Community Banks

BBC – in Westminster Hall at 12:19 pm on 10th July 2012.

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Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham 12:19 pm, 10th July 2012

The case for local community banking and the break-up of the Royal Bank of Scotland to create a series of local banks has never been stronger. Since the global financial crash, the merits of a vibrant system of local banks have become apparent; it is the issue of our time. We need to look at finding new ways to unlock the finance that households and small businesses need. We need new local banks that will promote competition, reinvigorate community lending, improve the finances of small and medium-sized enterprises, and encourage local saving. They would work on the principle of using local credit to support manufacturing and start-ups, and they would not leave the disadvantaged at the mercy of loan sharks and money changers.

Local banking works. We should bear it in mind that 70% of German lending to SMEs is via local banks. And we wonder why the German economy is doing better than ours. The experience of other countries that have a thriving local banking sector—countries such as Germany, the US and Switzerland—has demonstrated that smaller, locally focused institutions are the ones that provide economic resilience. Studies of the humble German savings banks—or Sparkassen, as they are called—which form a network of 430 independent but mutually supporting local institutions, show that they have made modest but steady profits through both boom and recession. By comparison, the mighty Deutsche bank has plunged from huge profits to calamitous losses.

In this country, we have a missing tier of banking. Let us consider the period between December 2007 and December 2011, which saw a sharp decrease in lending by the large commercial banks in Europe. In that period in Germany, large commercial bank lending fell by 18%; in Switzerland, it fell by 34%; and in the UK, it fell by 17%. During the same period, however, lending by local savings banks rose; the German savings banks saw lending rise by 18% and the Swiss cantonal banks saw lending rise by 22%. But in the same period the UK saw neither a rise nor a fall in lending.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and indeed for securing this very important debate. Does he agree that what we need in the UK is a two-tier banking system? We need the large banks nationally, but we also need—as he is suggesting—smaller banks operating at a local level. Having a two-tier system would be beneficial to our economy overall.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I entirely applaud the Government’s approach—by way of the Vickers report—to addressing the problems with the larger banks. Everyone can see that there is a fundamental problem with large banks and their failure to lend. The fact is that they are almost operating as a monopoly; the largest six banks run the show completely.

The other end of the telescope and the other end of the problem is the lack of local banking. My hon. Friend talks about a two-tier banking system and I agree that, instead of having a single monolithic and almost monopolistic banking structure in which only the five or six big banks lend money, we need the larger banks—of course—but we also need the smaller banks operating at a local level.

Quite frankly, we have lacked that system in this country. Ever since the 1930s, approximately, the banks and building societies in the UK have become ever larger as some of them have been swallowed up by their neighbours and by their more predatory rivals. Consequently, we have gone from having a large variety of banks and building societies to having fewer and fewer banks and other organisations working in the banking community. Of course, that has the effect of reducing competition, reducing the ability for a new entrant to gain access to the market and reducing the ability of businesses to gain access to credit.

I must stress at the outset of my speech that the present crisis in banking and in bank lending is not in any way the fault of the local branch staff. I assure the House that those staff are just as frustrated as I am at their inability to run accounts as they used to in the old days. I come to this particular debate with a background in business and with two years of experience as a constituency MP in Northumberland, where I have repeatedly seen decisions on lending being made by a Hexham bank manager, or another local Northumberland bank manager. Those decisions then become part of the responsibility of the credit risk team whenever there is any difficulty with the account.

If an individual SME has a problem with its account, such as a bad debt or a problem with cash flow, it is almost impossible for it to go back to the same manager and argue the case that it is a viable, proper business going forward. That is because the decision-making process has been taken away from the individual local bank manager in Hexham, Ponteland or wherever. What happens now is that the decision is not even taken in Newcastle or anywhere else in the north-east but by a credit risk team that is many miles away. I have attempted to go to those credit risk teams to make a case, but of course it is almost impossible to do so. That system must change. Again, I make it clear that what I am saying today is not a criticism of local bank staff who are working throughout the country. It is a criticism of the board members in London, who seem to have totally forgotten their fundamental role.

I was interested to see that the Leader of the Opposition has commented on banking in the last few days. Like the Church, we always welcome new converts, given the past record. However, the necessary reform of the banks is being left to this Government, as we bring the banks to heel with the Vickers report, clear up the LIBOR mess and implement a much stronger system than the light-touch regulation that we saw before.

Change will not happen without competition. Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition was extolling the need to create more competition for our banks. However, on 23 April in the Financial Services Bill Committee the Opposition voted to prevent competition in banking. I was present for that debate, which saw the Opposition introduce amendment 28, which would have deleted clause 5 of the Bill, thereby deleting the requirement for enhanced competition. So I must ask the question: how can one be in favour of local banks while stopping competition?

The Leader of the Opposition is also out of touch if he thinks that the answer to this banking crisis is to force banks to close some of their high street branches. That is hardly what the voters in my part of Northumberland are crying out for; that much is certain. Residents in Haydon Bridge and Haltwhistle who are losing their local bank branches will tell the Leader of the Opposition that the problem with the banking sector was casino banking and greed, and not—as we heard from Labour this week—having too many local branches. My constituents want to see local branches providing a local service.

Photo of Chris White Chris White Conservative, Warwick and Leamington

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I would like to know his thoughts on how our local communities can hold these banks to account. Although having local community banks is an excellent idea, if we create smaller banks out of RBS how can we ensure that the local communities will have control over those banks’ priorities? In my constituency, industries such as the green energy industry and the video games industry have big potential for growth. How can local communities ensure that local banks are given the mandate to tailor themselves to local business needs?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

The reality is that Hampshire, for example, has done what I am talking about and set up the Hampshire bank, or Hampshire Trust. It is backed by the local chamber of commerce and by local authorities. It is regulated, so it is possible to have a county bank that is regulated, but on a lighter-touch basis—I use that phrase again—than the larger banks such as Barclays or HSBC. Moreover, if we broke up RBS, which I will come on to discuss, the individual shareholders would have a say in a local county bank.

How do we create local banks? First, one must address the barriers to entry, which are considerable. Metro Bank has recently been established in London and the south-east, but only at huge cost and only after overcoming many hurdles. The example of the Hampshire bank shows that county banks can be created. I see no reason why we cannot do the same in Northumberland, or in the wider north-east region, and set up “The Bank of Northumberland” or “The Bank of the North-East”.

However, the truth is that a banking licence is notoriously difficult and costly to obtain. To try to remedy that situation, along with my hon. Friend Mr Tyrie, who is the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, I met the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Hector Sants, at the beginning of March. My hon. Friend and I sat down and tried to explain the problems to Mr Sants, and I am pleased to say that under this Government the FSA is considering trying to reduce the barriers to entry for smaller local banks.

On 12 March, the FSA’s chief executive wrote to me:

“We are conscious of the balance to be struck between ensuring high standards at the gateway, and the importance of allowing innovation and appropriate levels of access for new firms.”

He added:

“there has been public debate about the potential advantages of new entrants in the area of small, regional banks focused on servicing the SME sector. In such cases we will be proportionate in our approach and would invite all firms with a viable business model and appropriate levels of resources to a pre-application meeting to help guide them through the application process”.

In those circumstances, and with the background of a banking crisis, we need to look at the elephant in the room that is the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Government are understandably impatient to sell the 83%-nationalised bank, but the health of the public finances ultimately depends on the health of the economy, which itself rests on the stability and usefulness of the banks.

The taxpayer bail-out and the subsequent problems of RBS are well documented, and it now seems clear that the chances of the Government selling RBS as it is, and making a profit, or anything like one, are but a dim flicker at the end of a long tunnel. What the Government did with Northern Rock was undoubtedly the best option and the only real one, but RBS is different. I see RBS as an opportunity—as the Americans often say, “Don’t waste a good crisis.” We have a unique opportunity to seize the moment, and to ensure that RBS is managed for the benefit of the taxpayers, who own 83% of it, thereby transforming the banking sector. I suggest that we do not sell RBS as it is, but break it up, decentralise the branch management and use it to form the basis of devolved local community banks—imagine a local bank for every city or county—linked, where possible, with the local authorities and chambers of commerce.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I had not intended to speak—I just wanted to listen—but for clarity, will the hon. Gentleman say whether he is suggesting a form of mutualisation of RBS?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

In real terms, the current RBS would go back to the people on a local basis, and if the hon. Lady listens I will explain how the shares could be devolved.

We would end up, I suggest, with dozens of little banks like 3i. The 3i Group plc is a large FTSE 100 company that started out as a Government business bank, as a support mechanism to get the country out of the 1930s depression. The new banks would be governed locally, with lending decisions made by managers who understood the local economy better than anyone at a London head office ever could. The managers would be embedded in their local economy, and could base their judgments on knowledge of people and businesses without being overruled by a credit risk computer or centralised targets. Their success would be intertwined with the success of the local economy.

I suggest that breaking up RBS is only half the solution. The next fundamental question is: what do we do with the Government shares? We could sell them, but I disagree with that proposal. We should give all 45 million people on the electoral roll the Government-owned RBS shares, making every voter a shareholder of a local bank created from the devolution of the RBS branches. Each local bank would coincide with a county or city council, and in my patch that would create a bank of Northumberland, with every adult in the county as a shareholder. Each bank’s lending powers would be limited to persons and businesses within its council boundary, and with residents as shareholders, the bank’s administration could be run by the existing council, to save costs and dovetail with existing infrastructure. If the plan went ahead, the 45 million shareholders would dwarf the 10 million that were created in the 1980s through the sell-off of BT and British Gas. It is crucial to remember that the Government did not bail out the banks—the public did. Their hard-earned money kept the banks afloat, and it is now time for them to share some of the rewards.

As well as giving taxpayers an effective rebate in the form of shares, the move would help to restore confidence in the banking industry, and boost the economy. The public is rightly fed up with a system that has become overwhelmed by small vested interests, a London-centric base and personal greed. What better way to repair that than by giving every voting member of the public a stake and a say in our state-owned bank? I accept that people could sell the bank, but the force of having 45 million British taxpayers holding banking shares could help transform the economy even if individual shares were sold. The alternative—there is one—is to give the shares and the branches to local authorities, which would be localism in its purest form, with state banking returned to a position of support for local communities, building on the German, Swiss and US models.

I am grateful to the Speaker for the opportunity to put my case today, and I thank the New Economics Foundation think-tank for its support. The endowment of local community banks, constrained not to lend beyond county borders and able to provide support for local businesses, is an important part of supporting local economies and communities across the country. With a mission to recycle savings locally and expand credit for productive loans that benefit the local area, but on a sound commercial footing, the strength of the case for reinstating a system of community banking is ever increasing. I suggest that we do not need to replace the commercial banking sector, because we can offset it and balance it out with a new system of banking. That would certainly introduce competition into a sector that is crying out for it, and transform banking in this country.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary 12:45 pm, 10th July 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Guy Opperman on securing this important debate. He raised some interesting and important points to which I hope to respond.

First, let me make it clear that the Government believe that it is important for consumers to be able to access an appropriate range of financial products and services, and that we are committed to fostering a strong, diverse and competitive banking sector. To achieve that, we must ensure that consumers can apply competitive pressure and hold their banks to account for the services they offer. In a competitive market, customers should be able to vote with their feet and switch their custom to banks that provide the best products and services for their needs. The Government are, therefore, committed to fostering diversity and promoting competition in the banking sector.

To help with the delivery of those aims, the banking industry has committed to introducing a fast, safe and hassle-free switching service, which will ensure that by

September 2013 customers can switch accounts within seven days. That is further to transparency measures that are already being implemented more widely in the personal current account market, including making charges clearer on customers’ monthly statements, and providing an annual statement of charges for each customer.

As well as people having the freedom and information to switch banks according to their needs and wishes, it is important that new firms are free to enter the sector. I am pleased that we have seen a number of new entrants into the current account market in recent years, including Metro Bank, and it is essential that the regulatory regime facilitate that wherever possible. That is why the Chancellor announced in the banking reform White Paper that the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority will conduct reviews of the prudential and conduct requirements for new entrants to the banking sector, to ensure that the requirements are proportionate and do not pose excessive barriers to entry or expansion for new, and prospective new, entrants. The conclusions of those reviews will be published in the autumn when the FSA and the Bank of England set out the detail of the new supervisory models for the Prudential Regulatory Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority, and the FSA and the Bank of England have committed to introducing the changes in advance of the new regulatory structure, where possible.

The Government are also committed to promoting mutuals and fostering diversity in financial services. By promoting financial mutuals, the Government are ensuring that consumers have an alternative model, which can provide competition to the shareholder-owned banks. Last Thursday, we set out the Government’s vision for the building society sector in “The future of building societies”. The document, which has been warmly welcomed by the sector, confirms the Government’s support for the distinctive alternative offering provided by building societies. It outlines the Government’s intention to remove unnecessary barriers to growth, and to help create a more level playing field with banks. In addition, in January the Prime Minister announced that the Government will introduce a co-ops consolidation Bill, which will raise the profile of the co-operative alternative and make it easier to adopt it as a corporate form. By ensuring there is an environment in which building societies can not only survive but thrive, the Government are facilitating a mutually owned source of competition for the big banks for many generations of home owners and savers, and supporting building societies with ambitions to expand their business models: for instance, into providing vital lending to small businesses.

Promoting diversity in financial services goes wider than banks and building societies. Credit unions can act as an excellent alternative, providing affordable financial services to people who would not otherwise be able to access them. This Government have taken action to help promote credit unions and their role of offering financial services to their communities. We have removed unnecessary burdens by bringing into force a legislative reform order giving a much wider group of people the ability to take advantage of the benefits of credit union membership. We have brought Northern Ireland’s credit unions under the regulatory oversight of the FSA so that from April, for the first time, the deposits of Northern Ireland credit union members will be protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, enabling members to save with credit unions with confidence. We have also announced a credit union expansion project, which will invest £38 million to help credit unions modernise and grow in order to offer a real alternative to high-cost credit providers. Through all those actions, the Government are creating an environment where credit unions can offer an alternative and compete with banks to serve families and businesses that need to save and borrow for their future.

My hon. Friend discussed the Royal Bank of Scotland and advocated its playing a role in supporting the creation of local community banks. The Government’s shareholdings of RBS are managed on a commercial and arm’s-length basis by UK Financial Investments Ltd, a company wholly owned by the Government. UKFI’s overarching objective is to protect and create value for the taxpayer as shareholder, with due regard to financial stability and promoting competition. UKFI’s role is to manage the investments, not the banks. The banks retain their own independent boards and management teams to manage the banks commercially without interference from shareholders. Like all banking service providers, they must balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when considering their strategy, so the Government do not tell RBS or any other bank where to operate branches.

On shares for the people—my hon. Friend explained his proposal in detail—UKFI will consider the full range of alternatives for investment and make its recommendations based on market conditions, an assessment of investor demand and value for money considerations. However, the ultimate decision to proceed with any transaction will rest with the Chancellor.

My hon. Friend also described the difficulties that local business can face in accessing finance from banks. I assure him that the Government recognise that small and medium-sized enterprises are fundamental to economic recovery. That is why the Chancellor launched two credit easing schemes in March 2012. The national loan guarantee scheme reduces the cost of borrowing for SMEs by 1%, and the business finance partnership will invest £1.2 billion through non-banking lending channels. Together, the schemes support SMEs in accessing cheaper finance while diversifying the range of finance resources available, stimulating the non-bank lending sector. At Budget 2012, the Government also extended the enterprise finance guarantee, which will enable over £2 billion of lending over the next four years to businesses with insufficient collateral or track record.

We continue to help UK businesses access the finance they need. That is why the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England announced the new funding for lending scheme at Mansion House on 14 June. The scheme will support credit for the whole economy by making it easier for banks to lend to businesses and families. In return for additional new lending across the whole economy, the scheme will reduce bank funding pressures, which have been increasing due to instability in the international financial markets. We are working closely with the Bank of England on the design of the FLS and will release further details shortly.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Government believe that it is important for consumers to be able to access an appropriate range of financial products and services and are committed to fostering a strong, diverse and competitive banking sector, a point raised by my hon. Friend. I hope that it is clear to him from the initiatives I have described that we are pursuing a substantial agenda in that area through both regulatory and non-regulatory means.

The regulatory landscape is changing, just as customers’ needs are, and the financial services sector will need to continue to evolve to take account of that. At the same time, it is important that it continue to meet the needs of ordinary customers, an issue that I know is close to my hon. Friend’s heart.

I thank my hon. Friend once again for raising these important issues and bringing them to my attention and that of the House, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), and Cathy Jamieson, for their contributions.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

Clearly, the disposal of RBS, in whatever shape or form, is ultimately for the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, having considered a full range of alternatives, market conditions and value for money. If it is not commercially viable to return RBS to the private sector, will the option of returning it to a local banking organisation, as I have described, be considered?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Exchequer Secretary

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is a decision for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. All I will say at this point is that I am confident the Chancellor will want to consider all options, particularly in the circumstances my hon. Friend describes. Numerous factors would need to be taken into account in any decision, including value for money for the taxpayer.

The Government are clear that banks and building societies should serve the economy. I assure my hon. Friend that the issue will continue to receive the highest level of attention from Government. We are grateful to him for raising so many important issues in this debate.