My Lords, banks are focal points for small businesses seeking finance and the Government want to see them do more in response to client applications. In December 2013, we published Small Business: GREAT Ambition, in which we committed to work with the banks and the BBA to improve the referral by the end of this year. The Government are determined to make real progress on this matter and are considering all possible options.
Only yesterday the OFT raised a concern that the big banks were hindering access to alternative forms of financing such as peer-to-peer lending. For existing and new referral schemes, we need to know exactly what the banks are up to and what they are doing. Can the Minister assure the House that all referral schemes will require the banks to publish meaningful data, as they do now for lending?
The noble Lord makes an important point and I pay tribute to the work he has done on driving greater transparency in local lending. An effective referral system needs to be transparent to build trust among businesses and alternative finance providers. I welcome the recent comments made to the Treasury Select Committee by the independent external reviewer of the banking appeals process, Professor Russel Griggs. He agreed that more could usefully be done to integrate banks in terms of the outcome of referrals and on signposting processes.
My Lords, the taxpayer had to bail out both RBS and Lloyds Bank under the previous Government and we continue to pay for the mistakes of the past. Both banks are now becoming smaller and safer, but there is a long way to go. Since the launch of the Funding for Lending scheme, RBS and Lloyds Bank are now both lending more money to our SMEs.
My Lords, despite what the Minister says, the latest funding for lending figures are yet again down on what they were previously, and the high street banks are just not playing their part. Does the Minister agree that peer-to-peer lenders are in many cases much better able to serve small businesses and should receive even greater government assistance?
My Lords, gross lending has gone up by 16% over the past 12 months. We intend to lend £4 billion per month compared with around £3.1 billion this time last year. We encourage peer-to-peer lending and more is happening in the area. One of the reasons that net lending might have dropped, which is probably the gist of the noble Lord’s question, is that a large number of businesses are either repaying or going for alternative financing, including factoring, leasing and hire purchase. There are also a number of schemes from the British Business Bank.
My Lords, debt is not always the safest way for small firms to finance their expansion. Does my noble friend agree that encouraging smaller firms to look at equity financing may be the sensible way forward?
My noble friend has just said that, following the consultation, the Government will look at all options. Does this include the previous commitment to producing legislation to address this very serious issue of funding for small businesses and others?
My Lords, as I said, we are looking at all the options. If the need arises because we are not successful by the end of 2014, I am sure that the department will look at maybe coming up with some sort of legislation to see what we can do to make the banks more transparent.
My Lords, the consistent lament for the past eight years from both the political and business communities has been that banks are not lending to SMEs and that there is less competition and innovation today in the banking sector. The OFT stated yesterday that there are competition concerns in this vital driver for the economy. Can the Minister ensure that the new competition authority will undertake a full investigation forthwith into this issue, which has been an impediment to the economic progress of this country for the past eight to 10 years?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. One way to solve the problem we have with SME lending is to bring in more competition. We are spinning out Williams and Glyn’s from the Royal Bank of Scotland and TSB from Lloyds Bank. The regulators have relaxed the regulations to issue new banking licences, and I am pleased to say that we have 21 applications in place. We have launched the British Business Bank. More competition will solve some of the problems, and of course more lending to our businesses will help the economy.
My Lords, along with equity funding, the hedge funds and equity funds are doing the work of the banks to some extent. Is the Minister satisfied that they are being properly regulated in doing this work?
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the growing volume of funds being raised under the EIS scheme, which roughly doubled in 2011-12 and look as if they will double again when the figures come through for 2012-13? The Government made improvements to the scheme on coming into office, but it has prospered through both Labour and Conservative Administrations and is now a key source of equity money for small businesses.
My noble friend makes another very important point. The scheme is a key source for equity lending. We also now have what we call the business growth fund, which was launched very recently by the five clearing banks to help mid-sized businesses in the UK by lending money in return for equity.