The end of free banking could be an opportunity for other financial institutions

Building societies and credit unions stand to benefit if we move towards a paid-for model.

While many of us start to recover from the shock revelation that charge-free bank accounts are a myth, and that banks have been incentivised to mis-sell other financial products for their loss-leaders, some financial institutions like building societies and credit unions are quietly looking forward to the end of free banking.

After the scandals that have hit banks over PPI misselling and the £9bn set aside to recompensate those who were its victims, bankers and regulators have shared a rare platform in agreeing that an end to free banking could prevent similar future episodes.

The argument goes that banks were only scheming because fees aren't being levelled towards customers for their accounts, and so inevitably it became necessary to cross-subsidise from one profitable bit of the operation to in-credit personal current accounts free of charge.

Indeed as the newly-appointed chairman of Barclays, Sir David Walker, has said: "Because banks are not charging, it drives them inexorably into this sort of position”.

The issue has been raised in parliament and will be raised again at the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where bankers have already submitted evidence, highlighting free banking as one of the things that led to bad behaviour.

One of the practical problems that awaits this (some call it an inevitability) is if one bank makes the leap and starts charging, the likelihood is that their customers will run and go elsewhere. To be a renegade over this can promise a huge money loss, which undermines the point in doing it in the first place - some risks just don't come naturally to banks.

Of course the other problem is that if it became a trend among banks, nobody can promise against an outbreak in customer dissatisfaction. One of the concerns being raised is that for unethical banking, the general public is being asked to subsidise another income stream for Barclays, HSBC, RBS and Lloyds.

For Phillip Inman, economics correspondant of the Guardian and the Observer, this is like a pickpocket saying he was forced to steal wallets because he was denied other sources of income. The only way of stopping a naughty banker from selling you stuff you don't need, in other words, is by giving him money. One can understand the discontent at this twisted logic.

But from another angle some institutions are seeing an opportunity. While one of the appealing planks of David Cameron's big society was the building up of smaller financial institutions, realists could see the many market entry barriers for types like building socieities and credit unions.

While the mainstream is already occupied by big banks, it was discussed at the KPMG’s 22nd annual Building Societies Database recently that: “almost half of the UK’s 47 financial mutuals had increased their profit in the year to April 2012, and that they would benefit further from the end of free banking.”

This isn't the first time I've heard something similar. Speaking to someone recently who works close to the credit union industry, who preferred to go unidentified, they told me that Barclays' talk of transparent charging structures has made the prospect of credit union modernisation very interesting indeed.

Credit unions have always had such a structure, and if paid-for accounts led to more competition among smaller players then the notion of a credit union membership rise increases the chance of them lending more money, particularly to those who are currently having difficulties remaining creditworthy or are thinking about going to a payday lender.

Trouble is the paid-for model comes with many problems. Too many, perhaps. People don't want to be charged a fee. Customers may end up kicking up a fuss about who their banks lend to on the grounds that their fees subsidise them, which when trying to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, may see the number of creditworthy people diminish.

Though most of us do want more competition and for places like credit unions to have more relevance in the market. Some very complex conversations and arguments are going to be had over this subject, that much is for sure, but it is interesting to note that advocates for an end to free banking are not only the usual suspects alone.

A high street bank. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.