1950s >> 1959 >> no-658-june-1959

The Snoopers

A furore arose recently in the readers’ letters column of the Daily Mirror, when an article revealed that there were thousands of people employed by Finance Companies whose job it was to snoop into people’s lives, and report on would-be hire purchase customers’ credit reliability. Confirmation of this disturbing practice was forthcoming in subsequent letters, some even rushing to the defence of the maligned investigators. A snooper’s letter pointed out that they performed a very important social function, in that they prevented goods being supplied either to people who couldn’t afford them or to people who had no intention of meeting the repayments.

Irrespective of the ethical considerations involved, there is no doubt that this practice is here to stay, along with its progenitor, Hire Purchase. The growth of Hire Purchase and credit trading in this country since the war has been phenomenal, although, of course, far less than that in America. The increase in the total Hire Purchase debt here in the last eighteen months alone amounted to £220 millions, the total figure in November, 1958, amounting to the colossal sum of £565 millions. Allowing one half of this for commercial credit (machinery, vehicles, and so on), this means that the average personal debt per family works out at something over £20. And in the U.S.A. nine out of ten families live on credit of one form or another.

With this growth of credit selling to working people, it was inevitable that there should grow up the practice of “status reports” or enquiries into the means and earnings of customers. This has reached its highest peak in the U.S.A. with “credit ratings” by which every credit customer is given a record card at a central agency to which Finance Companies can refer. In 1955 the Associated Credit Bureaux of America had 1,700 branches in the U.S.A. and Canada, with files on 75 million buyers. These files contain exhaustive information on the credit subject, including the earnings of all members of the family, personal habits, litigation record, records of past business dealings, value of house and mortgage position or amount of rent paid, and so on. By this system, the good and bad customers can be assessed and defaulters avoided, although strangely enough, the more credit commitments a customer has (promptly paid, of course), the higher his credit rating.

In this country the credit rating system has been proposed many times, but always to be turned down by the Finance associations because their members were not prepared to bear the cost. This is hardly surprising at a time when bad debts amount to less than one-half per cent, of the finance companies’ turnover. However, one can confidently predict that when things become a little more difficult and the bad debt rate increases, the rating system will appear here, too, and we will all have little dossiers giving details of our earnings, family, virtues and vices (shades of the “police state”!)

Until that happy day arrives, the finance houses will make do with the snoopers, those raincoated individuals who, masquerading as friends or relatives, call on our neighbours to make discreet enquiries about our jobs, wages and homes. Then they pop along to the nearby shops and see if we run up bills or live beyond our means, and afterwards call on the factory gateman to make sure that we really do work there. In due course a little buff slip headed “confidential” is sent to the finance company stating, perhaps.—”Works as engineer in local factory at salary of approx. £12 per week—two children aged 6 and 3—good standing with local tradesmen—well-kept home—considered good risk for the amount of credit mentioned.” Or—if the customer is less praiseworthy—”Worked for last two months as fitter—frequently changes job—5 children. 18 months to 7 years—poor home—considered unsafe.”

In this country, although the enquiry organisation is not as complete and exhaustive as that in the U.S.A., it is highly organised. In some towns, the enquiry agencies have files on tens of thousands of hire purchase customers, and the motor-car trade has its own comprehensive system. There is a central agency which records all hire purchase transactions on cars, and issues reports to all its members. This, of course, is essential in a trade dealing with goods that are often priced at £1,000 or more, and where strict control has to be exercised to prevent hirers from selling cars that are still the property of finance companies.

The Hire Purchase Trade Association has 20,000 part-time enquiry agents on its books for the purpose of obtaining “status reports.” There are many smaller organisations using such agents, who are normally part-timers, supplementing their income from rent-collecting and so on. Many are retired Police officers; some are ordinary housewives.

These agents are only a small part of snooperdom. There are many thousands of private enquiry agents who, unlike the romantic figures of Sam Spade and Dr. Thorndike, are kept busy by the sordid divorce investigations and the routine serving of writs and summonses.

Most people look upon snooping as an unsavoury occupation, but do not see where the real unsavouriness lies. This kind of activity is an essential part of property society, a society which provides even more unsavoury occupations, such as the policeman who breaks strikers’ heads with his truncheon, or the soldier mangling workers of other countries. The jobs themselves are not likely to ennoble the characters of the performers, but this is not the main issue. They are carrying out a necessary function of an irrational and harmful social order, and one which exemplifies the sheer idiocy of the social organisation.

What sensible reason can there be for an arrangement whereby some workers produce goods, other workers advertise them, yet more workers arrange them in gaudy shop-windows, more workers fill in hire purchase forms, even more run the complicated accounting and collecting system of the finance companies, some more occupy their time snooping into the buyers’ lives, others add up the bosses’ profit, a few store it away in bank vaults, and finally, a tiny section of the population live more than comfortably on the proceeds?

Surely a simpler and less wasteful arrangement is called for? Why should a vast number of people have to perform useless and frustrating tasks, in order to satisfy the selfish wishes of a ruling clique? Yet it is working people themselves who perpetuate this foolish system; who do the useless tasks as well as the useful; the unproductive as well as the productive.

The trouble is that the alternative, a world of common ownership and common effort, is frightening in its simplicity. It seems too easy to be true. Nevertheless, true it is. It’s as simple as that!

Albert Ivimey