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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle