Miliband takes inspiration from Germany with new regional banks policy

Labour would establish a new network of banks, modelled on the German <i>Sparkassen</i>, with a duty to promote growth in underdeveloped regions.

The "blank sheet of paper" is being filled. Ed Miliband will announce today that a Labour government would establish a new network of regional banks as partners of a British Investment Bank. In his speech at the British Chambers of Commerce conference this morning, he will say: "We do not just need a single investment serving the country. We need a regional banking system serving each and every region of the country. 

"Regional banks with a mission to serve that region and that region alone, not banks that are likely to say no but banks that know your region and your business; not banks that you mistrust, but banks you can come to trust."

The policy, like much of Miliband's political economy, has a distinctly German flavour. Last February, Chuka Umunna visited the country to study the Sparkassen, locally managed banks with a duty to promote growth in economically underdeveloped regions. The shadow business secretary said: 

There is quite a lot we can learn, in particular from the savings banks here, the Sparkassen, which have a much better relationship, if you like, with their businesses, the people here, their banking structure's very local in its nature, the people running those local banks really understand and get to know the businesses, so they're in a good position to assess the risk and provide the support needed to. 

Labour's Small Business Taskforce, which publishes its final report today, has identified the lack of  finance for small and medium sized enterprises as one of the factors restricting growth and innovation. It suggests that a new German-style network of regional banks (dubbed "Sparks") could help promote a more balanced economy.

There are important details to be worked out, most notably where the banks will operate and how they will be capitalised, but this is an encouraging example of Miliband's long-term focus on rebuilding "the foundations" of the economy. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.