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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.