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.
 

Getty
Show Hide image

There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.