After attending a campaign training session at Summerfest, the National Youth Committee rep for Scotland, Hannah Lister returned home full of ideas and, working closely with Labour and Co-operative MSP Kezia Dugdale, has become a key part of the Debtbusters campaign in Edinburgh. Here she tells us what they’ve been up to.

As a full time Labour party organiser, most would say I am a seasoned activist and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, the loan shark campaign has been an opportunity away from the usual voter identification work that we do as a party, to instead focus on highlighting the unjust way that the loanshark companies springing up all over our high streets, are targeting some of the most vulnerable groups.

The campaign is the most wide-ranging campaign that I have ever been involved in and it is not a straightforward nor short-term ‘win’, but long-term it will make a huge difference if we can ‘make waves’ in combating these companies.

The key parts to this campaign involve:

  1. Highlighting effectively the unfair way in which loan sharks operate, opening in some of the most deprived areas in Edinburgh and charging APR rates of up to 2000%
  2. Lobbying the Scottish Government to raise awareness of the dangers of these companies and to provide tougher legislation within its powers (eg. a ‘wealth’ warning on adverts etc- as debt issues are devolved to Scotland but regulation is reserved to Westminster)
  3. Promoting the co-operative values of joining a credit union, where interest rates are lower and transactions are much fairer and transparent.
  4. Raising public awareness of all these elements, and getting people on board to help with the campaign.

Labour and Co-operative MSP Kezia Dugdale has been outraged by these companies for a long time and decided to take this campaign forward in a similar way as Labour and Co-operative MP Stella Creasy has done in England.

Up here, our campaign is entitled ‘Debtbusters’. The loan shark companies pretend to bust debt worries until payday but put people into massive debt as a result. Since we are trying to stop that, it was thought that the best way to campaign against the bright, attractive appeals of these payday loan shops was to almost play them at their own game.

We designed a leaflet that on first glance looks like what you would expect from a payday loan leaflet that would drop through your door. Actually, one lady came to the door on the first day of campaigning and gave me the leaflet back saying “ I’m not interested in your companies…” However, looking closer she saw that the front of the leaflet says “many high street loan shops are offering cheap finance and quick deals…if it sounds too good to be true it probably is…” and the back then has credit union details and debt advisory numbers, as well as some information on how you can get more involved in the campaign.

The leaflet has so far been distributed in areas of East Edinburgh that the legal loan shark companies have been targeting due to higher unemployment and deprivation.

As an MSP, Kezia was also able to send out a survey to her constituents on this issue, and we again targeted areas that the loan sharks had been most operational in. This survey came in response to a number of concerns raised by constituents about legal loan sharks and so the questions on the survey were shaped to reflect this and to try and find out more about the extent to which loan sharks were active in East Edinburgh.

As we live in a social media mad era, the campaign needs to reach as wide an audience as possible. To that end, we have an online presence through Kezia Dugdale’s main website. This includes a section where the public can ‘shop them’ – take photos of payday loan shops that seem to be promising nice deals, without evidence of the dreaded ‘small print’. There is also advice on tackling your debt issues on the website, and we have recently been working on a producing a video with the very talented and dedicated Labour Students. We hope this will be the next social media hit for this campaign – let’s help it go viral – watch this space!

In terms of building momentum, a round table discussion held in October by Kezia in the Scottish Parliament with interested parties (housing associations, citizens advice etc.) and including Jim Lee from the Co-operative Party, proved a very progressive step forward with almost all those in attendance in the packed out committee room committing to one or two ‘next steps’ to help with the more tricky facets of this campaign, especially with regards to the legislative side.

This campaign is really only in its early days given the scale of what we are trying to do, and the Debtbusters team hope to develop campaign days outside the loan shops and also some traditional door-to-door canvassing work on this issue too. However, the inroads we have already made and the positive responses that the campaign is receiving from those who know first-hand about the immoral way in which these companies practice, is keeping us going in our quest for fairness and promotion of credit unions as a welcome and transparent alternative to borrowing.