The government's "patent box" is the tax avoidance package companies have been begging for

It might incentivise innovation, but it definitely incentivises paying far less tax.

The Conservative party back-benches are seething with rebellion. Not only do ministers deplore David Cameron for an un-Tory like attitude toward gay marriage, in recent weeks he has further upset them with a positively radical spiel directed against those super-corporations the conservative leader suspects of tax avoidance:

Any businesses who think that they can carry on dodging their fair share ... need to wake up and smell the coffee.

However. Refreshing though the rhetoric certainly is, the actions of the Government seem to tell a different story. Corporation tax will have fallen from 28 per cent to 21 per cent toward the end of the Government’s first term in 2014 — and this will translate into a loss of roughly £5 billion in tax revenues each year as those cuts are enacted (according to 2011 estimations by the Treasury).

The buck doesn’t stop there. In order to better facilitate corporate needs, HM Revenue and Customs is set to introduce a new form of tax relief for businesses due to begin in April this year. It’s called the Patent Box. Ostensibly, it means that a company which shows sufficient innovative nous by patenting innovations will be entitled to a tax break of 13 per cent, applied to the value of the product. In theory this should provide impetus for companies to conceive fabulous new technologies, and give a spurt to growth and development thereby. Right?

Well not quite. The first problem is that said companies are not actually required to own the patent themselves in order to attain the tax break. They can simply lease a patent from the original patent owner; consequently there is no real incentive to invent stuff creatively and in-house, so to speak. But the most salient fact about the Patent Box is that it does not apply to the patent in isolation. A company could, for instance, produce a tractor, and if that tractor was possessed of a patented right view mirror, the revenue from the whole vehicle itself — not only the mirror — would be subject to same overall and significantly larger cut in tax.

In other words, a measure which appears to contain a degree of legitimacy, in fact becomes yet another way for big corporations to achieve massive, unwarranted tax slashes on their products. And this is ironic. The Conservatives always pride themselves on encouraging small business development, perhaps because this provides a highly effective propaganda sheen — allowing their PR initiatives to be expressed in terms of hard working individuals and entrepreneurs rather than faceless corporate monoliths. But the Patent Box will only serve the latter. Small businesses do not have the purchasing power to buy in bulk the products which will benefit from the tax cut, nor can they afford to gamble with new technological innovations, nor can they divert money into buying up the patents of others.

Part of the whole problem lies in the way in which the government develops Controlled Foreign Companies (CFCs) regulations. One of the lead advisors who helped the government to devise the Patent Box was one Jonathan Bridges — a tax advisor for KPMG, an accountancy company which has no remit outside ensuring the lowest tax returns for its corporate clientèle; it has, therefore, no commitment to any notional "national interest".

The use of the representatives of corporate power to provide advice on the means by which that power should be channelled in socially effective ways makes about as much sense as employing a local war lord to advise on the committee of Amnesty International. But despite its connotations, the practise of employing huge corporations to help devise precisely the laws which are supposed to regulate them is one which both the current and the previous Government have engaged in. At the time of the transition to the coalition government, Labour had already set up working groups for consultations regarding CFC reforms; panels which included representatives of HSBC, Vodafone and Shell — all major multi-nationals and all involved in controversies regarding tax evasion.

The current Government has an objective rationale for its position which isn’t simply an expression of neo-liberal ideology and partisan politics. These super-companies have genuine power — and the ability to decamp to another country taking thousands of jobs with them. Like petulant, spoiled children, they are always on the verge of tantrum, should their desires not at once be met. In the midst of an economic crisis there is a cogent argument that any single Government must of necessity make their tax rates as favourable as possible in order to attract those companies and secure those jobs.

But the problem with such an argument lies in its generalisation. If every government follows suit, slashing corporate tax over and over in order to remain competitive, and if all governments adhere to the strictures of such competition, we are at once locked into a downward spiral, a race to the bottom in which the benefits gained from corporation tax are increasingly illusory.

And it is important to recognise that this is exactly the type of cycle which got us here in the first place. We were sold on the need to slash regulations in the finance industry, and look what happened. By playing this game the government are not responding pro-actively to the crisis, they are adopting the very logic which led to it.

How can these companies be regulated? By people putting pressure on their governments for sure. But also by directly targeting the companies themselves through grass-roots activity and customer boycotts. Following mass protest, Starbucks was recently "persuaded" to agree to pay £10m in corporation tax in the UK for each of the next two years. A drop in the ocean certainly. But nevertheless an indication that, ultimately, it is the consumer who has the ability to make or break a company.

Innovate on the mirror, profit on the tractor. Photograph: Getty Images
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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