The problem with welfare reform? It's the market, not the benefits cap

Labour should focus on reforming the market to support the vulnerable without being labeled as profl

Labour should focus on reforming the market to support the vulnerable without being labeled as profligate.

Amanda Jacobs (not her real name) lives down the road from me in Peckham. It's a classic inner London location where deprivation soars as high as the rents. The state pays £900 a month to keep her and her daughter in a tiny, damp flat with failing heating. With 20,000 people on the waiting list, there's not much chance of a council house, and the jobs she's qualified to do would almost certainly leave her worse off.

"I want to work, and I've been looking," she says, "But there's no way I could afford the rent if I lost my benefit, and I have to think about her (my daughter) -- I don't want her changing schools again."

Talking to Amanda, you can't deny that some of the right's critique is spot on. It's true that the threat of losing benefit stops you working. It's true that paying £192bn a year in welfare is outrageous when you're trying to decrease debt. And it's true that the public is running out of sympathy for families like hers. Perhaps that's partly why in a week when the Tories have been talking about capping benefit, they have gained a five-point poll lead over Labour.

So what does the left do? It would fail people like Amanda to follow the coalition and suddenly limit their benefits. As Randeep Ramesh helpfully points out, the government itself acknowledges that this move is likely to increase child poverty and detrimentally affect some disabled groups and even those in work. But the left will also fail people if it leaves them in a position where work doesn't pay.

The answer is not to simply accept a watered down version of the government's proposals that allow a higher cap for higher rent areas like London, or even to just exclude child benefit from the equation. The answer is to change the market as well as the state.

First, we need to understand that the disincentive to work doesn't just come from high benefits from the public sector. It also comes from low wages in the private sector. For most people on benefits, the only jobs available are low skilled, badly paid, insecure and part time. If you had a living wage, regular hours and a chance of rising up through a company, you would be more likely to come off benefits, not because of the threat of eviction, but because of the rewards of employment.

Second, you need stricter regulation on the scandal that is the private rented sector. There is no way that Amanda's flat is worth £900 a month. In a world where housing is limited and ownership concentrated, we need much tighter regulation that so far we're failing to get. Otherwise we're just wasting our money and vulnerable people are still living in substandard housing.

Finally, we also need to promote alternative models of home ownership that give people a stake in where they live. Co-operatives, mutuals and community land trusts need to be much more accessible. What's happening in Rochdale -- where they have just created the largest housing mutual in the country -- is interesting. The left should remember its past and learn from it.

So the problem with welfare reform isn't so much the benefits cap, it's the failure to look at the problems of the market as well as the state. What I wanted to get across on the Sunday Politics this week but didn't have space to, is that the Tories have nothing to say about this. Reforming the market is fertile ground for Labour if the party wants to support the vulnerable without being labeled as profligate. And perhaps most importantly, such measures wouldn't just support Amanda, they'd also leave her more empowered.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.
 

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Getty
Show Hide image

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