Once a businessman, always a businessman, eh?
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has announced plans to use the Church of England to expand credit unions. His thinking is that this will provide the poor with an alternative to pay-day lenders, such as the oft-criticised Wonga. Welby joined the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards in 2012, so he has form in the arena of financial regulation. What was striking about his intervention, though, was his manner of speaking - he told Total Politics magazine that he was 'not in the business of trying to legislate [pay-day lenders] out of existence; we're trying to compete [them] out of existence'.
This kind of language befits a man who's spent a career not just in the Church, but in business too; Welby spent eleven years working for major oil firms. This marks him out from his predecessor as Archbishop, Rowan Williams, who was very much an academic before ordination. The new Archbishop has chosen the fight against loan sharks as his first major battle, and he has chosen to fight it wearing his businessman's hat, rather than his politician's hat (as Archbishop, he sits in the House of Lords).
This is a very interesting change in the way the Church behaves, and it may end up affecting all of us, not just believers and churchgoers. The Archbishop appears to be starting a transition from a 'thinking' Church to a 'doing' Church, strengthening the links between the Church and local communities, and re-establishing the Church as a kind of national moral arbiter - not just one which merely comments on the direction society appears to be taking, but one which also actively attempts to alter the prevailing trends of the day. He has chosen a worthy cause to start this mission - pay-day lending rates of 4,000% APR are a moral issue for almost everyone - but these efforts to trigger a new era of wider Church influence on daily life must be watched closely, and with a healthy degree of scepticism.
Back to Wonga and their cohorts, then. These lenders are, let's face it, downright criminal, tricking the poorest, most vulnerable and desperate members of society into accepting massive interest payments in the hope that they can push their financial problems ever so slightly further over the horizon. The Archbishop is right to take aim at them. They have managed to infiltrate society in a way that most run-of-the-mill thieves could never hope to manage, with their adverts bombarding consumers 24/7 on all commercial channels; their logos plastered on the shirts on some of the country's biggest football clubs; their e-mails flooding our inboxes half a dozen times a day. And yet, it really shouldn't be left to the Church to sort out these digital highwaymen. The Archbishop said clearly he is not in the business of legislating against loan sharks. Neither, it seems, is the government.
The influence these companies have on our society, at the lower end of the income scale, is persistent, growing, and highly damaging. The government did give £38million to credit unions in April to help provide an alternative to those who feel the need to go to Wonga, QuickQuid and the rest. That's a good thing. But the entire industry of pay-day lending is worth £2billion - the government's money will barely touch the sides. The rot has already set in. This should not be an issue of free trade, or the right to lend money, or the right to charge interest - what these companies do is exploitative daylight robbery, and if the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills can't see that, then the whole ministry should be torn down and started again from scratch. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, is one of the more left-wing Liberal Democrats in cabinet, a committed opponent of the more rabid elements of the financial system, and even spoke out against these loans while in opposition. What is stopping him from acting?
There has been a great deal of praise directed at the Church for their stance on pay-day lending. I'm an atheist and I too think they're doing the right thing, even though I'm still uneasy with the Church unilaterally trying to increase the role it plays in our daily lives. But the fact remains that the Church shouldn't have to intervene - we have a government to do that for us. The coalition has failed to solve this problem to such a great extent that another body has been forced to do so for itself - that's absurd. There will be people who will seek to criticise the Archbishop for his new-found interventionism and the perception that the Church is seeking to become a money-lender (there's a bit about that sort of thing in the Bible somewhere, I think). Some of those criticisms are valid - some aren't. The real line of fire, though, should be directed at a government that has abdicated from its responsibilities towards citizens who have no-one left to turn to other than the pirates with the astronomical interest rates - a thoroughly disgusting and shameful state of affairs.