Opposition Day — [17th Allotted Day] — Banking

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:03 pm on 15th January 2014.

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Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne 3:03 pm, 15th January 2014

I am pleased to follow Bill Esterson, who gave a very measured account of some of the challenges facing the banking sector.

It is absolutely right that we in this House should be talking about small businesses and the challenges they face in trying to get credit and loans. I represent a borough that is almost exclusively dependent on small businesses from an economic point of view. Obviously we have Heathrow airport, but small businesses are the predominant employers. Banks today are perhaps more reluctant to lend to small businesses than they were 10 years ago. Small businesses that need to have loans approved are much more likely to feel confident in a less centralised structure. They are happier dealing with loan officers they have known for a long time and if they have good local relationships. That gives them a lot more confidence than some of the computerised and centralised forms of banking that we have seen. In Spelthorne, lots of small businesses use export finance. Because of the proximity of the airport, they are reliant on foreign trade to do their business. Credit lines are very important for those sorts of businesses.

I suggest—perhaps this will find less agreement around the House—that the bankers’ job is very difficult, because policy makers are saying, “We want your bank to lend more money”, at a time when capital requirements are higher. It does not take a very sophisticated appreciation of finance—I was about to say that it does not take the brains of an archbishop, which is very relevant in a debate on finance—to realise that it is very difficult for a bank to extend its balance sheet while increasing its capital. If we look at it as a pantomime horse, the two ends of the horse are pulling in different directions in being asked to raise capital and to lend money at the same time. That is a difficult balancing act.

I want to talk about the general condition of the sector as it has developed over the past 10 or 15 years. As my hon. Friend Jesse Norman said, banks’ leverage ratios were remarkably stable from the end of the second world war and going into the 1950s, right up until 2000. It was only after the turn of the century that we saw the almost frenzied credit expansion that made us so vulnerable in the final denouement when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the crash happened. Labour Members have suggested that many causes of the financial crisis extend back to the 1980s, with big bang and all the rest of it. In terms of leverage ratios, though, the serious risk in the system developed relatively recently, for lots of different reasons. Labour Members would suggest that a culture of deregulation brought in by Margaret Thatcher was responsible for some of the recklessness in the system, whereas Government Members would suggest that it was due to some of the reforms in 1997, particularly with regard to the Bank of England’s supervisory role.

At that time there was a great deal of complacency, on both sides of the House, about the sustainability of this model. As has been repeated many times, we were in an era when Cabinet Ministers were

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

That sentiment was not exclusive to Labour Front Benchers. The political establishment were quite content to see vast bonuses and big salaries extended across the City of London, for the simple reason that the tax revenues coming into the Government from the City were extremely useful at that time. Even though we were running deficits when the country was growing, we were using a lot of those tax revenues for Government spending. There was a symbiosis in which we were all somehow complicit. I find it interesting that Labour Members suggest we cap bonuses, because they will remember that, during the times of plenty, it was taxes on bonuses that gave such vast sums to the Exchequer, which it used—more than used, because it had to borrow—to spend on public administration.

It does not make any sense for people in the House of Commons to engage in banker-bashing when a lot of the prosperity in the constituencies we represent has been fuelled by this country’s success in financial services. If we look across the range of financial services in banking, insurance, actuaries and accounting, we will see that all those professional bodies were largely encouraged and developed on these islands. Britain has always been—certainly for 300 or 400 years—at the centre of innovation in the financial industry. We cannot simply turn our back on that or suggest that we should penalise and punish. That is not how we have developed or how we will get future prosperity.

Although I absolutely share some of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members during this very reasonable debate—it has been much less political than one might have anticipated—I must say, once again, that finance is something in which we are world beaters and we should not be ashamed of it. We should not be embarrassed about it; we should encourage it. Yes, we should have more regulation and a stable regulatory environment—which, I hasten to add, was not implemented over the past 15 years—but at the same time we must not forget that a lot of the prosperity and tax revenues that accrue to the Government derive from the continuing success of the City of London, as has been the case for many centuries.