Monday 24 January 2011

From doorstep lending to rooftop boardroom.

I had an interesting meeting today. David Ison, Barbara Glasson and I went to see Peter Crooke, the Chief Executive of Provident Financial and Carole King, Head of their public relations. We met in the smart and sophisticated new boardroom of the Provident's swish new headquarters overlooking Bradford city centre.

They were lovely, charming people at the top of their game. Business is looking good for the Provident, with the recession failing to dent their profit margins. As I have said before, they genuinely believe that they are providing an important service to those on low income; personalised 'one to one' care from their 12,000 employees.

But however you dress it up - giving £100 to someone who is poor, and then asking them for £175 - is simply wrong. Yes, there are much worse companies out there, yes, they give a lot of support to Christians Against Poverty (A debt advice charity set up by someone from the sub-prime financial sector), and yes they send staff to clean up flower beds on the Holmewood estate. But debt is one of the curses of this world, and companies that profit from the debts of the poor must be up there with arms dealers for inflicting misery on the world.

Our hope was to see if they would accept the premise that a cap on interest rates might be good for them, hurting the less legitimate end of doorstep lending but not denting the provi's main business too heavily. But, unsurprisingly, there was no movement. For the sub-prime lending market, the threat of government setting ceilings on interest rates is an anathema.

So who will stand up to these people? Peter Crook knew the amount of shares the Church of England's invests in the company. Local councillors and MPs are not keen to rock the boat, the Provident employ too many local people, and are one of the few companies investing in the city.  Local churches are dependent on the small grants given out by the company, or believe that the Provident are the good guys because they support Christians Against Poverty.

Thank heavens for Church Action on Poverty and a minority of organisations who are out to support credit unions (affordable credit) and are working for a cap on interest rates. The two must go together, or the cycle of poverty will never be broken.

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