Simon Read: Payday lenders offering cash to pay off drug debts is no laughing matter


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The Independent Online

This week's episode of the BBC3 comedy The Revolution Will Be Televised featured a sketch where an actor posed as a simpleton while asking payday lenders for money.

Jolyon Rubinstein told the lenders he needed cash to pay back drug and gambling debts and asked them whether it mattered that he'd just been released from a mental asylum.

It didn't matter to the companies he visited. They ignored his words – and their responsibilities to borrowers – and simply wanted to sort out a loan for him, even though he appeared to be a very poor prospect.

I'm not much of a fan of such shows, which tend to ambush people and put them in embarrassing situations just – it seems – for a bit of a laugh.

But this sketch was ridiculous rather than funny. It was ridiculous in that it showed just how easy it is to borrow cash from unscrupulous firms which, let's remind ourselves, charge up to 4,000 per cent APR.

I've often argued that there is a place for payday loan firms, as they offer a convenient – albeit very expensive – way to borrow emergency cash over the short term. But if lenders have no policy of saying no, then they must be closed down.

Without checking whether a potential borrower can afford to repay the loan – or even cope with the debt – a lender is preying on the poor.

And that's not acceptable right now when tens of thousands of people are slipping into a disastrous debt spiral where they are forced to borrow more and more money simply to repay the interest on their existing debts.

Worries that payday lending is getting out of hand were sharpened this week by research that suggested a million people are turning to the expensive short-term credit simply to pay their bills each month.

Santander reckons Brits are currently borrowing about £2bn a year to meet essential bills. That's shocking, because if you can't pay your bills out of income, you've lost financial control.

These people need help with budgeting and taking back control of their finances. They don't need lenders lining up to flog them more expensive loans.

The Unite union has estimated that its members are having to work three days a month just to service their debts and that the average worker needs to borrow £325 a month to make ends meet.

So I support the call from the Association of Christian Financial Advisers (ACFA) this week for payday lenders to be regulated and interest payments capped. In particular I would like to see rollover loans – in which interest is added on to interest – outlawed.

Interest charges and penalty fees should be frozen as soon as a borrower gets into a trouble, and a repayment schedule that works should be arranged.

The ACFA called this week for new regulations requiring that lenders carry out a thorough assessment of an individual's ability to repay their debt before making credit available. That should be a minimum, I believe, and should become part of the credit licence that lenders have to apply for.

It really does seem that it's time to start getting tough with lenders that can't trusted to give people a fair deal.

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