The financial sector isn't the powerhouse of the UK economy. It's more like a Wendy house

HMRC figures show a drastic reduction in Corporation Tax contributions since the financial crash – on average just £3.3billion a year, even when the paltry Bank Levy is included. To put this in context, the finance sector shelled out £14 billion in bonuse

Five years ago today, following a frantic weekend of negotiations, during which Alistair Darling later admitted cash machines were within hours of being switched off, the Government announced that British banks would be part-nationalised to stave off collapse. We bought an 82% stake in RBS and 40% in Lloyds/HBOS at a combined cost of £37 billion. 

It was part of a wider bailout package which cost £132.89 billion of public money – the equivalent of £2,000 from each man, woman and child in the UK. Former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King quipped a year later: "To paraphrase a great wartime leader, never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many.”

Half a decade later and the situation has changed little. According to the most up-to-date figures from the National Audit Office, £118.86 billion (or 89 per cent) of the original bailout is still outstanding. The interest payments alone cost the public purse £5 billion a year. Whilst some of the costs are recouped through the Government charging banks interest and fees, the NAO estimates it has still amounted to “a transfer of at least £5 billion from taxpayers to the financial sector” since the crisis.

There are others reasons the many are still propping up the few. Take for instance the 'too-big-to-fail' subsidy, whereby banks can borrow money cheaply because creditors know the Government (read: taxpayer) will bail them out if things go wrong. It's worth a fortune - £235 billion to Britain's four biggest banks between 2008-2011, according to research by the New Economics Foundation.

Or look at financial service's incongruous exemption from VAT. It's understandable that some items are VAT-free, for example: children's clothes, public transport, medical and funeral costs; but why are we exempting the services of a derivatives trader? According to HMRC itself, this anomaly costs us another £5bn a year. The International Monetary Fund has warned this special treatment of the banking sector means it is under-taxed and has allowed it to grow “too large”. 

Banks have also become adept at gobbling up public money intended for the real economy. This not only artificially inflates their profit and pay, but acts as a tourniquet on growth. Despite having drawn down £17.6bn since the Funding for Lending Scheme began just over a year ago, banks' lending to business contracted by £2.3bn.  

The cumulative effect is that banks live in a welfare dependent bubble, cushioned from feeling the effects of the crisis they caused. Financial sector growth has far outstripped the rest of the economy since the crisis: in 2012 for example, if you take out the fines and the one-off costs of adjusting to regulatory changes, the profits of the five biggest banks' rose 45% to £31.5 billion. The economy virtually flat-lined during the same period.

Yet whilst the financial sector likes to think of itself as the powerhouse of the UK economy, in terms of the tax it pays, it's more of a Wendy house. HMRC figures show a drastic reduction in Corporation Tax contributions since the financial crash – on average just £3.3billion a year, even when the paltry Bank Levy is included. To put this in context, the finance sector shelled out £14 billion in bonuses to top staff last year alone.

Meanwhile, the public have paid in service cuts, job losses and tax rises. Government spending will be cut by 9.1%, £141bn in real terms, during the course of this Parliament, chronically impacting on the poorest who rely on services most. Whilst the top rate of tax was cut, giving millionaires a tax break, the VAT increase to 20% has been shown to hit the poorest 10 per cent of the population more than twice as hard as the richest 10 per cent.

This stark injustice has prompted other countries to take action. It is the explicit reason why Germany, France, Italy, Spain and seven other European countries are implementing the Financial Transaction Tax of between 0.1% - 0.01% on stocks, bonds and derivatives that will raise up to £30 billion. It is the only policy to have emerged post-crisis that will ensure those responsible pay to clean up the mess they caused.

Unfortunately, the UK Government has not only refused to join in, but has taken the proposal to the European Court of Justice. It's a worrying indictment of their priorities, compounded two weeks ago when they launched another legal challenge, this time against the EU banker bonus cap. This was followed by news that the Government is scrapping the 1 per cent pay rise due to NHS staff in April. As an example of misplaced priorities it is difficult to beat.

Unless of course you look at ministers’ treatment of the poorest – the bedroom tax, benefit cap and punitive sanctions for those who miss Job Centre appointments - these policies are all signs that the coalition is determined to end what they call ‘the something for nothing’ culture. It’s a shame they won’t apply the same logic to bankers.

A protestor from the 'Robin Hood Tax Campaign,' dressed as 'Robin Hood,' holds a fake budget box above the Houses of Parliament. Image: Getty

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.