George Osborne looks on as David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne falls far short of £7 minimum wage target

The proposed figure of £6.70 fails to meet the Chancellor's aim of restoring the minimum wage to its pre-recession value. 

In a characteristically calculated intervention last year, George Osborne sought to compensate for the Tories' past opposition to the minimum wage by declaring that he hoped the main rate would rise to £7 by 2015-16. "If, for example, the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would be £7 by 2015-16, £6.31 at the moment, so that is an increase," he said, with an eye to his party's blue collar wing. "I think we can see an above inflation increase in the minimum wage and do it in a way that actually supports our economy precisely because the economy is recovering and many, many jobs are being created." The Treasury published an accompanying analysis modelling the impact of an increase to £7, lending further weight to the figure (which at the time would have restored the minimum wage to its pre-recession value). 

But it is now clear that Osborne was raising false hopes. The Low Pay Commission, the body that advises the government on the minimum wage, has today published its recommendations for 2015-16 - and they do not include an increase to £7. Instead, the LPC has called for a smaller rise to £6.70 (up from £6.50). The government is not obliged to accept its proposals but Vince Cable, who is formally responsible for this area as Business Secretary, has signalled that ministers will almost certainly not oppose the figure. He said: "I will now study these recommendations and consult my Cabinet colleagues with a view to announcing the final rates in the next few weeks. The Low Pay Commission strike a delicate balance between what is fair for workers and what is affordable for employers, without costing jobs. It does so impartially and without political interference. No government has ever rejected the main rates since it was established fifteen years ago. It is important that it is able to continue to do its work ten weeks before a general election."

Cable is known to have been angered when Osborne floated the figure of £7, believing that the LPC would never approve such a large rise. Indeed, Osborne pre-emptively retreated when the government failed to propose this rate in its final submission to the body. The Chancellor can point out that he maintained at the time that 'the exact figure has to be set by the Low Pay Commission'. But that does not alter the fact that he sought (and won) headlines on his support for a £7 rate. Through this careless act, he has handed Labour political ammunition with which to attack him and ensured that a 20p rise (3 per cent above inflation) will now disappoint expectations. 

Although inflation has fallen significantly, a rate of £6.77 would still fail to restore the minimum wage to its peak value. As the Resolution Foundation noted: "The minimum wage is set to rise by 3 per cent in October 2015, roughly the same percentage by which it rose in October 2014. Last year, the Low Pay Commission described its decision to recommend a 3 per cent increase last year – rising from £6.31 to £6.50 – as reflecting “a new phase” for the minimum wage, following a period in which it had suffered repeated falls relative to inflation. But that lost ground has yet to be fully made up. The Resolution Foundation estimates that an increase of 4.2 per cent to £6.77 would have been necessary to take the minimum wage back to its highest ever value in real-terms, which it held in 2008-09."

To be on track to meet Labour's promise of an £8 minimum wage by the end of the next parliament, the rate would need to rise to £6.78. That means the opposition faces some tough questions of its own: would it have become the first government to overrule the LPC? 

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