[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair] — Tomlinson Report

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:22 am on 17th December 2013.

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Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:22 am, 17th December 2013

There is no question about it: we have heard a lot of evidence of that sort. I agree, of course. I welcome the fact that the Government have referred the report on, but it is hard to see how they could have done anything else, on the basis of the strength of the report. The way in which the situation has been handled poses questions about judgment in terms of the seriousness of the allegations being made.

The matter will now be looked at by the Financial Conduct Authority. We are talking not about an external report to which the Government have to respond, but about a report written by someone at the heart of Government, which is apparently based on anecdotal evidence and which does not give RBS much of a right of reply. That is why I have questions.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy raised a legitimate question about the impact of the charges levied by banks on businesses that are already struggling with cash flow, and the powerlessness that businesses feel when they enter the restructuring process. In some cases, a business enters the process knowing that it is in trouble and feels as though the process is making the situation worse. I also recognise that Tomlinson highlights, as my hon. Friend Mr Brown has said, the fact that some businesses did not consider themselves to be in crisis until the moment they entered the process. The report raises many questions and we need to hear the Government’s response. It is important that we continue to put pressure on the banks, and indeed it is hard to see how that pressure will be alleviated.

My hon. Friend Natascha Engel highlighted suspect practices by RBS that were experienced by a business in her constituency. She repeated Tomlinson’s claim that systematic fraud was taking place. Interestingly, she asked the Minister to explain why he was certain that such practices were not occurring. Given that the report has come from the heart of Government, I imagine that he must be pretty clear that such fraud existed. I do not want to prejudge his comments, but I would be interested to hear what he has to say on that. My hon. Friend also made a significant point about the imbalance and unfairness of the relationship between banks and firms that are battling to stay afloat and do not have the resources to take on a major bank.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway raised an example from Barclays that it made it clear that such practices are not confined to RBS, although the Tomlinson report was entirely about RBS. My hon. Friend focused on businesses being driven into distress. He said that RBS was 80% state controlled. Although RBS is state owned, it has become clear under successive Governments that the bank is not state controlled; it is run in its own way. Perhaps we need to consider the fact that an organisation owned by Government is not always working in the best interest of British businesses and UK plc.

As I have said, we share many of Mr Tomlinson’s concerns and conclusions, and I now turn to the areas on which we agree. The Tomlinson report recognises the fundamental faults of the lack of competition in the British banking system, on which the Opposition wholeheartedly agree. Some 89% of small businesses are locked into the big five banks. The report also speaks of the need to change banking culture so that banks see small businesses as partners rather than merely cash cows, and so that the two can grow locally together. Such a model would not only be good for small businesses but lead to a stronger and more durable overall economy. That is why Labour proposes a new generation of local banks based on the Sparkassen model to add genuine competition on the high street. That would create a major new player that would not operate according to the same lending models as all the other banks, and would boost local decision making.

Although net lending has fallen every year during the crisis, our biggest European competitor, Germany, has seen an increase in lending over the same time. After the crash in 2008, a crisis occurred in bank lending, and far from being improved in the years since, it has continued to constrict. Tomlinson is right to say that we need greater competition. Alongside the new local entrants to the banking market, we are calling for greater bank account portability to ease the path into the market. Even a huge bank such as Santander found it exceptionally difficult and expensive to gain a foothold in the UK market.

We also agree that the culture of selling additional products and services alarmingly supersedes that of best serving customers’ needs, as was demonstrated by the interest rate swap scandal. Britain is currently facing a mutual crisis of confidence in small business lending, and in the relationship between banks and businesses more widely. A survey of members of the Federation of Small Businesses found that more than half of small businesses believe that banks do not care about small businesses, and, similarly, banks fear lending money to businesses. Such mutual distrust is one of the reasons why we have had the slowest recovery for 100 years. The Tomlinson report will, indisputably, further damage the confidence between banks and businesses. The Government have a grave responsibility to ensure that, when such damaging criticisms are made, every possible step has been taken to verify and scrutinise those criticisms before the Government endorse them.

In that context, we have significant reservations about a report that contains such serious allegations of systematic and widespread corporate fraud. There are concerns that, at best, the Tomlinson report will not be seen as being truly impartial. We have reservations about the Government’s endorsement of the report when its evidence base has not been subject to any public or, as far as we are aware, departmental scrutiny. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills told the House during recent Business, Innovation and Skills questions that Tomlinson’s

“accusations are echoed in the report published by Sir Andrew Large, who was appointed by RBS.”—[Hansard, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1080.]

However, the Tomlinson report states that businesses rarely survive the global restructuring group process, and that they never come out again. Tomlinson highlights the fact that

“a whistleblowing ex-RBS banker confirmed that they could not think of any occasion in which a business entered RBS’ Global Restructuring Group and came back into local management.”

The report by Sir Andrew Large showed that 50% of businesses traded out of the GRG, and that only about 10% became insolvent, so it is difficult to see how the Secretary of State could use the Large report as a justification for the publication of the Tomlinson report.

The Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills appeared to be supportive of what the hon. Member for Aberconwy said, so I do not know whether his contribution has the Secretary of State’s implicit support. Tessa Munt certainly appeared to be working collaboratively. The allegations in the Tomlinson report are incredibly serious, and they clearly carry the stamp of Government.

If Labour had been in office when the issue came to prominence, we would not have been as quick as the Secretary of State has been to rush out this departmental report, about which there are many questions to answer. I am told that if Tomlinson had chosen to speak to RBS, he could have been referred to companies such as Samsonite, Fairline, Independent Slitters Ltd and many others, which would have told him that the GRG process was positive for them. He chose not to do so, and as a result the report represents serious concerns but does not reflect all points of view in a balanced way.

Had Labour been in office, we would have ensured that the FCA, which is the appropriate body to investigate such grave allegations, was immediately commissioned to conduct a full and proper inquiry before the trust between banks and businesses could be damaged by a sensational report such as the Tomlinson report. I do not suggest that bad practices do not exist or that we have not been pushing the banks to identify where they have failed their business customers, but we consider that the anecdotes in the report provide a pretty tenuous basis for such serious allegations to be made with the stamp of Government approval.

With that in mind, I ask the Minister to address the following questions. Was the Secretary of State aware of Mr Tomlinson’s ongoing dispute with RBS when he was commissioned to produce the report? If so, what assessment did the Secretary of State make of any potential conflict of interest before giving it the departmental stamp of approval? Why did the Secretary of State trumpet the report as independent when it was produced in his Department by someone with a close interest in both the party and the issues under discussion? Why were earlier references to malpractice at Lloyds removed from the final version of the report so that it focused purely on RBS, the bank with which Mr Tomlinson is in dispute, and why was RBS not shown the final report, nor given a chance to submit evidence to it?

The report is sadly lacking in detailed referencing and evidence. Given that the basis of the report seems to be that many of the businesses will have collapsed—presumably, that is on the public record—will the Department be publishing detailed citations for where the allegations have come from? Is the Minister personally satisfied that due diligence was carried out by his Department before it promoted the report? Does he agree that if the report’s claim that RBS was systematically involved in deliberately distressing businesses that would, without its intervention, have thrived, that would be a matter of corporate fraud on a huge scale, and such an allegation should be thoroughly investigated before being produced in a Government-backed report? Does he think that the appropriate level of scrutiny was given to the report prior to publication?

Finally, as we head towards a general election, I suspect we will hear from Ministers why they think the way in which the Secretary of State operated was not the way things would have been done under a Conservative Government. If we had a purely Conservative Government, would they have handled the report in the same way? If not, in what way would it have been different?