Miliband's promise to clamp down on payday loans is a good first step

The start of a One Nation economy

While bloggers and columnists have focused on Ed Miliband's call for a reintroduction of the 10p tax rate, scrapped by Gordon Brown, paid for through a mansion tax on £2m properties, it should be noted that the opposition leader signalled signs of hope on personal finance as well.

In his speech, he noted that as a start to building a One Nation economy Labour would:

Break the stranglehold of the big six energy suppliers. Stop the train company price rip-offs on the most popular routes. Introduce new rules to stop unfair bank charges. And cap interest on payday loans.

The financial pinch that people are feeling will not be easy to undo, but I want to suggest two things to complement Ed Miliband's call for building the One Nation economy.

Firstly he must take seriously wages. While millions of state sector workers will see their wages freeze, the average private sector worker’s pay has risen by just 1.4 per cent. All the while, according to latest ONS figures food prices have risen by 4.5 per cent in the last year. Indeed the real wages of many workers fell to 2003 levels.

For many years wages were effectively supplemented by the relative free flow of credit. Today, access to mainstream credit is denied to people who have for a long time seen their wages stagnant, losing the battle against inflation and the rising cost of living.

As academics from the university of Bristol pointed out, while the UK may be out of a technical recession, the public’s recession has never gone away and is getting worse. People having to drive their own personal austerity measures just to get to the end of the month.

Others have not been so lucky - which brings me to my second suggestion. Last year the charity Shelter published findings showing that a million people took out a payday loan to help with their mortgage payments.

Research by Which?, also published last year, showed that 40 per cent of payday loans are being taken out to buy basics such as food and bills.

Many payday lenders can charge up to 4,214 per cent interest on amounts ranging from £50 to £800. On average a payday lender will charge £25 for every £100 borrowed on a loan of 28 days but costs can soon go up if there are missed payments, with fees anywhere from £12 to £25. Compared to authorised bank overdrafts or loans from credit unions these are extortionate figures.

What Labour should be calling for is a total cost of credit cap. Instead of just targeting interest rates a total cost of credit cap would legislate for how much a lender can charge in total, such as administration fees (in Australia, for example, lenders got around interest rate caps by obliging borrowers to buy their financial DVDs).

As I have been told time again, market rules do not seem to be working with high cost credit. Given the large amount of market entrants, prices for credit are still sky high. However when I spoke to Matthew Fulton, a key figure in the End the Legal Loansharking campaign, he told me that an internet company’s break-even point is at around 70 per cent APR, while payday lenders with a shop front can average at 130-40 per cent depending on the types of scheme and duration.

Payday lenders are in the business of ripping off the poor and hard up. So it is very encouraging that Ed Miliband has already pledged himself to place a cap on the prices that payday lenders can charge at.

But it can not be an isolated move. As Veronika Thiel put it in her report on doorstep lending: “Interest rate caps have to be levelled among a series of other regulations and interventions.”

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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war