Welfare cuts: how they could have been even worse

David Cameron has already outlined the draconian cuts a Conservative majority government would make.

The left has rightly expressed its outrage at the welfare reforms introduced this week but it's worth remembering that they could have been much worse. Were this a Conservative government, as opposed to a coalition, ministers would be imposing even deeper cuts. As George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith noted in their joint article in Monday's Telegraph, "The Prime Minister has already set out some of the things that a Conservative government [emphasis mine] would do to create a fairer system and move people into work." 

The speech in question, delivered by David Cameron last summer, was one of the most detailed he has given since becoming Prime Minister. Among the measures proposed were:

  • The abolition of housing benefit for under-25s.
  • The restriction of child-related benefits for families with more than two children.
  • A lower rate of benefits for the under-21s.
  • Preventing school leavers from claiming benefits.
  • Paying benefits in kind (like free school meals), rather than in cash.
  • Reducing benefit levels for the long-term unemployed. Cameron said: "Instead of US-style time-limits – which remove entitlements altogether – we could perhaps revise the levels of benefits people receive if they are out of work for literally years on end".
  • A lower housing benefit cap. Cameron said that the current limit of £20,000 was still too high.
  • The abolition of the "non-dependent deduction". Those who have an adult child living with them would lose up to £74 a week in housing benefit.

What all of these policies have in common is that they would further squeeze those on low incomes, while doing nothing to address the deep structural reasons for the rising welfare bill, such as the lack of affordable housing and falling real wages. As I noted yesterday, while complaining about the surge in housing benefit payments, George Osborne made no mention of the causes, preferring to concentrate his fire on the (five) families who received £100,000 or more in landlord subsidy. By prioritising housebuilding and ensuring more employers pay the living wage, Labour can argue that it, rather than the Conservatives, is best placed to reduce the benefits bill in a responsible and sustainable way.  

David Cameron and George Osborne have signalled that the Conservatives would be making deeper welfare cuts were they not in coalition. 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