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By Tim Montgomerie
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Yesterday in the Commons Tory MPs voiced concern about legal financial companies that charge very high interest rates. They were speaking in response to proposals from the Labour benches.
Learning the lessons from anti-smoking campaigns, Neil Parish MP called for health warnings to be added to the advertising of companies such as Wonga: "[Wonga] can charge up to 4,500% interest on its loans. Uncle Buck can charge 2,500% and PaydayUK can charge 1,200%. With a base rate of 0.5%, how can charging such inordinate interest be justified? These companies—I call them all loan sharks, to be blunt—travel around our poorest areas… I know that Ministers are not keen on dealing with this problem through regulation, but perhaps we should consider our approach to smoking: we do not stop people smoking—although we have banned it in public places—but we put large health warnings on cigarette packets. The Financial Services Authority, or whichever body will be responsible, should at the very least take action so that there are serious health warnings for those considering taking out these loans."
The MP for Tiverton and Honiton also supported greater support for credit unions: "About 50% of the population in Ireland are involved in credit unions. In the US and Canada, the figure is about 40%, in Australia and New Zealand it is about 25%, but in the UK it is only 2%. I know that the Government are looking into increasing the availability of credit unions across the country, but we need to act much faster. In the meantime, we have to act against these companies, the loan sharks, because people who take out the loans sometimes have to pay back 10, 20, 30 or 100 times as much as they originally borrowed."
Justin Tomlinson suggested three measures, including a requirement for lenders to check a potential borrower's credit history: "I first wish to highlight the need to use credit reference companies, because it is unacceptable that so many of these loan companies do not even simply check whether the person borrowing the money can actually service the debt. We would all agree that we are not against people borrowing money if that is what they wish to do, but they should have the opportunity to be able to service that debt. Secondly, we need to limit the number of customer extensions and roll-overs, as a number of hon. Members have said. It is unacceptable that people can be trapped into a cycle of increasingly expensive debt. Thirdly, there needs to be a cut-off point, when fees and the interest stop being accumulated. Too often we have seen people borrow a relatively small sum that has built up over many years."
Tracey Crouch MP warned that a Labour MP's solution to the problem – taxing the lending companies – could be counter-productive: "The new clause proposes taxation measures as a means of clamping down on, or even stamping out, the industry. I fear, however, that the Opposition have not thought it through in any great detail. For a start, they have not addressed its unintended consequences. It is likely that any additional tax on the companies in the industry, just six of which control about 90% of the market, would simply be passed on to the consumer in the form of even higher rates. What is being proposed as a solution to the problem could exacerbate it by increasing the cost to the consumer and creating an even larger debt."
Treasury Minister Mark Hoban warned of over-regulating the legal lending industry and driving vulnerable people into the arms of loan sharks: "Members have a responsibility to take seriously the potential for such measures to drive lending underground. I am sure that no one in the House would like to see a rise in illegal loan sharking, which can so devastate lives. The risks to individuals’ financial and personal well-being would be increased by loan sharks, who do not follow regulations or take legal action when debts remain unpaid. They use whatever means they can to recover their money, often forcing borrowers into more debt, or much worse. The provision of short-term credit can prevent financial exclusion, and it has allowed more consumers to access credit in a regulated market."
And finally Andrew Percy MP told of his own difficult experience of student debt: "It started at university and I went down the line of paying off one credit card by transferring it to another on 0% for a year or a number of months before conveniently forgetting that and maxing out the one that I had just cleared. I now pay about £600 a month to clear all my credit cards, which I have had to roll into a loan since my election. I understand what debt is like and I know how once someone is on the conveyer belt, it is difficult to get off, and that is just with credit card debt. That conveyer belt moves faster for those on the high-cost credit side of things—I guess that is the only difference."
Read the whole debate.