A politician fighting to regulate pay day loan companies has rounded on Newcastle United sponsor Wonga as the firm attempted to win over doubters in a special meeting organised by fans.
Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah told the meeting that a “special place in Hell” is reserved for businesses that use technology for unfair gain.
The event, organised by the Newcastle Fans United group, saw chiefs from Wonga and the club’s financial director John Irving sit on a panel to answer questions from supporters, fanzine writers, and business and charity leaders.
Fans said they had been buoyed by the talks held at the Lit & Phil library on Newcastle’s Westgate Road, and thought Wonga bosses had shown courage to come out and face questions.
But Ms Onwurah said: “Wonga like to present themselves as a technology company.
“I believe there’s a special place in Hell for those who use technology to exploit rather than make the world a better place.
“The technology...is making decisions on whether people can have loans. It’s not seeing people or understanding their circumstances.”
Newcastle United courted controversy last October when it appointed Wonga as the club’s sponsor, replacing Virgin Money.
The company has been criticised repeatedly for its interest rates.
Ms Onwurah added: “Newcastle has some of the highest rates of deprivation and a high rate of pay day loan take up and has seen such a huge increase in debt in the North East.
“And that’s before the impact of April’s benefit changes.
“Wonga needs to evolve and change its business model so that it is more responsible.”
However, the company’s communications director John Moorwood argued that Wonga rejects 76% of requests for loans coming from the North East region and said that’s a slightly higher level than the national average.
He explained: “Our model is to lend to people who can pay us back quickly.
“Although our approach is controversial and unconventional, it is highly selective and we try to get it right.”
He added that the business was committed to the club for the long term as part of a four-year sponsorship deal, and had already set about making financial contributions to support the wellbeing of the city’s residents.
“It’s clear we share some of the concerns that have been raised,” Mr Moorwood said, “and we want to see better regulation and more responsible lending.” He added that many people “value services like ours”.
“It’s difficult when the continual characterisation of our customers is as being vulnerable,” Mr Moorwood went on. “It’s really important that these issues are raised and discussed, but equally important to understand is that there’s a significant number of customers using Wonga responsibly who don’t fall into that category.”
When asked by fan Paul Robson if the company had received the same hostility from supporters of Blackpool FC and Scottish Premier League side Hearts when they took over their sponsorship, he laughed and said: “With respect to those two clubs, they are not Newcastle and the reaction here is like that reaction on steroids.”
Bill Corcoran, from Newcastle Fans United who chaired the event, said: “It was obvious that nobody was holding back about their opinions and it was a very positive conversation. Let’s hope something good comes out of it.”
John Irving, United’s financial director, said Wonga had already proved itself a far more “active” partner than its predecessors and was supportive of future plans for fans and developing younger players.
“There are two things when we look at sponsorship deals,” he said. “There’s the massive commercial impact of what we do and second, there’s the activeness of the partner which is important for the club and the fans.
“We have a huge fan base and do well in terms of match day revenue and, from a TV point of view, we get a lot of money from Sky. We have been trying to improve on commercial revenue and, in terms of looking for a new sponsor, from a business point of view it was to get the biggest and best deal that we could.
“Wonga have had the money on the table and have been a lot more aggressive.
“It’s massively important to have people on board who want to get involved with us in terms of what we do with the fans and the foundation, and what we do with the younger players. Wonga have only really been here five weeks and they have actually done considerably more than anyone ever has done in terms of investment and support.
“The gates have been unveiled, they renamed the stadium back to St James’ Park, Wonga tick the boxes.
“From a club point of view, we are delighted they are partnered with us for such a long time and we are looking forward to working with them.”
ADVICE BUREAU SEEKS LOAN COMPANY’S SUPPORT
Wonga has rarely been out of the headlines since announcing its sponsorship of Newcastle United.
Last October, the Magpies revealed the company as the club’s main sponsor in a multi-million pound deal that saw it invest £1.5m into United’s academy and the Newcastle United Foundation Enterprise Scheme.
The firm also secured naming rights to the stadium and reinstated the St James’ Park name.
But there was an immediate backlash, with Unite regional secretary Karen Reay saying: “This is the day when Newcastle’s owners sold this city’s great footballing name for 30 pieces of tainted silver.” A month later the Office of Fair Trading announced that several pay day lenders faced formal investigations over the use of aggressive debt collection methods.
MP Stella Creasy has been vocal in her criticism of Wonga and other lenders, while the Citizens’ Advice Bureau raised concerns about high interest levels charged by the firms.
Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, former Bishop of Durham the Most Rev Justin Welby, turned on the firm, telling Wonga that the Church of England wants to “compete” it out of existence as part of its plans to expand credit unions as an alternative to pay day lenders.
And Newcastle City Council, whose leader Nick Forbes has been highly critical of the United link-up, blocked computers in its libraries and customer service points from accessing websites offering quick loans with high interest rates.
At yesterday’s meeting, representatives of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Newcastle asked the company to help fund its debt advice service.
Shona Alexander, Newcastle’s CAB chief executive, said: “What we’re worried about is if people can’t get a loan from the pay day lender, where do they go next? It’s likely to be an illegal lender with links to drug running, organised crime and prostitution.
“What about some sort of debt advice referral system from Wonga? If Wonga want to do something in financial terms to support debt advice work in the city, we’re open to have a discussion on that. We would welcome that discussion.”
A fan who helped co-ordinate the meeting suggested Wonga’s communication’s director John Moorwood could fund a position at Newcastle’s CAB office to help it cope with job cuts and the rise in demand on the service.
Mr Moorwood said: “The ideas the CAB put forward were completely reasonable and expected. We need a bit of time to make sure that we have had the right conversations with the right people [and then] do what we can to have the most impact.”