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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.