Monday, 28 November 2011

Participation for the Nation! #MALG11

Zero-credit's Emma Bryn-Jones reports on her day at the 2011 MALG Conference.

When we’re sitting on £1.5 trillion in personal borrowing, you would hope that some of the people who manage our repayments get together once in a while. Perhaps a room full of lenders, collectors, advisers, credit checkers, regulators and ombudsmen is not your idea of a great day out, but bear with me! The Money Advice Liaison Group invites open dialogue and this year’s conference, “The changing debt landscape – a change for the better?”, was no exception. 

2011 has been a tumultuous year in credit and debt. First, we had the £27 million Financial Inclusion Fund for face to face debt advice pulled and re-committed, then came news of a national debt advice gateway to be handled by the Money Advice Service from next spring. Throughout all this, the Office of Fair Trading has been developing new credit and debt related guidance, aimed at increasing consumer protection. The Crunch affects us all.

Operating Queensbury style rules of engagement, MALG insists on fair comment - no dissing absentees who cannot defend themselves, for example. From this alone, it is useful to observe who attended the conference and if I were in the market for credit, I’d want to know my lender had been there. The same goes for anyone seeking money or debt advice.

As far as I could tell, the day had two key themes: how we design services using less money for more people, and how we ensure that with fewer resources, vulnerable people remain protected.

Both concern consumers, because the channels for accessing information are in question here. It never ceases to amaze me, for instance, that the Internet is heralded as a key solution, when only a small handful of professionals tweet from events like this  - #duecredit @Debtology @tvl_info @CCCSPressOffice @kermitbantam @nwpearson and @ExperianJames.

We could argue the politics of a cash strapped economy all day, of course, but it won’t change the immediacy of problem debt. When you are up to your eyes in defaults and arrears, sitting on the steps of Saint Paul's may be the last thing you are able to do. You want charges dropped, interest stopped and a realistic conversation about what is possible. Due credit to all who attended the MALG conference, this is precisely what they were there for.

However, a key issue that worries me is the suggestion that, irrespective of how borrowers prefer to access advice - in person, over the phone, or online - their direction to one of these channels must be based on need. This does not sit easily with what we learned from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to my mind. Despite MALG and the College’s best efforts, we are still not entirely sure of how far problem debt increases the likelihood of mental illness. 

A strong consumer voice is essential to these debates and I hope that others from our Coop will join me at the MALG conference next year. The overriding impression I take away from the event is that the professionals can be as vulnerable as we are. From the debt collector I met, who was worrying about fines for the Congestion Charge, to an ombudsman who had argued the toss about bank charges, we are all consumers of personal finance and there's a certain equality in that.


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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

By Crimbo, what would you do?


Chatting to my son on Friday evening, I learned that one of his mates has been asked by his parents to forego a gift this year, in favour of keeping the magic of Christmas alive for his younger sister. I must say, we both found this tough for a 14 year old to handle, and Will gave a strong defence of how stressful it is for teenagers when they are so easily judged by their peers.

But, when it comes to the Christmas crunch, what can you? 
You may have read about the new 0% payday loan, available in the last eight days of every month - settle it quick and pay nothing... Buyer beware, though, because when you look at the small print, if you miss the eight day deadline, you’ll pay interest from the minute the loan was made, right up to when you can pay it.

What’s more, if there is any problem with funds going into your account - and we all know the damage Bank Holidays can do there - a continuous payment authority will come looking for the loan, plus interest, plus penalty charges, every seven days, up to twice a day. That’s an awful lot of unauthorised bank charges to add to your woes - Happy New Yuck! 

Have you opened a Credit Union account yet?
No doubt, our regular readers will have opened a Credit Union account, entitling them to borrow a small amount of money within three months of saving. Keep these on hold if you can, because they are ideal for covering post-Christmas emergencies like burst pipes, bald tyres and all those other horrors that seem to crop up without fail after we’re all fested out.

Tell me about it!
Still, I was very taken with Will’s advice for parents. Talk to your kids, he says, especially if they're teens who can handle some responsibility, because they’ll have ideas you had not considered. For instance, many youngsters know all about the second hand deals in DVD and game shops, and may be delighted to pick out a bundle so all the family can lay claim to a list of credible gifts.

Time it right...
Above all, Will believes children need more of our time, a spot of advice that sits well with recent research by Unicef, stating that British kids are among the least happy in the developed world, because we keep giving them things instead of attention. The parting tip I found most moving was to stick to your family traditions. Even if your meal has value crackers and tinned veg, Will says keeping some sense of normality helps kids trust that no matter what, your love is still strong.


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Image: photostock /

Friday, 4 November 2011

Democracy is dead. Long live market forces!

As right to govern, you reported my vote,
To an unwanted war, you took it,
At the banks that I own, I’m of no note,
The accounts and expenses all crooked.

Protesting my ignorance, you rage when I strike,
In coffee-cup activism, dissed.
I occupy ground from which you are removed
- would it help if I did not exist?

In money shop madness, you squeeze me dry,
Freeze my assets in book-cooking energy.
Shopped to the market for shopping around,
You need me, to every last penny.

Go, shorten my hours and cut-back my rights,
I am growing and shall not desist.
Take my spending away from your occupied wealth
- who will pay when I cease to exist?


November 5th marks the start of Bank Transfer Day, a call to action for us to move our money to an ethical account that puts people first, at a cooperative, mutual, or credit union. Why is this critical? Because globally, we are not markets, we are people.

Perhaps you don’t have much in common with protestors at Wall Street or St Pauls - few at Zero-credit can afford such persistence. Yet we agree that every penny has its value, be it a benefit, payment or deposit.

Forget your ideology for a moment and consider that capitalism is failing because of protectionism, nepotism and greed. Since when was a rip-off what any consumer demands, or honest business but ignorance of profits?

From insurance policies, to packaged bank accounts, debit card and ATM charges, fees for switching, price increases for not, more fool you for skimming an encyclopaedia of small print. The wise know that loyalty means a scam.

For goodness sake, if you don’t buy the spin that stifles talent and creativity, MOVE YOUR MONEY. Invest in a society that breathes mobility, in which innovation reaps rewards for all. Bank ethical, shop local, save wisely with people who respect the seed you have nurtured.

We are not weak, nor are we helpless. The extent of shoddy practice reveals a dependence on the power of our purse, so let every penny, pound, dollar, euro, you name it, teach capitalism the lesson it forgot. As consumers, may we all vote "It's our money"!


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