High-interest lenders move on from paydays

"Payday loan" companies are starting to branch out to much longer terms

Turn on the telly during the daytime and you are very likely to see adverts informing you about PPI claims or payday loans. Now there are a new bunch to be aware of: 12-month, high-cost, unsecured loans at rates of interest of up to 278 per cent – meaning that repayments will already be over twice the amount you have borrowed, and that excludes fees and penalties that might be incurred (Pounds to Pocket, for example, charge £12 for their penalty fees).

That these companies are advertising expensive loans over a year, with no credit checks, and where the money can be in your account in ten minutes, shows another failure in the mainstream banking sector to offer sensible loans to consumers.

Figures show that even after UK banks were in receipt of bailout funds, 1.75 million people go without a transitional bank account, and 9 million lack access to affordable credit. To bolster this credit cards have dropped in circulation by 1 million since 2011 and membership to credit unions have not risen from 2 per cent of the population, despite funding and modernisation attempts.

The cost of living, including how much we spend on food and bills, continues to go up, and real incomes are no higher than they were in 2005 for many of us.

As payday lenders are set to be the beneficiaries of this mess in personal finance, it's hardly a surprise to see them venturing out with other products. One broker, 1 Year Loan, has on its website:

If you too [sic] facing inadequacy of funds and want a [sic] financial help, then 1 year payday loans can be the loan service that you can rely upon […] Apply with 1 Year Loan No Credit Check right away!

With the 12-month loan, lenders offer larger sums that they claim are competitive when compared with other payday lenders.

Mentioned in a report on these new loans in the Independent, the company Lending Stream boast that their 3,378.1 per cent APR beats Wonga's 4,214 per cent equivalent – though of course Wonga do not encourage taking out loans over 6-12 months.

Pounds to Pocket, another company, on their website point out that if you borrow £500 for a year you would pay back £79.09 a month, a total of £949.01 including interest of £449.01.

It is to the shame of mainstream lenders that expensive alternatives are seeing a growth in their product. In France and Germany mainstream credit facilities are part of most basic bank account packages – something not extended to everyone in the UK.

In the Independent's report, the journalists mistakenly say that payday loans could become small fry compared to the 12-month loans, while the headline notes: "Forget payday loans, the one-year debts are the ones to fear".

This is not the right way to look at the situation. What this represents is payday loan companies finding a gap in the market and swooping in where mainstream services are being risk averse. This should not put us at ease with payday lenders at all.

Minister Norman Lamb recently welcomed the revised codes of conduct from the four trade bodies that represent payday lenders (Consumer Finance Association (CFA), Finance and Leasing Association (FLA), British Cheque and Credit Association (BCCA) and Consumer Credit Trade Association (CCTA)).

But payday lenders are obliged to show how much their product costs anyway, set out in the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) lending code. In their guide on irresponsible lending, the OFT note that lenders should carry out proper credit checks and disincentivise rollovers. The revised codes are the very least we can expect.

Yet the industry is currently under investigation by the OFT after concerns lenders are taking advantage of people in financial difficulty – which is contrary to their codes.

We should not become complacent about the payday lenders even when other products arrive on the market that do not sit well with us. The government and Norman Lamb should be spending all the time they can spare to finding out why people end up taking out these loans and making sure they can seek mainstream services where it benefits them.

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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.