I congratulate Kate Osamor on securing the debate and pay tribute to the ordinary people across the UK who work for the Royal Bank of Scotland and who have delivered a fantastic service in banks for many years. They are part of the community and very often their diligence and hard work is not recognised or rewarded.
The difficulty that I identify is with the Royal Bank of Scotland’s business model, encouraged by the UK Government, that has seen access and standards of customer service plummet in the past three or four years in particular. I shall set that in context and highlight three examples of branch closures in my constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
RBS recently closed a branch in Invergordon, a town in Ross-shire with heavy industry and a growing tourism sector. The loss of the bank is creating cash shortages, and business turnovers are starting to fall. The impact is obvious. The bank’s customers have to travel to other towns, where they conduct their shopping, pay their bills and undertake other aspects of their business. This is enormously challenging to the local economy in Invergordon.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has also closed a branch in Lochinver, a remote area of north-west Sutherland. It services a vast geographical area and is very busy with tourism. Customers there now have to undertake a 110-mile round trip to access their nearest bank. Businesses, too, have to travel that 110 miles to bank cash. The RBS branch in Lybster, too, has closed. It was arguably the centre of the town and a focal point for the community. Customers there have to travel over 40 miles to access the nearest bank, which is in Wick. Again, while they are there they conduct their shopping and other aspects of business, which has a negative impact on the local economy in Lybster.
Each of these communities feels aggrieved because of the way these branches were closed, with little meaningful consultation. Their economies are now marooned. Banks are crucial to our local economies. The structure of banking in the UK is failing our communities, especially those in rural areas. Empirical evidence exists to demonstrate that the business model currently implemented by the Royal Bank of Scotland and other banks, including the Bank of Scotland, is hurting small businesses and threatening the viability of high streets. Thousands of people in my constituency feel bitterly disappointed and let down by RBS and by the UK Government’s approach to the banking crisis more generally.
Correspondence that I have had with the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills evidences little interest on the part of the UK Government in challenging the business model of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and branch closures in particular, and the Treasury has declined to use its influence as the major shareholder to establish a more positive outcome. RBS claims that it has shifted from a global bank to a UK-focused bank with a strategy of building a stronger bank. My constituents see neither a UK focus nor a stronger bank. In fact, many now have no bank at all and feel distinctly disadvantaged.
The UK is virtually unique in Europe in not having a local or stakeholder banking sector. The UK is distinctive in having created a banking sector where people in my constituency and elsewhere are left dependant on large, commercial banks, with nothing left to plug the gap when these banks retreat. This is remarkably poor fiscal planning. The UK Government’s stake in the Royal
Bank of Scotland provides an opportunity to address the structural problems observable in the UK banking sector and to guarantee communities access to banking services in the future. The New Economics Foundation, Civitas, ResPublica and Friends of the Earth, along with many other organisations, have all published proposals to use the UK Government’s stake in RBS to create a network of local banks. It is increasingly clear that UK taxpayers will never recover their investment through the re-privatisation of RBS. In fact, the likely loss to be realised is estimated to be around £13 billion, which is almost one third of the original taxpayer bail-out.
The UK Government must, as any sensible Government would, look for alternative options. They could develop a local banking model based on Germany’s Sparkassen—we have heard about them already; that could create 130 new local banks in England. Powers could be devolved to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to allow those nations to restructure their banking sectors. The UK Government could transform Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest into models of best practice. Based on the performance of internationally comparable local banking networks, a programme of localisation could have boosted the economy by £7.1 billion in 2008 and delivered additional benefits of more than £30 billion over three years.
It is not too late. I urge the Minister to be brave, innovative and ambitious and to order a full review of options for Royal Bank of Scotland before selling off any more shares at knock-down prices. The current programme of branch closures is helping nobody and looks very likely to become worse. I urge her to consider how local economies could be enhanced through the development of stakeholder banks, and how communities could be assisted to grow, prosper and develop. I also urge her to think about how the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly could lead a revitalised banking service that is responsive to community needs, not corporate interests.
I have deep reservations about the timing and speed with which the UK Government are planning to sell their remaining stake in Royal Bank of Scotland. The reduction of the Treasury’s shareholding in the bank, without structural reform, will ultimately lead to a return to “business as usual” and a missed opportunity to learn the lessons of the crisis and ensure more customer and taxpayer protection. Structural reforms should be demanded as a condition of the sale. Should the sale proceed, it is vital that the taxpayer should receive the full £45.8 billion paid by the previous Government in 2008. The public must get every single penny back. I support the motion.