The welfare system is already stacked against the young

The decision to remove housing benefit from the under-25s is just another item on the list of ways our welfare system is penalising the young.

David Cameron wants to take housing benefit away from under-25s, arguing the move would save £2bn a year. Housing benefit is mainly claimed by those in work, with 93 per cent of new claimants and 80 per cent of total recipients in a job, so the plan would largely be a redistribution from young low-wage workers to elsewhere.

Thirteen major charities have attacked the proposal, arguing it would take a vital safety net away from young people. What is rarely mentioned is that the welfare state is already stacked against young people in other areas, with the housing benefit plan simply another item on a list.

Working tax credit

Low wage workers over the age of 25 can get their wages topped up by working tax credit by as much as £1,450 a year. This wage subsidy makes working more attractive, and allows businesses to pay a lower rate; these combined means it probably has a positive effect on employment. But despite much political disquiet about record-high youth unemployment, which is bucking the slight downward general unemployment trend, young workers are exempt from this subsidy, leaving many jobs paying very little.

National Minimum Wage

Though now largely forgotten, when the National Minimum Wage was introduced some argued it might have an impact on jobs. While successive governments have been happy to exclude young workers from Working Tax Credit despite the possible resulting unemployment, the opposite is true with the NMW. So, a 20 year old worker only has a wage floor of £4.98, compared to £6.19 for a 21 year old, while those who leave school at 16 and go into work can expect to be paid as little as £3.68 – nearly 60 per cent less than the adult rate. 

Work Programme

When questioned on their strategy to tackle youth unemployment, the Government points to its Work Programme, which Jobcentres usher young people onto three months before their older peers. What is not usually brought up is that the Work Programme is structured in a way that values youth jobs less than jobs for older people, with fewer incentives for providers to find under-25s work. The total payment made to providers who find work for someone over-25 is £4,400, while each young person found a job only nets them £3,800, a full £600 less per case: providers have a built-in financial incentive to focus on helping older claimants, which could help explain why young people are disproportionately unemployed.

Jobseekers’ Allowance

If someone under 25 finds themselves out of work, as nearly a million across the country do today, they don’t get the £71-a-week JSA payment afforded to those over 25 – instead they get £56.25, a full 20 per cent less. Since the amount of money paid from JSA doesn’t cover anything more than subsistence levels, and prices in shops are the same for everyone regardless of age, this almost certainly affects the standard of living of the young unemployed who have to fend for themselves.

Defenders of the set-up might argue that young people are less likely to have a family or other commitments and so have lower costs. But the welfare system already takes these things into account through situational payments like child benefit. Moreover, it would be difficult to imagine such restrictions imposed solely on the basis of age at the top end. It’s not clear that further sanctions on the young is consistent with the Government’s claim to want to share the pain of austerity equally, when they already get significantly less out of the system.

Under-25s on Jobseekers' Allowance receive a full 20 per cent less. Photograph: Getty Images

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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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