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Anti-usury campaign launched at City of London Assembly

Politicians and bankers respond to Londoners' call for an end to legal loan-sharking

The Conservative shadow treasury minister Greg Hands promised last night to cap the interest rates charged by store cards, and to consider restricting lending on "other financial products with egregious interest rates".

He made the promise on stage at the Barbican in front of 2,000 Londoners drawn from 150 civil-society organisations - a mixture of faith congregations, schools, trade union branches and charities -- across the capital. The assembly saw the launch of a campaign to introduce Britain's first anti-usury laws in 500 laws. Unlike major European countries, there is no legal restriction in Britain on the amount of interest a lender can charge.

The new campaign, 'Taking responsibility in the economic crisis", emerges out of months of house meetings in London Citizens' member institutions, gathering evidence of the effect of high-interest loans on families.

The assembly was attended by representatives of the three main parties, as well as the British Bankers Association, major employers, and London's mayor, Boris Johnson. London Citizens leaders congratulated mayor Johnson for his support for its four major campaigns: the London Living Wage (Ł7.60), Strangers into Citizens (calling for a an earned amnesty of long-term undocumented migrants) and CitySafe, a community-based action against street violence. In response, Mr Johnson praised London Citizens leaders for "the brilliant and ruthless way you bend us politicians to your will".

The mayor also warned bankers thinking of more massive bonuses this Christmas to consider the moral of Dickens's character Ebeneezer Scrooge, "who was of course a banker, thank you, who lent money at usurious rates to the subprime sector in Victorian London".

The assembly also heard praise from four leading employers whom London Citizens have persuaded to pay the London Living Wage (LLW). Dominic Johnson of Barclays Bank said its 800 cleaners in London were all now paid above the LLW and that it made "business as well as moral" sense. Mike Kelly of KPMG criticised the "extremely short-term view" of employers who used the recession as an excuse not to pay it, while Roger Reeves of PwC, a long-time champion of the LLW, said he felt "humble" to be at the assembly. Oonagh Harpur of another LLW employer, Linklaters, said working and travelling in London was expensive, and was much more expensive for the low-paid.

The City Parochial Foundation announced it was investing close to Ł1m in promoting and extending the LLW, including a Ł700,000 grant to London Citizens.
After a City of London street cleaner paid only Ł6.76 an hour gave evidence, a Corporation of London councillor, Mark Boleat, promised to review the Corporation's procurement process and to consider building in a living wage clause into its cleaning contracts.

A London Citizens leader, Dr Luke Bretherton, said the 'restoring responsibility' campaign was about "rebalancing the power between people and capital". As well as extending the living wage, the campaign calls for a 20% cap on the cost of lending, a statutory code for lenders, the investment of one per cent of the Ł1tn taxpayer bailout of the banks in financing mutual lending such as credit unions, and a financial literacy programme for schools.

The campaign was first launched in July, when London Citizens met at Bevis Marks synagogue before holding a demonstration outside the headquarters of RBC bank. The rabbi involved, Nathan Asmoucha, subsequently lost his post at the synagogue. At the assembly he received a cheque from a Methodist minister from Co Howard, Maryland, whose congregation was moved to take up a collection for him when they heard what had happened. Moved, the assembly got to its feet to applaud the rabbi.

A new economics foundation (nef) report, Doorstep Robbery - Why the UK needs a fair lending law, which argues for a cap on the cost of credit as well as new rules which would oblige banks to make more loans available to the less well-off, was commended at the assembly.

Faith leaders showed their support for the lending regulation proposal by reading together from the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 5, against usury. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Synagigue, Col Mike Parker of the Salvation Army, Dr Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain and Mgr John Armitage of the Catholic diocese of Brentwood took it in turns to read verses 1-13.

The assembly heard from Agnesi, an east-European single mother who was trapped in a debt spiral after Lloyds Bank offered her a loan, and then another loan when she was unable to pay it. When she offered to pay reduced amounts each month in order to cover her basic needs she said "no one would listen" and began to receive threatening letters from debt collectors. "I want my life back," she said.

Responding to London Citizens' five-point call, Greg Hands MP, for the Conservative Party, said the Tories would introduce a cap on the interest rates charged by store cards and impose a seven-day cooling-off period for people borrowing on them. Pressed by Dr Bretherton if the party would look at "other financial products with egregious interest rates", Mr Hands said: "yes".

For the Liberal-Democrats, Vince Cable MP said he would argue for the five-point proposal to be included in the Lib-Dem manifesto.

The Treasury Minister Stephen Timms MP agreed to ask the Office of Fair Trading to invite London Citizens to make the case for an interest rate cap and statutory lending code.

The evening included songs and street dances.

Źródło: materiały prasowe London Citizens. Więcej na www.londoncitizens.org.uk.