Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Lenders first, their critics second – the mistake MPs couldn’t afford to make

 

It must have seemed a good idea at the time. But you had to wonder, seeing their representatives lined up in front of the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, whether the off-the-back-of-the-lorry company names help their branding as public spirited pillars of the financial services community: Wonga, Mr Lender, QuickQuid. How confidence-inspiring is that?

They were a varied trio, these spokesmen for a business that Charles Dickens loved to hate: Wonga’s Henry Raine, whose bank manager spectacles and cut-glass accent were not as reassuring as they should have been; QuickQuid’s Andy Lapointe, a quietly-spoken American so broad shouldered he wouldn’t have been out of place bouncing at a Chicago speakeasy. And Mr Lender’s CEO Adam Freeman, stubble on the chin and hair over the collar, with an amiably plausible manner.

Pressed on the profits from the exponentially mounting interest on those obliged to roll over their loans, Freeman insisted: “I like to lend to people who can afford to pay back,” and that the company was so scrupulous it only accepted one in 100 applications for loans.

But who were the “friends” to whom Mr Lender advertised it could pass on would-be customers who did not meet its exacting criteria? Well, it might be companies which accepted “people on benefits,” which his company didn’t. So did Mr Lender get commission from its recommendations? “Sometimes.”

The Committee made the task harder for itself by calling the lenders first and four of their formidable critics second, inexplicably sacrificing valuable ammunition. Including MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis’s contention that a new generation was being “groomed” into a mentality that borrowing is OK, with 14 per cent of adults in a recent survey saying they were “nagged” by their under 10-year-olds, who had seen the TV ads, to get loans to pay for a toy. Or Citizen’s Advice CEO Gillian Guy’s point that “There’s no health warnings on these adverts.”

Pressed on the 3 per cent - around 40,000 – of Wonga customers who hit serious trouble over their loans, Mr Raine said everyone was warned of the risks on “the website and through the journey”. Where the “journey” could lead was underlined by Ms Guy, who cited a woman who had borrowed £100 just before Christmas, had the loan rolled over month after month, having £700 taken out of her account through a continuous payment authority, and now couldn’t pay her rent or her council tax.

In this context, Wonga’s claims about client contentment were about as convincing as the commandant of a PoW camp saying the happiness of his inmates had been proved because only a handful tried to escape.

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