Panorama shows again that the UK payday loan industry is trouble

The government insists that there is enough regulation. They're wrong, writes Carl Packman.

Rochdale, one of the pioneering towns in the UK during the industrial revolution, was a major mill town known for its exemplary textile manufacturing in the nineteenth century. It was also where the first fully documented credit union in the UK was set up in 1844, on which many others were subsequently modelled. 

Now Rochdale is a place blighted by poverty and unemployment (with rates 40 per cent higher than the national average).

It was also the focus of a recent episode of Panorama, showing the burden put on residents by home credit sellers and the wave of payday advance centres like The Money Shop who continue to draw bulging profits at a time of considerable financial hardship.

From various different shops, BBC reporter Richard Bilton collected nearly £1000 with relative ease and little questioning. 

Shockingly, all such shops are covered by the Office for Fair Trading (OFT). In 2010 the OFT's guidance for creditors on irresponsible lending pointed out that: 

“All assessments of affordability should involve a consideration of the potential for the credit commitment to adversely impact on the borrower's financial situation, taking account of information that the creditor is aware of at the time the credit is granted.”

At no point did any of the shops that Bilton entered assess or consider the adverse affects these loans could have on him – thus they were in breach of the OFT's guidance, as well as the codes of conduct by the Finance & Leasing Association, who independently monitor payday companies.

The problem here is light-touch regulation. In addition to guidance, the OFT can revoke credit licenses, but as David Fisher, OFT's director of consumer credit, pointed out earlier this year the OFT runs on only £11m with 120 staff in the consumer credit office. The incentive is therefore to let some cases slide.

With Panorama, Bilton also goes undercover and trains with a collection lady from the Provident – a company set up in the nineteenth century to offer loans to those excluded by banks.

A very telling part of the programme shows the lady say perversely of “good customers”, who do pay back money on each loan, that “you don't ever want them to pay up”.

This itself is indicative of the financial model of the payday lending industry and home credit itself, and really gets to the heart of the matter. Mark J. Flannery and Katherine Samolyk, in an influential paper Payday Lending: Do the Costs Justify the Price?, ask whether payday lenders can survive if they provide only "occasional" credit?

Part of a lender's schtick is that they only extend short-term credit to people as a quick-fix solution and that their model does not depend on customers rolling over on loans (taking out loans to service an existing loan).

But Flannery and Samolyk observe that, if this were true, such businesses might just survive by the skin of their teeth, though its long-term scale would be far smaller. In other words, for a lender to be completely responsible in their lending, they would have to forego profit maximisation and reduce the lifespan of their business – and given the regulatory landscape currently in force we have to trust them on their word that they follow a self-defeating business model.

Perhaps what was most disconcerting about meeting the collector Bilton shadowed was how unlikeable she was. Resorting to calling customers offensive names and lacking sympathy with them, gave the impression (despite this not being the BBC's intention) that all agents for home credit lenders are like this. This isn't the case.

It's often forgotten that collectors are sometimes just as vulnerable as the people they're collecting from. One former agent I spoke to, who worked with the Provident, took over the job from a friend who fell ill but wanted to keep her job with the company.

She told me she originally felt the company was respectable because her friend worked for them, though soon realised this wasn't true when collecting in some of the poorest parts of the area.

“There was a lot of pressure to keep selling”, she continued, “then after 18 weeks, if they couldn't pay, they'd send in collection agencies”. Furthermore, “managers themselves were giving the green light for lending to people who couldn't mentally consent, exploiting their disability.”

On several occasions she sacrificed her own commission to disincentivise customers from taking out more loans and offered them her own advice – something Provident itself would not take kindly to.

In spite of this, it is still the government's position that the UK regulatory architecture is enough. And yet it is evident that self-regulation is failing people in the poorest communities. Until such time that ministers open their eyes these practices will continue under our noses. 

Payday loans. 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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.