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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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University