the temptation to see this as an easy way out for the very vulnerable increases. The government has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure all consumers do not fall foul to expensive loans, but also many of the barriers of alternatives such as credit unions need to be overcome too.

For example the Association of British Credit Unions (ABCUL) still haven't tapped into social media, and trying to raise credit union membership that way, whereas payday lenders such as Wonga have done this very successfully.

One person who does know a thing or two about credit unions is Damian Hinds MP, the member for East Hampshire. He chairs the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Credit Unions, and is a vice chairman of the APPG on Debt.

His politics are perhaps most interesting because he is a self-described free-market Conservative. He told me that when he first became an MP he was convinced that market solutions would drive down expensive lenders and anything the state could do would only frustrate this process.

However, he has since changed tack on this, deciding that "normal market rules don't apply with payday lenders". Now Hinds realises that the state can play a part in helping a create a fairer lending market since all evidence points out that the invisible hand is typically absent.

The legacy of Osbornomics will be negative – and Conservatives themselves are as adamant as anyone that this is the case. David Cameron is not being a renegade, but a fool for keeping him. But the Conservative party is not without sound economic minds – and on an issue as important as personal debt this is proven most forcibly.

A payday loan company in Birkenhead. 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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Working class girls don't threaten our universities, they enrich them

Widening participation is good for universities because it enables them to recruit the students who have the very highest potential, regardless of their personal circumstances.

British universities are under threat. People working in higher education have known this for a while. But it isn’t funding cuts, or high fees, or casualisation, or Prevent, or even ‘safe spaces’, that threaten universities the most. No – it’s a working class girl with a UCAS form and a library card.

Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that ‘experts’ think universities are slipping down the international league tables because they are forced to recruit ‘diverse’ or ‘disadvantaged’ students. When I read Chris Patten’s comments, a couple of weeks later, that quotas for students from non-traditional backgrounds would lead to ‘lower standards’, it confirmed what I had always known: there are some people who think that people like me just don’t belong in higher education.

When I applied for university, I was a free school meals student at a sixth form at my local comprehensive school. When my university admitted me to study history as an undergraduate, they did so knowing that I wasn’t from a private school, or even a selective school; I wasn’t following my father or grandfather into the ‘family college’ (as I once heard someone describe Balliol). I knew I was different when I arrived: my family had never taken a foreign holiday or bought a new car, and it was sometimes a struggle to buy food or pay bills. This hadn’t marked me out as especially different at home in rural Lincolnshire, but it did at university in London. I remember talking about family members having been on the dole in a seminar about Thatcherism, and being looked at with unconcealed fascination, by students who had never met anybody like me.

The excellent teaching and personal support I got as an undergraduate meant that I never really felt like I didn’t belong. I benefited directly from widening participation initiatives, which were in their infancy when I was an undergraduate; for example, I received a series of small grants from my department to help to support me financially while I studied. When I returned to UCL to complete my PhD (which I was only able to do because both my MSc and PhD were fully funded), I worked for several years as part of the widening participation and outreach team. We brought able students from non-traditional backgrounds to UCL to give them a taste of university life and to encourage them to pursue a future in higher education. Working on these Saturday schools and summer schools was the most rewarding teaching that I did during my PhD.

Because, the thing is, these students – ‘diverse’ students, ‘disadvantaged’ students, students from ‘non-traditional backgrounds’ – can be some of the most rewarding to teach. They are certainly able to hold their own against the more ‘traditional’ intake of British elite universities. In fact, research has demonstrated that students from state schools actually outperform their peers from private schools who were admitted to university with the same A-levels.

This isn’t surprising, really: if you had to learn to motivate yourself throughout your GCSEs and A-levels because your teachers had to focus on keeping order in a disruptive classroom, if you had to carve out space on a kitchen table or in a public library to do your homework because you don’t have your own room or your own computer , if your grades are the result not of private tutoring but of dedicated and diligent independent work - then you are likely to be an excellent undergraduate student, capable of time-management, self-motivation, hard graft. If you have managed to navigate the UCAS admissions process yourself, because your parents didn’t go to university and don’t know how to help you, or because your school only sends a few students on to do degrees every year, you are probably going to be dedicated to making the most of what you have achieved.

Everybody should have access to higher education, regardless of background or upbringing (and, it should go without saying, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender). But this isn’t just an issue of fairness – these ‘non-traditional’ students are good for universities, too.  When I read that recruiting “disadvantaged and ethnic minority students” was “distracting [universities] from research and high-calibre teaching”, I actually laughed. Widening participation is good for universities because it enables them to recruit the students who have the very highest potential, regardless of their personal circumstances. But more than this – it creates an environment where the very best research and teaching can be carried out.

I teach modern British history. I work on class difference, on post-imperial migration, on ideas about inequality and identity and ‘British values’ and what it means to live in Britain today. I can’t do that effectively if all of my students and all of my colleagues come from the same narrow group. In my teaching, I hope I make it easier for all of my students to celebrate their own diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, whatever they may be. Because academia needs diversity. If we are going to produce work that is relevant and exciting and interesting we need a plurality of voices, not the same old pale-male-stale viewpoints. Universities aren’t being threatened by these students – they are being enriched. 

Charlotte Riley is a lecturer in 20th Century British History at the University of Southampton