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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.