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.

Getty
Show Hide image

An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.