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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.