Finally there's agreement that payday lending needs to be tackled. But how?

Access to banking, co-operative credit and caps on interest should all be considered.

The payday lending industry is in total disgrace. After a survey and report carried out by Citizens Advice, who called the industry “out of control”, it has been shown that lenders have sold loans to young people aged below 18, people with mental health difficulties and people who are drunk. This is contrary to any responsible lending criteria and should therefore be dealt with rigorously by the authorities. 

To make matters worse it has emerged that complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) about payday lending shot up 83 per cent last year, the third highest rise of any sector with the exception of the home credit industry (139 per cent) and payment protection insurance (PPI – 140 per cent).

The Office for Fair Trading officially began their investigation of the industry in March 2013, but since the CAB's results run up until 13 May 2013 (when their in-depth analysis of 780 cases stopped) it's safe to say that bad practice carried on regardless of OFT oversight. 

Even the payday lending trade association, the Consumer Finance Association, has its own Code of Practice which its members (making up 70 per cent of the payday lending market in the UK) pledge to commit to, including rules of affordability assessments, debt collection procedures and grace periods for troubled debtors. 

The trouble is irresponsible lending is woven so firmly into the business model of payday lending it is hard to erase it. When we consider for example that 28 per cent of loans are either rolled over (where one loan is taken out to service the interest on an existing loan) or refinanced, which provides 50 per cent of a lenders' revenue, it's a very big ask to expect the industry to voluntarily give up a big part of its profit maximisation. 

What's more is that payday lenders do not compete on price, but rather speed of service. Therefore if a high street is littered with lenders this will not have too much effect on the price at which a loan will cost (which ranges from around £25-35 per £100 loan, per month) but drives lenders to make faster decisions, incentivising the accepting of loan applications irresponsibly. 

As Stella Creasy MP said on Tuesday “this industry continues to fall out of the grip of regulators”. Indeed it looks like its getting worse before it gets better. 

However we are still at a point where we are merely finding faults with the industry and not seeking solutions. 

Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, in her FT editorial on Tuesday, pointed out that banks need to take some part in the blame for the rise of payday lending. 

In so doing they should also do the following: a) accept responsibility and offer a product to challenge payday lending; b) provide basic “jam-jar” accounts for individuals which also offer budgeting support; c) offer face-face financial support; and d) reopen their offer of current accounts to undischarged bankrupts. 

This would be a fantastic start in the consumer credit industry, but alongside this government should also acknowledge the ways in which other countries tackle predatory lenders.

The Financial Conduct Authority will have the power to cap the cost of credit when they take over from the Financial Services Authority on payday lenders in April 2014. They should use it, looking to the rest of the world for guidance. 

For example in France and Germany there are restictions on where credit is available from. In Germany interest rates are capped at twice the market rate and in France the limit is reviewed every three months. There is no evidence to suggest illegal lending is any more a problem in those countries than in the UK where there is no cap on the price at which a lender can sell credit. 

Furthermore, in the UK, there are 7.7 million bank accounts without credit facilities, nearly four times the number of Germany (2 million at the end of 2006) and France (2.1 million in 2008),while 9 million people cannot access credit from mainstream banks in the UK, as opposed to around 2.5 million in Germanyand between 2.5 million and 4.1 million in France.

Looking further afield to Canada, unless changed through provincial legislation concerning the provisioning of payday loans, usury laws prevent lenders to charge interest above 60 per cent per year. In case this squeezed supply without addressing the demand for this type of finance, Canada has made a big push on credit unions as an alternative to high cost, short term credit. 

According to the World Council of Credit Unions Canada has the highest per-capita membership in credit unions in North America. More than a third of the population is a member of at least one credit union.

Also in Japan there has been a total cost of credit cap from 40 per cent to 29.2 per cent between 1986 and 2000. While illegal lending has not risen (in fact it rose with the loosening of restrictions on the amounts credit sellers could lend at) neither has lending from mainstream banks or Shinkin (the equivalent of credit unions). 

According to Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit, this has been “part of a more general trend amongst Japanese households to reduce their use of credit over this period.”

There are many more examples like this that the government could and should consider but instead it runs scared of firmer regulation. We've seen the damage and irresponsibility done by payday lending, now we need to do something about it. 

If Gillian Guy's recommendations about what the banks could do to incorporate more people into mainstream finance were taken up, government could really start to crack down on the legal loan sharks, bringing some crucial changes to responsible credit and financial inclusion.

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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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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