Nick Clegg speaks at his party's spring conference in York earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lib Dems revolt over Clegg's refusal to cut taxes for the poorest

Lord Oakeshott and the liberal Centre Forum are demanding a cut in the National Insurance threshold, rather than another cut in income tax.

There is no coalition policy of which Nick Clegg is prouder than the increase in the personal tax allowance. Having achieved the original target of £10,000 (from a starting level of £6,475 in 2010/11) a year earlier than expected, Clegg has been pushing George Osborne to go further - and will get his wish in the Budget tomorrow. The Chancellor is likely to announce that the tax threshold will rise to £10,500 next year and perhaps even to £10,750 if he's feeling generous. Given the Lib Dems' limited success in government (no AV, no House of Lords reform, no mansion tax), Clegg is understandably keen to claim credit for a policy that voters overwhelmingly support and that David Cameron rejected as unaffordable during the first 2010 leaders' debate ("I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick. It's a beautiful idea, it's a lovely idea - we cannot afford it"). For Clegg, the increase due to be announced in the Budget is a step towards the Lib Dems' new target of a £12,500 tax allowance by the end of the next parliament. 

But not all in his party share his enthusiasm for continually hiking the tax threshold. By definition, as the policy continues, it becomes increasingly less progressive. The five million workers who earn below £10,000 will gain nothing from another rise, but all of those earning up to £120,000 will be better off (the personal allowance is tapered away at a rate of 50 per cent after £100,000 - a stealth tax introduced by Alistair Darling).  It is those in the second-richest decile who receive the most in cash terms from the policy (mainly due to the greater number of dual-earning households), followed by the richest tenth (who receive marginally less due to the tapering away of the allowance). As a percentage of income, it is middle-earners who gain the most, with those at the bottom gaining the least.

For these reasons, an increasing number of Lib Dems are calling for the party to support progressive alternatives to raising the tax threshold. The Centre Forum, the party's favourite think-tank, has proposed increasing the National Insurance threshold, which currently stands at £7,748, to help low-earners. As the IFS recently noted, aligning the NI threshold with the personal allowance would "cut taxes for 1.2 million workers with earnings too low to benefit from an increase in the personal allowance, would benefit only workers, and would simplify the direct tax system."

The reliably contrarian Lord Oakeshott has echoed this demand, stating that "Raising the income tax starting point to £10,000 is a great Liberal Democrat manifesto achievement but we should declare victory and move on, or we'll become victims of our own success. We've lifted 2 million out of income tax but left 1.2 million of them paying National Insurance contributions from around £7,750 a year." The Guardian reports that his concerns are shared by his political ally Vince Cable, who has also noted "the diminishing returns of the policy for the low paid." 

Other alternatives to raising the tax threshold include cutting VAT (which is paid by all and hits the poorest hardest) and raising in-work benefits such as tax credits. As the IFS noted, increasing the level at which the latter are withdrawn by 20 per cent would be "a bigger giveaway in entitlements to working families in the bottom three income deciles than the gains to that group of raising the personal allowance to £12,500, despite costing £10 billion per year less". 

But all of these measures lack the headline-grabbing potential of another cut in income tax. With the Tories considering making their own pledge to raise the personal allowance to £12,500, Clegg is determined not to relinquish ownership of the policy. But as he continues down this path, the divide between him and his party's redistributionists is one to watch. 

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