Microfinance shouldn't do the government's job

It is a requirement of civil society that government obviate the need for payday lenders, writes Carl Packman.

There has been a recent interest in microfinance as a means to draw vulnerable people away from the scourge of payday lending – an industry which saw its inevitable growth over the Christmas period, with the number of enquiries about it at the Citizens Advice Bureau doubling from last year. 

The Financial Times recently ran an article headlined Microfinancier gives payday lenders run for money. Reporter Sarah O'Conner discusses to what extent this type of financial product offers a fairer deal for borrowing money, with more manageable prices attached to loans: £162 on a 52-week loan of £600 compares well with the £25-30 per month you can expect to pay for a loan of £100 with the average high cost credit seller. 

Although relatively rare in the UK, the microfinance movement is over 40 years old. It all began in the early 1970s in Bangladesh and Latin America and since then has seen small but effective support around the world. 

I spoke to Saloman Raydan Rivas, a microfinance expert, about Professor Mohammed Yunnus, the don of the microfinance movement. Rivas told me Yunnus wanted to develop a banking model which did not take advantage of the poor, but he was unsure of how to tap into existing local lending mechanisms, such as self-financed communities, to bring about change on a wider scale. 

Today there are many people trying to realise his dream, and Fair Finance, the case studied in the Financial Times' article, is one. In fact Faisal Rahman, the company’s director, is strongly influenced by the microfinance movement, and hopes to bring it to market in the UK.

But there is something rather rocky about relying on private equity funding, as Fair Finance does (a fact not discussed in the Financial Times article) that makes me worry, both in practice and on first principles. 

Fair Finance was declined investment money by Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland when it first started out, and they even had problems with Santander, which would not put up investment alone. When I asked Rahman about it, he admitted it was a setback, and one could argue this is hardly a surprise. Rahman wants funding from investors to sell loans ethically to people, charging low interest, and risking low returns, all to realise a dream of creating a banking model that undercuts usurers and rip-off merchants. 

For all the good he wants, many investors clearly see the words “low return” and run a mile. In short, we cannot rely on the good nature of profit-making big banks to finance ethical, non-profit, lending schemes. But should we expect any private business to do this? Since it is in the interest of the public purse to keep individuals' personal debt profiles down, should ethical lending not be a standard expectation of the government? 

It is surely a requirement of a civil society that the government allocate enough money – for instance, through a credit union – to ensure consumers aren't left with going to payday lenders as their only option.

Having said that, I understand Rahman’s motives. Recently it was reported that a loans company who target personnel in the armed forces with high cost credit at 3,300 per cent interest was sold advertising space in Defence Focus, the magazine of the Ministry of Defence. Is this perhaps a sign of how relaxed public bodies have become about payday lending?

High cost loans for the armed forces has become a big issue. A representative of Waterhouse Baker, who offer financial advice to any serving member of the forces, told me that payday loans is often a short-lived solution, “as many default as the monthly expenditure is too high for the income gained”. 

Problems like these need solving fast, because the problem of high personal debt is one which affects the whole economy and the whole society. For me, the buck stops with the government.

Given the enormity of the problem of debt, government should be in charge of reversing it. So while the aims of Fair Finance and other similar organisations are positive, pricing out payday lenders should be chiefly the preserve, not of microfinance, but of the state as part of its commitment to maintaining a civil society.

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
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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