The coalition still lacks a compelling vision for growth

Vince Cable's Enterprise Bill is incoherent and insufficient.

Britain and its businesses are crying out for a government that values enterprise and can spur jobs and growth.  We are in the longest double dip recession since the Second World War. Even if the one-off boost from the Olympics finally brings us out recession, and growth was one per cent in the third quarter, as some are predicting, our economy will simply be the same size as a year ago. We desperately need a government firing on all cylinders to help businesses drive the recovery.

In this context, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which returns to the House of Commons this week, could have been a great opportunity to put in place the measures necessary for business to plan ahead with long-term certainty. 

While there are elements in the Bill with which we agree - we support the creation of a Green Investment Bank, which was set in motion under Labour in government, and want to see improvements to the competition regime - like many business groups, we don’t believe it meets the challenges facing our economy.

It will not provide the crucial boost to demand to get us out of recession and into recovery, but it is also a rag tag of a Bill: incoherent, insufficient and sadly reflective of Vince Cable’s own concerns, articulated in his letter to the Prime Minister earlier this year, that the government lacks a compelling vision for the economy.  If you want to find a compelling vision from the government, the Business Secretary's Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is not the place to look.

Take copyright as an example. Britain leads the world in creative and cultural industries.  One of the reasons for this is the strong, robust and clearly-understood legal framework that this country has in place.  But the Bill threatened to undermine this with an unnecessary and unnerving measure which had not been worked through with the sector and which risked undermining growth and investment opportunities, giving the Secretary of State wide-ranging and far-reaching powers to amend, remove or introduce exceptions to copyright without appropriate or adequate Parliamentary scrutiny.  Thankfully, last week, finally, the government saw sense and heeded the concerns we and the creative industries sector had raised, and has performed a welcome U-turn on these proposals.

However, it should use this opportunity to follow this up with U-turns on a whole host of other unwelcome measures within the Bill. Employment rights are a particular concern: ministers seem to believe that protections for people at work are the reason we are in recession, while in reality we already have the third most liberalised labour market in the developed world. According to a recent survey by BIS itself, only five per cent of small firms cited regulation as the main barrier to success, while 37% identified the economy as their primary obstacle.

The government has brought forward no evidence that making it easier to sack people produces economic growth. Indeed, when Adrian Beecroft, author of the No 10-commissioned report on employment law reform, came before MPs to give evidence, he admitted that his views “were based on conversations with a sample of people, which is not statistically valid”. Ever had a conversation with a bloke down the pub? Well that’s how government policy on employees’ rights is being devised.

Ministers’ stance on equality legislation is equally concerning. Quite what measures to water down the Equality and Human Rights Commission have to do with an Enterprise Bill needs questioning. This would seem to be further confirmation, if this were needed, of the return of the nasty party, aided and abetted by the Lib Dems.

It is disingenuous of Cable to suggest that these changes are merely “legislative tidying up”. The Liberal Democrat founder of the BAME Councillors Association, Cllr Lester Holloway, wrote in the Guardian in August that he was “deeply ashamed” at what Vince Cable was doing to the Commission, while Issan Ghazni, Chair of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, has warned Lib Dem ministers that the changes in the Bill “amount to effectively abolishing the EHRC by stealth, which could potentially reverse progress made on equalities over the past decades.”   

The measures in the Bill, together with new amendments tabled last week by the government which weaken protections against third party harassment of employees, in direct contradiction to what Cable said to my Labour colleague Kate Green at the Second Reading of the Bill, will make life even harder for thousands of staff who run the risk of prejudice, abuse and harassment whilst doing their work.

We all want to see the economy grow and businesses thrive. As Chuka Umunna said in a letter to Cable last month, we would be keen to work with the government on a cross party basis to address the issues that matter to firms, to boost recovery and pull this country out of recession. But the rag bag of measures in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill fails to meet this challenge and, rather than helping business, makes the job of recovering from the recession made in Downing Street that bit more difficult.

The coalition has failed to answer Business Secretary Vince Cable's call for a "compelling vision" for the economy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Iain Wright is the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise.

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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