Bad politics, baffling diplomacy - Osborne's stance on bank bonuses

The government's posturing is about little more than saying enough to keep the eurosceptics quiet.

Of all the unpopular causes to take up, defending bank bonuses must rank pretty high up the list. That still applies even if it is the EU, rather than the House of Commons, doing the legislating.

But that doesn't seem to have deterred David Cameron. Yesterday George Osborne stood alone in opposition to a deal that could make the European banking sector safer and more transparent and which contains a number of major reforms actively pushed by the UK.
First, a disclaimer. The Capital Requirements legislation is not really about bonuses or bankers' pay. Instead, it focuses on increasing the amount of core capital banks must hold on their balance sheet. A lack of sufficient good quality capital combined with a liquidity crisis when the money markets seized up, were the two main causes of the 2007-9 banking crisis. More than five years on, the European and US economies are still yet to recover.
Increasing the minimum levels of capital to be held on their balance sheets and establishing rules to control leverage ratios will bring more safety to the banking sector. Moreover, the introduction of country-by-country reporting, which will require European banks to disclose how much tax they pay is another welcome breakthrough that will increase transparency and rebuild public trust in the banking sector. Like the country-by-country reporting, new rules on bank pay were among the baubles added to the tree.
The provisions on bonus payments are among the most complicated parts of an already highly technical piece of law. This strict 1:1 cap will be the norm but banks will be able to pay bonuses worth double salary on a majority vote among shareholders. Meanwhile, with up to 25 per cent of the bonus able to be made in deferred bonds or securities there is scope to spread out payments or make them dependent on long-term performance.
What I suspect is that the government's posturing is about little more than saying enough to keep the eurosceptics quiet. Boris Johnson, who has been consistent and vocal in his opposition to the regulation, quickly denounced the agreement as "self-defeating" and "deluded". The Prime Minister, correctly guessing that Thursday's by-election might lead to more questions about his leadership and the threat from UKIP, chose to add his two penn'orth.
But it is difficult to take the government's opposition at face value. First of all, this is not a case of Britain vs Europe. There have been a glut of EU laws regulating different parts of the financial sector since the financial crisis - short selling, the derivatives market, hedge funds and insurance just to name a few. Guess how many times Britain has been outvoted in the Council of Ministers by those perfidious foreigners? Zero, nada, zilch - it hasn't happened since the last European elections in 2009.
For all the hyperbole likely to dominate the pages of Conservative Home and the right-wing press, the British government has not been marginalised in the negotiations on CRD IV. On the contrary, it has led them and, indeed, wanted to go further than the European Commission on the level of core capital that banks should be required to hold. While it is true that the British government had expressed reservations about the bonus cap, a government official I spoke with described CRD IV as "a crucially important piece of legislation".
The same is true in the European Parliament. Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles and Conservative Vicky Ford, who were part of the Parliament's six-member negotiating team, both spoke favourably of the agreement at a press conference on Thursday last week. One of the Parliament's most vocal critics of the City, Green MEP Philippe Lamberts, another member of the Parliament's negotiating team, said that he had "felt like a Briton" on "most topics" covered by the legislation.
Ford went further, saying that the public "need to know how much banks are paying in tax". Referring to the exemption allowing bonuses to be paid in long-dated bonds or securities, she added that "the long-dated pay element should be examined before they (bankers) start screaming".
Besides, rules on bank pay should hardly be controversial at a time when pay levels in both the public and private sector are being tightly controlled. The Independent was among those arguing last week that politicians should not legislate on private sector pay. This might hold water if the banking sector had shown an iota of willingness to self-regulate to curb excessive pay. They have not, and too many top banking executives are still receiving multi-million pound rewards for presiding over multi-million or billion pound losses.
There is precious little the government can do to block a cap and they know it. The Irish government, which currently holds the six month rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers, would not have offered the compromise unless it was confident that all governments would sign up to it. For its part, the Parliament, which has given up tighter rules on bank leverage ratios in exchange for the bonus cap, will not want to unpick a painstakingly reached agreement and wants the symbolic victory of the bonus cap. Although other countries are anxious for Britain to vote in favour, the bill will be adopted by a qualified majority by ministers and the European Parliament, so there is no scope for a veto.
By promising to hold an 'in/out' referendum early in the next Parliament, Cameron is already running a high risk strategy on Europe. If he wants other countries to look kindly on the prospect of giving more opt-outs and exemptions to Britain then he needs allies and he needs to pick his battles wisely. Holding up vitally important legislation on bank capital for the sake of a losing battle on behalf of a few thousand multi-millionaires in the Square Mile is not just bad politics, but bad economics too.
Ben Fox is a reporter for EU Observer. He writes in a personal capacity
Chancellor George Osborne is pictured prior to an Economic and Financial Affairs Council on March 5, 2013 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.