Inequality is falling, and for once, Cameron would be right to blame Brown

Nothing the Government has done will help equality. That's why they're keeping quiet about it.

A piece by John Rentoul in today's Independent has been making waves. Rentoul argues that, because inequality in Britain fell in 2010-2011 – the first year of the Conservative government – the Coalition has actually lived up to its promise to ensure that "we're all in it together".

He writes:

In June, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published an analysis of official data that found that, although all after-tax incomes fell in the first year of the Coalition (2010-11), higher incomes fell more than lower incomes, resulting in a more equal distribution.

This is true. Although it's hard to check, because he doesn't cite with any specificity, it appears that these are the findings he's referring to:

Three different measures of inequality, including the internationally-accepted Gini coefficient, all fell sharply in the first year of the coalition government. The Gini in particular fell to levels which Britain hasn't seen since 1997.

But although these are after-tax measures of inequality, attributing all the changes to the tax system would be incorrect. And although they happened during the first year of the coalition government, giving credit to that government would be inaccurate.

The IFS explain why inequality fell so sharply in section 3.6 of their report. Part of the rise in equality was because "the largest falls in income took place at the very top of the income distribution"; the introduction of the 50p income tax rate "is one of the major drivers" of that fall. So a measure enacted 37 days before the coalition came to power – and halved in magnitude in that coalition's second budget – is responsible for a lot of the fall in inequality which Rentoul is attributing to Cameron. Perhaps the Government deserves credit for not scrapping the tax band completely, but normally one praises people for doing good, not for doing less bad than they might have.

The IFS doesn't break out any further causes of the 2010-11 rise in equality, but it does point out that, between 1997 and 2010, Labour supported the bottom part of the income distribution with "significant increases in the amount of redistribution". It adds that, since the Government plans further spending cuts, "changes in private incomes and government tax and benefit policy… seem likely to lead to increases rather than decreases in income inequality in the coming years."

In other words, the Government would be silly to stake its reputation on a chance fall in inequality due mostly to the actions of its predecessor – because what it has got planned will make the situation much, much worse.

Rather than looking at what the government inherited, Rentoul should instead have looked at what it's got planned. That was in the IFS report as well. Here's the chart summarising it:

 

That's rather less sharing of the pain than Rentoul implied. The bottom four deciles are taking by far the most pain proportionally, and only then does the richest decile take its portion of the cuts.

The reason why the coalition hasn't been shouting from the rooftops about narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor is because it didn't do it. To quote Cameron from what seems like every Prime Ministers Questions since he was elected, "it was the fault of the last Labour Government". We will have to wait a bit longer to see what effects his vision of equality in Britain turns out to have; but judging by the changes he has implemented, they won't be pretty.

David Cameron in May 2010. His first action as PM was to travel back in time and implement the 50p tax rate, thus ensuring inequality would fall under his Government. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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