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21 December 2012

Wonga are at it again

Wonga are at it again

by David Barclay

Wonga are at it again. Just a few weeks ago they suffered a big set-back with a decision in the Lords to give the new financial regulator the power to cap the cost of credit and rein in their exorbitant interest rates. But now they have come right back into the headlines with a new product called PayLater, which allows customers to buy products from online retailers without paying for it upfront. With many of our local communities already straining under the burden of unaffordable debts, this latest sign of our culture's intoxication with credit and inability to delay gratification requires an urgent response from the Church.

You might have thought that the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent economic crisis would have taught us something about the dangers of debt. A world financial system built on huge government deficits and poor-quality credit repackaged as 'sub-prime' products crumbled in the most spectacular fashion, and we are all paying the cost as the Age of Austerity stretches on and on before us.

And yet the British people seem not to have taken a cue from this salutary lesson, and are now drowning in debt like never before. Total UK personal debt is currently over £1.4 trillion, and is expected to break £2 trillion by 2015. In November 2011 16 per cent of the British people had become 'zombie debtors' – that is, they were only able to service the interest on their debt and not pay back any of the capital.

All of this is of course encouraged by high-cost credit companies like Wonga who are making a killing from this debt dependency. In 2010 the payday lending industry was worth £1.7 billion, and last year one chief executive took home a salary of £1.6 million. Such figures should come as no surprise given Britain's unique lack of controls on the cost of credit, which allows APRs for payday loans to reach as high as 16,500 per cent.

Now Wonga's latest innovation expertly dodges the coming payday loan crackdown while promoting exactly the same attitude of rapid consumption and delayed expenditure. PayLater involves paying a one-off fee of seven per cent of the product price and then spreading the rest of the cost over three payments. The company claims that it is "a credible and innovative alternative to credit cards enabling people to spread the cost of online shopping".

Of course what it really represents is just the latest wave of a cultural trend towards instant gratification with little regard for the cost. The Credit Card Company Access famously pioneered the slogan "taking the waiting out of wanting", and the name 'PayLater' plants Wonga's efforts squarely in the same tradition of pushing back responsibility as far as possible into the future while getting exactly what we want right now.

This 'must-have' tendency seems to have crept into all aspects of British life. Churches have been singing carols for the last few weeks, and I've been astonished by the number which include the final verse of O Come All Ye Faithful which starts "Ye Lord we greet thee, born this happy morning" and which is normally reserved for Christmas day (sometimes churches change the word 'this' to 'that' which makes it only slightly less jarring). As a society we seem to have totally lost the ability to delay something special, and as a result the very things we desire lose some of their value. It turns out taking the waiting out of wanting ends up taking much of the joy out of life.

The temptation to shrug one's shoulders and say that this is just the way of the world now is huge, but it must be resisted. Wonga have been beaten once and they can be beaten again. We don't have to live in a country where financial institutions are our masters and not our servants, where endless advertising and the latest products all force us into groupthink. We do still have deep impulses and traditions which reject these malign forces, and the church is one important example.

But the fightback starts by talking. Debt can be a sensitive issue, and the taboo around it tends to cut off real conversation and keep the true costs hidden from view. That's why the Contextual Theology Centre have teamed up with the Church Urban Fund to produce a Lent course which helps churches to listen to their local community's experiences of the economic situation, including issues of debt and finance. These Money Talks can form the basis for churches to act powerfully on the issues that are raised, for example by supporting affordable and responsible alternatives like credit unions or by joining in the fight to cap payday loans.The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has led the charge on that issue, and his background in the financial world gives the Church a level of credibility on issues of money that it has never had before. We need to back him up with a movement of local churches prepared to have the conversation about money and debt in our tough times. Otherwise, whether we use Wonga's latest offering or not, we will all pay later.

Email info@eauk.org for a copy of the Lent Course 'Seeing Change' or for more information on a Citizens UK campaign called Just Money which is fighting to make financial institutions work for us.

David Barclay is the faith in public life officer for the Contextual Theology Centre, in east London. The centre helps churches engage better with their local communities. David was president of the Oxford University Student Union and has spent time teaching in China.