The problem with Cameron's plan to raid the aid budget to pay for defence

If the aid budget becomes a means of plugging the shortfall in defence spending, aid campaigners will feel they have been misled.

Perhaps no position David Cameron has adopted is more unpopular with Conservative MPs than his decision to increase aid spending while cutting defence. The former is rising by 37 per cent in real-terms, while the latter is falling by 7.5 per cent. And the trend is set to continue. Having once assured his party that defence spending would increase from 2015, Cameron now makes it clear that the department will not be protected from cuts in this summer's Spending Review. With the ever-more hawkish Prime Minister talking of a "generational struggle" against African jihadism, Tory MPs and armed forces chiefs understandably ask how he expects to wage this campaign on a shrinking budget. 

But his Cameron now found a way of squaring this circle? Speaking to reporters on the final day of his Indian trip, the PM suggested that aid spending could be used to fund peacekeeping and other defence-related projects. He said: 

We have to demonstrate that the aid budget is being used wisely.

We should be thinking very carefully about how we help states that have been riven by conflict and war. I think it’s obviously true that if you can help deliver security and help provide stability then that is the base from which all development can proceed.

He added: "Can we do more, can we build on this approach? I am very open to ideas like that." Early estimates suggest that around £100m a year could be could be diverted from the Department for International Development to the Ministry of Defence. 

Downing Street is keen to emphasise that the spending would be compliant with international aid rules and would not be used to fund combat missions or equipment. "You can be sure that we are not going to use this money to buy any tanks," one source tells the Guardian.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. The first is that it will free up resources for precisely this kind of combat expenditure. Using the DFID budget to pay for "nice" defence spending leaves the MoD with more for "nasty" defence spending. Those aid campaigners who have applauded the government's plan to meet its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on international development are uncomfortable with the thought that the money could be used to indirectly subsidise armed interventions. The second is that it sets what many view as a negative precedent. What is a £100m now could become far more later. If the aid budget becomes a means of plugging the shortfall in defence spending, the PM will be seen to have broken the spirit, if not the letter, of that 0.7 per cent pledge. 

David Cameron meets British soldiers based at Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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