OFT writes to 240 payday lenders to warn them over poor practices

The legal loan sharks have been cautioned.

After publishing further guidance on debt collection, the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) has now written to all 240 payday lenders operating in the UK after starting an investigation in February 2012 to investigate how lenders carry out debt repayments after it was revealed there were "emerging concerns" over poor practice. 

The guidance by the OFT clarifies what is expected when using continuous payment authority (a method of payment via debit or credit card to a company one wishes to make regular payments to) to recover debts, and it is high time guidance was clear on this issue.

Many companies have been found to use tactics that could very well be described as bullying and intimidation. Even well-known lenders like Wonga were warned by the OFT to stop sending letters to its customers accusing them of committing fraud

The worst example of debt recovery from a payday lender I have heard of is from the company CIM Technologies Ltd, also known as Tooth Fairy Finance. Action was taken on them by the OFT in 2010 to stop them from taking advantage of continuous payment authority but varying the repayment dates for loans taken out and the amount payable on each installment.

On a post written up on the Credit Action Group forum, one member writes what it was like being a customer of Tooth Fairy. After taking out a loan of £100, failing to meet a payment and having requests of an extended payback period fall on deaf ears, the person alleges that Tooth Fairy then decided to:

  • [Call] my home number on a daily basis leaving information regarding who they are and my private account with them, that is that I have an outstanding loan and how much it was for, leaving the information open to third parties.
  • [Send] me various emails each day telling me that they are adding fines to my loan.
  • [Threaten] me with bailiffs and bankruptcy – for a £100 loan? I don’t think so. They also said they would send bailiffs to all known addresses to collect goods up to nine times the value of the debt.
  • [Tell] me they have passed my file to a solicitor and they are charging me £150 for this to be done. I have not heard from any solicitor or any debt collection agency (West Yorkshire Security Debt Collections) whom they say they have also consulted with.

Another post on the group claims that the borrower would hear nothing from the company for weeks, even while charges were still clocking up, and that Tooth Fairy avoided going through normal procedures of lateness charges or debt plans.

But better debt collection methods is just one element of the wider concern about how the payday lending industry is regulated.

David Fisher, director of consumer credit at the OFT, said earlier this year that he hoped the Financial Conduct Authority (or FCA – which will eventually replace the OFT in responsibility of consumer credit regulation) would bring the prospect of greater regulation, as at present there is “a very light-touch regime”. 

Though even getting close to this is proving problematic as efforts are still being made to add an amendment on the Financial Services Bill to give the FCA power to cap the total cost of credit. Until such regulatory common sense is considered then lenders will still have free terrain over vulnerable consumers. 

Update

A representative of Web Loans Processing, the parent company of Toothfairy Finance, has asked us to clarify a couple of points in the article. We are happy to do so, and to note that the Financial Ombudsman has not ruled against Toothfairy with regards to any non-paying clients:

The Article makes comments regarding bailiffs, solicitors, added fees and regular contact with customers via email and phone; a little research would have quickly identified all this as standard practice when bailiffs are recovering debt, even for high street banks.

Further, maintaining regular and consistent contact with clients is a requirement of any credit licence. Toothfairy Finance works with its customers and we are happy to discuss any questions or issues they may have. For direct help, please email us.

 
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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.