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.
 

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

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

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder