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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.