Revealed: where Vince Cable got his RBS plan from

The problem is, he isn't really following it to the letter.

Blogger Left Outside thought that the proposals by what the FT called "cabinet ministers" – "it's Vince Cable, everyone knows it's Vince!" – to fully nationalise RBS in order to be able to force it to start lending serious amounts of money to small and medium enterprisise sounded familiar. So they dug around the archives and found Giles Wilkes' paper for Orange Book Lib Dem think-tank Centre Forum from 2010, Credit where it's due: making QE work for the real economy.

What Vince is suggesting is basically creating an independent, government owned bank to finally start an effective policy of credit easing. Although Osborne has used the phrase before, he has been hamstrung by the desire not to do it directly, and the carrot-and-stick approach he has taken up doesn't seem to be convincing the banks to do it themselves.

Wilkes' overview of his paper laid out the plan:

"In deploying quantitative easing, the Bank may have forestalled a total collapse in our financial system. But QE has been less successful at stimulating the real economy. Now it needs reform if it is to restore the confidence needed for sustained growth. Money that is subsidizing the borrowing costs of the state should instead be helping smaller businesses and households.

"The Bank should start by targeting a high level of nominal growth until the economy is performing at its potential. This will reassure the private sector that liquidity won’t dry up in the near future, and so encourage more investment now. The second step should be for ‘credit easing’ to replace ‘quantitative easing’. The Bank’s independence of action on traditional monetary matters should be respected. But by putting taxpayer’s money at risk, QE is as much fiscal as monetary policy. So it is quite right for the government to direct the Bank to deploy the funds in the private economy, which is where it is really needed. For example, the money could help guarantee loans to small companies, or alleviate the dearth of financing for long-term infrastructure.

"With incomes stagnating and huge spending cuts in prospect, the Bank is right to ignore scare stories about spiralling inflation. It should even consider expanding the programme if the economy stays weak. What it should not do, however, is increase the size of QE without changing the way it works. It is time that politicians realised that QE is their business, and that failure to make it work properly will be their failure."

Notice anything strange, though? Vince seems to have jumped straight to step two in Wilkes' plan, skipping entirely the rather cruical first step.

Nominal growth targeting involves switching the Bank's aim from keeping inflation within 1 percentage point of 2 per cent inflation to attempting to keep nominal growth at certain level (usually around 4-6 per cent). The cruicial difference between the two being that it would allow the bank, in times of crisis (like now!) to allow higher inflation.

This matters for Cable's plan because the immediate impact of increasing the number of loans to SMEs would likely be a - temporary - burst of inflation. As companies borrow to expand production, all sorts of macroeconomic effects kick in. Young workers gain employment and move out of their parents houses (increasing the cost of housing), more people drive to work (increasing the cost of fuel), businesses invest in machinery and equipment (increasing the cost of those) and so on. This inflation would be temporary, because eventually the bottlenecks in those industries would be expanded, but it would still be felt.

Yet with the bank's mandate as it is now, it would have to respond to that inflation spike by tightening monetary policy. Interest rates go up, lending gets more expensive, and everything good is bad again. We'll see if that is how it actually plays out. Of course, the political game is, as ever, where the real action lies.

Business Secretary Vince Cable addresses employees at the BMW MINI plant in Oxford. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.