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25 October 2012

The FCA needs to be allowed to tackle the legal loan sharks

The new financial regulator ought to have payday lenders in its remit, writes Carl Packman.

By Carl Packman

Yesterday, Lord Parry Mitchell of Labour’s BIS team in the House of Lords introduced an amendment to the Financial Services Bill to give the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the power to set guidelines on the impact of lenders’ behaviour on consumers, which will, he writes, potentially include the capping of interest rate charges.

The FCA, which will take over the regulatory framework of the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) later this year, has received much scrutiny its planned remit. 

Many, such as Stella Creasy MP, were hopeful that with products such as payday loans being regulated “under one roof” by the FCA, the industry would be easier to get a grip on. That optimism  is no more.

Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, in January this year argued that the creation of the FCA was an opportunity to improve upon the way in which the Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulated financial products. 

But he did also warn that: 

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If we are not careful, the FCA will become the poor relation among the new institutions.

Without interventions like that of Lord Mitchell, a poor relation is exactly what the FCA is destined to be. 

Lord Mitchell’s amendment calls for:

Power of the FCA to make further provision about regulation of consumer credit 

  1. The FCA may make rules or apply a sanction to authorised persons who offer credit on terms that the FCA judge to cause consumer detriment.
  2. This may include rules that determine a maximum total cost for consumers of a product and determine the maximum duration of a supply of a product or service to an individual consumer.

Without question the FCA should lay focus on responsible lending, which is the crux of the first clause, for time and time again payday lenders prove their inability to self-regulate.

A recent episode of Panaroma showed BBC reporter Richard Bilton collecting nearly £1000 in under two hours with relative ease and little questioning. At no point did any of the shops that Bilton entered assess or consider the adverse affects these loans could have on him – thus they were in breach of the OFT’s guidance.

In June the councillor and New Statesman writer Rowenna Davis did her own investigation which found payday lenders such as Speedy Cash and pawnbrokers such as Albermarle Bond handing over cash to individuals for rent, food and even betting on horses. 

Even Wonga, one of the more well known payday lenders, has been shown to lend irresponsibly. During an interview in March 2011 by the Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman, with the opportunity to showcase some examples of, in Gentleman’s words, the “web-savvy young professionals that the company believes it’s catering to”, Wonga decided to showcase Susan. Gentleman writes of Susan:

She finds that with the cost of living rising, her benefits sometimes don’t stretch to the end of the month, and has taken out loans with Wonga to buy food, if she’s caught short. She’s a bit vague, but thinks she’s taken out half a dozen loans with Wonga over the past few months… She has had problems with credit cards before, and doesn’t have an overdraft, but Wonga gave her credit very swiftly.

Not only will Susan’s income be significantly less than that of the average person to take out a Wonga loan, according to Wonga themselves, she manages to be in that category of people who haven’t access to mainstream forms of borrowing, has taken out nearly double the average payday loans per year per borrower (three and a half), has taken out exactly double the average amount of loans Wonga customers use and is still an example Wonga felt was a “good representative.”

If Lord Mitchell’s amendment isn’t carried it will demonstrate a clear message from the government that they believe the regulatory architecture set up in place for payday lenders, now and in the future, is fine as it is – when in fact this is anything but the case.

Yesterday was a chance, again, for the government to prove that it is for responsible lending. Lord Newby assured Lord Mitchell that it is learning, but only time will tell. The amendment was withdrawn, pending further comments.