Improving motherhood means reducing inequality, not just poverty

The UK is a worse country in which to be a mother than many poorer nations, according to Save the Children.

Yesterday’s papers painted a gloomy picture for mums in the UK. According to research by Save the Children, the UK is only the 23rd best country to be a mother, behind Portugal, Greece and a number of other countries suffering economic torpor. If we are to have any chance of improving the lives of mothers in the UK it is crucial to look at the measurements used to determine a mother’s wellbeing, and the drivers behind these?  

The report, which looks at 176 countries, assesses mothers' wellbeing against five indicators: lifetime risk of maternal death, under-five mortality rate, expected number of years of formal schooling, gross national income per capita and the participation of women in national government. 

For those at the bottom of the index it delivers a harrowing account of motherhood in developing countries.  One of the report’s main findings is that “Babies born to mothers living in the greatest poverty face the greatest challenges to survival.” With the bottom 10 countries on the index all residing in sub-Saharan Africa, an area of the world blighted by poverty and poor investment in education and health services, this seems an astute observation. Poverty clearly impacts significantly on the wellbeing of mothers and babies across the globe.

But is poverty the only indicator of wellbeing for mothers? If this is the case, presumably the richest nations are also the best countries to be a mother. Not exactly. The US, the world’s wealthiest nation, is only 30th on the list – below Lithuania and Belarus. By most measures Luxembourg and Qatar are in the top three countries for GDP per capita, but they are just 29th and 58th respectively on the index.

The top spot is instead reserved for Finland, the world’s 41st richest nation. If wealth alone cannot explain positive outcomes for mothers, we must look at other reasons. We know that more unequal countries in the developed world have higher rates of infant mortality, lower scores for child wellbeing and poorer educational performances for children than more equal countries. The top three countries (Finland, Sweden and Norway) on the Mother’s Index are also all in the top 7 OECD countries for income distribution equality.

Reducing poverty is an important measure in lifting the living standards of women and children in the poorest countries. But for those in the richest countries, we must look to reduce income inequality, in addition to raising the incomes of the poorest, to provide better outcomes for all mothers. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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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