Committee (2nd Day)

Part of Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 15th October 2013.

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Photo of Lord Flight Lord Flight Conservative 3:30 pm, 15th October 2013

My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of Metro Bank. I support Amendment 102, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. The Government are now well aware of the competition issue, but no particular policy has been formulated for how to deal with it. This legislation offers the opportunity to require that that should be prescribed. I will say more about competition in a minute.

While I support the principle behind the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, I have strong reservations about regional banks. I remind noble Lords that, going back to the second half of the 19th century, when an industry got into trouble the regional bank failed and the whole region became depressed, often for a decade or more. The principle at that time, led by individuals such as Walter Bagehot, was to create national banks to spread the risk. Therefore, I am not sure that regional banks are particularly the answer.

Government policy has been anti-competition going back to at least Barings. I remember more than 10 years ago having an extensive debate with the late Sir Eddy George when he was Governor of the Bank of England, because it was stated policy that lender of last resort facilities would apply only to banks that were too big to fail. It seemed to me completely the wrong way round in that it gave smaller banks a disadvantage in terms of what they had to pay for deposits. Lots of them, such as Hambros, closed down. It created the great risk, for which we subsequently paid the price with the banking crisis. Elements of uncompetitive measures have been the big—very much higher—capital ratios that smaller banks have been obliged to have in relation to mortgage lending; the costs of the payment system; and the difficulty of getting a banking licence. If I may boast, I think that Metro Bank is the first new high street bank to have been set up in 120 years.

However, I therefore have some sympathy with the second part of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. What he is saying, in my language, is that we want high street banks that will get dug into their communities and will naturally get involved with sponsoring activities in those communities. That is exactly what Metro Bank is doing. It is very good business to do it and very popular. When we open branches, there are queues of people waiting to come in and open accounts because they are so fed up with the appalling service that they have had from the banking oligopoly for the past few years. It was, indeed, very much an oligopoly. I think it was Lloyds that first decided that you could cut all service and just leave people with telephone numbers to dial. The other banks all followed, with a very substantial boost to profits as a result. For customers, however, it has been one of the biggest factors in making the large banks so unpopular.

I think the outlook is encouraging. Metro Bank plans to have something like 6% of the nation’s deposit base by 2020, which is not that far away. There are other new banks coming up. I believe that the face of the banking scene, even if the Government do not do much about it, will look very different in some 10 years’ time. One of the issues is that the big banks are simply too big to manage. The have archaic silo systems, which are an enormous problem to them. Their activities are simply too large. The requirement for increases in capital will lead to them shrinking their balance sheets and, rather like the old-fashioned huge department stores in the US, it is inevitable that business pressures will lead to their decline.

I attended an interesting meeting that was addressed by Andrew Bailey, the head of the PRA, this morning. He made the point that perhaps the regulator had been wrong to require small new banks to have much higher capital ratios against certain forms of lending. The logic for that was that new banks were more risky—fair dice—but its net effect simply increased the oligopoly strength of the existing large banks. The PRA is looking constructively at making capital ratios, as far as possible, the same across the board, whether banks are large or small. So the PRA is very much on to the need for more banking competition and for it to be supportive and helpful to new banks, as opposed to having rules that hinder them.

The Government, too, have seen the point and are keen on more banking competition. It seems to me, however, that they have not thought about it adequately and have not made up their mind about what more should be done, other than expressing a wish for more competition. That is why a requirement to look into the subject would be no bad thing. However, as I said, while I fully support the principle of more high street banks doing the things that high street banks always did, I am less comfortable with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, which I think is overprescriptive.