Can credit scores make payday lending ethical?

Payday lenders need to work harder to not target vulnerable borrowers.

A new report (pdf) by Damon Gibbons, published in partnership by Friends Provident and the Centre for Responsible Credit, looks at the benefits of credit data sharing and raises another possible solution to the problem of irresponsible lenders targeting the financially vulnerable.

It might be a surprise that credit scoring is not standard procedure for high-cost lenders on the high street and online. But most of us are familiar with payday lenders' adverts promising easy cash with no credit checks. The speed with which hard-up borrowers can obtain very expensive loans does have consequences, and making data sharing a priority would start to set this problem straight.

What does credit scoring and data sharing involve?

Credit scoring, simply put, is the system financial institutions have in place to check whether a person is said to be creditworthy before assessing a loan application. The system, regulated by the Financial Services Authority, works on a points system and is often shared with credit reference agencies. If a person's points score is deemed high enough then their loan application will generally be accepted; otherwise, that loan application can be denied.

How it can benefit responsible lending?

The Office for Fair Trading's guidance to lenders on responsible lending states that a creditor must consider whether a credit commitment will adversely impact upon an individual's financial situation. Ideally, credit scoring and data sharing can help lenders adhere to those guidelines. They will finally have a database to look at which will give them some indication of whether a loan of a particular amount, say, will be beneficial to them or impact negatively on their financial situation.

What bad behaviour it can stop?

At the moment there is no law stopping a payday lender from lending large sums of money, at expensive rates of interest, to low income consumers. There is only guidance to do this, and we know that this is not always adhered to. While we know payday lenders profit from repeat customers, and that only between 50 and 60 per cent of loans from payday lenders are notified with credit reference agencies, even some in the industry say that moving to a culture of data sharing would ensure that the risks attached to lending money are reduced, as well as some of the front end costs.

What are the risks?

The big risk is that credit scores could make it more difficult for a person to obtain credit.

The government, on this, have said that while they appreciate the need for credit scoring, they do take into consideration the “unintended consequences”, such as to those with no, or "thin", credit rating struggling to get loans.

However in addition to better quality lending decisions, it would be worthwhile for mainstream credit providers to be less needlessly risk averse when considering overdraft and credit applications to low income customers who may otherwise rely on a high cost payday lender, where the average loan can cost around £30 per £100 borrowed.

What policy makers should do

Two things: set criteria for what is meant by responsible lending, such as setting a minimum level of disposable income a borrower is left with after taking on a loan; and oblige lenders to refer high risk customers to credit unions, where they can receive budget management advice and borrow money at far cheaper prices.

Furthermore, payday lenders should be obliged to implement a system of five roll-over loans per customer. Credit checks will provide the data for customers who reach this point.

Credit scoring and data sharing, implemented properly, can be the lifeline borrowers need at a time when personal debt is growing and the payday lending sector is seeing its profits soar.

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 surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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