Another Cameron myth: the coalition hasn't reduced the deficit by "a quarter"

The most recent figures show that current borrowing has fallen by just 6.4 per cent since 2010, while net borrowing has fallen by 18.3 per cent.

David Cameron was caught out last week when he falsely claimed in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition was "paying down Britain's debts" (the national debt has risen from £811.3bn to £1.11trn since he entered office). But what of his even more frequent boast to have reduced the deficit by "a quarter"? The Conservatives' website states

Dealing with our debts means we have had to take tough decisions. But we are making progress: in the two years since we came to office, we’ve already cleared one quarter of the deficit left by Labour.

The Tories' claim is based on the fact that public sector net borrowing fell from £159bn in 2009/10 to £121.6bn in 2011/12, a reduction of 24 per cent.  But since the net borrowing figure includes investment spending, which even Nick Clegg now concedes was cut too fast (capital spending fell from £48.5bn in 09/10 to £28bn in 11/12, a 42.3 per cent reduction), a better test of the coalition's fiscal rectitude is current borrowing, which reflects the difference between revenue and day-to-day (non-investment) spending. On this measure, borrowing has fallen from £110.5bn in 09/10 to £93.6bn in 11/12, a notably smaller reduction of 15.3 per cent. The shortfall in revenues caused by the near-absence of growth since the Spending Review in 2010 and the higher welfare bills caused by the rise in long-term unemployment have left Osborne unable to meet his deficit targets.

The coalition's boast to have reduced borrowing by a quarter also depends on ignoring all the figures since April 2012, when the last financial year (11/12) ended. If we take into account the figures since then (see table PSF1 on p.36) , the picture is even worse. Over the last 12 months (January 2012-December 2012), the government's net borrowing stands at £128.9bn (excluding the one-off transfer of Royal Mail pension assets to the public sector), an increase of 5.8 per cent since 2011, when borrowing was £121.4bn, and a fall of only 18.3 per cent since 09/10. As for current borrowing, that stands at £103.4bn over the last year, a reduction of just 6.4 per cent since 09/10 (when current borrowing was £110.5bn). 

So, to summarise, the coalition reduced net borrowing by 24 per cent between 09/10 and 11/12 but only by slashing infrastructure spending by 42 per cent and tipping the UK into a double-dip recession and, perhaps, a triple-dip. Current borrowing has fallen by a smaller 15.3 per cent over that period. 

If, unlike Cameron, we take into account the borrowing figures since April 2012 , net borrowing has fallen by 18.3 per cent since 09/10, while current borrowing has fallen by just 6.4 per cent.

For a government whose raison d'etre is deficit reduction ("The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement," states the Coalition Agreement), the coalition really isn't very good at it. 

David Cameron addresses a session of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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