The ‘Provi’, or Provident Financial to give them their official name, are the largest doorstep lender in the UK, and collect debts from one in 20 households every week. From our work with grassroots communities in North East England in 2000, it became obvious how they are masters at cultivating a relationship of dependency with their clients. Collectors are quick to suggest loans for birthdays, Christmas, school uniforms, and replacement of essential household items. But it comes at a high cost – £246 in charges for a £300 loan (see for yourself at www.providentpersonalcredit.com). So it was a relief that we managed to convince the Church Commissioners in 2001 to sell their million-pound stake.
On average the Provi make around £90 profit from a customer in a year. That means some of our most deprived communities are being drained of thousands of pounds each week.
Almost every industrialised country in the world has legal protections to stop lenders charging extortionately, but not Britain. For a while, the Debt On Our Doorstep campaign network chipped away at government and public agencies to make changes. But it is only recently that a new and dynamic MP, Stella Creasy, has made some significant progress to ensure the new regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, has the powers to cap the cost of credit. Let’s keep the pressure on to make sure it happens.
Our work on debt always emphasised that it is essential to increase the availability of affordable credit at the same time as tackling legal loan sharks. In 2002 we ran a series of five policy forums around the issues, which brought together a mix of experts with first-hand experience of financial exclusion and those involved in policy-making.
The process helped shape the government’s ‘Growth Fund’ for credit unions, which has enabled them to expand and innovate over the last decade.
Since 2002 we’ve been working with churches to support the principle of the Living Wage in practice. Little did we realise that it would take 10 years to finally get the Roman Catholic bishops and Church of England to back the Living Wage.
As David Cameron said at the last election, “the Living Wage is an idea whose time has come”.
I’ve contributed to and observed various commissions over the years: Independent Asylum Commission; High Pay Commission; Griffiths Commission on Personal Debt; Commission on Poverty, Participation & Poverty, various Fairness commissions. But the one I respect the most is the Poverty Truth Commission, in Scotland. Their approach is qualitatively different from that of other commissions. Crucially, they selected people in public life who were senior enough not to need to ask permission to take part, and powerful enough to actually make some change happen in their own institution and beyond. And crucially for their journey of ‘conscientisation’, they were agnostic or unaware of real-life poverty.
I’ve seen countless worthy participatory processes that have ‘given a voice’ to people experiencing poverty but lead to no change. It reinforces the common perception that participation is painful and doesn’t lead to change.
The Poverty Truth Commission is different, and so I’m really glad that a Leeds Poverty Truth Commission is on the cards in my adopted city.
In April, our Campaigns Officer Alan Thornton moved on to new employment, after 14 years working for Church Action on Poverty.