Loan sharks are preying on the poor whilst being protected by the government. In 1987 BBCs Panorama investigated loan sharking. Tony Blair, then city spokesman for the Labour Party, told the programme: You need some measure of control and regulation to ensure that the unscrupulous arent lending to the desperate when there is no possibility of repayment
Sixteen years and two Blair election victories later and there is still no sign of any such regulation. Lending to the poor at incredibly high rates of interest goes well beyond the seedy and shady local loan shark, however. Sub-prime lending is a multi-million-pound mainstream business. And not only has Labour failed to reign in the lenders who prey on the poor, the party has actually invited them to its conference, where they pay for the platforms government ministers speak from.
Provident Financial boss Robin Ashton earned 408,000 last year. His firm made 82m in profits. The Provy makes its money lending to the poor via door-to-door agents. More than a million and a half Britons borrow from the firm. Its annual percentage rates (APR) of interest work out at around 177 per cent. The firm claims these high charges are justified by the risk it takes in lending to people ignored by the high street banks, and by the cost of collecting the customers cash on the doorstep.
Labours leadership doesnt think Provident Financial is preying on the poor for profit. Blairs head of policy planning Matthew Taylor praised the firm, saying: Often we see knee-jerk negative reactions to Provident Financial. Having seen what it actually does, such reactions seem misplaced. There is much for policy makers to learn from how it provides a service that people want. Government can often only dream of developing the kind of relationship that Provident Financial has with many of its customers.
Taylor is also the director of New Labour think-tank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), an organisation that is partly funded by Provident Financial. And the government has indeed learned from Provident Financial; emergency grants to benefit claimants have long since been replaced with repayable social fund loans. But the difficulty of getting these loans forces many people to turn to the sub-prime lenders.
The firm also funds two other New Labour think-tanks the Social Market Foundation and the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC). And this September Gary Titley, Labour leader in the European Parliament, spoke at an FPC meeting paid for by Provident Financial.
London Scottish Bank is another national firm offering doorstep credit to the poor at APRs of around 160 per cent. This makes London Scottish around 17m a year in profits. Chief executive Roy Reece is paid 307,000 a year. The firms earnings are boosted by a debt collection agency it owns called Robinson Way. The chairman of London Scottish is Trevor Furlong, who used to be chief executive of Mersey Docks the company at the centre of the long and bitter Liverpool dockers strike.
Some of the most destructive loans to non-status borrowers are those secured on peoples homes. Abbey National subsidiary First National Bank also lends to sub-prime borrowers. Many of its loans are secondary mortgages; default can result in debtors losing their homes. Abbey is currently selling off First National, making chairman Tim Ingram unemployed in the process. But his 1.6m redundancy cheque means he will not have to turn to doorstep lenders.
Both London Scottish and First National are members of the Finance and Leasing Association (FLA), the lobby group for Britains store-card, car-finance and personal-debt businesses. The government clearly takes consumer debt seriously: at the recent Labour Party conference consumer affairs minister Gerry Sutcliffe spoke about the issue at a Social Market Foundation meeting paid for by the FLA.