Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Wonga scandal: How did Church of England get into such an unholy mess over payday loans?

Lesser evil: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby defended lenders

Evidence that the Church of England can't tell the difference between right and Wonga. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, claims that if payday lenders were to be put out of business it would leave the poor and the desperate at the mercy of loan sharks.

Turning the other cheek towards the Wongas of this world he claims to see a plus side. At least he reckons, "they do not send people round with baseball bats".

True, your reverence. But as we now know they do send people round with fake solicitors' letters demanding immediate payment or else. Which, while less injurious to customer life and limb, could also be filed under threatening, scary and likely to pile on considerable pressure.

The Church, which invests in Wonga, is currently facing an ungodly dilemma of its own making.

Previously Most Rev Welby had made it clear that he believed that payday lenders should be put out of business. Entirely.

But, oops, this was before he was informed that the CoE's financial wing had sunk something in the region of £100,000 into the company.

Following criticism of this odd state of affairs, the Church's Ethical Investment Advisory Group launched a review. (Although you would think that "Church investing in Wonga" would fairly obviously constitute an ethical no-no.)

The EIAG, however, found that the investment could be defended arguing: "It is no more realistic to desire that they invest only in morally perfect companies than it is to desire that any of us should relate only to morally perfect individuals."

Then the inevitable wee bit of preaching: "In any event, such an objective would rather miss the point of the Gospel. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."

The payday lending community (if we can call it that) may indeed be sick. But I doubt if most church members welcome CoE outreach to this particular example of the halt and the lame. I imagine most godly souls – in common with the rest of us – reserve their sympathy for the poor (in every sense) and the vulnerable who, having turned to the likes of Wonga, find themselves saddled with a 5,000% interest rate and a spiralling debt they haven't a hope in hell of repaying.

It's been suggested that another reason for CoE reluctance to cast out Wonga is that if the Church pulls out its hundred grand it could lose several millions on the deal. (No, I don't understand that calculation either. It's not just God that works in mysterious ways. Finance is also inscrutable.)

But here's the thing. Shouldn't the Church just take such a loss on the chin? For no other reason than that it's the right thing to do. Or rather, that trying to make money out of Wonga induced misery is a very wrong thing to do.

Citing his fears about the boys with baseball bats the Archbishop argues that: "One of the worries at the moment is if payday lending declines very rapidly and credit unions do not take up the slack, where will people turn?"

I am going to suggest something pretty retro here, your grace, but what if they were to, say, turn to the Churches?

Why should the devil have all the good short term loan options?

Would it not be possible for various of the extremely wealthy Churches to club together and take up some of that aforementioned slack? Thus cutting out entirely the baseball bats, the fake solicitors' letters and interest rates on a par of impossibility with your rich man trying to make it through the eye of a needle.

During that scene where Jesus is said to have overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple, does Mr Welby assume dispensation would have been given to a stall manned by a creepy trio of pensioner puppets?

Straight talking money, is the cynical slogan of Wonga. Time surely, for a bit of genuine straight talking and more precisely, straight thinking from the Archbishop and from the Church.

God knows, like all those Wonga repayments, it's overdue.

MLAs should take break from holidays

Our hard-working MLAs are due a bit of a break soon. Somewhere in the region of nine weeks which they are due to have off over the summer months.

No one begrudges them this extended vacation (we don't, do we?). After all they only get a couple of weeks off at Easter. And a week or so at Halloween. And a couple more over Christmas/New Year. But given that the summer break falls during such a traditionally fractious period could there be an argument for changing or even curtailing this very long MLA getaway?

If only because keeping them in situ might concentrate minds on reaching compromise. It may be a bit of a tongue-twister but the question does have to be asked... should Stormont shut up for summer?

Some ‘Suarez-style’ teething problems

This is Dog Awareness Week — a campaign aimed at highlighting shocking statistics which reveal that up to nine postal workers are attacked every day by household pets.

Not all of these are seen by their owners as savage beasts, either. Even normally placid Rover can turn nasty if he feels his territory is being invaded.

But that’s small comfort to the 3,000-odd posties per annum who are injured by snarling animals. Some have been hospitalised with bites. Imagine facing that on a regular basis. They deserve our full sympathy.

But you do wonder if there aren't also a few postal workers in Uruguay who know how they feel? Presumably there will be a similar sense of trepidation delivering mail addressed to a Senor L Suarez.

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