The FCA needs to be allowed to tackle the legal loan sharks

The new financial regulator ought to have payday lenders in its remit, writes Carl Packman.

Yesterday, Lord Parry Mitchell of Labour's BIS team in the House of Lords introduced an amendment to the Financial Services Bill to give the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the power to set guidelines on the impact of lenders’ behaviour on consumers, which will, he writes, potentially include the capping of interest rate charges.

The FCA, which will take over the regulatory framework of the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) later this year, has received much scrutiny its planned remit. 

Many, such as Stella Creasy MP, were hopeful that with products such as payday loans being regulated "under one roof" by the FCA, the industry would be easier to get a grip on. That optimism  is no more.

Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, in January this year argued that the creation of the FCA was an opportunity to improve upon the way in which the Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulated financial products. 

But he did also warn that: 

If we are not careful, the FCA will become the poor relation among the new institutions.

Without interventions like that of Lord Mitchell, a poor relation is exactly what the FCA is destined to be. 

Lord Mitchell's amendment calls for:

Power of the FCA to make further provision about regulation of consumer credit 

  1. The FCA may make rules or apply a sanction to authorised persons who offer credit on terms that the FCA judge to cause consumer detriment.
  2. This may include rules that determine a maximum total cost for consumers of a product and determine the maximum duration of a supply of a product or service to an individual consumer.

Without question the FCA should lay focus on responsible lending, which is the crux of the first clause, for time and time again payday lenders prove their inability to self-regulate.

A recent episode of Panaroma showed BBC reporter Richard Bilton collecting nearly £1000 in under two hours with relative ease and little questioning. At no point did any of the shops that Bilton entered assess or consider the adverse affects these loans could have on him – thus they were in breach of the OFT's guidance.

In June the councillor and New Statesman writer Rowenna Davis did her own investigation which found payday lenders such as Speedy Cash and pawnbrokers such as Albermarle Bond handing over cash to individuals for rent, food and even betting on horses. 

Even Wonga, one of the more well known payday lenders, has been shown to lend irresponsibly. During an interview in March 2011 by the Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman, with the opportunity to showcase some examples of, in Gentleman's words, the "web-savvy young professionals that the company believes it's catering to", Wonga decided to showcase Susan. Gentleman writes of Susan:

She finds that with the cost of living rising, her benefits sometimes don't stretch to the end of the month, and has taken out loans with Wonga to buy food, if she's caught short. She's a bit vague, but thinks she's taken out half a dozen loans with Wonga over the past few months... She has had problems with credit cards before, and doesn't have an overdraft, but Wonga gave her credit very swiftly.

Not only will Susan's income be significantly less than that of the average person to take out a Wonga loan, according to Wonga themselves, she manages to be in that category of people who haven't access to mainstream forms of borrowing, has taken out nearly double the average payday loans per year per borrower (three and a half), has taken out exactly double the average amount of loans Wonga customers use and is still an example Wonga felt was a "good representative."

If Lord Mitchell's amendment isn't carried it will demonstrate a clear message from the government that they believe the regulatory architecture set up in place for payday lenders, now and in the future, is fine as it is – when in fact this is anything but the case.

Yesterday was a chance, again, for the government to prove that it is for responsible lending. Lord Newby assured Lord Mitchell that it is learning, but only time will tell. The amendment was withdrawn, pending further comments.

A pay day lender in Rochdale. 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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA