Wonga scandal and subsequent let-off calls for a full parliamentary inquiry
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Thursday 26 June 2014
Outlook Wonga was always supposed to be the acceptable face of doorstep lending. The company that persuaded us all not to use that phrase at all, in fact, creating a friendlier sounding new addition to the lexicon: "payday loans".
With their slick advertising starring two lovable, cuddly pensioners, this was a firm that is responsible, modern, even cool. Its founder and, until his recent resignation, boss Errol Damelin always used to prefer pitching his business as a technology company rather than a loan sharker – (gasp! – the phrase that shall not speak its name). Its investors were from Silicon Valley, not organised crime syndicates.
So convincing was he that even the previously hostile Archbishop of Canterbury emerged from a long discussion with Mr Damelin convinced the company weren't such bad eggs after all. And that was before he found out his own Church of England was a Wonga backer through a private equity fund.
All that slick marketing and varnish. But now we know the ugly truth.
For all Wonga's tireless PR about how responsible it is, how fairly it treats its customers, how flexible it is with those who get behind on their repayments, now we learn it was actually behaving with little more respect for the law than your local baseball bat-wielding moneylender.
Not that it is as evil as said violent thug, of course, but at least part of the organisation has scant respect for the law. For, make no mistake, sending threatening letters in the name of false and non-existent law firms could be of interest to the criminal courts. As Stewarts Law's Clive Zeitman tells me, it is conceivable Wonga has committed criminal offences here under the 2006 Fraud Act, which prohibits "fraud by false representation".
Wonga would hotly contest it, obviously, perhaps by arguing there was no financial gain to be made, therefore no fraud. But isn't the savings made on hiring real law firms conceivably a gain? Or the charges levied on some customers for sending them these "lawyers" letters?
Forgive me if this sounds like dancing on the head of a legalistic pin. But when the sanction given to the company is so slight – well, non-existent to be precise – we can be forgiven for seeking better retribution than this minor scratch of having to compensate the customers involved. Perhaps the criminal courts can provide such relief.
The reason behind the feather-light punishment is deeply frustrating.
The FCA says it is unable to fine Wonga because the incidents took place between 2008 and 2010 when the company was regulated by the now-defunct Office of Fair Trading. Quite why the FCA can't backdate its authority, given that it has taken over the OFT, is probably a scandal in itself. How many more such OFT legacies are currently trundling through the FCA's investigations unit awaiting a cosy let-off on this technicality?
But, perhaps worse than no fine is the FCA not issuing any lengthy "final notice" on Wonga. This is the supporting documentation it usually produces after its investigations which flesh out the detail on the dirty deeds – emails, phone transcripts and so forth. In the absence of that, we the public cannot know why this fakery took place, how high up the chain of command the decisions were taken, how widespread such practices were.
If it's a legal nail that's preventing the FCA doing a proper job on Wonga, MPs should intervene. Given the high profile of the company, and its powerful lobbying voice in Westminster, this scandal must be examined through another full parliamentary inquiry.
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