Will the coalition listen to warnings over unemployment?

OECD warns that decision to scrap job schemes could lead to surge in unemployment.

When George Osborne's deputy, Danny Alexander, announced the abolition of a series of employment schemes last month there was understandable outrage from voters. David Cameron responded that the coalition would announce its own comprehensive employment scheme in time but we're yet to receive any more detail.

Either way, the OECD, Europe's leading economic think tank, isn't impressed. Here's what it had to say about the decision to axe the Future Jobs Fund, which subsidises job placements for 18-to-24-year-olds, and the Six Month Offer, which offers training to those who've been unemployed for longer than six months:

While the large fiscal deficit makes it essential to focus on cost-effective programmes and target the most disadvantaged groups, labour-market programmes should remain adequately funded. In this context, it may also be of concern that the new Budget ends funding for two crisis measures -- the Future Jobs Fund and the Six Month Offer.

The body added that the measures introduced by Labour had prevented unemployment from rising as fast as in previous recessions:

Considering that GDP fell by 6 per cent, the increase in unemployment in the United Kingdom is smaller than would have been predicted based on historical experience. For example, the unemployment rate rose nearly as sharply in the 1990-91 recession even though GDP fell by less than half as much.

It goes on:

Effective re-employment assistance has prevented an even sharper increase in UK joblessness and should be reinforced even in the current context of fiscal consolidation.

The lesson of the 1980s is that the costs of high unemployment -- increased mental illness, higher crime levels, wasted talent -- are too high for any government to bear. But the report warns that unemployment is set to remain at nearly 8 per cent until the end of 2011. Osborne, who is fond of citing the OECD when its findings agree with him, needs to provide some answers now.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation