Labour makes official complaint over Cameron's debt lies

Rachel Reeves writes to the UK Statistics Authority after Cameron claimed in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts".

In last night's Conservative Party political broadcast, David Cameron boasted that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts". Except, of course, it's not. Since Cameron entered office, the national debt has risen from £811.3bn (55.3 per cent of GDP) to £1.11trn (70.7 per cent of GDP) and, owing to the lack of growth, the government is set to borrow billions more than Labour planned (the plan Cameron claimed would "bankrupt" Britain).

By 2014-15, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that debt will have increased to £1.4trn (79 per cent of GDP). It's true that the coalition has reduced annual borrowing (the deficit) by 24 per cent since coming to power (from £159 in 2009-10 to £121.6bn in 2011-12), albeit by slashing infrastructure spending, but it's a flat-out untruth to claim that it's "paying down" our debts. 

In response, Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, has written to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, asking him to investigate Cameron's misleading statement. It's worth noting that the Stats Authority has previously forced the Conservatives to correct their claim to have increased real-terms spending on the NHS "in each of the last two years", so there's a good chance of a critical response. 

Here's Reeves's letter in full. 

Andrew Dilnot CBE
Chair, UK Statistics Authority
1 Drummond Gate
London
SW1V 2QQ

24 January 2013

Dear Andrew

I am sure you will agree that it is vital that public debate is informed by accurate use of statistics.

However, in a Party Political Broadcast by the Conservative Party last night, the Prime Minister said:

“We are now halfway through the coalition’s time in government and in two and a half years we have achieved a lot but I know people don’t just want to hear from me, they want to know the facts… So though this government has had to make some difficult decisions, we are making progress. We are paying down Britain’s debts.”

As you will be aware, figures from the Office for National Statistics published this week show that the national debt is not being paid down, but is actually rising. Since this government came to office, public sector net debt has risen from £811.3 billion (55.3 per cent of GDP) in the second quarter of 2010, to £1,111.4 billion at the end of December 2012 (70.7 per cent of GDP).

The Office for Budget Responsibility has also forecast that public sector net debt will continue to rise and the government’s target to get it falling by 2015-16 will not be met.

This is not the first time government Ministers have made similar claims about the national debt. However, last night’s Party Political Broadcast is the first occasion I am aware of when the Prime Minister has made such a claim in a scripted broadcast. This suggests that the Conservative Party may be attempting to deliberately mislead the public about these statistics and the government’s record.

I would be grateful if you could bring some clarity to the situation and advise on how we can ensure that in the future debate on the national debt is accurate and based on the facts.

Yours sincerely,

Rachel Reeves MP

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves.

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