How Labour can offer something for something on welfare

A two-tier system of benefits for job seekers, with higher entitlements for those with strong work records, could be funded by reducing spending on mortgage interest.

This is set to be a big week for Labour. Today Ed Balls launched a foray into pensioner benefits, later this week Ed Miliband is set to address the question of working age welfare. The question is what principle (or combination of principles) should underpin any new approach. The shadow chancellor’s announcement today points towards more means-testing but in January, Miliband defended universal benefits and since then Liam Byrne has promised that Labour would "strengthen the old principle of contribution". 

Means-testing and the contributory principle are, of course, uneasy bedfellows; one judges eligibility by what people need to take out of a system, the other by what people have put in. Labour should plump for more emphasis on the latter. This matters most for working age welfare, which has been haemorrhaging support in recent years. International evidence shows that the UK has one of the least generous welfare systems for the unemployed –and one of those with the weakest relationship between what people have paid in and what they get out. The two are linked: people tend to support systems with a stronger contributory element.

In a paper published today Demos argues that the government should create a two-tier system of benefits for job seekers, with higher entitlements for those with strong work records. This would end the ‘nothing for something’ system, in which many people contribute over a number of years, only to find themselves entitled to very little when they require help. This would be paid for by reducing spending on the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme, which currently covers the interest on up to £200,000 of loans or mortgages for homeowners out of work, up to a maximum of two years.

The principle behind this is that if people make the choice to take on a mortgage, they should also insure themselves against the associated risks. Homeowners losing their entitlement to SMI would instead be auto-enrolled into mortgage payment protection insurance, leaving them to choose to not cover themselves or to purchase insurance for mortgage interest payments at a cost of £33 a month at most - less than the price of an average mobile phone bill. The money saved from this change would allow for a higher payments for those with strong work records – roughly £95 a week compared to the £71.70 that all job seekers currently get for at least six months.

These changes would promote personal responsibility, through homeowners insuring themselves against risk incurred by their own choices. They would engender reciprocity, through a system which rewarding contribution. And they would avoid increasing the deficit by reallocating existing spending, rather than adding new commitments. 

Duncan O'Leary is deputy director of Demos

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office on January 18, 2012 in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos

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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