‘(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall instruct the Competition and Markets Authority to begin a full market study, according to its powers under the Enterprise Act 2002, into UK financial services institutions involved in the provision of core services.
(2) The full market study will consider:
(a) the level of competition among UK institutions involved in the provision of core services.
(b) the obstacles to increasing competition for UK institutions involved in the provision of core services.
(c) possible actions that could be taken to facilitate new UK institutions being competitive in the provision of core services.
(3) The full market study will be published within a year of Royal Assent of this Act.
(4) The review must result in a report to the Treasury.
(5) The Treasury shall lay a copy of the report before both Houses of Parliament.’.—(Chris Leslie.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 10—Sale of state-owned banking assets—
‘(1) Before the sale of banking assets in the ownership of HM Treasury, the Treasury shall lay before Parliament a report setting out—
(a) the manner in which the best interests of the taxpayer are to be protected in connection with such sale,
(b) the expected impact that any sale might have on competition for the provision of core services, customer choice and the rate of economic growth,
(c) an appraisal of the options for potential structural changes in the bank concerned including—
(i) the separation of the provision of core services from the provision of investment activities,
(ii) the retention of a class of assets in the ownership of HM Treasury,
(iii) the impact of any sale on the creation of a regional banking network.
(2) A copy of the report in subsection (1) shall be laid before Parliament and sufficient time shall be given for the appropriate committees of both Houses of Parliament to consider its findings before any sale decision.’.
Government amendment 5.
New clause 15—Local stakeholder banks—
(2) This report shall contain an examination of stakeholder banking structures, defined as credit institutions that are not owned by private shareholders, with the with the aim of maximising shareholder returns. The examination should draw on experience in the UK and elsewhere and include—
(a) co-operative banks;
(b) credit unions;
(c) community development finance institutions (CDFIs);
(d) public-interest savings banks.
(3) The report shall examine potential impacts of the creation of networks of local stakeholder banks on—
(a) customer service and product range,
(b) accessibility to banking services for customer underserved by commercial banks,
(c) financial stability,
(d) accountability to local stakeholders.
(4) A copy of this report and the outcome of the full consultation shall be laid before Parliament and sufficient time shall be given for consideration of its findings by members of relevant committees of both Houses before any decisions are taken on the sale of state-owned banking assets.’.
New clause 12—Portable account numbers—
‘(1) Within six months of Royal Assent of this Act, the Treasury shall lay before Parliament a report considering—
(a) the adequacy of voluntary arrangements made by UK ring-fenced bodies to facilitate easier customer switching of bank account services; and
(b) legislative options for the introduction of portable account numbers and sort codes for retail bank accounts provided by UK ring-fenced bodies.
(2) The Chancellor of the Exchequer may, by affirmative order to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, confer powers upon the appropriate regulator to require UK ring-fenced bodies to comply with any specified scheme to establish the use of portable account numbers and sort codes.’.
New clause 14—Portable account numbers (No. 2)—
‘(1) Within 12 months of Royal Assent of this Act, the Treasury shall lay before Parliament a fully independent and comprehensive report detailing the options for introducing portable account numbers for bank accounts within the UK, including a full cost benefit analysis of the available options.
(2) The appropriate regulator may require banks and building societies to comply with any scheme to introduce and facilitate the use of portable account numbers, which is introduced in regulations made by the Treasury.
(3) No regulations may be made by the Treasury under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.’.
Government new clause 1—Minor amendments.
Government new schedule 1—Minor Amendments.
Here we are again—a second bite at the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill. Today, we debate a series of amendments and new clauses that have been loosely grouped together under the title “Competition etc.” I shall speak in particular to new clauses 8, 10 and 12 in due course, but I shall start with new clause 8.
We felt it important to discuss the obstacles in the way of better competition in the banking sector. I am sure that it is not true of you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but many hon. Members have probably been with their retail bank since they were very young—not so long ago in your case, Madam Deputy Speaker. Although an aficionado of switching and looking at different services in banking, I must confess that I have been with the same bank since I was 14, and with no real logic other than the inertia that afflicts many customers: we tend to think that it is inconvenient to change bank accounts; we tend to think, “There is not much choice, so what is the difference or the point of shopping around?” It is this sense of a lack of competition and lack of choice that we want to remedy with the new clause, tabled with other amendments in the group.
There are significant obstacles to competition, particularly to new challenger banks coming into the system, breaking into the business and trying to do something to challenge the absolute dominance of the big five banks. The new clause would require the Treasury to publish a review considering the obstacles to those new challenger banks and ways of increasing the number of new banks coming into play.
Under the new clause,
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall instruct the Competition and Markets Authority to begin a full market study…into UK financial services institutions involved in the provision of core services”— in other words, retail banking. The aim is to provide a structure to support better competition, dealing with obstacles in the way of allowing new institutions to break into the market and to consider what actions could be taken to facilitate the new institutions entering into general competition.
Does the Minister accept that help is needed not just for new entrants, but for unusual, smaller players in the present financial system? As a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament, I have an interest in the Co-operative bank. When HBOS and RBS got into difficulties, everyone rushed around throwing taxpayers’ money at them, but when the Co-op gets into serious difficulty because of its unique ownership basis and its lack of shareholders, it receives very little help from either the Treasury or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
I hope that the Co-operative bank, and all other institutions, will now be in a position to make secure and stable progress. However, I do not think that there is really a parallel between the Co-operative bank and institutions that would have disappeared had it not been for the intervention of the taxpayer in keeping the cash machines operating. We hear Government Members say that the public deficit was somehow created as a result of ministerial choices. It is sometimes forgotten that the state—the taxpayer—had to intervene to rescue the banks. Thank goodness that happened, but it left us with a phenomenal problem with which we are still struggling years later.
Many of my constituents worked for the Halifax mutual building society, and we saw what really caused the ruination of two banks. Wicked, evil, unethical people took over a bank and ran it into the ground. That was not about the Government; it was about greed, and about particular people.
Absolutely. Those are the very issues that should be in the Bill, but it is a pretty thin measure. We are still waiting, apparently endlessly, for the Government to decide to populate it at some point with the recommendations of Mr Tyrie and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.
We need support for mutuality and greater diversity in the banking sector, and that is why the new clause refers to competition. We do not just want more plcs to enter the market; we want institutions of many different types, including mutuals, to be given a chance to compete for business. My hon. Friend’s Co-op bank, for example, might wish to have that greater choice were it available. The new clause was largely inspired by the recommendations of the parliamentary commission, whose most recent publication made it very clear that the sector suffers from a lack of serious competition.
Which?—formerly the Consumers Association—reported recently that 55% of people had never switched their main personal current account, and that the larger banks had not earned their market share by dint of innovation or the provision of competitive services but simply through “first mover” advantage, because they had been there for such a long time. It also reported that, sadly, customer surveys had indicated that the big five high street banks—Lloyds, RBS, HSBC, Santander and Barclays—consistently gave less satisfaction than others. Those banks have a very large market share, which has increased over the last few years. They control 85% of the current account market as opposed to 71% before the financial crisis, 67% of mortgage gross lending as opposed to 38% before the crisis, and 61% of the savings account market compared with 47% before the crisis. The inertia of their customers enables those large banks to sit on a fairly stable customer base. It has often been said that people are more likely to divorce than switch current account, although I am sure that that does include those who are in the Chamber today. The lack of dynamism and choice in the market is a significant worry, and it is no wonder that it has been criticised by the Office of Fair Trading.
There are major barriers to entry for new banks, which need to establish an infrastructure to have a fair chance of competing more widely. Recent suggestions include the adoption of utility platform sharing, and an extension of the payments system machinery beyond the big banks. I think that such ideas should be given serious and detailed consideration, but they pose a challenge to institutions that own and control payments systems, and we must think carefully about how they can be tackled.
Some of the big banks were supposed to divest themselves of branches. RBS was supposed to float off a number of its branches to Santander, but that did not get very far. Similarly, as my hon. Friend
“More than a decade on from the Cruickshank report, we still have a banking sector where competition is manifestly not working well for consumers.”
The hon. Member for Chichester, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, who has left the Chamber—oh, there he is, next to John Thurso. I apologise to him. He is clearly negotiating away as we speak. He has said:
“The lack of competition in banking has been reinforced by a regulatory regime favouring large incumbents. Customers have lost out as a result. Moves to remove barriers to entry are essential.”
We all agree with that.
We constructed new clause 8 very much along the lines of the commission’s recommendation of
“a market study of the retail and SME banking sector, with a full public consultation on the extent of competition and its impact on consumers. We make this recommendation to ensure that the market study is completed on a timetable consistent with making a market investigation reference, should it so decide, before the end of 2015.”
The timescale issue is very important, because the issue has drifted on year after year.
The hon. Gentleman has gone to the heart of one of our key recommendations, but what we had in mind was that the Government should just get on and do it. We did not envisage a need for legislation. Am I not right in thinking that, if properly instructed, the relevant authorities could undertake the work themselves?
I hoped that legislation would not be necessary, but I think it worthwhile for the House to express its view, particularly in response to the commission’s recommendation. Heaven knows, we have been here before. We have heard plenty of warm words from Ministers. They have said “We will certainly consider this, because there is a strong case in favour of it”. When it comes to the crunch, however, if the House of Commons is to do anything through this Bill—and we shall not be doing a lot, because so much is being left to the other place—I think that it is worth our trying to insert the new clause, just to keep the Minister’s feet to the fire. All that we are asking for is a market study in preparation for the proper market investigation reference before the end of 2015.
When the Vickers report was published in 2011, Labour Members felt that specifying 2013 would allow an appropriate time in which to assess the issue, and, two years on from Vickers, I do not think that anything has changed our minds in that regard. Getting that market study under way is the very least that should be done, and the Minister needs to commit to doing that. This is a critical point. When Members listen to what the Minister has to say, they must read between the lines. He will make all sorts of warm noises and say, “The OFT has started this process for SME customers”, but it has not done so for retail customers. That is the crucial difference; focusing merely on SMEs is not sufficient.
The Government have already claimed in their response to the commission’s recommendations that they will be fulfilling the commission’s proposal, but that is not the case. They are not putting in place that retail review, and I do not understand why they are so resistant to doing that. The Minister must explicitly set out why they are holding back from having a market study and investigation of the issues in respect of retail banking.
The Government response is full of warm words—they say they are in discussions and they are engaging with the problem—but it is not strong enough. It is too piecemeal and not sufficiently transparent, and they are not giving the commitment consumers, let alone commission members, would like. If the Government can at least acknowledge that they will not accept the commission’s recommendation, that will give us a clear choice when we come to consider what to do in respect of new clause 8.
Caroline Lucas has tabled new clause 15, which focuses on local stakeholder banks and local banking. I agree that we should look at sub-national financial provision, particularly for customers, who can feel that they have very little choice at all. She will know that in new clause 10 we say that if state-owned banking assets are to be sold, options for a regional banking network ought to be fully considered. That is a very important proposal from the Opposition. There are some very plucky and hard-working institutions across the country—the credit unions, the community development financial institutions and other smaller building societies and mutuals—that do a lot of very worthwhile work at regional and local basis.
Would my hon. Friend add to that list crowd funding and crowd sourcing, which many people think is the basis of a new, democratic capitalism in our country? It allows people to bypass the banks, which have so often failed us, and gives to our communities the power to regenerate businesses and communities.
As some have said in the past, the magic of the “interweb” will ensure that customers can avoid that intermediation—that middle-management step—and access finance. That may well develop very rapidly, although we need to make sure the regulators can keep an eye on how it develops.
Well, I think it is important that we make sure the foundations are put in place to allow those new forms of finance to come to fruition in a safe environment.
My hon. Friend makes that point well, and I also want to give a name-check to the Community Investment Coalition: a number of financial institutions at local and regional level have come together to campaign on some of these issues, and in particular to call for greater transparency in the provision of financial services from community to community on a postcode-level basis, although that is anonymised as we do not need to know which organisations have been lending to which individuals.
We are supposed to have had a commitment from the Government that they would try to get that level of data from the big banks so we could see where there were deserts in terms of financial provision. In some communities access to finance is a real problem, as is access to basic bank account services and other services which people have a right to these days as part of the warp and weft of modern lifestyles. Credit is really a modern utility, and we need to make sure that, as the CIC has campaigned for, the Government press the banks to be more transparent and to come forward with more data so we can decide what further local provision may be required.
And not just towards London, as a lot of the major banks have had their appetites whetted to make big profits by focusing on overseas. That disconnect with locality has been part of the problem. One issue for debate—on another day, perhaps—is the idea of having a regional banking network. The German Sparkassen system has a geographic mandate that requires those banks to do business within a particular locality. That is a dynamic for making sure there is a direct relationship between the banker and the customer, particularly for small businesses, but on a retail basis as well. That is a very good idea whose time has probably come.
Well, personally I prefer our new clause 10, but that is a good try by the hon. Lady. She has raised this issue in the spirit of trying to generate consensus on it, but I hope that in the limited time available to us we focus on the principle of making sure we get those commitments from the Government, which we all want in order to help get this transparency about what is happening in localities, as well as making sure we look at the state-owned assets and think about how they might be applicable to a regional banking network.
Government amendment 5 looks at some issues to do with competition, although they are mostly to do with the nature of ring-fencing and changes that might happen to the ownership of ring-fencing. I want to ask the Minister a question about the tensions between some of the objectives in the Bill. Government amendment 5 inserts a new requirement to consider competition issues, which seems to be slightly in tension with the existing provision to make sure there is no significant adverse effect from changing the ring-fencing arrangements. Can he clarify that that tension is resolvable, and confirm that the duty to consider competition will take effect subject to clause 4(3)?
On Government new clause 1 and new schedule 1, can the Minister help us by talking about the practical implications of the amendment to the Companies Act 1985 omitting disclosures to the regulators, done for the purposes of helping them fulfil their functions under part VI of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000? In particular, this appears to stop such disclosures being exempt from section 449 of the Companies Act, which criminalises disclosure of information obtained in certain circumstances. What is the reasoning behind that change? Also, paragraph 2 of new schedule 1 amends section 376 of FISMA, changing “PRA-authorised” bodies to “PRA-regulated” bodies. Is that a significant change? Are there any bodies that are classed as PRA-regulated but which are not PRA-authorised? If so, which are they?
Our new clause 12 addresses the portability of bank accounts. I know that Andrea Leadsom has been very active on this, and that she has tabled similar amendments. She has been vocal in favour of some of these changes, and has tabled a sensible set of proposals. I hope she would agree that we are mirroring each other on this question.
Our new clause 12 would mandate the Chancellor to publish a report on the adequacy of the current account redirection service and on a possible change in the law to compel all ring-fenced banks to introduce a current account redirection service that might include portability. The banks themselves have made proposals for a seven-day switching arrangement from this September. The Minister claimed in the Government’s response that they had secured that commitment, but that might be a little bit of exaggeration and spin; I suspect that the banks were heading in that direction, but I will let him off on this occasion. This all comes down to whether that seven-day switching will radically transform the convenience for the customer. It is all very well saying that there will be a year or so when some transactions from the existing current account will automatically be made into the new account, but I do not understand why that provision has been time-limited. Some people will forget that that provision expires after a certain number of months.
Interestingly, when we get into the nitty-gritty of how the seven-day switching process will work, we find that it seems to be more string and Sellotape—on top of the string and Sellotape currently holding the legacy systems together—so it is hardly a 21st century technological solution.
That is the worry, and we want to see how it is going to work. It is all very well if direct debits and standing orders—the sums leaving someone’s bank account—may be switched in that way, without the aggro and hassle of having to fill in new forms and so forth, but one of my anxieties is about payments into an account. For example, even the little step of someone having to tell their employer that they have a new account number and sort code is an inconvenient step too far. Apparently the banks are saying that they might deal with that as well, but this does not feel adequate and sufficient.
The reality is that the seven-day switching service must be matched against increases in the level of switching of current accounts if we are to increase competition. All the evidence from countries like the Netherlands, where such a service has been introduced, shows that it has the trust of customers but does not increase switching levels, although that is the rationale for account portability.
Absolutely. Sir John Vickers pointed out in his report that a typical customer is likely to move current accounts every 26 years, on average, and it is estimated that about 6% of personal current accounts will be switched this year. All sorts of statistics prove that this is not a particularly active area, although there is a growing consensus among members of the commission, and even some of the banks, that portability might be an idea whose time has come.
I switched a business account to HBOS, without knowing that anything was going to happen, because I thought that with KPMG as its auditors and with an auditor process in place my investment and my savings would be safe. What are we going to do to ensure that when people switch there is a guarantee that, at last, the accountants in this country and the auditors actually do their job?
That broadens things out into a whole new terrain, but suffice it to say, we should be able to trust our banks. We should be able to know that all these issues will be going on safely. To be fair to the banks—I do not say that often—some of their systems are able to cope, and complaints mechanisms are in place to deal with these things.
This is just about the customer being able to grasp and understand what is going on. The grey mist descends on many constituents—and, heaven knows, on many hon. Members, as we can see—at the mention of financial services, and that is without getting into pensions and some of those issues. Basic bank account services are incredibly important and we need the Government to say a little more than warm words in their response on this issue. I commend the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire on her campaign and we are very much behind the spirit of the changes she suggests, hence our new clause 12.
Finally, I wish to deal with new clause 10, which relates to the sale of state-owned bank assets. We feel that before a sale takes place of assets in the ownership of Her Majesty’s Treasury—we are very much focused on the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds at the moment —the Treasury ought to set out clearly a report discussing the manner in which the best interests of the taxpayer will be protected in the sale, and the expected impact that any sale might have on competition for customers and on the rate of economic growth. That should be accompanied by a proper appraisal of the options for potential structural change in the banks concerned, including: whether there should be any changes to the division between retail banking and investment banking in those institutions; whether some asset classes need to be held back—this is sometimes characterised as a good bank/bad bank split; and, crucially, the impact of the sale on the creation of a regional banking network. We think that is essential.
My hon. Friend will know that the banking commission recommended having a proper study of the good bank/bad bank option for RBS. Does he think that in advance of that study it might help if the Government exercised a little more care in their stewardship of RBS, given that their disastrous political meddling of the past month has resulted in a fall in the share price of some 20%, the bank losing a chief executive without a plan being put in place for replacing him, and confidence among investors being lost by the Government’s handling of the bank?
My right hon. Friend is completely correct about that. If the British public realised what has happened to the value of that taxpayer stake in RBS, they would be appalled. Today’s figures show that £2 billion-plus has been taken off the value of RBS since the botched handling of the departure of the chief executive, Stephen Hester. That mishandling forced the Chancellor to back down from a foolhardy dash towards a fire sale, which we know was part of the plan from the conversations that Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman of RBS, let slip in comments to journalists around that time. Labour Members, however, are absolutely focused on the need for the taxpayer to get good value for money, to get our money back. That is entirely possible. Stephen Hester revealed the flaw in the Chancellor’s strategy for a hasty sale driven by the electoral timetable when he gave an interview to the BBC last month. When asked whether taxpayers would get back their £45.6 billion, he answered:
“RBS is capable of being worth more than what the government paid for the shares”.
When asked again whether it is possible for us to get our money back, he said:
“RBS is capable of that and I would be disappointed if over the passage of time that that won’t be the case.”
I am very supportive of new clause 10, particularly the notion that the Government describe how the taxpayer will get the money back. However, has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to the timing of such a report and what information may need to be omitted, particularly in relation to asset clauses the Government may continue to hold, because it might be market-sensitive in the run-up to the re-privatisation of the bank?
I would have thought that before the Government considered a sale they would decide what they want to sell and what they do not want to sell. I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman suggests should be a particular problem, particularly given the taxpayer interests involved, in terms of having that report before a sale. However, I accept that there could be circumstances in which commercial confidentiality might apply and a line might need to be considered. I would be happy to examine whether some aspects of that need to be built into this concept. There is an opacity about the Government’s strategy, and the fog engulfing the Treasury, perhaps hiding the chaos within, is extremely thick—a real pea-souper. I am amazed that once the Chancellor of the Exchequer had defenestrated the chief executive of RBS—let us be honest, that is essentially what happened, and although the Chancellor of the Exchequer might have protested, “It’s nothing to do with me, guv,” with his 82% shareholding he clearly had a hand in the decision —the Government were surprised when the markets reacted so adversely. It is amazing that they went down that route without thinking through who would replace Stephen Hester as chief executive of RBS, creating a massive amount of uncertainty about the future of the institution. We are glad that they changed their minds and were forced to back down from the rush to the fire sale, but what on earth are we left with and where is the situation going?
The commission managed to eke out of the Government a vague commitment that they would consider the good bank/bad bank issue, possibly in September. We need the Minister to elaborate on that commitment today, and it is very important we get that. Why have the Government ruled out some of the other considerations needed at this time? The Chancellor, itching as ever to achieve his political ends, has turned his focus on Lloyds and getting that stake out of the door. It might be easier to do that with Lloyds, but we need some reassurance that the taxpayers’ best interests will come first, not the political game playing and political timetable—whether it is about the timing of the general election or something else—that is driving the process. It should be done in the best interests of the economy and of the taxpayer.
Apparently sovereign wealth funds—in other words, other countries—might well buy stakes in Lloyds and British banks. I am told that apparently LIBOR will be run by the New York stock exchange, so there is a theme developing of other countries getting involved in historically British institutions. I will leave that issue to one side, however. I merely want us to have a clear and comprehensive strategy not just on better competition for the banking sector but so that the Chancellor can prove that he is adept at thinking through properly what to do with the Government’s stake—the taxpayers’ stake—in these institutions. They are fundamental to the British economy; they are massive institutions with a great footprint on our economy and worldwide. That is why we feel that new clause 10 is the least we should have—we should have that level of reporting, of availability of information and of options appraisal. We need a comprehensive assessment that is evidence-led and considers all options. That is an important matter of principle as, ultimately, this must be all about getting best value for the taxpayer.
I am delighted to be able to speak about this Bill on banking reform, which is so crucial to the future success of the British economy. All that time ago, Adam Smith said in “The Wealth of Nations” that for free enterprise to exist one needed both free entry and free exit of market players. Over the past 20 years, we have had neither in banking. Failing banks have certainly not been allowed to exit the market, hence all the problems with “too big to fail” and the massive taxpayer bail-outs. New players have also not been able to enter the market, as there have been enormous barriers to entry, and my new clause is an attempt to establish a real game-changer once and for all for the fate of competition in our banking sector, to enable new entrants to come into the market.
I know that the Government have already done a huge amount of work to change the plight for would-be banks. For example, we already know that the new Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority have made it easier for new banks to apply for a banking licence. Previously, there were enormous regulatory hurdles to entering the market for new banks, but now it has become slightly easier because they can get a banking licence that is conditional on their being able to recruit the right people and so on. They do not have to spend millions of pounds up front to evidence the fact that they can be competent as a bank.
The regulatory barriers to entry are gradually coming down, but an incredibly significant point that has not been addressed until now concerns the competition barriers to entry for new players in the market. The Government have made great strides in that regard, not just through the Vickers commission and the recommendations on seven-day switching, which will be a game-changer in enabling individuals and businesses to switch between banks, creating the competition that has been so lacking, but through some of the structural reforms they have announced more recently and the amendments to this Bill.
When I was elected to Parliament in 2010, one of the first things that my colleagues on the Treasury Committee —who are almost all in the Chamber today—and I did was consider the proposal from the Payments Council to get rid of cheques. We discovered in our evidence sessions that the proposal came purely from the banks. It was convenient only for them and absolutely was not convenient for the millions of people in this country who rely on cheques to settle bills, to pay their window cleaner or newsagent or to pay the neighbour who picked up their shopping for them. Millions of people still needed cheques, but it was very clear that the Payments Council planned to get rid of them for the convenience of the banks that owned and ran it. For me, that was the road to Damascus moment; I realised that the banking sector is the last great closed shop. The Payments Council, owned and run by the banks, governs the payments system, the big banks are the clearing banks through which every new challenger bank must go, and the payments infrastructure, VocaLink, is also owned and governed by the big banks.
For decades, the Payments Council has been able to permit or deny innovation in the payments industry. The big banks have been able not to allow challenger banks direct access to the payments system and have required them to go through the clearers, charging them up to 10 times more for accessing the payments system than they have been paying themselves. The first significant decision on which I want to congratulate the Government is that to consult on a new independent payments regulator. That is key to breaking open the banking sector and enabling new competition and transparency. It will be interesting to see just what has changed after the new regulator’s first few months of operation; it will be fundamentally transforming.
Importantly—this is where my new clause comes in—and as Chris Lesliehas said, for decades there has been a key barrier to competition in the banking system: the inability to move bank accounts freely and easily. People might be sick and tired of their bank. The Treasury Committee took evidence on opinion polls that suggested that certain banks had negative values when it came to whether customers would recommend them to a friend. People would say, “No, whatever you do, don’t go to my bank.” It is unusual to have such utterly negative recommendation levels between friends for a supplier. Even the energy sector fails to achieve such low levels of recommendations between friends. Something is clearly desperately lacking in customer service.
The Committee also heard some pretty shocking statistics about the failure of certain key banks to respond to customer service inquiries, to manage their call centres properly and to deal with complaints when they happen. It has taken all these banking scandals—payment protection insurance mis-selling, the bank swaps mis-selling and various other scandals—before the weight of evidence became enough for regulators to take action. Clearly the banks have not been good at policing themselves, and clearly it has been extraordinarily difficult for individuals and businesses to vote with their feet and move.
The difficulty is not only the decision to move bank; the person making that decision also faces having to make arrangements as regards their online shopping, their contract with the milkman and newspaper man, and their standing orders for, say, their television licence or their car insurance. If they change bank account, they have to change all those things, because they change bank account number.
The issue is not just whether a person can be bothered to change and go through all that hassle; very often, because of the consolidation that has taken place over the past 20 years, banks will force that situation on a consumer. A colleague told me in the Lobby the other day that their bank had just notified them that they have to change their bank account number, credit cards, debit cards, and cheque-books—everything—regardless of the fact that they do not want to do that, because the bank decided, off its own bat, to send them to another brand name. Of course, there is no compensation, or any way to get the bank to help the person to make all the notifications that they need to make.
Many people, particularly the elderly, have a real concern that if they change bank account things might just not happen; their regular payments might not be made, and everything might go horribly wrong. That puts them in a very difficult position. Of course, there is plenty of evidence of things having gone wrong. Perhaps the seven-day switching process will solve the problem of switching simply going wrong.
It would be a far better solution if, when a person moved bank, they took all their bank details with them. A similar thing happens in the case of mobile telephones.
The hon. Lady alluded to the allegedly competitive market in the energy sector, where there is a right to switch, although it can be difficult to do so, as I found out. Switching in itself does not stop companies from acting as a cartel. How confident is she that switching in banking would lead to greater competition in the market?
I will come on to that, and that will become clearer in the course of my comments. Certainly, in terms of barriers to entry, the lack of competition and switching—in other words, people’s inertia—has meant that banks simply have not had to compete on customer service. They have not had to fight to keep their customers. As those of us who have been in business know, there are times when we have lain awake at night, wondering how to stop our customers from leaving us tomorrow; that is the big motivator, whereas in the past it was how to nick a tiny bit of market share from one of the big players. The fundamental point is: “How do I hang on to my customers?” Customer retention is always the biggest challenge for every business, where there is free and open competition. That is what bank account portability would ensure.
If a person was switching between banks, instead of having to change all their bank details and cards, and having to remember the new numbers and notify all their suppliers, they would simply take their bank details with them, just as a person who changes mobile telephone provider takes their telephone number with them. That is what the amendment proposes.
I am delighted that the Government have said the following, in a press release responding to the work of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards:
“On top of introducing 7-day account switching from September this year the government will ask the new payments regulator, once established, to urgently examine account portability and whether the big banks should give up ownership of the payments systems.”
I take that as a warm move towards the idea of bank account number portability.
Bank account number portability is a game-changer, but it is no surprise that the big banks, when asked about this back in 2010, virtually told us that it would cost so much that the entire world would end. That comes as no surprise to us; they would say that. However, if we scratch beneath the surface and talk to the likes of VocaLink, which provides the payments infrastructure, we find that many of the technological requirements of bank number portability already exist.
At the moment, the big banks own a person’s sort code and account number, and give the payments instructions that they hold for that person to VocaLink, so that it can make that payment. Instead of having that two-step process, in which a person instructs their bank, the bank instructs VocaLink, and VocaLink makes the payment, with bank number portability the consumer’s bank account number, sort code and payment instructions would be held within VocaLink. Instead of a two-step process with the bank at the front end, there would be a one-step process, in which the consumer communicated with VocaLink, and the bank instead provided the customer service front end and the customer proposition. That would completely streamline the system.
Is not one of the problems—this was certainly highlighted in our investigations—the ownership of the infrastructure by the banks, and the difficulty in getting them to change? Is not a payments regulator the ideal way to twist their arm, so that they do the right thing?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he has certainly been a keen supporter of bank number portability, as have many hon. Members in the Chamber today. The payments regulator that the Government are consulting on is the first step to achieving transparency. The next step is empowering that regulator to do something to enforce bank number portability when it finds, as I am sure that it will, that to date there has been a completely deliberate attempt to restrict competition in the banking system.
The big banks have said that bank account number portability would cost an absolute fortune, yet the technology already exists. Some people have asked whether it would not be an enormous risk to data integrity if the consumer’s bank account number, sort code and payments instructions were held by VocaLink, but in reality, all the consumer’s details are held by the bank, which passes them all on to VocaLink, so there are double risks to data integrity at the moment. Holding those account details in VocaLink would reduce, rather than increase, the risk.
People also say that other banks cannot access VocaLink’s payments infrastructure directly, because all the banks that clear direct have mutually to underwrite each other’s payments. The smaller challenger banks cannot possibly afford to underwrite the payments of the bigger banks. However, we could easily solve that; already, in various exchanges, banks pre-fund payments. If a bank’s balance were too low, and it was running short of cash with which to meet its outgoing payments, it would be called, intra-day, for more cash. That problem is easily solvable, and the reason why it has not been solved is that that is simply not in the big banks’ interests.
It has also been said that the proposal would surely be incredibly complicated from an IT point of view, but VocaLink has already set up bank accounts for the Department for Work and Pensions, because a lot of the Department’s benefits customers do not have bank accounts. VocaLink is already able to manage customer account details for DWP customers, so the technology already exists. I simply do not accept the idea that there would be eye-watering costs. Chief executives of big banks have literally said it would cost trillions—absolutely vast sums—but I challenge them to provide any scrap of evidence that shows that is the case, and that their refusal is not down to their desire to restrict access to new players.
The advantages of bank account number portability are, of course, the elimination of barriers to entry, and increased competition as a result. One of the big problems for new entrants is that it is so difficult to gain customer share, because people will not move bank accounts. With bank account number portability, if I, as a customer, was sick and tired of my bank, I could move tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that, if I was not getting good service, and it would not be any skin off my nose; it would be perfectly easy to do, and it would be the banks’ problem. That would be an enormous change in the competitive environment.
Likewise, there would be far greater consumer choice. Bank account number portability would encourage the likes of Tesco Bank and Marks & Spencer Financial Services—any big, multinational conglomerate—to go into the money business; it would become yet another product line. That in itself would eliminate some of the problems of “too big to fail”, because there would be many more smaller players, which would have many product lines, and therefore would not have all their eggs in one basket.
For small businesses the change would be revolutionary. At present one of the biggest problems for small businesses is that the big banks require that as well as their company accounts, small business people have their personal accounts and mortgage with the same big bank and do all their foreign exchange, overdraft, loans and other transactions through that bank. It is incredibly difficult for a small business to move accounts because of the complexity of all their suppliers and all the people they are trying to trade with. The barriers to entry for them are perhaps even greater than they are for us as individuals. Again, being able to take their bank account number with them would change the position dramatically.
Another huge advantage that is not often talked about is that since the 1990s, when I was running Barclays bank’s team, an enormous consolidation has taken place. There used to be 44 big banks in the UK; there are now about 22 banks of any size. The consolidation meant that during the 1990s many banks took over other banks, broker- dealers, small fund managers and so on, so they have an enormous number of legacy systems. They have managed to string them together over the years, but bank fraud in this country alone is huge. Changing the payment system would dramatically reduce the incidence of bank fraud. Intellect, the IT trade body, has said that the change could reduce the incidence of bank fraud by up to £30 billion a year.
Finally, another key advantage of bank account number portability is resolution. Andy Haldane, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, has gone on record as saying that it would be the solution when the day comes that a big bank fails again. We have, of course, put in as many steps as we can. Basel III will make great strides towards ensuring that banks cannot fail again. We have created our new regulators. We have ensured that banks have proper leverage and proper capital. All those measures are designed to ensure that banks cannot fail again, but we know that banks will always fail. That is the reality in a western developed market economy such as ours. We saw only too recently the problems with Northern Rock, when people were desperate to take their money out. The answer to resolution is for the Bank of England to be able to say, “You have failed. We are now taking all your accounts and putting them with survivor banks.”
There is a huge amount going for bank account number portability, above and beyond the seven-day switching process. My new clause calls for the Government to ensure, within 12 months of Royal Assent, a full cost-benefit analysis of bank account number portability. Should the findings be that this is a good idea, and should it produce the kind of benefits that I have just described, the regulator should be empowered to implement bank account number portability. I welcome the Government’s assurances that they will move in that direction. On that basis I will not press my new clause to a Division, but I urge the Government to keep up the momentum and ensure that before too long we have full account number portability.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak to my new clause 15. It is a modest proposal for a full Government consultation on the potential for local stakeholder banks to be carried out before we sell off RBS or any other taxpayer-owned banking assets.
I was interested to hear the Minister mention yesterday his trip to Germany and how he saw in the pages of the Handelsblatt a big headline saying, “City of shame”,
referring to the City of London. I agree that this is a stark illustration of the impact of financial mismanagement and of our current banking system on people’s views of the City. However, although I also agree that this highlights the need for improved standards in banking, I think it highlights, too, the need for a radical reappraisal of ownership and accountability structures, if we want to have a banking system that we can be proud of, not ashamed of.
I hope that during the Minister’s trip to Germany he also found time to look at the savings banks, the Sparkassen, that we have spoken about this afternoon and which make up about one third of the German banking system. They are run commercially with dual financial and social objectives, to make a profit and to support the local economy. Professional bankers take responsibility for day-to-day running of the banks and if they make incompetent lending decisions, they are more likely to get sacked than their counterparts in giant commercial banks. Local stakeholders, including local politicians, business leaders, employees and customer representatives, sit on a supervisory board. That is just one example of the sort of local stakeholder bank that my new clause seeks to promote.
The New Economics Foundation analysed data from 65 countries where such alternatives thrive. They include co-operative banks, credit unions, community development finance institutions and public interest saving banks. The common characteristic is the goal of creating value for stakeholders, not just for shareholders, and some exciting and incredibly positive trends emerge. First, a greater focus on the needs of customers, including more competitive products, better service and longer-term lending; secondly, provision for customers who are currently under-served by regular banks; thirdly, a boost to local economic development through lending to small and medium-sized businesses, preventing capital drain from the regions and maintaining branch networks; and finally, a positive impact on financial stability through less volatile returns, high levels of capital, prudent balance sheets and expansion of credit provision after the financial crash.
To what extent has the hon. Lady been influenced by the system in the US, where there is a strong network of local credit unions, that provide an economic function for the local business community, not merely banking for the poor?
The hon. Gentleman cites one of the few examples in the United States and its economic system that I would want to emulate. Credit unions set an interesting example that we could learn from.
Although I welcome the findings of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, I worry that the commission was somewhat seduced by the assumption that RBS should be returned to the private sector in one form or another, without a sufficiently full and proper examination of the merits of publicly-owned alternatives. It is important to underline that “publicly-owned” does not mean state-run. The German public saving banks are managed by bankers, not politicians, but they are run to serve the interests of the local economy and of citizens, rather than those of remote shareholders. Managers are held much more accountable for incompetent lending than are private sector managers who drove their businesses to bankruptcy while exploiting their customers with mis-sold products.
It is important to understand also that local stakeholder banks are not unprofessional. The banks studied by the New Economics Foundation make a solid profit to ensure their own viability, and their first priority is always to make sure that the loan is repaid. Because they are not trying to make 22% return on equity, which is RBS’s current profitability on UK retail business, they are quite happy with 8%, so they can afford to meet their social purpose. If the Government are serious about becoming a champion of SMEs and regional prosperity, at the very least they need to look into the pros and cons of a network of regional banks.
What if best value for the British taxpayer is the long-term ownership of a successful bank or banks that support the British economy? An obsession with privatisation on either side of the House should not blind us to that possibility. My amendment simply proposes a full examination of various forms of local stakeholder banks to ensure that we take decisions about the future shape of RBS and our banking sector more widely on the basis of practical economics and evidence, not just ideology.
“the impact of any sale on the creation of a regional banking network.”
What I set out in new clause 15 is exactly the kind of positive impacts that we would want to see. Rather than simply guarding against negative impacts on any regional banking network, I would like to see us actively, explicitly and energetically promoting the alternative of greater local and regional banking. I hope very much that there might be some chance that the Minister will look favourably upon my new clause.
I wish to speak substantially to new clause 14, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. She has waged a Boadicea-like war to bring about account portability, and I have been happy to follow that banner—certainly over the past two years—when trying to increase competition. Between the two of us, my hon. Friend has led on account portability, while I have looked closely at barriers to entry and regulation.
I repeat my hon. Friend’s point about how the regulator has given way a bit on regulatory barriers to entry. Although I would not say it has moved substantially, it has made it easier for challenger banks to enter the marketplace. Two or three years ago, any potential challenger coming to the marketplace looked to spend between £300,000 and a potential £25 million just to get to the regulator’s front door and open a formal dialogue to get a banking licence. That is now changing, and the regulator has come up with a new process that makes it a great deal easier. None the less, smaller banks have certain problems due to ongoing expectations that give an advantage to the bigger banks. Those bigger banks have greater granularity with their account holders, and can therefore consider more sophisticated risk-weighting models for their assets. Smaller banks do not have those IT advantages and the cost of their asset book rises with greater capital requirements, which is still a problem.
Before I get to the substantial points, when considering effective competition within the marketplace we must remember the importance of a well-educated consumer. I am pleased that the Government have already responded on that—yesterday the Secretary of State for Education announced the new curriculum, which includes financial literacy, and I pay tribute to his wisdom in realising that that is one of the greatest engines of social mobility. In any sophisticated society such as ours, it is important that those we are educating can deal with the most basic measure of the economy we live in—looking after their own money. That has been achieved through the hard work of organisations such as the Personal Finance Education Group and the all-party group on financial education for young people, and it is a very good thing.
Financial education, understanding and literacy are core to driving competition. It is no good giving people a multiple choice of banks they can use if they do not understand the products being presented. When considering standards within banks, it is important that the marketplace, as well as the regulator, holds those banks’ feet to the fire to ensure they are performing well, providing a good service and delivering trust, which is crucial to restoring a properly functioning banking market in the UK.
On account number portability, in September this year seven-day switching will start. The banks have come to us proudly and said that they have spent £700 million implementing that system, but in essence it is less a switching service and more a redirection service that lasts a year—more of the chewing gum and Sellotape we heard about earlier. The measure of success for the seven-day switching service is expected to be how many people switch, but I do not think it will pass that test because I do not expect many people to switch their accounts. It comes down to the fundamental problem that there are still barriers to entry for new entrants, which leaves a small number of banks in the marketplace. Most people cannot see the difference between one bank and another, and even if they can, they do not necessarily understand what it is. In their mind, the risk of an uncertain future with a different bank far outweighs the benefits of finding a better service and challenging the bank to be more efficient.
The proposals for account number portability in new clause 14, which the Government have already agreed is a good thing, are important and will make it simple for new banks to enter the marketplace and steal market share from existing banks. The provision has the advantage of being pro-competition—we have already heard strong discussions about that—and there are number of other important issues alongside that. First, in this world where we would like a lot more transparency, the new Financial Policy Committee is considering the state of the financial system. That will help it understand what is going on in terms of transparency, and bring the visible part of the system within the auspices of VocaLink. As a result, the FPC will be able to head off any disasters if it sees anything going on.
We also heard that resolution of failing banks is incredibly important. Part of the Bill’s raison d’être, and indeed that of all the work done by Vickers and everyone who has worked on this since the crisis of 2007-08, is to try to ensure that people affected by failing banks do not lose their livelihood or face a financial crisis, so a simple resolution of a failing bank is incredibly important. Under the proposals, although an individual might see on television that there has been a run on their bank and that it is collapsing, the next morning they would simply wake up to discover that their bank account had automatically been transferred to another bank. The systems would continue to work, so their pay would be received on their behalf, their standing orders would still be paid and their house would not be repossessed because they had not paid their mortgage. More importantly, if they do not like the new bank they had been sent to, a couple of days later they could move to a better bank that they felt more comfortable with. Resolution is therefore incredibly important.
The other incredibly important point is that some banks have legacy IT systems that have been around for a huge number of years. Parts of these IT systems can date back to the punch cards of the 1950s and 1960s. In a recent conversation with someone who has done a certain amount of work in one of the larger state-owned banks, I happened to make a throwaway comment about the old IT systems. He responded, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” He explained that he had been looking at some of the software surrounding the small and medium-sized enterprise accounts and had noted that one of the software models had a converter sitting alongside it for converting pounds, shillings and pence into decimals. That must be at least 42 years old, as decimalisation was in 1971.
We know for a fact that there are a lot of old and incompatible systems being held together with string and chewing gum. Andy Haldane at the Bank of England has done a study and estimated that 80% of banks’ IT spend is on holding old systems together. If we take into account the fact that it is timely because at some point all the banks will need to update their systems, and if we consider resolution, transparency and competition, we will come up with a pretty convincing set of arguments that now is as good a time as any to introduce what will amount to fairly substantial IT investment, and there are a number of reasons that come together to make it worth while.
VocaLink, which runs a payments system, has already done a great deal of work on that. I have heard from a number of the larger banks that it could cost £10 billion, but they are dead against any sort of account number portability, so I suspect that it would be a lot cheaper. That is why it is incredibly important that the Government come forward as soon as possible to get the cost-benefit analysis on moving to full account number portability and, importantly, not be distracted by looking at the seven-day switching service in a year’s time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom on introducing new clause 14, which I call the Leadsom clause. Before concluding will my hon. Friend share with us the work he has done in speaking over the past two years to potential new entrants, new challenger banks, that have said that they would consider entering the market if bank account number portability came to pass?
Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. A great many of the smaller banks that are looking to enter the marketplace have to use a piggyback system with the big clearers. For example, C. Hoare & Co., which has been around for 341 years and is still a private bank, uses RBS for its clearing. To that extent, the larger banks are providing a service, but ultimately it is causing a great problem for them. Over the past two years I have met about 20 potential challengers looking to enter the marketplace, and certainly it is largely the regulatory barriers to entry that have caused the problem.
Ultimately, the challenger banks are going to be running current accounts. Some of the larger ones, such as Metro Bank and Virgin Money, are 100% behind having full account number portability and recognise—I think that this is one tribute to them—not only that that will be an opportunity for them to attract accounts from existing banks, but that they will have to work incredibly hard to meet the challenge of a more sophisticated consumer in order to keep those accounts once they have them. That is crucial to one of the key points of the Parliamentary Commission’s report, which is the need to ensure that we drive better standards.
I return to the fundamental point that the best way to drive better standards is to have a very discerning and demanding consumer in order to ensure that those banks provide a service, and for that discerning consumer, once we have taught them how to do it, to hold the banks’ feet to the fire, so they need to be able to move their account very simply and overnight.
I want to make a few points about new clauses 10, 12 and 14.
New clause 10 deals with securing the best interests of the taxpayer as regards the state-owned banks and their future. If the best interests of the taxpayer were in the Government’s mind in recent weeks in their stewardship of RBS, that has been shown in a very peculiar way. This story does not begin with the departure of the chief executive. It begins before that with a briefing from the Minister’s Department about the share price in which it said that the previous Government had overpaid for the shares, and the briefing tried to set the scene for a pre-election fire sale of the bank that would have short-changed the taxpayer. I am glad to say that despite that briefing, the Government seem to be edging away from that strategy. If there were holding out hope that the banking commission would have given them comfort on that front, it did not turn out like that, and rightly so, because it would have been wrong to give a running commentary on the share price for an institution. An institution’s share price should be determined by the market, based on its future prospects.
After the briefing, we then had the unseemly departure of the chief executive at the Government’s hands. Most people saw him as doing a good job of reducing the risks on the bank’s grossly overblown balance sheet and trying to get it back into a healthier position, in the best interests of the taxpayer. Not only was he bundled out before he had completed that task, but this was done without any proper succession plan being put in place. Over the period of a month, we have had political briefing about the bank’s share price and the announced departure of the chief executive with no successor in place, and, as a result, a loss of investor confidence in the Government’s future strategy for the bank. That is no way to exercise stewardship of arguably one of the most important banks in the country. It has undermined the Government’s reputation as regards these state-owned assets and done harm and damage to the bank. I hope that in future the best interests of, and best value for, the taxpayer will be uppermost in the Minister’s mind rather than the politically motivated dabbling that we have seen in recent weeks.
On a happier and more bipartisan note, I turn to the new clause tabled by Andrea Leadsom and the very similar new clause tabled by my hon. Friend Chris Leslie. At the heart of this is how much banks care about reputational loss; the hon. Lady referred to that. If the banks were in a normal business environment and there were a big IT failure or another failure of conduct such as mis-selling or LIBOR interest rate fixing, they would care because they would worry that their customers would walk, but they are not in a normal business environment. Banks seem to be immune to, and careless about, reputational damage that would really matter in another business environment.
During the banking commission’s deliberations, a parallel was drawn with the car industry. When a fault appears in a model of one of the big-brand car makers, they will very quickly issue a recall notice to ask the customer to come in and have the fault fixed at no expense and at a time that is convenient to them. Car companies do that because they care about their reputation and want that customer to buy a car from them the next time they get one. The same logic does not apply in banking, because the same forces of easy departure do not apply. There are two sides to this story. It is not all about the easy transfer of accounts, although that is important; it is also about what one would be transferring to and from. There is little point in creating a perfect exit system if the choice is merely between three or four offers that are all much the same anyway. There is inertia on both sides. We need more competition among the banks as well as an easier system of transferring accounts.
The seven-day switching process that will come into play in September is an advance, and it should be given a chance to work; we should test it properly. At the same time, the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire and by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East call for proper reports to be produced on full account portability. The hon. Lady set out very well the reasons why we need a proper report, one of which is the issue of cost. The incumbents say, typically, that this will cost a fortune and that it will have to be passed on to the consumer, so let us explore the cost properly and get to the bottom of whether that argument is valid.
There is another reason why we need a study. Ultimately, I do not think that the banks’ argument that this will cost too much carries weight and I think they know that. If I got out my crystal ball and peered into the future, I think I would see that the key argument will be about IT and privacy, not cost.
The right hon. Gentleman may recall a meeting we had with senior bankers in which they said that, although they were reluctant about bank account number portability, if it is going to happen let us make sure that we will be the first country in the world to do it and not wait until somebody else does it. That would give us first-mover advantage and it could provide a huge business opportunity for UK plc. What does the right hon. Gentleman think of that idea?
The hon. Lady may be right and that is another reason that we should have a proper report to drill into the issue.
On privacy, in addition to the cost argument I think that customers could also be discouraged by the argument that all their account details could be held in a single black box to which all the banks in the country have access.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. I think that the vast majority of consumers would be very fearful of a central database holding their bank details. The beauty of the system proposed by VocaLink is that, although the payment system and the central infrastructure will hold the sort code and account number, the identity of the holder of the account number will be held by the bank. Therefore, the customer’s relationship will be with the bank, not with the payment system.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. If consumers are going to have confidence in a system of speedy switching such as that being advocated by the hon. Members for South Northamptonshire and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), these questions about privacy and security of information will have to be bottomed out to the public’s satisfaction. My view is that that will be a more important argument than the one about the cost to the banks of whatever IT changes will be necessary to put this system in place.
In conclusion, it is important that we give the seven-day switching service a chance to operate, but the report that the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East are asking for is also important, because it would bottom out theses issues and others that I have not mentioned. It is a shame that the hon. Lady does not intend to put her new clause to the vote. After all, it only asks for a report; it does not seek to mandate a change before we have done the work and got the proper evidence. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to her suggestion and that of my hon. Friend. It is really important that there is proper competition between providers in this sector to attract consumers and that the kinds of free choices that enable consumers to walk away and get another product from another provider are available in practice, not just in theory.
Mr McFadden chaired a panel of the banking commission and one of the first visits we undertook was to Birmingham, where we had a number of sessions, one of which was with representatives from small and medium-sized enterprises who were very vocal about the importance of securing a fair deal from the banks.
Which? organised an evening session that allowed us to visit different tables where individuals talked about their experiences. I had an interesting experience when I asked a table of people of a variety of ages, although mostly younger than me—not that that is difficult—about the ability to switch bank accounts. They were not really that keen and said, “It’s too much hassle. Why bother? It won’t be any different.” I said, “Suppose you could do it in the same way that you change your mobile phone, where you take your SIM card-equivalent and plug it into another machine.” At that point they all said, “Oh, that would be wonderful. What a good idea. Is it possible?” I said, “Not yet, but it is very likely to happen.” They said, “Actually, even that won’t work because it will just be the same old names that I will be going to.” I said, “How would you feel if the chap who has that nice transatlantic airline had a bank?” They said, “Oh yes, that would be jolly good.” That bunch of average customers had no idea that it might be possible to move accounts and no idea of the array of accounts that might be available as a result.
That experience drove home to me that the relationship between banks and their customers has been the reverse of what it should be. We go cap in hand and say, “Will you please take my account?” It ought to be the other way around. The banks should be coming cap in hand to us saying, “Please can I have your business?” New clause 14 goes to the heart of that dilemma. All right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have made the point that the new clause is not a silver bullet and that many other measures are required, but it would be one of the key enablers of that change in the relationship, along with the payments regulator and other things that might be done. Ultimately, we need banks to be genuinely fearful of losing business—at the moment they are not, because they know that people cannot go anywhere else —and genuinely to want to win business. The commission has made progress on that and new clause 14 is very much a part of that.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire told us early on that she will not press her new clause to a vote. I always find that Ministers go a bit further if one waits until they have said nice things before telling them that. Clearly, she has had a tremendous impact on the Minister ahead of the debate. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
Yes, something like that.
I am very tempted by new clauses 8 and 10, which were tabled by the Opposition. I will not vote against them, but I will not vote for them at this stage. There is an immense amount in them, but I will wait to hear what the Minister says. There is also a great deal of debate to come in the other place. I do not want to say that I am against the new clauses, but I am not sure that the wording is exactly what I would like to have seen. I ask for the forgiveness of Chris Leslie on that.
On new clause 10, there was a lot of debate in the commission about the good bank/bad bank split. We ended up with a central point that we all agreed to, but a number of us wanted to go more in one direction. However, whether a good bank/bad bank split is a good idea is a completely different issue from what should be done afterwards. If one takes the view that a good bank/bad bank split is not needed, one can still consider all the points that have been put forward, including the many things Caroline Lucas said could be done to enhance regional banking and credit unions. All those things are equally possible whether or not one decides that the bad bank is necessary.
To my mind the good bank/bad bank argument is separate to what one does with a bank going forward. I happen to be somebody who believes that a good bank/bad bank split is right for the simple reason that if we take the flakier assets out of the bank and put them in a run-off bank, therefore liberating the capital being used in the balance sheet to support it, capital is then available in the good bank to be lent to SMEs and individuals. It is a simple mechanism for getting more capital flowing through, but I would make the point that it is not inextricably linked.
Following on from the slightly more partisan comments from the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East, one thing that comes out of this process, and which I have observed right the way through it, is that United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd has not been the most successful of bodies. We have seen that there are politics in such situations, and that trying to put a mechanism in between muddies the water. That is one of the reasons why the commission’s report made its suggestions on UKFI.
Finally, the commission very much supports new clause 8. As I said in my intervention, I do not think this matter needs legislation. What I would be looking for from the Minister is a commitment that does not require me to look carefully between the lines, but is, in fact, a further commitment.
This has been an interesting debate so far, and it will be a tall order to live up to the great expectations of my hon. Friends the Members for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso).
This set of new clauses has the common denominator of measures that can improve competition in banking. The parliamentary commission has made it clear that competition can, and should, bring about higher standards in the banking sector. It concluded that
“effective market discipline, geared to the needs of consumers, can be a better mechanism for improving standards and preventing consumer detriment than regulation, which risks ever more detailed product prescription.”
The Government completely agree. The British banking industry, at least at the retail level, was too concentrated before the crisis. The forced mergers of the crisis have exacerbated a bad situation. It is imperative that the regulators do not regard themselves simply as regulating incumbents, but act to promote new entry into the industry.
The commission welcomed the prudential reforms contained in the then Financial Services Authority’s barriers to entry review and commented that
“the concerns of challenger banks in this area appear to have largely been addressed”.
We accept the need to go further. Accordingly, we will be adopting the commission’s recommendation that the Prudential Regulation Authority should be given a secondary competition objective, and we will table amendments to the Bill to that effect in the autumn.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution.
Government amendment 5 delivers on a commitment made in Committee to accept one of the commission’s earlier conclusions that when considering an exemption from ring-fencing the Government must have regard to any adverse effect ring-fencing provisions might have on competition in the market. The amendment ensures that ring-fencing should not be a barrier to greater competition in the market. To reassure Chris Leslie, it does require them to override any questions on whether the continuity objective should be breached. It is there to enable them to bear that in mind, not least for the reasons that we discussed—that competition can have systemic benefits that address some of the regulator’s objectives.
Another recommendation of the commission that we accept is the suggestion that there should be a rigorous study conducted on the benefits to consumers, and competition, of account portability. The House will know that from September the seven-day switching service operated by banks covering 99% of personal current accounts in the UK will come into operation. I do not whether hon. Members have noticed, but there is an excellent exhibition to promote the new changes to the service from September in the Upper Waiting Hall next to the Committee Corridor. It should make it easier, quicker and more secure to change bank account, helping competition, but, as my hon. Friends the Members for South Northamptonshire, for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, that might not go far enough. In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire on the consistent and forensic campaign she has waged on this issue through the Treasury Select Committee and beyond. We will therefore ask the new payments systems regulator to conduct a comprehensive review of account portability, including a cost-benefit analysis, as an immediate priority.
The regulator will be created under the Bill, and given that it will be set up following Royal Assent, it is more likely to follow within 12 months, rather than six, as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate. The Government will return with their own amendment in the House of Lords, as part of the proposals to establish the new regulator. As it is consistent with the Government’s intention, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for
South Northamptonshire will not press her new clause—she has been kind enough to signal that in advance, for which I am grateful to her.
Given that the new payments regulator will take some time to set up, I hope that the Minister will keep a watching brief on seven-day portability, because there is still some controversy over the proportion of fees for the receiving bank as opposed to the bank losing the customer. This was brought to the commission’s attention; we commented on it, and I hope that he will keep it under review.
I certainly will keep a close eye on that, as too, I am absolutely certain, will my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. The arrangement is that the fees should be shared between the bank of departure and the bank of arrival, which I dare say reflects the different costs. However, we need to keep an eye on its effect on competition.
In response to the parliamentary commission’s report, the Office of Fair Trading has announced that it will bring forward its investigation into small and medium-sized enterprise banking as part of an ongoing programme of work to investigate concerns about competition in banking. The hon. Member for Nottingham East rightly wants this to go further. The OFT is engaged in a programme of work looking at all sections of the banking sector. As I think Members know, it has recently completed an investigation into the personal current account market, and on that narrow point has argued that there should not be an immediate referral pending some of the changes taking place or in the pipeline.
We have asked that that work considers the impact on the new challenger banks created by the divestments from Lloyds and RBS. The hon. Gentleman asked where they stand. My understanding is that in both cases the parent banks are looking to move forward with initial public offerings of the challenger banks and that they intend them to form part of the competitive environment. The OFT aims to conclude its programme of work next year. It will then decide whether a market referral to the Competition Commission is needed. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that such a referral would not require legislation; the OFT could make one under its existing powers.
Given that commitment, which is more or less of the same time frame as that envisaged in new clause 8, and given the significant measures being implemented to enhance competition, I hope that hon. Members will agree that the new clause, which calls for such a referral in 2014, following Royal Assent, should not be adopted. It is important that the OFT completes its review in 2014, so that it can build up a file of evidence to be submitted to the Competition Commission. That would be consistent with what both the independent commission and the parliamentary commission called for: that the OFT be in a position to make a referral in 2015. The OFT’s work is absolutely in line with that.
Will the Minister confirm that, were there not to be a referral, the Government will ensure a full examination of the case for a market study of the retail side, as well as the SME side?
That is happening. The review that the OFT is carrying out is comprehensive—it will keep us informed in that process—and is about building up the evidence to make that judgment in accordance with exactly the time frame that my hon. Friend has set out.
New clause 15, standing in the name of Caroline Lucas, would require the Government to consult formally on the creation of a network of regional banks. I strongly agree that a revival of regional banking in this country is a very good thing. Yesterday in the Chamber my hon. Friend Guy Opperman reported on a meeting that he organised in Gateshead. I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that a senior director of the Sparkassen, Dr Thomas Keidel, was at that meeting. He very much commended the Sparkassen model in Germany as something that could be emulated in this country. In fact, when one of the delegates objected that it was very much part of the German system and culture, which might be difficult to transplant to this country, Dr Keidel immediately pointed out that the German system was explicitly modelled on the UK system before it was abandoned in this country. I am therefore optimistic that what is proposed should be possible.
There was certainly great enthusiasm on Tyneside—indeed, momentum was being established—for launching a regional bank for the north-east. The hon. Lady might also be aware that the Cambridge and Counties bank—a joint venture between Cambridge county council and Trinity Hall, the Cambridge college—is already active and is providing lending to local small and medium-sized enterprises. The steps that the Prudential Regulation Authority has taken to license new entrants—
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for jumping in rather late, but before he leaves the issue of regional banks I want to mention one of the most promising areas, which is community development institutions. They are working at the regional and local level; however, their sources of funding could be enhanced immeasurably if community interest tax relief was set at a proper rate. I recognise that the Treasury has carried out a consultation. I am not asking the Minister to respond now, but perhaps he will at some stage inform Members of where the Treasury has got with that consultation and whether it will review the incidence of community interest tax relief.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will be reassured or alarmed to learn that I had not left the subject of regional banking just yet. Indeed, I want to come to the precise subject he has just raised.
The Prudential Regulation Authority’s changed procedures were referred to—by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest. It is now possible to license new entrants, who could require up to 80% less capital up front than previously. That means that the time is now ripe for new banks in the regions to be established. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, in her new clause 15, and Mr Love refer to CDFIs—community development finance institutions. Some £60 million of wholesale funding for CDFIs is available through the regional growth fund. Tax relief up to 25% is already available on investments made by individuals and companies into CDFIs. Of course I will talk to my hon. Friend the
Exchequer Secretary and carry forward the hon. Gentleman’s representation for further changes, but a significant set of advantages is available. Similarly, the more flexible rules for credit unions that have been introduced and the £38 million of funding for this movement have also created greater opportunities.
Does the Minister accept that constraints on the amounts that larger credit unions—such as the East Sussex Credit Union, which I know well—are allowed to accept in deposits or are allowed to lend are stopping them fulfilling their potential? Will he look at that again?
I am happy to take that forward. The hon. Lady will be aware that we have liberalised the rules for credit unions, but if problems are being caused, not least in East Sussex, I would be happy if she dropped me a line or came to see me.
We have great enthusiasm for the proposals that the hon. Lady makes, but what is required is not a study, but action. I make this commitment to her, and to any hon. Member who is interested in helping to establish a new regional bank in their area, that I will help them to do so. I hope that they will allow me to do that.
New clause 10 would require the Government to lay a report before Parliament before selling any banking assets. All hon. Members are aware of what the Chancellor said in his Mansion House speech about the next steps for Lloyds and RBS. For Lloyds, the Government are actively considering the options for how its shareholding can be returned to the private sector. Value for money for the taxpayer will be the overriding consideration, and there is no pre-determined time scale. Indeed, the disposal process may involve multiple stages over time, rather than a single moment.
For RBS, share sales are some way off. In line with the recommendation of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, the Chancellor has announced a review, to conclude in the autumn, into whether a bad bank should be set up for risky assets from RBS. Following the criteria suggested in the commission’s report, the review will assess whether creating a bad bank would accelerate the path back to private ownership, deliver benefits for the wider economy and be in the interest of taxpayers.
As I have mentioned, the OFT is looking specifically at the impact that new challenger banks created by the Lloyds and RBS divestments will have on competition in small business banking. UK Financial Investments has a remit to provide value for money in executing its requirement to devise the means of selling the Government’s shareholdings in the banks, and, in doing so, to pay due regard to maintaining financial stability and to act in a way that promotes competition. In doing so, UKFI and the Treasury must follow the value-for-money principles set out in the Green Book, and they will be accountable, through the Accounting Officer, to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, as well as to the House and the Treasury Select Committee.
The Minister is talking about the edifice of propriety, in relation to UKFI and so forth, but it is as plain as day that the Chancellor made the decision that he did not want that particular chief executive of RBS, so out went Stephen Hester. Will the Minister at least put on record what the plan is for settling the future leadership of RBS? When will the new chief executive be appointed?
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is a matter for the board of RBS, not for the Government.
Returning to new clause 10, it is not clear that a new mandatory reporting requirement would add anything to the arrangements that are already in place. In the previous regulatory regime, promoting competition did not play a prominent enough role in ensuring that the banking industry operated in the interests of consumers. The strengthening of the role of competition through the reforms in the Bill will go a long way towards correcting that. The further recommendations of the PCBS underline the role of competition more prominently still, and I thank the commission for its contribution in that regard.
I should also mention new clause 1, which introduces a new schedule of amendments to correct a series of minor and technical points in connection with the Financial Services Act 2012. I was asked some questions about this earlier. It refers to the complaints scheme covering the Financial Conduct Authority, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Bank of England. The scope of the complaints scheme in relation to the PRA and the FCA was widened to cover all their functions under any legislation, and the current scope includes functions such as those relating to the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, which already have their own complaints mechanisms. The new clause will correct that.
I hope that the House will accept that the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and the Government are as one in their intention of promoting competition. We totally agree that placing a high value on competition in pursuing all our objectives for the banking sector in order to make it more competitive, more responsive to the needs of consumers and more resilient is very much in the interests of the country.
We have had a long, well-informed debate, and I pay tribute to Members on both sides of the House, particularly the members of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, for their contributions. I am disappointed, however, that the Government are still saying simply that they will think about these things and look into them. The Bill will leave this House in the same thin state in which it arrived. In protecting taxpayers’ best interests, it should not be viewed as asking for the moon on a stick to request a proper report and an options appraisal of what to do with state-owned assets. It is very important that, at the very least, we have a thorough appraisal.
The Minister made all sorts of warm noises towards regional and local banking, but as the saying goes, warm words butter no parsnips. The Government have, in fact, ruled out any options appraisal for regional banking in the particular instance of RBS, so I think the proof of the pudding, to mix my metaphors, will be in the eating.
The Government are not doing what is necessary to get the proper competition we need to help the challenger banks and to break open the number of players in the market. The Minister said, “Well, the OFT is doing various amounts of work, and we should wait to see how it can cope with all the other changes in the banking sector”. It is always a case of this Minister kicking the can further down the road yet again. It is never “now”; always “let us wait and see”. It is just not good enough. We need a more competitive banking system, so I shall press new clause 8 to the vote.
Question accordingly negatived.
More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order,
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (