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 problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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