Finally - a bill that could actually do something to regulate the payday lending industry

Blomfield's private members' bill includes measures to set new rules around the affordability of loans, payday loan advertising, debt collection and payment, debt support, and penalties for companies who fail to comply with existing regulator guidance.

It's Monday 1 June, the government are under pressure to do something about the payday lending industry, a summit is set up, but before proceedings even begin it's noted that the discussion will not tackle modifying the price of high cost credit. Instead it will be a light conversation on what cosmetic changes can be agreed to.

On the same day Wonga's chief executive Errol Damelin told an audience at a conference on money banking and finance hosted by Wired magazine in Canary Wharf: "We'd love as serious a regulator as possible to help understand the business, and the more proactively engaged our regulators are the better."

He's talking about the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the same regulators as the ones who earlier in the year threatened tougher compliance checking before sending letters out to each payday lender operating in the UK. He's also talking about the same OFT who Wonga had to write an open letter to informing them that they had not sent over any “specific information” for them yet.

This is why I support the private members' bill by Paul Blomfield MP, which gets its second reading this Friday. Left up to the current administration very little would get done to the light-touch regulatory structure over this controversial industry. The outcome of the summit is still more waiting around, regulators sitting on their hands, action to properly address high cost credit not being carried out.

Blomfield's bill includes measures to set new rules around the affordability of loans, payday loan advertising, debt collection and payment, debt support, and penalties for companies who fail to comply with existing regulator guidance.

The details and strengths of the bill are straightforward. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), who take over from the OFT on regulating payday lenders in April 2014, will be able to cap the cost at which a lender can charge you for credit – which at the moment is around £30-35 per every £100 borrowed over a 30 day period – to a reasonable proportion of a borrower's income.

Consider now how unreasonable this cost is today. Let's say you take out £100 from a payday lender, typically you can end up paying back around £130, provided it's paid back on time. If you arrange an authorised overdraft of £100 from your bank, for example, you would pay back £101.60, which includes the £100 principle and £1.60 in interest (though many banks allow overdrafts of this cost to be interest or fee-free).

Let's take another example. If you take out a payday loan of £300 (just above the average £270 which was borrowed in 2012) you would pay back £390 if you paid back on time after 30 days. With a credit union loan of £300 it would cost £4.47 in interest. Paying back £304.47 rather than £390 is a no-brainer.

The other strengths of the bill include setting advertising standards for the industry showing how much you could spend on a loan from a payday lender in pounds and pence, rather than at the annualised percentage rate (APR). Advertising would also have to show a "health warning" sign, to show that it is rarely the best form of credit to apply for in hard times.

The bill also calls for a freeze on all charges when a person with a payday loan misses a payment, the obligation for lenders to signpost free impartial advice on debt, and enforcement powers to be determined, such as compensation, if the details of this Act (if it becomes an Act) are breached.

What Paul Blomfield MP has done in his bill is absolutely necessary. The new FCA regulation was supposed to have teeth but as we find out more of the detail there are already gaps emerging. Furthermore the government, though in principle wanting to tackle predatory lending, are flagging. This bill is a corrective to all that.

A sign for a loan shop on Brixton High Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images

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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories