Youth unemployment hits a million

Unemployment rises to 2.62m, while youth unemployment reaches 1.02m, the highest level since 1992.

The latest employment figures are the grimmest for some time. Unemployment has risen to 2.62m (8.3 per cent), up 129,000 (0.4 per cent) on the quarter (the largest quarterly increase since July 2009) and the highest level since 1994.

Meanwhile, youth unemployment has passed the symbolic million mark. There are now 1.02m (21.9 per cent) 16-24 year olds out of work, 67,000 (1.7 per cent) more than in the previous quarter and the highest number since comparable records began in 1992. UK youth unemployment is now above the EU average of 21.4 per cent and the eurozone average of 21.2 per cent. For the record, the total includes 286,000 people in full-time education who were looking for part-time work. But Chris Grayling is deluded if he thinks that youth unemployment of 730,000 is something to boast about. The danger of a lost generation is increasing every month.

Ministers are right to point out that high youth unemployment is a long-standing problem but their policies have made a bad situation worse. Since it came to power, the coalition has scrapped the Future Jobs Fund (described by Frank Field, the government's poverty adviser, as "one of the most precious things the last government was involved in"), abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and announced that it will offer 10,000 fewer university places next year. All measures that have exacerbated the jobs crisis.

And worse could be to come. George Osborne promised that private-sector job creation would "far outweigh" the job losses in the public-sector but few now believe him. The ONS didn't publish new figures on public and private sector employment this month but September's bulletin showed that while 264,000 private-sector jobs have been created over the last year, 240,000 public-sector jobs have been lost, a net gain of just 24,000 jobs. Worse, over the quarter, 111,000 public-sector jobs were lost, while just 41,000 private-sector jobs were created, suggesting that the labour market is beginning to stagnate.

Osborne, who has already been forced to announce an extra £44.4bn of borrowing due to lower tax revenues and higher welfare payments, will find it ever harder to reduce the deficit as unemployment continues to rise. As the self-defeating nature of austerity becomes clear, the pressure for a change of course will become even greater.

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