Credit Unions just might have a fighting chance

A real ethical alternative?

A recent report by the London Mutual Credit Union has given a real boost to the prospect of ensuring payday lending is undercut, not just by sensible regulation, but also by healthy competition from ethical alternatives.

The following figures, from that report, are astonishing:

According to the OFT, the average loan amount is £265 and the average cost of a payday loan is £25 for every £100 borrowed. This typical loan repaid over one month would therefore cost at least £66, compared to just £5.30 with LMCU. By borrowing through LMCU instead of high cost payday lenders, the 1,219 who borrowed during the pilot have collectively saved at minimum of £144,966 in interest charges alone, equivalent to almost £119 per borrower.

That saving could be used by consumers to ensure they don't get caught in a future debt cycle - and what a huge saving it is, too.

The report does some further number crunching:

If the 7.4m and 8.2m payday loans taken out in 2011/2012 from high cost lenders had been through a credit union alternative, we estimate that between £676m and £749m would have been collectively saved. This would equate to an average saving of at least £91.43 for every payday loan made through the credit union.

Millions and millions of pounds could be saved from going into the pockets of payday lenders if an alternative, based upon the LMCU model, could be secured.

There is, however, a caveat. A new report by Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit (CfRC) has the following discussion:

the evaluation of the London Mutual Credit Union pilot reported that the payday loan offering was a "loss leader", finding that on average each loan would require a subsidy of £6.85 to break even.

However the government announced earlier in the year that by 2014 the amount of interest that a credit union can charge on a loan will rise from 26.8 per cent now to 42.6 per cent. This way credit unions will be able to offer payday alternative products that break even.

The likelihood is that because of the slightly higher interest rate the savings that borrowers will be able to achieve will reduce slightly, but CfRC has worked out that for credit unions there will still be a healthy return on investment. What's more, it will provide immense savings compared to payday loans for consumers.

As is well known the Archbishop of Canterbury said recently that given time credit unions would out-compete Wonga, after which news came in that Wonga earned in profit £1m per week in 2012. Understandably many were sceptical. But credit unions now have a fighting chance. This is great news for consumers.

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 problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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