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Wonga. Wronga?

Today I had the television on in the background while I did some chores around the house and an advert for Wonga caught my eye.  Wonga is a loan company who specialise in relatively low value, very short term loans.  It wasn’t the product which caught my eye – but the eye-watering APR of their products: typically 2689%.  Yep, 2689%.  Wow!

I tweeted about how this was nearly 100x more than my (fairly high APR) credit card.  It turns out that Wonga have a rep on Twitter – WongaWoman.  She replied and explained that their loans are v short term, so I thought I would do a bit of research.

They have a page on their website which is dedicated to explaining why their APR looks so ridiculously high. It goes in to detail about how APR is an annual indication, and that they feel it is unfair to use an annual indication as a comparison, when essentially the products (theirs & a standard loan) aren’t the same.  I sort of agree, but they are obliged to state their APR because of the law, and it does show that if you borrowed this money over a year it would be incredibly expensive.

Credit where it’s due.

To their credit they are very upfront about how much it costs to borrow their money (they give a total repayment figure before you take out loan), and they seem a robust responsible lending policy which sees the amount available to you rise as you use the service.  They are also filling in a gap in the banking sector where the big retail banks don’t operator.  In addition they make a donation to a poverty fighting organisation (Kiva) for every loan they process.  They have one numerous industry awards too by the looks of it; and given their response it’s not like they are trying to hide.

Extortion or Bad APR?

In the wake of the credit crisis many questions were asked about the lending practices of the banks, and more about “payday” loan companies and similar.  There was even moves by several members of parliament to put an absolute maximum APR into law, they cited sample APRs which were not dissimilar to the rate which Wonga charges; and they called it extortion.

Is it really Extortion, or is APR just not a good comparator for these type of loans which do have a different feature set and audience to traditional bank loans?  If we did have a law to stop extortionists and it were to be based on APR how could we still allow legitimate and upfront businesses like Wonga to operate?  Or should we allow lending with such high APRs…

Sample Tax Disc

Tax Discs – Not Worth The Paper They’re Printed On

A couple of things have got me thinking about this antiquated piece of paper lately.

For those reading from abroad I should first explain that a “tax disc” is a round piece of paper which is displayed on every vehicle in the UK, to show that the Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax) has been paid for that vehicle, and when it expires.  In cars it is displayed in the bottom passenger side of the window, and on bikes it is affixed to the vehicle somewhere.

Not needed…

This post was prompted by the fact that when I was recently stopped by the local police they totally failed to notice that I wasn’t displaying one.  Obviously, I have paid my tax – however the tax disc holder fell off my motorcycle within 10 miles of owning it (it was badly affixed).  The dealer is supposed to have replaced it, and that is my defence to the crime of “failing to display a VED disc.”

Now, the two traffic police officers could have failed to check for it because it’s almost technically impossible for my bike to not be taxed owing to the fact it is less than 1 year old and you have to tax a motorbike for 1 year when you register it.  (There is the technical possibility I have sent it back for a refund I suppose!).

More likely though, they knew my bike was correctly taxed (and insured / registered etc) before they even stopped me because the ANPR camera in their car had read my registration plate and checked it on the Police National Computer.  So they didn’t need to look for it.  Making it pointless.

Electronic.

Why can’t we do away with this unsightly piece of paper in my window and the expense of printing them (they have some anti-counterfeiting features), distributing them and replacing them every year.  I renew my car tax online, and will do the same with my bike – the government database is updated immediately.  Even if I chose to tax my car at a Post Office the government database is updated overnight – then I am given a disc and a receipt.  Would a receipt not be enough?

We could even opt in to have the reminder sent by email – perhaps with a paper reminder if you failed to re-tax by the due date (just in case).

Oh, and if you do let the one you have expire and don’t tell the DVLA you have taken the vehicle off the public highway then they will use their electronic records to send you an automated £80 fine, in addition to the duty remaining payable.  They’ll even take you to court if you continually fail to pay.

So, if we can buy one electronically, the police check them electronically, and DVLA enforce the actual duty electronically,  why do we need them?  You can even check yourself online – if you know the registration and make of a vehicle you can check on the DirectGov website as to the status of that cars tax.   I just can’t see a reason for keeping them?

The Exceptions.

VED Exempt
VED Exempt

The other thing which got me thinking about it was the exceptions to the regime.  You very rarely see them, but vehicles being operated by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Custom’s are exempt VED, and display a special disc.  I saw one of these in Leamington about a month ago on a vehicle being used by the UK Borders Agency (they had a sticker in window asking not to be clamped too!!).  These would be very very easy to fraudulently copy if you were so inclined – but of course there’s no point, because the database would still show your car as untaxed.  Police would stop you, and DVLA would still fine you.

Then there is the farce of police vehicles, ambulances, fire engines and historic vehicles – none of which are subject to VED, but all of which has a piece of paper renewed every year in the front window.  Quite literally a total waste of money.

There you are then, if the new government wants a quick easy saving then how about not printed and distributing 34 million pieces of paper each year!?

Government Websites

In an age of austerity?  Really?

If you live in the UK you can’t of helped but notice that of late the new Tory / Liberal Democrat coalition government have been cutting anything that stands still for long enough.  We are in an age of austerity apparently.  This has prompted all sorts of clever questions made under the Freedom of Information Act by journalists about government spending, and tech journalists are no exception.

Business Link Logo
£105m Website

The BBC’s leading technology correspondent is Rory Cellan-Jones – he’s generally a very smart fellow and obviously has a number of good connections.  Today he made a blog post about the Business Link website costing £105,000,000 over a 3 year period.

Yes, £105 million pounds for a website.

Clearly there is righteous indignation all round, and outright amazement that a website can cost £105m.  This then prompted a former civil servant who now runs his own consultancy, Simon Dixon, to comment on what he felt Rory had missed.

How?

In short, Simon says it can cost £35m a year to run a website because:  it can.

And scarily, he’s right.  While I have no experience in the public sector I have seen the same thing happen in the private sector but usually only in large corporations.

I think the reason for it is a little different to that which Simon suggests (that it is because big consultancys get involved and the money is there).  I think its because we get involved in my pet hate:  I.T. for I.T.’s sake.  This is when we, as IT professionals do things because we believe thats how they should be done, or because we want a new tech on our CV, or its the current “favourite”,  forgetting the core purpose of what our client wants.

We should be about helping our clients (be they public or private sector) improve their output, or achieve their goals in the most cost effective way.  One of the comments on Simon’s blog just about sums it up for me:

Factor in the endless box-ticking requirements generated by the ITIL and PRINCE2 job-creation methodologies…

Clearly I dont think any sane person would argue against having “best practices” and “methodologies” which allow us to get our jobs done in the most effective way.  But do the likes of ITIL and PRINCE2 really do that?    In my experience the problem with them is that they are too generic and allow themselves to be bent by persons various to suit whatever aim they currently have… do they result in better IT projects?  Yes, mainly.  But do they result in our clients producing widgets more efficiently, or getting information out better?  Only as a bi-product.

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Interesting Links for June 8th.

These are my interesting links for June 8th:

Identity & eBills

A slightly pertinent topic in the light of the new UK government’s scrapping of the Identity Card scheme, but I had a bizarre experience yesterday trying to prove who I was in order to hire a Rug Doctor machine to clean my hallway carpet with.

I presented myself at the Focus (1 of 2 local DIY stores) with the following documents:

  • Full UK Driving Licence (Both Parts)
  • Passport
  • Vehicle Registration Certificate (dated April 2010).
  • 2 Credit Cards
  • JAA Private Pilots Licence (in same folder as driving licence, not being poncy!)

All of which was not sufficient to prove my identity to rent what is in all likelihood about £300 worth of hoover.  This because I did not have a recent utility bill or bank statement with my address on.  I pointed out to the assistant that I get all of my credit card and utility bills electronically now, and thus didn’t have any; but that I had brought a ‘log book’ for my motorbike which was issued by DVLA on 23rd April 2010.

Rug Doctor
Not Available without 'ID'.

I then remembered that I had hired a machine off them in January too, but that wouldn’t help them.  The manager point blank refused to believe I was me and lived at the address identified on no less than 4 pieces of Government issued documentation.  Instead they needed a print out of a utility bill and insisted upon it, there was no question of using discretion or common sense – the addage “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.” seemed to apply.

I duly went home and printed out a PDF of my last credit card statement, however I went to Homebase instead to hire the machine in order to make my point about the stupidity of the manager’s decision in Focus.  I hired the machine on the basis of a passport and a printed out credit card statement.

It does seem though that in order to prove your identity (or more accurately your address) in the UK then a home printed PDF (please don’t edit it yourself) is more admissible than a government printed official document (or 4) on watermarked paper with holograms.  Rug Doctor are asking for it in my opinion!

Reality Check

Stephen Fry seems to have become something of an über celebrity of late, and I think this is driven largely by the fact that on the face of it he seems to be a jolly nice chap who is super bright and people can relate to.  I follow him on Twitter, he’s @StephenFry, but will confess I don’t always read every tweet or follow every link  he posts (especially as he has a habit of crashing servers he links to with volume of traffic).  However, yesterday a friend pointed me to a video interview he had tweeted about…

What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18.

The video is an interview of Stephen by Peter Samuelson, which nominally discusses what Stephen wishes he knew when he was 18.  Its actually a bit of a commentary on modern life, and serves as a bit of a reality check.  He discusses subjects such as technology, interacting with other people, work, egotism, seeing the world, internet trolls and much much more.

It serves as a massive reality check, and I largely agree with Stephen.  As usual its expressed very eloquently and I think its something we should all take the time to read and think about!

STEPHEN FRY: WHAT I WISH I’D KNOWN WHEN I WAS 18 from Peter Samuelson on Vimeo.

Interesting Links for May 25th.

These are my interesting links for May 25th:

Interesting Links for May 20th.

These are my interesting links for May 20th:

IR35 to be repealed?

Britain has a new government, a coalition between The Conservative Party and The Liberal Democratic Party, and as a result of the coalition the two parties have had to decide what policies from their manifestos they would like to persue as a government.  They published this today as Coalition Agreement.  It contains a whole series of promises, but one in particular interests me – the one about IR35.

IR35.

IR35 is a piece of UK tax legislation which was introduced to prevent “disguised employment” being used to reduce a persons tax burden.  Essentially by working for a company through an intermediary it was possible to reduce your tax liability while doing the same job under the same terms – a process which became known as “Friday to Monday”; someone would leave on Friday and come back on Monday to do the same job but pay less tax.

Clearly, for any tax system to be fair two people doing the same job with the same terms and conditions should pay the same amount of tax; and so IR35 was announced in the 1999 budget.  It essentially means that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs can decide some or all of your work is effectively that of a “disguised employee” and therefore full PAYE and NI contributions are due.

Why I feel its unfair.

IR35 has come in for a lot of criticism, much in the public domain, but here is why I think its unfair.  I do a high proportion of work for one main client (there only being many hours in the day), and it could be argued I might be classed as a disguised employee as I mainly sit at a desk alongside permanent employees of the client, and do similar work.

However, I am not an employee of the client and so don’t get the generous paid holiday, contributory pension, access to the very generous company car scheme, paid sick leave and most importantly:  employment rights.  The client can terminate my contract at any point, with a four week notice period.  I have no right of appeal, no redundancy rights, no manager to air grievances with – because I am not an employee.  (In fact the client has done this, they cancelled my contract last year and offered me a new one with a rate cut of  7.5% – take it or leave it.  Couldn’t do that to employees!).

I am fortunate because this client keeps renewing my contract (touch wood), hopefully because they are satisfied with the work I do.  There is no obligation on them to renew, and many of my friends work on short fixed term contracts; and also find themselves potentially up against IR35.  If my main client did not renew though I have other income from other activities which would keep me going, because I am a genuine small business, and pay tax as such; yet IR35 is always on my mind.

So, if I were to fall foul of IR35 (and my current understanding is my contract is outside of its scope) then would they retrospectively give me all of the benefits which come along with being an employee?  Of course they wouldn’t – they’d just take the tax.  Seems a little unfair.

Semantics.

Coalition Agreement on IR35
The Exact Text

There has been a lot of “noise” today amongst the contracting community about the repeal of IR35 which has been promised in the coalition agreement.  I would strongly urge caution… read the wording carefully.  It promises to “review” it; this does not mean that it will be repealed.  It could be replaced by something even more draconian (although that seems unlikely), it could be left alone entirely, or it could be tweaked.

That said, the general tone of the paragraph concerned can only be considered as a positive statement.  It pains me to say that, as politically I support neither of the two coalition parties… but a fair tax system is something I really think we should have.  If I have to pay the same tax as an employee then it should be on the basis of the same terms and conditions – thats fair!

My personal hope is that they find a way to simplify the implementation of IR35; I think its overall aim is fair – two people doing the same job, on same T&C’s should pay the same tax.

Hero’s Run

I am taking part in the “Hero’s Run” in aid of The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance a week on Sunday (May 23rd) at Stoneleigh Park – and I am looking for sponsorship for a good cause which is close to my heart – The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.

The Hero’s Run is a 5k run around Stoneleigh Park (a magnificent setting), and I intend to run the whole thing – no walking.  You can find more details about it on the WNAA website. Some folk  will be taking part dressed as super hero’s, which could provide some cheap entertainment.

As one of my friends very kindly pointed out I don’t normally run so much as a bath – so this is something of a special effort for me; and I am hoping you will sponsor me, or at least come down and scrape me up off the floor about half way round and set me on my way again.  I’ve had a word with the pilot of the Air Ambulance and he assures me that when he has finished laughing at me he will take me to hospital if I collapse.

G-RSCU - The new WNAA.
G-RSCU - The new WNAA.

I’m sure I don’t need to point out the Air Ambulance is a vital resource for getting seriously injured people medical treatment fast, saving lifes.  We are privileged in Warks & Northants to have an air ambulance which routinely carries a Doctor and uses one of the fastest helicopters available; they essentially take the hospital to the patient, and quickly.  However they get no government funding, and are entirely dependant on donations.  So, I thought I should do my bit to try and help them, I wouldn’t want to be in position where I need them, and they aren’t there!


Can you help out by sponsoring me?   You can do it online…  www.justgiving.com/craig-parsons

Thanks!