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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.