As I look back over my long career, nothing makes me prouder than helping to change the lives of thousands of families across the UK through my work for Fair for You, which I helped set up with Angela Clements in 2015.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been delighted to see it blossom. Both that pride, and my conviction that financially vulnerable families must have access to affordable credit, have been bolstered in recent weeks by two things.
The first is the ever-present nightmare of coronavirus. The economic impact of this dreadful virus has plunged even some relatively comfortable families into dire straits.
We have to search hard for the silver lining of the coronavirus cloud, but I do hope that our common experience brings a heightened awareness among the general public, politicians, media and others of the problems faced by so many people in financial difficulties. In turn, I hope that translates into more support for Fair for You and our peers.
I’ve been asked whether Fair for You customers are managing to keep up with payments during this crisis. Many have asked to reduce payments or pause temporarily as they have a change in income. That is very much business as usual for Fair for You, we don’t charge late fees or a fee to change the payment profile. Our response has been to increase our team on the front line taking calls, texts, emails, messages and webchats from customers who are anxious and need reassurance that we are there to support them through tougher times.
Many are benefit dependent, being lower income families with a caring obligation either children or c 40% of our customers have disability in the household.
In reality our customers payments may be less impacted than some lenders, as so many of our customers were existing on lower income to start with, and have less to lose than perhaps some of those facing redundancy.
Meanwhile, I’ve seen our more ruthless competitors struggle, which I feel vindicates our ethical, responsible, customer-centred approach. Any business that sets itself up along our lines is likely to be more resilient in tough times, I feel.
The second thing was more personal – smaller, in a sense, but very meaningful to me. And to Lisa, too.
Lisa is a Fair for You customer, who I first met just over three years ago. We got chatting at a reception I was chairing for Fair for You in parliament, and she told me that she had used us to buy a tumble dryer. This had transformed her household’s life, given that she’d been drying the clothes of her then four-year old, accident-prone, son using a hairdryer. She was an amazing, eloquent woman able to do a wonderful thing – explain in her own words the impact of Fair for You far better than I, Angela or our staff ever could.
(That meeting was the same day of the Westminster Bridge terror attack – Lisa, myself and others were on lockdown in the Parliamentary chapel for several hours afterwards. I’ve written a blog about that day, not that I was going to forget it in a hurry.)
I had the chance to speak to Lisa again last month – almost exactly three years on from that meeting. She’s since bought several other items from us, including a bed for her son. Now seven, he’s been sleeping through the night on his own (rather than in her bed), and is much happier and healthier thanks to getting that rest. That’s made the whole family happier!
Fair for You’s support has helped Lisa have the confidence to start her own business designing mugs, hoodies, t-shirts and the like. Unfortunately, this had to be put on the back burner when schools closed, but in its place Lisa has helped set up a mutual aid group in her local area, helping deliver food, medicines and other provisions to those who need it.
I know that there are thousands more Lisas out there – people whose life either has been transformed by both the affordable credit and sense of security that Fair for You gives, or who are yet to use our services, but who we promise to do our best to support, when they need.
Tom Levitt is chair of Fair for You, the registered charity which owns Fair for You Enterprise CIC. He is a former teacher and was the Labour MP for High Peak in Derbyshire 1997-2010.