This article is part of a series on faith and finance.
The Just Money Campaign builds on the actions taken by Citizens UK in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008. In this essay, reproduced from the Contextual Theology Centre’s report God and the Moneylenders, two of the community organisers involved in the current campaign describe its existing activities and its potential for further growth and impact.
Since 1989 Citizens UK has built strong, independent civil society alliances to take action for the common good. The strongest of these is London Citizens, which brings together over 230 faith, education and civic institutions. By 2008, the alliance was leading a vigorous Living Wage campaign, driven in part by the teachings and traditions of member churches. However, the global financial crisis and subsequent recession placed even greater pressure on the incomes of our members. Alongside stories of working poverty and parents juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet came testimonies of unsecured loans and crippling debt. Meanwhile academics within our membership researched the dynamics and impact of the City of London, financial regulation and ‘organised money’ on communities.
As Angus Ritchie and Muhammad Abdul Bari’s explain in God and the Moneylenders, our response was to call for a cap on the cost of credit and the re-capitalisation of community finance. But London Citizens also saw its duty in making sure that its own communities were resilient to the grim economic realities. Between 2009 and 2012, the alliance ran a pioneering peer-to-peer financial literacy project called ‘Money Mentors’. This saw volunteers from across our membership trained in key skills relating to credit, debt, budgeting and university finance. These Money Mentors received an ASDAN qualification and were equipped with the tools to spread these skills through peer-to-peer teaching and networks within their own communities. In total over 4,000 people were trained, helping to buffer thousands more from the worst winds of the economic storm.
“Compared to other developed economies, Britain has one of the weakest systems of regulation of payday lending.”
However, as the recession took hold, many communities experienced a sudden proliferation of payday loan shops. As local shops went out of business, many high streets in deprived communities went into decline, leaving empty units. Meanwhile benefit cuts and unemployment squeezed household budgets further. Taking advantage of these conditions, high street lenders such as Speedy Cash and the Money Shop quickly opened stores in many of our high streets.
When London Citizens members in East London gathered in autumn 2012, the stories of families trapped in spirals of debt were disturbing. In Lambeth, member institutions and particularly churches were keen to hold their own Money Talks. Members of St John the Evangelist Church, Angell Town and St John’s Angell Town Primary School weaved these discussions into the rhythm of school and parish life.
Martin Clark, the Head Teacher, allowed parents meet in the school hall at 9am, after dropping their children off for lessons. The Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett encouraged conversations during the sermon slot and after mass. House of Faith Church, West Norwood and Churches Together in Brixton & Stockwell also held their own conversations, allowing us to bring together the testimonies of people from a variety of denominations. As well as learning about the experiences of their congregations, leaders compared UK regulation of payday lenders with that of other countries. We learned that Britain had one of the weakest systems of regulation and was one of the only developed economies that placed no caps on the cost of credit.
Our research had made clear the impact of usury on households, but also presented us with ideas for specific issues we could take action on. One of the most successful payday lenders operating in the borough is The Money Shop. Their bright yellow shop fronts and advertising campaigns featuring TV presenter and antiques expert David Dickinson had made them a household name. With stores in Brixton, Stockwell, West Norwood, Camberwell, Peckham and Denmark Hill, The Money Shop is perhaps the most high profile payday lender in South London. The company also operates in Canada, under the name MoneyMart, where stricter regulations on the lending sector ensures that they don’t rollover loans or offer them to people who already have them from other companies. If similar rules could be adopted in the UK, then that would represent a significant victory for our members.
“Lambeth Council has banned payday loan advertising on all its advertising hoardings and computer terminals in public buildings.”
Leaders from Lambeth joined those from Bethnal Green, East Ham and Nottingham (the location of The Money Shop headquarters) to take action. On 1st July, which also happens to be Canada day, teams at each location planned visits to Money Shop stores armed with Canadian flags, maple syrup and Mountie costumes. Our aim was to secure a meeting with The Money Shop’s senior executives, as well as educating the public of the differences between their UK and Canadian operations. On hearing about our action, The Money Shop agreed to a meeting, so the focus of the action was broadened to cover all payday lenders in our neighbourhoods. In Lambeth, members of six different organisations (including five churches) participated in the action, with some visiting payday lenders and others speaking to shoppers in Brixton.
Our meeting with The Money Shop took place later that month. Whilst they were largely unwilling to change their practices (confirming our view that action is needed by the Government and the new regulator the Financial Conduct Authority), we were able to identify some areas where we could work together, such as signposting people to credit unions if they needed longer-term loans.
While negotiations continue at a national level, the Lambeth teams continue to take local action. Our member churches have been promoting credit union membership to their congregations. A delegation of London Citizens members met with Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth Council to secure her support for our campaign. The council has banned payday loan advertising on all its advertising hoardings and computer terminals in public buildings. In the lead up to Christmas, as payday loan advertisements proliferate, we have launched a petition in order to secure a full Council debate on the issue and to get Lambeth Council to call on Transport for London to ban such adverts from bus shelters and tube stations. Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Brixton, have set the ball rolling by collecting over 300 signatures on a single Sunday. This campaign has given our member churches an effective way to listen to and cater for their congregations, in the spirit of Christian teaching, leading to positive and exciting local action.
Selina Stone works for the Contextual Theology Centre as a church-based community organiser in Lambeth. She is also a Parliamentary Assistant to Baroness Elizabeth Berridge.
Tom Chigbo is the Lambeth Borough Organiser for Citizens UK and a former President of the Cambridge University Students’ Union.
 Angus Ritchie and David Barclay, eds., God and the Moneylenders: Faith and the Battle against Exploitative Lending (London: Contextual Theology Centre, 2013), http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/CTC-Theology-for-the-Local-Church-2-God-the-MoneyLenders-2013.pdf.