My Lords, I have been away from the markets too long over the last two years, at the Department for Transport, to know whether this is the right time to be selling off either RBS or Royal Mail. However, first, although I only skimmed it, I did not find that Rothschild’s report to be terribly enlightening. Secondly, if this is a fire sale to fill holes in the budget because the Government are foundering on trying to find that impossible £12 billion in welfare cuts, and have handcuffed themselves in terms of raising taxes through their commitment to a law to prevent them from doing so, that is absolutely the wrong answer. This should not be used to fill other holes in the bucket unless we are getting the best possible value for these two assets.
I want to make a final try to persuade the Government to take a much more constructive approach to returning RBS to private hands. The Government should be breaking this bank up, into either regional or community banks, to begin to remedy a critical missing layer in our banking system. The Government carried out a half-hearted review—I know how much they resisted even doing that review—of alternatives to simply passing this back as is, as it were, to the public. They used an investment bank to do the review, which was exactly the wrong choice—an institution which cannot understand the dynamic. This should go out to the public: there should be a discussion with small businesses and a general consultation to try and decide how we can best return RBS to the private sector.
Small and medium-sized companies find it difficult still to access credit, and that credit is vital to economic growth and absolutely vital for productivity, which the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, has often talked about. On Monday, we had the debate on trade and investment, and noble Lords brought out the difficulties for small and medium-sized companies in raising export finance. Leading economies that successfully grow their small businesses, such as Germany, the United States and Switzerland, have some form of regional and community banking. We are missing this layer, and here would be a great opportunity. Of course we have new players—challenger banks and peer-to-peer lending—but RBS, broken up, would really shift the landscape. Surely keeping RBS as it is continues the too-big-to-fail and too-big-to-manage problems that we all bemoan. Although it is guilty of plenty of scandals, RBS largely failed the old-fashioned way by making appalling loans.
The taxpayer is not going to make money on this sale, so why not use it to achieve something much more important than immediately money—a shift in the banking landscape that would underpin growing prosperity? Once this opportunity is lost, it will never return.
I will make one last comment, on the fair and effective markets review. I need time to go through that in detail, but the RBS losses are a reminder of the depth and the consequences of the banking crisis. We all always knew that when the crisis itself passed, the banks would begin their special pleading, sweetened with a little blackmail, to reverse both the penalties and levies that they faced and the regulation that has now been introduced. I ask the Government not to go wobbly on us. We need the Government to stand tall and carry through on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and others to give us a secure banking system.