It would probably be helpful if I spoke now, and also introduced the amendment which is grouped with this one. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for mentioning the comments that I made at Second Reading, but I feel that his amendment, while it raises a series of valuable issues, conflates some of them in a way which is not entirely helpful.
The first point is the one that he also made, which is that there has been no fundamental thinking at all about the structure of banking in this country. The whole discussion about ring-fencing which occupied us last week is a modification of the existing structures of ownership, rather than encouragement to develop an entirely different and more competitive banking structure. That is a key issue which underlies the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and the one that is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe. Where the issue has been conflated is that regional banking, to which he referred, should be separated from the issue of competition. Either or both can be promoted, but they have to be seen as separate entities. For example, the chief executive of Santander has recently written in the Financial Times that she would like to see a significant increase in regionalisation in its activities. That, of course, is not necessarily an increase in competition, but is a more regional focus of the single entity.
It is, however, encouraging, with respect to the regional issue, that the Governor of the Bank of England argued in Leeds a couple of weeks ago that he was very much in favour of an increase in regionalism in British banking, and I wonder whether the Government agree with him in this respect. The key issue underlying this is not regionalism so much. After all, if we look across Europe, it was the small regional banks which failed in their dozens, particularly of course in Germany. The issue is of relationship banking, and the return to a close relationship between the lending entity—which used to be the manager of the bank—and the community in which he or she is located. For example, that was an important force in the development of the science park in Cambridge. At that time, Barclays Bank played an important role in the funding of the science park. The manager, who took something of a punt in this respect, was of course then promptly moved on, because it was felt that he had overstretched his remit. I am very sympathetic to the idea of regionalism, but we have to see it in the context of a secure structure, without creating the rather weak structures which collapsed in other countries. We have to focus especially on the issue of relationship banking.
I now turn to the amendment in my name and the name of my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe. This amendment seeks to look in particular at competition, with which the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, began his discussion. As he pointed out, while at the beginning of the financial crisis it was argued that banks were too big to fail, they are now much bigger than they were then as a proportion of the overall UK market. The “too big to fail” issue is even more important today than it has been in the past.
There is no doubt whatever that the regulatory system itself—as well as various other aspects of banks’ activity, including the payments system, to which we will return later—has been a very effective barrier to entry. Only one significant deposit-taking bank—Metro Bank—has been introduced into the UK system over the last five or six years. We need to tackle this issue of competition. It was striking that the banking commission argued in the second volume of its report that,
“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”,
should be commenced immediately. It continued:
“We make this recommendation to ensure that the market study is completed on a timetable consistent with making a market investigation reference”,
to the competition authority,
“should it so decide, before the end of 2015”.
The Government’s response to the parliamentary commission on this point does not state that they reject this recommendation. Instead, they imply that they will fulfil it. However, what has happened? Nothing; absolutely nothing. They are bringing forward the OFT market review of small business banking, but this was not talking about small business banking. They are not putting in place a market review of the retail banking sector as a whole. Why on earth not? That is what is necessary, and what this amendment calls for.
The Government say that they are in discussions and that they are engaging with the problem. We would like to see some evidence of that. It is just not enough; it is too piecemeal, and not transparent. A proper review of competition in the banking sector is required. This amendment would secure that review in the manner which the commission recommended.