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United Kingdom – Does having an actress, a Nobel Peace Price winner, a prime minister, a politician, an archbishop, a war hero or a mayor endorse a credit union help it grow? In Great Britain, celebrity endorsements abound. In the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland John Hume was a founder of the movement, crediting it with the source of his negotiating skills that led to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He remains a regular spokesperson for the movement started in the 1960s. Although founded to help the poor, the middle classes joined in large numbers until almost every small town has at least one credit union. Irish President Mary McAleese has stated that her credit union membership made a positive difference in her family’s life as well as in that of Irish citizens. Ireland’s movement is mature and credit union advantages are well recognized. The credit union movement in the United Kingdom (Wales, Scotland and England) is far less developed. Credit unions are thought of as “poor peoples’ banks”. The government sees them as a solution to financial exclusion, making them unattractive to the middle and upper classes. Until 2000 the movement was hampered by strict limits on the number of members (500). Savings and loan limits still exist: 5,000 (US$9,120) on savings and 10,000 (US$18,238) on loans. The Association of British Credit Unions, Ltd. (ABCUL) is lobbying to have these limits raised (see related story on page 91). To call attention to their existence many credit unions have looked for celebrities to give testimony on the advantages of membership. The idea is if this well-known person can join then it is a desirable thing to do. The high-profile Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has spoken out on numerous occasions on credit union advantages as well as on debt control. A long-time credit union supporter, he opened the Waltham Forest Community Credit Union in May 2004. He talked about the three promises of credit unions: trust, stability and skill. He said, “It helps people not only to take responsibility for their own lives, management of their own circumstances, but gives them the skills to help others. And therefore it builds the potential of ordinary people – which again is something crucial to the welfare and flourishing of any community.” On the BBC he mentioned “The dark side of Christmas” to discourage excessive spending and again referred to credit unions as alternatives. The Archbishop’s words get good press coverage. However, when London Mayer Ken Livingstone signed up for Southwark Credit Union (SCU), there was almost no press coverage. Tina Barnes, SCU spokesperson has much credit union experience having worked with ABCUL and CUNA before going “home” to this London Borough. She said Southwark is a perfect site for credit union development. Part of the borough has world-recognized sight-seeing attractions such as St. Paul’s and the Tate Museum. Many businesses flourish, but “as you travel down the Thames housing goes from affluent to poor.” Barnes realizes that to help the poor, you also have to have members with more income. Southwark is the UK’s 13th largest credit union with 4880 members and 4.2 (US$8.6) million in savings. Since their common bond is everyone who lives and works in the area, they have a huge potential and actively solicit business and government offices. Mayor Livingstone responded to this request. Southwark’s staff went to Livingstone’s office. During the signing, an aide interrupted him, and Barnes said he looked shocked but finished the forms, shook hands and posed for pictures. Only later did they learn that the aide told about the second round of bombs being found in London. Any press on the sign-up was lost in the bomb stories. Although Livingstone is a less active member, Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, who is an extremely popular Member of Parliament from Southwark, not only signed up but has participated in award ceremonies at local schools where SCU is encouraging savings programs. Hughes espouses the credit union message: “If you are on benefits and tied into expensive loans with door-to-door lenders, why not talk to Southwark Credit Union? Why pay 650 in interest on a 1,000 loan when the same loan will cost just 66 with the credit union?” It wasn’t actress Blythe Duff’s role in the detective series “Taggart” that made her eligible to join the Scottish Police Credit Union (SPCU) in Glasgow. Her husband was a policeman. She has let her name be used to call attention to the credit union and participated in the opening ceremonies for the 6,500 member, 10.7 (US$19.3) million credit union’s refurbished headquarters. Carol Wilson, spokesperson for SPCU, doesn’t know if Duff’s membership helps, but when she learned Tony Blair had joined the 500-member South West Durham Credit Union, she wondered if that would be a plus for a credit union. Blair and his wife Cherie made a well-publicized visit and jokes about reading the fine print. Barnes pointed out that when mentioning political credit union members there is the element of talking to an opponent of the politician. Other members of parliament, a Falkland war veteran and John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister also have joined credit unions and been used by the credit union to promote their services. Tina Barnes says she isn’t sure endorsements have helped while it is happening, but says “you can slip it into the conversation” and that can help afterwards. No formal survey has been taken, but the feeling expressed by many credit union people is that if it works for major brands, why not credit unions? [email protected]

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