We need a proper British Investment Bank, not Osborne's half measure

The Chancellor's small business bank is too modest to make a significant difference to growth.

The latest growth initiative from George Osborne is a state-backed small business bank. The Chancellor said over the weekend that the difficulties small businesses face when trying to get the credit they need to keep going or to expand is one of the biggest problems holding back the UK economy. He has already tried to ease this problem with "Project Merlin" (lending targets for commercial banks), a national loan guarantee scheme and most recently the "funding for lending" initiative. Depending on your option, his latest idea can be seen as building on these previous schemes, or an acceptance that they were not up to the task of getting credit flowing in the economy.

But will it work? That will depend very much on how ambitious the Chancellor chooses to be – and the first signs are not encouraging. The bank is being described as a "one-stop shop": bringing together in one place all the various schemes and initiatives designed by government to help small businesses. No doubt this will be helpful for small businesses, making it easier for them to find a way through the Whitehall maze. But what small businesses really want is an increase in the amount of credit available to them and a reduction in the cost of that credit. It is not immediately apparent that the Chancellor’s new bank will deliver on these aims.

Other countries have national investment banks of varying descriptions, including the KfW in Germany and the Small Business Administration in the United States, and the Chancellor’s idea seems most closely modelled on the latter. But importing wholesale the model of any one overseas bank is unlikely to be the best approach.

What we need in the UK is a fully-fledged British Investment Bank designed to suit the particular circumstances of our economy. This Bank should be set up to tackle two longstanding problems: a tendency to invest less in infrastructure (as a share of GDP) than comparable economies and a shortage of financing, particularly long-term financing, for small and medium-sized businesses.

There are a number of important questions to be addressed before such a Bank could set up – and, like the Green Investment Bank, it would need to secure EU state aid approval - but some of the parameters should be clear. The Bank would be 100 per cent state-owned. Its remit would be to increase lending for infrastructure and to SMEs. And its governance structure would have to ensure there was a clear dividing line between where the role of the government ended and the activities of the bankers began.

More controversial would be the capitalisation of the Bank and its ability to raise additional funds in the capital markets. The Green Investment Bank will have an initial capitalisation of £3bn and will not be able to borrow money at least until the government debt ratio is on a downward trajectory (because its activities count as part of the public sector). The same consideration would, no doubt, prevent the current Chancellor from creating a fully-fledged British Investment Bank.

But there is a qualitative difference between the government having to borrow because its current spending commitments are greater than the sums it is prepared to raise in taxes and a BIB raising funds in asset markets to use to finance infrastructure projects that will generate a stream of income in the future, or to lend to small businesses. A British Investment Bank should not be held back by the vagaries of the UK’s accounting practices. Its activities (and those of the Green Investment Bank) should be excluded from the government’s target fiscal measures and it should be free to raise funds up to a pre-determined leverage ratio

The government would, though, have to provide the new Bank with its initial capital. One option would be tell the Bank of England to do another round of quantitative easing specifically for this purpose. Alternatively, the funds would have to be found by cutting other spending, increased taxation, the sale of government assets or extra borrowing. Given the Chancellor’s unwavering adherence to his fiscal plans, this is likely to be a stumbling block to any hopes of a British Investment Bank in the next few years.

And this is now the biggest problem facing the UK economy. Because the Chancellor will not spend more money boosting aggregate demand in the economy, whether directly through infrastructure spending or a temporary tax cut or indirectly by capitalising a British Investment Bank with a directive to lend to small businesses, he is reduced to indirect schemes like funding for lending or the pension infrastructure plan. These require shifts in behaviour by the banks and pension schemes if they are to work. Unsurprisingly, they are not as effective as more direct approaches.

The Chancellor’s state-backed small business bank fits into the same pattern. It is a half measure, bringing together existing initiatives, rather than the creation of the fully-fledged British Investment Bank that the economy really needs.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR

Chancellor George Osborne plans to create a state-backed small business bank. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.