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Cash on demand

23 August 2013

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THE team-strip at Newcastle Football Club provides a condensed history of the financial-services sector over the past five years. In 2008, before it collapsed, the club's players strode out emblazoned with the logo of Northern Rock. Then it was Virgin Money, a company with no high-street presence but some brand respectability. This season, the shirts will carry the name Wonga - a name that strikes a bolt of fear and disgust into many.

Some of those interviewed in The Lending Game (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) shared the discontent; but the presenter, Chris Bowlby, also encountered a number of younger people who were not overly concerned by the phenomenon of payday lending, and could conceive of themselves making use of the service in the future. And Wonga is doing its best to ingratiate itself, with grants to football clubs in the area, and the purchase of the naming rights to the stadium so that the name St James's Park can be retained.

This kind of debt provision is becoming normalised - thus complained the lady from Citizens Advice. Under the cover of faux-friendly informality, Wonga's style of moneylending is going mainstream. They have even got Nicholas Parsons to voice the radio ads. Yet, listening to the shrill denunciations by Wonga's critics, mixed with general laments over the decline of thrift, it seems that this is just as much a generational and social angst over the appearance of something new and mould-breaking. Young people, we heard, should not be allowed to go on the internet, before a big night out, to get themselves a fast loan to buy their mates a round of drinks.

For all the hammering the banks have taken over the past five years, those of us who have grown up with them prefer the devil we know. We are inured to paying fees for exceeding overdrafts once in a while - fees that are at least comparable to what we would pay Wonga for a quick loan, the company says. The astronomical APR that such companies charge is a red herring, Wonga's finance director said. They cap the interest-payment period at 60 days, and the average length of a loan is 17 days.

The answer proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury is to encourage credit unions into the market. But the manager interviewed here admitted that his credit union would prefer to steer clear of the payday-loan market: the amount of IT technology required to deal with the fast turn-around time was not something he wanted to contemplate.

In his interview at the end of the programme, Archbishop Welby sounded less bullish than in previous musings on the subject. He admitted that payday lending was now part of the way we live, and that the campaign against it was going to have to be waged over a generation. To which one might ask, why bother? In 15 or 20 years, something else will have come along anyway, simply through the natural evolution of the financial system; just as, ten years ago, we were all infatuated with easily obtainable store-cards.

What will not have changed over that generation is people's irresponsibility when it comes to money, and the Church's, or anybody else's, ability to prevent it.

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