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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.