Let’s move on, shall we?
I wrote this a week or so ago, then pushed it to one side and was going to forget about it, but I still think it’s a good topic and am interested in your thoughts.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, having previously launched a new credit union offering short-term, low-interest loans to clergy and church staff, recently revealed his intention for the Church of England to force a controversial payday lender out of business by allowing emerging not-for-profit credit unions to use church buildings, manned by church volunteers, so as to expand their reach to more customers. There are around 500 credit unions in the UK, with almost a million customers, but there are many, many more churches.
By the way, just two per cent of people in the UK are members of a credit union, compared to 24 per cent in Australia, 44 per cent in the USA and 75 per cent in Ireland.
A financial co-operative lending money at comparatively low rates obviously being a much wiser alternative to those in financial difficulty who are considered by the banks to be unsuitable people to lend money to, even the banks that we practically own since bailing them out, than a wealthy organisation that makes profits of £50 million a year by charging eye-watering rates of as much as 5,000 per cent APR to those who can least afford to repay. Predatory lending at its worst.
The payday lending industry is worth £2 billion.
He warned the boss of Wonga: “We’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence; we’re trying to compete you out of existence.”
I know. It’s not the Church’s place to legislate. The Government, if it wanted to create a fairer and more equal society and halt the continued exploitation of the poor and most vulnerable, could do all the legislating it liked and the majority of people would welcome a display of courage and decency at long last. There is no cap on these interest rates in the UK, unlike France, Germany, Poland, Japan and some US states (yet there is now a cap on benefits, which tells you all you need to know about those running the UK). Thirteen US states have banned payday lending outright.
The Church wouldn’t be doing the lending, the credit unions would, so there’s no financial risk to the Church whatsoever. And its premises are usually half-empty anyway so it would be nice to see them being put to good use before anyone suggested bulldozing them and replacing them with flats to help ease our housing crisis – a much better use of space, surely. So, what’s the worst that could happen?
Pretty much the worst that could happen happened, barely 48 hours later, when it emerged that the Church, via its pension fund, had a £75,000 stake in US venture capital firm Accel Partners, which had helped to establish Wonga in the UK in the first place back in 2009.
Feel free to take the Lord’s name in vain at this point.
The Church of England has an investment portfolio worth £7.5 billion, including shares in a host of less than holy enterprises. There’s Google, with all its child pornography; Apple, with its disgraceful factory conditions and labour abuses; Shell, with its Arctic drilling (a disaster waiting to happen); BP, which has already caused its share of environmental damage; GlaxoSmithKline, with its continued ‘need’ for vivisection (and most recent stink: bribery of doctors); Vodafone, with its tax avoidance; Nestle, subject to an international boycott since 1977, for God’s sake (for its part in the baby-milk scandal); and everybody’s favourite blot on the landscape, Tesco (for everything from squeezing out independent traders to prospering from the UK Government’s Workfare/get-the-unemployed-to-work-for-free-for-big-companies-that-donate-money-to-us scheme; for selling live turtles in China to employing staff on zero-hours contracts, and on and on the list goes). All such sound ethical choices, you can plainly see. Praise be.
The Church’s investment portfolio is not directly controlled by the Archbishop, but managed by thirty-odd Church Commissioners. Their official policy on ethical investing is that “the Commissioners do not invest in arms or pornography or in any company whose main business is in gambling, alcohol, tobacco, or home credit provision”. Get this. Their rules state that they can invest in firms who make up to 25 per cent of their money through payday lending or gambling (such as doorstep lenders and pawnbrokers), up to 10 per cent through arms dealing (with zero tolerance of companies dealing in either nuclear and chemical weapons or mines) or up to three per cent from pornography.
Good Lord, 25 per cent! That’s a considerable chunk. I’d have thought half that amount would be the absolute maximum allowed. Talk about helping the sinners sin.
The Archbishop gave his embarrassment a rating of eight out of ten.
Wonga has also been in the newspapers recently, albeit the back pages, because Senegalese footballer Papiss Cisse, who plays for Newcastle United and is a practising Muslim, had refused on religious grounds to wear the club’s new shirt following a club sponsorship deal with Wonga, worth around £8 million a year, which would mean the obligatory emblazoning of the payday lender’s logo across the players’ chests.
He has now agreed to wear the shirt after consulting with his Islamic teachers, or being given more money, or something, so let’s hear no more of silly footballers earning twice as much in a single week as the average man does in a year standing up for what they believe in. God forbid we might start thinking they are capable of deep thoughts and convictions, as well as kicking a ball around.
Wonga’s defence, naturally, is that they are meeting a need and if they were not allowed to continue to exploit the vulnerable by lending unsustainable debt, those poor wretches would have no choice but to borrow money from scary people who might well break their legs and stub out cigarettes on their cheeks if they couldn’t pay up on time. A defence I’m about as sick of hearing as that of bankers leaving the country if they were forced to pay more tax and had their obscene bonuses taken away from them. Wah wah. Just go already. Nobody cares. We’d throw a big party and happily wave you off.
(In the interests of fairness, and if you like pie charts, have a look at these facts and figures from the Consumer Finance Association, the trade association representing the interests of the UK’s short-term lenders. They maintain that caps on interest rates have detrimental consequences on consumers. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?)
The other thing they bleat on about is that, yes, they do indeed charge high rates but only on short-term loans, so 5,853 per cent APR looks and sounds a lot worse than it really is because the loan was never meant to last a year, just until payday. But 28 per cent of payday loans are rolled over beyond their payback date at least once, and half their revenue comes from such refinanced debts, as they very well know.
The Church of England, you’ll be relieved but probably not surprised to learn, has called for an investigation into its own pension fund.
Thank Christ for that. An investigation!
Oh, the hypocrisy.
Yet I don’t know about you, but I find it refreshing that the Church is speaking out on issues relevant to modern society’s current crises rather than just banging on about gay marriage and women bishops, which actually wouldn’t register on that many people’s scales of concerns at the best of times and are not nearly as important as pondering how many boiled sweets they can fit in their mouths without choking. There is certainly some distance between these and much more pressing burdens such as, I don’t know, how they’re going to pay the rent this month now that they’ve filled the car with petrol. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, recently spoke out against low pay. Amen to that.
Whilst I know all too well that religion in general is used to justify wars, demands subservience, opposes rational thought, discriminates against women, and (why not?) is responsible for the horrors of HIV and back-street abortions (well, it is), it would be nice if the Church really did have the poor in mind for a change. Besides, before TV, newspapers and Twitter, the Church was the medium through which the public sought moral guidance and gossip in equal measure. The Church ought to be a national moral arbiter.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a believer or a churchgoer, I know that I’d like to live in a society where right and wrong are more clearly defined, one that rewards humanity rather than the greediest few. And I’d much rather empty churches be turned into community banks rather than yet more Indian restaurants.
The poor should have every opportunity to exercise their potential to act collectively. Of course, credit unions also encourage saving and typically will only lend you money if you have shown yourself to be capable of saving regularly. This can only be a good thing for society as a whole, the bonus being that they could force payday lenders to lower their rates if not pack up altogether.
Few can deny that the likes of Wonga prey on the most vulnerable, trapping them in high-interest debt from which they often cannot escape. Those on low incomes, as always, as everywhere, often end up having to pay more for everything; from their gas and electricity, should they pay by the meter, or simply refuse to allow companies unchecked access to their bank accounts to take what they’re due whenever they wish to take it. It’s not fair and should change. The Church should be saying this.
Although I’m disappointed that a senior bishop, with all he already peddles from his pulpit, couldn’t say it without reinforcing the lie that nothing in this world can function without business (ignoring all the clubs, societies, fêtes, etc. that run perfectly well, mostly run by people who have no specific training, no recognised qualifications and most importantly, no desire to profit from their actions), I’m glad he’s spoken out and hope he continues to do so.
Maybe if the Church, incompatible as it is with democracy, started seriously shaking some foundations, more people would care enough to listen. And maybe, by extension, get off their arses and vote next time.
Asked if capitalism was amoral, the Archbishop, a former oil company executive, said: “I don’t think capitalism is necessarily amoral, it can sometimes be immoral but it is not of itself immoral.”
Clearly, the corporate occupation of every corner of life continues. For all the talk, here’s another reminder that the Church is yet another business.