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.
 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.