Cap the cost of credit to make life easier for those forced to turn to payday loans

Tackling the legal loan sharks.

Today, Lord Mitchell, an opposition spokesperson for Business, Innovation and Skills, will debate an amendment he has introduced to the Financial Services Bill (now in the report stage in the House of Lords) to potentially cap the total cost of credit which lenders can charge (this is different to capping interest rates in so far as interest rate caps can be sidestepped by upping other costs such as administrative fees. Total cost caps seek to address this potential loophole).

Many peers, like Lord Sugar and Baroness Thompson-Grey, the Welsh former wheelchair racer and disability campaigner, have already pledged their support for his amendment, which will give the new Financial Conduct Authority the power to apply sanctions to those who offer credit contrary to the its terms.

But it's an amendment which everyone, from all political parties, should get behind and support.

It is good for consumers

While the payday lending industry has enjoyed unprecedented growth (worth £100m in 2004, now worth over £2bn in 2012) in recent times, credit access has become tougher for consumers. Around 1.75 million UK adults go without a transactional bank account in the UK today and 9 million adults cannot access credit from mainstream banks. This spells bad news for consumers as the only option for many is expensive short-term loans. Capping the costs of credit will make borrowing less expensive for consumers, at a time when wages are stagnant and the cost of living rises.

It is good for the economy

Damon Gibbons for the Centre for Responsible Credit, in their recent report on Japan and interest rate caps, noted that, all things considered, putting a ceiling on the amount a lender can charge for a loan will make borrowing less expensive - given the rate at which over-priced short-term lending has risen over the last few years. This will have a knock-on effect on saving behaviour and investment. Reinstatement of savings initiatives like the Savings Gateway should also boost this kind of behaviour.

It doesn't contradict the Tory message

Small-c conservatives in the Tory Party have always raised concern about how financial institutions can hurt, rather than help, the finances of those most vulnerable in society. But even those of a more free market bent inside the party have started to see what a problem payday lending is. Damian Hinds MP, chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group on Credit Unions, for example, once felt the market would drive down prices in payday lending, but has now decided that “normal market rules do not apply with payday lenders”.

It will not boost illegal money lending

Important work carried out in 2010 by Professor Dr. Udo Reifner, Sebastien Clerc-Renaud, and RA Michael, for the European Commission, found no convincing evidence to back up the argument introducing interest rate ceilings leads to a growth in illegal lending “or would force people into arrears and default on bill repayments”. In fact it is found in the same report that in spite of the fact the supply of credit in France and Germany is not as abundant as in the UK, this has not been matched by an increase in illegal lending.

A shark. Not a loan shark. 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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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories