A victory against usury

The government agrees to act on payday lending.

It gives me great pleasure to say that those of us who campaign to reduce the grip that payday lenders have on the most vulnerable individuals and families in Britain have won a very important victory. The Government has agreed to provisions within the Financial Services Bill providing the newly created Financial Conduct Authority (which will come into existence 1 April 2013) with the power to cap the cost of credit agreements.

While many were understandably focusing on the Autumn Statement, it was finally agreed by the government on Wednesday that the FCA will be able to create rules that:

  • Prohibit the charging of certain types of fees which it considers to be unacceptable;
  • Prohibit the charging of costs above an amount which it specifies as unacceptable; and
  • Prohibit rollover lending, where a debtor arranges separate credit arrangements in order to settle existing ones.

One signatory to the successful amendment of the Financial Services Bill, Baroness Grey-Thompson, told me:

There are too many tragic stories of people who have got themselves in to a massive financial mess, which seems impossible to get out of. I hope that these proposals will crack down on the worst excesses of these loans. 

She continued:

Something that came up in the debate is that we need better access to loans for people, and that we should consider more credit unions. I am by no means an expert on financial matters, but it worries me that people can easily get themselves in to great financial difficulty.

Conservative MP for East Hampshire, Damian Hinds, while welcoming of the move forward by the government, has said that providing a cap on credit is only one part of the overall battle. A shift in direction needs to take place for credit unions too.

Commenting at Conservative Home, Hinds says:

The sector needs a sensible degree of change which maintains safeguards and comfort for customers, but allows them to get onto competition terms with payday and home credit lenders and rent-to-buy stores.

Both Baroness Grey-Thompson and Damian Hinds MP are correct – this is fantastic news. Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit has even called it a “historic moment”. But the fight doesn't end here. 

We must go further. We need:

  • The creation of a Community Reinvestment Act, which would oblige banks not lending sufficiently in local communities to sponsor local affordable lenders such as credit unions;
  • The reinstatement and centralisation of the social fund – something that could be operated through a credit union; and
  • Banks offering emergency overdrafts to more people without charging interest rates that rival those of payday lenders.

We have witnessed a great victory, and an actual government u-turn (I won't rub it in), but we cannot afford to be complacent. The fight against bad debt has only just begun. 

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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder