Michael Sheen has decided to scale back his acting career to devote himself to campaigning against high-interest credit providers, like Wonga and BrightHouse, and working to find fairer alternative sources of credit.
He will begin his new undertaking on Tuesday in Glasgow, where he will launch the End High Cost Credit Alliance, a campaign group of politicians, charities and tech companies he has brought together, working to promote more affordable ways of borrowing money. His dedication to tackling problem debt has been inspired by witnessing difficulties faced by friends in the Welsh town of Port Talbot where he grew up, a region struggling with the decline of the local steel industry.
Sheen wants to analyse the flaws of universal credit, discuss the shortcomings of the government’s welfare reform programme and focus on ways to reduce household debt levels.
He is enraged by curtailment of government crisis loans and by the spread of chronic debt but he is also exceptionally well-informed about the subject and passionate about finding ways to improve things.
Best known for playing Tony Blair, Sheen has finished a five-year stint in Los Angeles, where he acted in Twilight and took other roles that allowed him to be close to his daughter studying in the US. Since she started college, Sheen has been able to spend more time in the UK, relocating to Port Talbot, where he has been confronted daily by the problems associated with spiralling household debt.
“I’ve become increasingly aware of friends and family dealing with being in debt – with overdrafts, credit card payments, pay day loans, home credit,” he said. “It’s a really hard subject to talk about but I’ve had friends breaking down in tears talking about how it is affecting their relationship, their self-esteem, their children’s lives. It touches buttons about your own sense of dignity and pride.”
Sheen has set about “learning in a turbo-charged way” everything he can about high-cost lenders, and speaking to people who have gone badly into debt trying to cover daily necessities.
“People often say: ‘Well if someone can’t afford something, they shouldn’t be paying for it’. But people have told me ‘in order to travel to a job interview, I had to get a bit of credit’ or ‘my child has a disability, in order to cover just basic needs I have to go into debt.’ More and more this is about people needing to pay for basic needs.”
As he points out, 3 million UK households are paying more than 25% of their income to creditors – representing 10 million people, or more than 10% of the population. Although he hasn’t had personal experience, he is aware that it’s something that cuts through society. “It’s not them over there … if you’ve ever gone into overdraft situation and you’re not sure you can come out of it, you’re already dealing with stress.”
Initially he wondered if he could spend some of his savings on buying back bad debt to wipe it out – inspired by John Oliver, the host of the US chat show Last Week Tonight, who bought back nearly $15m (£10m) worth of medical debt on his show, forgiving the debts of about 9,000 people. When that proved too complex – in part because failed business debts are often bundled together with personal loans in the secondary debt market – he decided to focus on promoting more ethical and cheaper alternative providers of instant credit.
These exist already, but lack the investment that companies like Wonga have, so aren’t advertising on daytime television and Facebook, and are not widely known. His campaign group’s manifesto promises: “We will back fair finance providers, equipping them with the resources to compete and win against high-cost credit providers.”
He hopes to be able to raise awareness about not-for-profit loan organisations, like Moneyline, Scotcash, or Street UK.
Sheen is using “a significant” amount of his own money to fund the campaign, and hopes to unlock donations from other philanthropists. He will continue acting, but will make this project his priority when he isn’t working, and hopes to be involved in working on debt for the long-term.
“My leverage depends on me having both money and profile, so there’s no point giving up my access to both of those things. It’s about finding a balance.”
He recognises that there may be cynicism about the capacity of a Hollywood star to bring about change in this incredibly complex area. “It is absolutely right that people should be suspicious. We should always question people’s agendas. People should be asking: Is this just stuff I say, or am I making a difference?” Ideally, he says, he wouldn’t be the face of this campaign. “I’d rather no one knew what I was doing at all, the problem is that’s what I bring to the table.”
Conservative politician and sports minister Tracey Crouch is one of the alliance’s members, as is Ed Miliband, along with academics and debt charities. The movement aims to be pragmatic and Sheen believes it will have succeeded in five years’ time, if things are simply better.
“This is about trying to move things in the right direction. There’s no point saying unless we can get the absolute perfect answer, there’s no point doing anything. There is a financial landscape out there at the moment that could be fairer. There could be a better deal for people. We need to work together to find it.”