Duncan Smith in the firing line over benefit sanction targets

After new evidence that job centres are being set targets, the Work and Pensions Secretary stands accused of misleading Parliament.

Ministers have consistently denied that jobcentres are being set targets for benefit sanctions in order to drive down welfare spending. On Tuesday, employment minister Mark Hoban told MPs: "There are no league tables in place. We do not set targets for sanctions."

But today's Guardian provides the clearest evidence yet that the practice has become endemic in the benefits system. In a leaked email, Ruth King, a manager at a Walthamstow jobcentre, is shown warning staff that they will be disciplined unless they increase the number of claimants referred to the "Stricter Benefits Regime", which could mean losing their payments for six months. Noting that Walthamstow is "95th in the league table out of only 109", she writes: "Guys, we really need to up the game here. The 5% target is one thing – the fact that we are seeing over 300 people a week and only submitting six of them for possible doubts is simply not quite credible."

Her advice to staff includes: "Do not accept the same job search every week, do not accept 'I dropped off CV to shops like Asda or Sainsbury's', listen for telltale phrases 'I pick up the kids', 'I look after my neighbours children/my grandchildren' or just 'I am busy' – all of which suggest that the customer may not be fully available for work, even cases where a parent shares custody can be considered."

Iain Duncan Smith has today responded by telling MPs that "There are no targets, there will be no targets and anybody caught imposing a target will themselves be dealt with." But with all evidence suggesting that the reverse is true, Labour is seeking to call the Work and Pensions Secretary to account. In a statement issued last night, Liam Byrne, Duncan Smith's shadow, said:

This explosive letter lays bare the climate of fear in Job Centres as league tables and threats of disciplinary action are used to perpetrate a culture of sanctioning innocent people to hit targets. That is just plain wrong and must be stopped – now.

I asked ministers to assure the House on Tuesday that there were no sanctions targets and no league tables. Either Ministers have no grip on their department or they misled Parliament. Either way they must now face the consequences.

He has now written to Duncan Smith asking him to guarantee that the independent review promised by the government "will get to the bottom of every sanction issued by a job centre where targets were in operation".

After Labour's much-criticised decision to abstain in this week's vote on the coalition's workfare bill (which saw 43 MPs defy the whip to vote against it), the row is an opportunity for Byrne to strengthen his position. The promise of an independent review into the sanctions regime was one of the arguments he made for not voting against the legislation. He declared last night: "This is why we took difficult decisions on the Jobseekers' Bill to secure an independent review of sanctions. We knew there were sanctions targets and now we've secured an independent report to Parliament to put right a regime in Job Centres that's running out of control."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. 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