BIS and OFT hint at cosmestic changes to payday loan regulations

Some positive, but largely symbolic, news.

There are going to be some positive changes happening to the regulation of the payday lending industry as of Wednesday–though we can expect a mixed reception from the release of two government reports looking in to it, one by the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) and the other by the Department of Business, Industry and Skills (BIS). 

To put a positive gloss on them more work will be done by the regulatory body to ensure bad practices in the industry, such as not carrying out rigorous credit checks, will be properly punished. On the other hand the BIS report has found evidence that capping the cost at which credit can be sold (notoriously high by payday lenders on the high street, many of whom have a 4000 per cent APR attached to them) would be a detriment to consumers.

Despite the prospect of rogue lenders losing their licenses, this will come as a disappointment to critics of the payday lending industry who felt there would be a significant change in direction by the government, after amending the Financial Services Bill last year to give the newly created Financial Conduct Authority the power to cap the cost of credit. 

But there are many reasons why Wednesday's reports will be disappointing. Recommendations by the OFT rehash their existing guidance on lending rules. Indeed nothing much is changing, what they are now promising again to do is better enforce their own guidelines. 

For example 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.

Their call for better affordability assessments has always been stipulated for by the regulators. The other recommendations they have made, including transparency on how lenders collect their money and the need for forbearance measures, are also already catered for. The only difference being that they have been unable to properly enforce their regulations. Only time will tell whether that has changed. 

As for the BIS report the research into what effect a cap on the cost of credit will look like was only based upon research of interest rate caps. As the report itself says:

The available evidence about the impact of price restrictions on the cost that consumers pay for credit relates to interest rate restrictions, however, not the total charge for credit.

We might excuse this on the grounds that no other country puts a cap on the total cost of credit, while many other countries have interest rate caps. But the government should waste no more time on this and assess properly what kind of regulation we really need to ensure borrowers are not paying over the odds for their credit. 

Essentially all that BIS, who commissioned the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol to carry out the research, have done is look at what will happen if you remove the supply of credit when there is high demand. Inevitably, in isolation, this will be detrimental to consumers.

Government focus, however, should be on how to get payday lenders themselves to reduce their front end fees like administrative costs. There needs to be greater transparency on how these costs are realised and work should be done with the payday lending industry to see if those costs can be cheaper for the borrower.

Focus should also be laid upon how mainstream banks can incorporate those borrowers who might otherwise seek high cost credit, which itself is detrimental to their personal finances, discourages savings behaviour or putting money away for a rainy day, and impacts negatively on consumer-led growth.

Furthermore government needs to look into building up alternative lenders such as non-profit credit unions, who sell credit at a much cheaper rate of interest, and provide debt management advice for those in vulnerable situations. 

And lastly more focus should be put on addressing the root cause of the growth in the payday lending industry: stagnating wages; the rising cost of living; and high unemployment.

We can draw some positivity from this latest news, but it is largely symbolic. In truth the findings of both reports will only scratch the surface of the problem. Far more work needs to be done, and fast, as personal debt crises, bolstered by payday lenders, are taking grip of vulnerable households right now. 

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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.