Oct 20, 2014
The UK has two welfare states. There is one that is reported and endlessly discussed, and another, which is rarely mentioned. Whilst the first is suffering enormous cuts under the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition, the other just keeps expanding.
Comedian, author and activist Rob Newman explains to the New Internationalist magazine (May 2013):
Governments on the left and the right can always justify welfare cuts by pitting, for example, mobility scooters against needle exchanges, or the soft-play area in children’s playgrounds against an old people’s home. Who deserves it most, they say, students or cleaners? Old or young? But when we’re running not one, but two welfare states, that’s a totally fake scenario. The real choice is between playgrounds or gas rigs; between Meals on Wheels or The City of London Currency Speculators’ Maintenance Allowance.
There’s a connection – never mentioned – between, let’s say, Britain’s eight new deep-water gas rigs and its 200 new food banks. The connection is that the $4.5 billion subsidy package being doled out to transnational gas corporations is a very big slice of the welfare pie. And to keep the gas transnationals on the benefits to which they are addicted, hungry humans have to queue for tinned food that is too close to its sell-by date to be kept on the shelves of supermarkets, many of which are themselves massive recipients of corporate welfare.
Meanwhile, the corporate sector sits on a colossal cash surplus of £800bn but without investing because the real problem continues to be the lack of aggregate demand… and the richest 100 UK citizens, only 0.0003% of the electorate, now have wealth estimated at £257bn.
Nevertheless, George Osborne has been prepared to cut £18bn from benefits plus a further £81bn from public services in the name of unavoidable austerity, whilst at the same time providing huge subsidies, tax cuts and removing regulation for the hidden ‘welfare’ system that benefits the private sector.
No goods or services are directly returned to the government in exchange for these expenditures, although of course, politicians will argue that they’re stimulating the economy, helping struggling industries, creating jobs or funding important research but actually this is just a corporate welfare system.
The Cato Institute estimated that in the US, $93 billion were devoted to corporate welfare in 2002. This was about 5% of the federal budget… and nearly twice the amount spent on social welfare ie. feeding people, housing the homeless, raising children out of poverty…
There is no reason to think the situation is different in the UK. However, overall statistics for the UK corporate welfare budget are hard to discover .. and the variety of different subsidies are staggering. Needless to say, our MSM focuses its attention on fraud and waste in the social welfare budget.
Welfare fraud and waste is never far from the top of the UK’s news agenda – but the real figures often bear almost no resemblance to popular belief. The British public, for example, think around 27% of the welfare budget is lost of fraud, according to TUC research.
The Department for Work and Pensions’ latest data on fraud and error in the benefit system shows a very different reality: fraud exists, but at a far lower level than the public believes – and is outweighed by errors from claimants and officials alike.
The overall figures show fraud and error are largely unchanged from last year. The DWP estimates £3.5bn has been overpaid due to errors and fraud in the system; 2.1 per cent of the overall benefit expenditure.
The corporate welfare budget arises from four main sources:
Paying little or no tax – Tax havens
Enjoying huge subsidies
Removal of employment and environmental protection regulations
The task of covering all these areas adequately is beyond the scope of this post so I offer these quotes which illustrate some of the ways in which the corporates are benefiting from political sponsorship of their welfare:
The UK’s 100 biggest public companies are running more than 8,000 subsidiaries or joint ventures in onshore and offshore tax havens, according to research published on Monday, raising fresh concerns about the full extent of corporate tax avoidance.
The figures, published by the charity ActionAid, show that only two of the companies listed on the UK’s FTSE 100 have no subsidiaries in tax havens – while companies such as Barclays and Tesco own hundreds.
Could this be the same Chancellor who in his 2012 budget offered multi-nationals which opened a finance subsidiary in a tax haven a reduction in corporation tax from the then rate of 23% to an eye-wateringly low level of just 5.5%? It could be, and it was. Is this the same Chancellor who, whilst ultimately controlling the UK Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories which constitute up to half the world’s most frequently used tax havens, declined to take any action to close them down? Yes, it was again.
I say tax gap is £95bn
It was revealed recently that only one in four of the UK’s top companies pay their taxes, meanwhile they receive tax credits to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds funded by people who did pay their taxes.
… vastly profitable large chains of supermarkets … get an enormous subsidy to help with one of their major overheads, staffing costs. This is because many employees in these large and successful companies are paid only the minimum wage. And because the current minimum wage is not a living wage, nearly everyone on it has to claim tax credits to be able to make ends meet. Those tax credits are funded by the taxpayer…. Let’s stop calling them “wealth creators” and start calling them state subsidised industries.
Currently, it is estimated that the government has already provided £43.5bn in various subsidies including the National Infrastructure Plan, the Equity Loan and Help to Buy schemes, the Enterprise Finance Guarantee and the Regional Growth Fund, with nothing to show for it. Far greater sums are in the pipeline, up to £310bn.
It is more important to [the Tory/LD coalition] to privatise everything they can in pursuit of their real objective of a fully marketised State rather than to compel these banks, of which the taxpayers own 82% of RBS and 39% of Lloyds, to prioritise lending to industry to kickstart the economy and get growth going at last. Even more significantly, an enforced sale before the election will at their current share value lose taxpayers £24 billions! That is truly staggering when Osborne has been prepared to cut £18bn from benefits plus a further £81bn from public services in the name of unavoidable austerity. Yet at the same time he is now disposing of assets which will gratuitously lose the public coffers £24bn.
It is arguable that without the state’s support the banking sector would have collapsed entirely. But even on the most favourable comparison from the low-point of the recession the subsidy has been hugely inefficient. A £1,020bn hand-out to the banks has yielded an increase in output over that time of approximately £40bn. It would have been far more efficient if the state had directed its own capital into the production of banking services, via fully nationalised and controlled banks.
.. if you spend £100 on healthcare in the NHS you get one hundred quid’s worth of healthcare less about 5% management costs. In the private sector you’ll get a hundred quid’s worth less 3% management costs, 5% profit, 12% to pay bank loans and charges, plus a chunk for bonuses, dividends and return for investors. And, no provision for what happens if they go broke or get fed up.
I will conclude with the 2011 nef briefing, ‘Feather-bedding financial services’, which asked, in addition to the unprecedented public support for the financial sector over the past three years, how much are the big banks benefitting from hidden subsidies? They identified at least three significant hidden subsidies:
- The ‘Too Big to Fail’ subsidy: The government now provides a public guarantee, effectively insurance against banks going bust. This gives banks a huge commercial advantage over other firms in a market system. It means banks are able to borrow money much more cheaply than if they were not ultimately underwritten by the public. Exchanges with leading auditors in front of the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs in January 2011 confirm this. A conservative analysis reveals that this hidden subsidy could be worth £30 billion annually. It means that bonuses to senior staff for ‘performance’ and dividends to institutional investors are at least in part a straight transfer from the taxpayer.
- The quantitative easing windfall subsidy: When it was decided that the economy needed more liquidity, the Bank of England pumped money in using the technique called ‘quantitative easing’. To meet various, and sometimes self-imposed, requirements, it did by purchasing government bonds through investment banks. Merely for being passive conduits for this ‘risk free’ arrangement the banks took a cut of every trade. Here nef analysts found that banks enjoyed a significant windfall, but that lack of transparency keeps the likely amount hidden.
- The ‘make the customer pay’ subsidy: Looked at sympathetically, the banks have been put in a difficult position. At the same time as being required to rebuild their capital, they are also under pressure to lend. In response, the banks have tried to manage this by increasing the gap between what they have to pay to borrow money, and what they charge people to borrow from them. This is the so-called interest rate ‘spread’. But the banks have a choice. They could recapitalise by reducing or eliminating bonus and dividend payments until their capital base is rebuilt. As it is, the taxpayer is subsidising the banks twice over: once through taxpayer funded public support to the banks, and secondly through paying much higher interest to borrow than the banks do. This hidden subsidy to retail banking and one part of the investment banking world amounts to at least another £2.5 billion each year.
As James Galbraith wrote:
The Predator State…. The state as monopoly collector of taxes and corrupt distributor of the spoils to the private sector…
There is no common good, no public purpose, no shareholder’s interest; we are the prey and governments as well as corporations are run by and for predators.
Furthermore, none of this is likely to get any better under the rules of the US-EU FTA (Free Trade Agreement) which the Tory/LDs are wanting to get signed by 2014. Part of the secret negotiations are the transfer of sovereignty from nations to private corporate tribunals who will be empowered to compel governments to change their laws or pay unlimited fines.