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
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.