Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:56 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 1:56 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to debate this important topic today.

With the passing of time, the reality of the economic record and performance of the previous Labour Government becomes clearer. Having inherited a decent economic situation in 1997, it is a pretty depressing story. To be sure, there were some nuggets amid the dross-the decision to stay out of the euro and handing over the setting of interest rates to the Bank of England- but the underlying theme was that the man in government, whether central or local, knows best. Complexity was piled on complexity, needing armies of enforcers. Measures were so complex that they often missed their target. They were presided over by a man who claimed that he had abolished boom and bust-hubris indeed.

Today, one of the most amazing features is the collective amnesia that seems to have overtaken the Labour Party on that whole matter. As the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, reminded us, the perilous situation in which we remain appears to the Labour Party to be nothing to do with its record in government but merely the result of a malign alliance between sub-prime mortgages in the US and rapacious bankers elsewhere in the world.

For me, the most depressing statistic of the past 12 years-here I echo my noble friend Lord Trenchard-has been the shift in employment from the private to the public sector. As my noble friend told us, more than 1 million jobs went out of the productive economy into the state sector, so that there are now parts of the country in which 40 per cent or even 50 per cent of the people employed are employed by the state. That trend leads to madness and is certainly no way to build a prosperous Britain.

I particularly welcome the Chancellor's efforts to rebalance the economy by stimulating private sector economic activity. It is true that because, as his Labour predecessor told him when he took office, there is no money, these measures are necessarily modest, but cuts in corporation tax, extending EIS tax relief, relief for small businesses from further regulation and so on are all very welcome.

Although the Government can set the mood and prime the pump, reviving the economy will need a much greater contribution from the private sector banks than there is at present. Here I follow my noble friend Lord Newby. When he winds up the debate, my noble friend will reply that the banks have promised to lend an additional £190 billion to SMEs. That is quite true, but stating the quantum is not the whole answer. The equally important issues are, first, the process by which the funding is obtained, secondly, the time it takes to complete it and, thirdly, to whom it is being offered.

The past few years have seen the end of what has been called relationship banking for SMEs. In prior years, the bank manager would get to know his customer over a period of years and would have a certain amount of latitude on extending credit facilities on his own initiative. Certainly his assessment of the credit-worthiness and likely success of the borrower would be taken into account in any lending decision. That is no longer the case. Now it is all down to credit scoring. The credit committee knows nothing about the business. It does not know whether the applicant has been a customer of the bank for five minutes or 50 years; it is all down to the credit score. In effect, the relationship manager in most of these banks now fulfils a function akin to the speak-your-weight machine that you find on a seaside pier.

Then there is speed. SMEs are time constrained. They do not always plan ahead as well as they should, so speed of response is very important. While it is true that the banks have made some progress in this regard since the darkest days of 2009, there is more to be done. Then there is the question of which firms will get the funding. Let me illustrate with a practical example. A firm of my acquaintance needs occasional short-term funding for one to seven days, usually of about £1 million. It is well secured and is therefore low risk. The firm decided that, in order to allow for a margin of error, the application to the bank should be for a credit facility of £2 million. You may imagine its surprise when the credit facility offered was £5 million and a covering note suggested that the bank would happily entertain a request for £10 million. Inquiries revealed that this lending would qualify to be part of the bank's contribution to the £190 billion and because it was very low risk, so the higher the amount it could attribute to it, the better. I hope that my noble friend will monitor carefully not just the quantum of lending but the process by which it is made available and its destination.

This promise by the banks, like the Chancellor's Budget, addresses the short-term tactical challenges. Looking further ahead, if we are truly to rebalance the economy, there will need to be much higher capital investments by SMEs in the future than in the past. This will require the availability of longer-term funding facilities than envisaged by the £190 billion pot. That in turn poses a challenge to the banks under the matching liquidity provisions envisaged by the Basel 3 proposals. I trust that the Government are keeping this longer-term issue firmly in mind as they navigate their way through the choppy short-term seas.