There is a particular, uneasy feeling I associate with Canary Warf underground station. Perhaps it’s because, ordinarily, the only reason I have for being at Canary Waft Station is being lost on my way somewhere else. I don’t work in a glass skyscraper. I don’t own a suit. I don’t have the first clue how you diversify a portfolio. And yet this week I made my way, deliberately, to the financial heart of the UK.
If you’d told me a few years ago that one day I’d be meeting with the FCA, I would have wondered just how much trouble I’d be in. A few years ago I was in the payday loan trap. I was having to borrow ever increasing amounts in order to pay off my debts. The only reason a girl like me spoke to people in financial services was to arrange an amended payment plan.
I was actually there with other community organisers on the #Sharkstoppers campaign for a negotiation with the FCA, the successor to the FSA, which was formed in April last year. Its job is to regulate financial service providers, like the payday lenders that ruled my life for two years. I, the girl who used to hide her late payment notices so that no one would know she was in trouble, was going to tell the regulators exactly what my experiences had taught me.
My part in this campaign began in 2011, when I went along to a #SharkStoppers event held by Movement For Change. It was the first time I’d admitted my poor financial planning skills in public, and I was shocked by the response. I wasn’t immediately ejected from the room. I wasn’t ignored in favour of other, less compromised speakers. I was listened to, and I was invited to get involved in the campaign.
Working with Movement For Change has changed a lot of things for me. They have given me new skills, more confidence and opportunities that I never thought I’d have. But the most important thing they’ve taught me is that I’m not valuable in spite of my unfortunate experiences; I am all the more valuable because of my experiences.
When I walked into the negotiation with the FCA, I wasn’t thinking about all the things they might know that I didn’t. I was thinking about all the things they didn’t know that I did.
I know that you can be struggling with unaffordable debt and still not show up in the statistics. I defaulted on all of my direct debits rather than risk a pricey late payment to them. I never once rolled over a loan; I just paid it off in full and immediately got another, bigger payday loan to cover it.
I know just how many e-mails you receive once these companies have your address, and what’s in them. We miss you. We haven’t seen you for a while, have you received your discount code? Our trust rating system says you can borrow £1000! Eventually, your inbox is so full of them that every advert alongside it is for a payday lender. While you’re struggling to get yourself out of the cycle of debt your laptop becomes a little shoulder devil, whispering to you ‘…the nice old man says you can have a grand, would £100 be so bad? You could buy shampoo…’
I know how quickly you can get one of these loans, and how quickly you can regret it. I know the frame of mind you’re in when you make an unwise decision with good intentions, especially when you don’t know what alternatives there are.
So, I may not work in a glass skyscraper, but I do know what I’m talking about. And I do have something to bring to the table – literally. I brought print outs of just some of the direct marketing I still receive, asking why I’ve abandoned them or if I want to win a PS4, and covered a good part of the desk with them. I don’t know if that’s how these things are usually done, but it did illustrate the problem.
We asked the FCA to consider five issues with regards to regulating payday lenders. What the cap on the cost of credit will be, how vulnerable people are identified and protected, what constitutes responsible advertising, regulating marketing to children, and responsible credit controls. They agreed that affordability should be the basis of responsible lending, which means more than literally being able to cover the repayment with your wage. They agreed that the cap should be set in pounds and pence rather than a meaningless APR. They agreed to look into social sites and members groups that they hadn’t been aware of before I showed them the invitation I’d been sent. The FCA have committed to sending us updates on these issues, and to meet with us again to discuss the progress. And, as part of their consultation process into future regulation, the FCA has considered my perspective and my ideas. Not in spite of my experience. Because of it.
I still feel uneasy in Canary Warf station thought. Maybe it’s just the height of the escalators.