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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle