Queen's Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:01 pm on 2nd June 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Kingsmill Baroness Kingsmill Labour 10:01 pm, 2nd June 2010

My Lords, the hour is late and the debate has been long. I am the 52nd speaker, so I am not kidding myself that I shall say anything original. The debate has been an example of the House of Lords at its best. We may have a coalition Government-no one won the election-but it has been interesting to see tonight how much common ground there is between all three parties. That is a constructive approach. It is not to say, however, that we will not be a forceful and effective Opposition when we think it is appropriate.

I do not mind that lots of other speakers have congratulated the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. I want to add my congratulations. I have known her for a very long time. We spoke on similar platforms many times before either of us were Members of this place. I am delighted to see her where she deserves to be. I am grateful to her for her opening speech, even though I did not agree with everything she said.

I shall be brief because, as I said, I am the 52nd speaker. I have only four points to raise tonight. First, we have a very uncompetitive banking system, which might be the source of many of our problems. I say what the Americans have said; that if a bank is too big to fail, it is probably too big to exist. We need to sit and think about a review of the competitiveness of our banking system generally. We have the means to do that: we could ask the Competition Commission to do it. It is a good idea for the Government to consider that carefully at an early stage. It is interesting to note the recent significant increase in complaints from the public to the financial ombudsman. It is pretty obvious that the uncompetitive nature of our banking system means that it is not serving its customers appropriately.

The Government should also consider how they can lower the barriers to entry for new entrants to the banking system in order to make it more competitive. There are emerging banks, such as Virgin Money, and it would be sensible to create more competitiveness in the banking system by encouraging such banks to develop and grow. It would also be helpful if we expanded financial education for people generally so that they better understand some of the products and issues that they are getting themselves into when they engage with banks. Personally, I would like the banks to undertake an audit of all their products for customers to ascertain the fairness and reasonableness of their pricing.

My second point relates to small businesses. This is related to my point about banking. Since the beginning of the banking crisis, we have lost more than 30,000 small firms, and the drying up of bank credit is largely to blame. Despite the large sums of public money that have been poured into the banks, there are still many stories of profitable businesses with solid credit records being refused loans or offered them on such punitive terms as to be usurious. Good businesses are going to the wall unnecessarily as their cash reserves dwindle and the banks withhold vital credit. I do not want to appear to be attacking the City or banks. The City is and will remain a global centre of excellence not only in financial services, but in the law, accountancy, management consultancy and insurance. However, the banks must recognise the social and economic contract that they have struck in accepting bailout money. They need to fulfil their part in meeting their responsibilities to society and the wider economy. To paraphrase Luke 12:48, "From those to whom much is given, much is required". It is important that we remember that.

Thirdly, we must look at issues relating to takeovers. I do not want to turn on protectionism or anything like that, but the furore around the takeover by Kraft of Cadbury's drew everyone's attention to the fact that we do not give sufficient consideration in this country to takeovers by foreign corporations. It is all too easy for that to happen. We should also give some thought to who is entitled to vote in those circumstances because, as everyone is aware, there was a great piling-in of speculators after Cadbury became a target. We should reflect on and consider exactly how we should approach such takeovers.

Fourthly-I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, for raising the issue-we should consider the huge and offensive waste of female talent in business. As we look around the Chamber today, very few women are represented here as spokespeople for business. We need to address that. The issue of equal pay was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I am very pleased that it was, because it is disgraceful that, about 40 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, we still face a huge pay gap. I caution the Government. When they are thinking about public sector pay cuts, they must remember that there are a large number of women working in the public sector. They are the people who will suffer most from cuts in public sector expenditure and public sector pay. I hope that those points will be taken on board by those sitting opposite.