Osborne thinks we're a Mac. We're a PC

Our banks don't have a reset button.

I had a Mac well before they were cool. It was fine when it worked, but occasionally it would throw a hissy fit and leave me utterly helpless. Apple clearly knew full-well their machines were prone to problems. Their universal solution was to include a reset button, accessible by forcing a paperclip into a tiny hole on the side of the machine, which would override everything and restart the machine, wiping all your work in the process.

The problems with my Mac were so persistent that I used to keep a paperclip permanently blu-tacked to it.

But of course, Macs are perfect these days, and Apple is unassailable – the kind of business most companies could only dream of becoming.

And at the other end of the scale are the banks. They keep stalling. Every now and then they make worrying noises, and after five years on hold, the Help Desk (John Vickers), says it’s really about time we got a new one.

When George Osborne told us that 2013 would be the year “we reset our banking system”, I couldn’t help but imagine him walking around the impenetrable edifice of the Bank of England wielding a giant paperclip, trying to find the hole. Horrified city workers looking on, saying “I hope I’m not going to lose all my work”.

Yesterday he announced that he wanted to open up the UK banking market to increased competition. No doubt he sees Virgin Money and Metro Bank leading a charge of bright young banks, who will hit the high street with branches that look like the set of Big Brother and staff who look like the cast of Hollyoaks… All very “I’m a Mac”.

I’m sure, or at least I hope, that Osborne knows there is no easy-reach reset button, and no “turn-it-off-and-on-again” fix. I know it’s boring (don’t fall asleep), but the decision to increase competition in the UK banking system is not political or regulatory… It is about IT – it’s about enabling new companies to plug into the payments system.

And trust me, the payments system is not a shiny Mac with handy firewire ports. Our payments infrastructure makes Windows XP look cool. It’s a tangled, home-made mess that looks like the inside of Jackson Pollock’s brain. What forward-thinking, tieless entrepreneur would want to plug into that? Even in these straightened times, there are easier ways of making money, let’s be honest.

The fact is that Metro Bank, which provides customers with free dog biscuits in their branches, is the first new entrant into the UK retail banking industry for over 150 years. They have less than 20 branches, none north of Watford, and there aren’t many behind them in the queue for banking licences. Mobile phone companies are moving into financial services, for sure. But most of them struggle to keep our voicemails secure, and I’m not sure people are ready to let them look after their hard-earned cash.

Has he tried turning it off then turning it on again? Photograph:Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

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Taxation without benefits: how our tax system increases inequality

We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Tax may not be the burning issue on everyone’s minds over the next month, but the Panama Papers leak has proven that the thorny issues of who pays what, and what level of tax is fair, are ones that are never too far away from the public consciousness.

One of the most important annual publications on tax is the Office for National Statistics’ Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. Published today, it shows, among other things, the proportion of income paid in tax by people at different points on the income spectrum. This may sound like the natural domain of the data nerd, but it actually tells us some rather interesting facts about our system of taxes and benefits.

First, the good news. Our much maligned welfare system is in fact a beacon of progressiveness, drastically reducing the level of income inequality we see in this country. In fact, overall, taxes and benefits are quite substantially redistributive. Without them, the income of the richest 20 per cent of households would be 14 times higher than the poorest 20 per cent. With them, that gap falls to only four times.

The benefit system as a whole decreases the Gini coefficient, the most frequently used measure of inequality, by 14 percentage points. For anyone who sees taxes and benefits as a key component in reducing economic inequality, or boosting the incomes of the poorest, or, frankly, tackling social injustice, this is rather welcome news.

But now for the bad news.

While our welfare system is undoubtedly progressive, the same cannot be said of our tax system when looked at in isolation. The poorest face a disproportionately heavy tax burden compared to the richest, paying 47 per cent of their income in tax, compared to just 34 per cent for the richest. Last year (2013/14) this difference was 45 per cent – 35 per cent, and the year before (2012/13) the gap was 43 per cent – 35 per cent. So while the proportion of income paid in tax has fallen slightly for the richest, it has increased for the poorest.

While some taxes like income tax are substantially progressive, those such as VAT and Council Tax are not. Even after adjusting for rebates and Council Tax Benefit, the poorest 10 per cent pay 7.1 per cent of their income in council tax while the richest 10 per cent pay only 1.5 per cent.

Should this matter, if our system of benefits continues to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Well, yes, not least because that system is under severe pressure from further cuts. But there are other good reasons to focus on the tax system in isolation from the benefit system.

Polling by Ipsos MORI has shown that the public believes that the tax system by itself reduces inequality, and it is often spoken of by politicians as if that is the case. We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax, for example, when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Understanding why the tax system does not by itself reduce inequality is therefore important for both thinking about how tax revenues could be better raised, and for understanding the importance of the benefit system in narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest.

John Hood is Acting Director of the Equality Trust