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The Policy Ask with Janine Hirt: “Social media platforms and search engines should be held accountable for fraud”

The CEO of the fintech body Innovate Finance on tackling online scams, working for the Samaritans, and regulating “buy now, pay later” loans.

By Spotlight

Janine Hirt is the CEO of Innovate Finance, the independent industry body representing the UK’s fintech sector. She was a member of the founding leadership team of the organisation, joining in 2015 as head of membership, then later the ecosystem director and chief operating officer. She has previously worked in several different policy, international relations and industry roles aiming to create more democratic, transparent and inclusive financial services for everyone, including at Chatham House’s Royal Institution of International Affairs, and the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce.

How do you start your working day?  

Although not naturally a “morning person”, I do wake up before the rest of my family to ensure I have some quiet time to focus before beginning my day as we have a young child. The first thing I do is sit down with a large cup of steaming black coffee and read through the business news and international headlines on my phone, ideally with some calming jazz music playing in the background. I try to read from a wide variety of domestic and international sources to avoid bias and seek out differing perspectives on situations.

What has been your career high?    

I have been privileged enough to have had a variety of professional roles over the years that I have absolutely loved, all of which sat at the intersection between policy and business, including: time spent as a corporate cultural trainer in Japan; heading up business engagement for the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce; and leading on corporate relations at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

But my highlight has to be watching Innovate Finance develop into the organisation it is today, as we approach our ten-year anniversary in 2024. I joined in the first six months of Innovate Finance’s launch as part of the original leadership team, and it was an unparalleled experience to work with a small group of such talented people to create an industry body from scratch.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

I volunteered for many years as a crisis responder and listener with Samaritans New York, the 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis hotline. The conversations were often heart-breaking, and because calls are anonymous you end up leaving the call not knowing how the caller will fare in the future. This kind of work is a reminder of the importance of being kind to everyone you encounter because you never know what someone is going through behind closed doors. It also helps put things into perspective when you have had what might seem like a difficult or challenging day. Many of the callers I spoke to were considering ending their life due to dire financial challenges, which is another reason I am so passionate about driving financial inclusion and financial wellness now.

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If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Keep doing what you love, keep being kind, and keep giving 150 per cent at whatever you do, and the rest will work itself out – so stress less about the future! Also, when one door closes, another always opens, so be bold and take risks.

[See also: Government has “worrying degree of complacency” towards rural mental health]

Which political figure inspires you?

I grew up in New York and Connecticut in the US, so have always been fascinated by the American political landscape. For me – and I think for many of my generation – I will always hold up Barack Obama as one of the most inspirational political leaders. He brought authenticity to the presidency of one of the largest economies in the world, gave us hope during a difficult time, and showed us that anything was possible with enough love and commitment. He held one of the most powerful positions in the world, but was still relatable to the person on the street, and treated others with warmth and respect.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

We at Innovate Finance were delighted to see the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 come into fruition earlier this year, which gives a new secondary objective to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) to facilitate the UK economy’s international competitiveness and its growth over the medium to long term. We believe this secondary objective is essential to encourage faster, more effective regulation that allows innovation to thrive while also protecting the consumer. Fintech and new innovations in financial services are driving greater financial inclusion and financial wellness through putting the customer back at the centre of the proposition – we need to ensure regulation is facilitating this innovation in a safe manner, and not hindering it.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

The UK government is right to want to scrap and replace the 50-year-old Consumer Credit Act (CCA) which has an outdated, legalese, tick-box approach to providing information to customers on credit agreements. Research shows that consumers find the pre-contractual and contractual information required under the act to be inaccessible, rarely read in full or understood, and that it does not work well for consumers with, for example, dyslexia or low vision. However, this is a long-term project and while we are waiting for reform, the government should pilot a new approach with “buy now, pay later” credit products. Industry wants regulation in this area and the FCA – if asked by the government – could quickly develop and introduce a bespoke rule book that applies consistent protections for consumers and does so in a way that delivers better outcomes than the CCA provisions.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

I am looking forward to the current Data Protection and Digital Information Bill becoming law, hopefully by spring 2024. This provides the legal framework for the UK to become the leading “smart data” economy. Smart data builds on the UK’s approach to open banking, which has unlocked new services that give citizens more control of their data and of their finances, and reduce costs and increase security in areas like payments.

At the heart of this is a legal requirement that a citizen or a small business can request that their data be shared with a trusted third party (with their permission) to provide value-added services. Open banking has already supported new financial management tools that are helping people and small firms to manage their finances better during the cost-of-living crisis. Extending this from bank current accounts to other financial services like savings, credit and mortgages would for the first time enable people to easily see the full picture of their finances. And extending this to areas like petrol prices and gas and electricity readings will help people save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

I often look towards India as a country that the UK can learn from in terms of driving financial technology for the benefit of the consumer. India is a fascinating example of how to create a world-class digital identity scheme (Aadhaar), and it has also had great success in digital payments and data.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I’d like to see a law that takes a holistic, systemic approach to tackling financial scams instead of the piecemeal approach we have today, which risks placing all the burden on payment firms. The recent Financial Services and Markets Act introduces a new requirement for payment firms to reimburse victims of fraud. This needs to be synchronised with adoption of the Online Safety Bill, which should create new legal obligations on social media platforms and search engines to take action against frauds being advertised on their platforms – which are estimated to account for 70 per cent of payment scams in the UK. And it would be great if this joined-up law also enabled the police, tech platforms, telecoms companies, regulators and payment providers to share real-time data that could help prevent and catch the organised crime gangs and hostile states behind these frauds. 

[See also: Online platforms have profited from misogyny for too long]

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