[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Scottish Affairs Committee Session 2009-10 HC 70-1 and the Government response Cm 7902.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Before the sitting, you set me the task of seeing whether I could mention Bermuda at some point in my speech. I am not sure how I shall manage that, but no doubt some opportunity will come up.
The debate is somewhat unusual in as much as it refers to a report produced in the previous Parliament that has been responded to by the Government in a new Parliament. Relatively few members of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs have survived from the previous Parliament, but two, at least, are here. The new members wanted to make it clear that the report was not necessarily something they were involved with—just in case there was any blame to be distributed, and in case there was a Whip here who might in some way take offence at anything that might have been said. They are still at an age when they are in awe of the Government whipping process. I hope that they feel thoroughly cleared by that caveat.
I want to start by referring to the final recommendation from the Committee, which called on the successor Committee to continue to take the matter forward, and keep it under review and supervision. I am glad that we have today’s debate as the first step in doing that, and that the Committee has already agreed to seek further information from the banks. Once we have studied that, I hope that we shall go on to seek further information from several other organisations that we discussed previously, to see how matters have progressed since the report was produced.
This is a quite fast-moving situation. What we said in February drew on hearings that had taken place in December 2009 and in January. We reported in February and there was a Government report in July, and things are not necessarily the same now. Because of the importance of the banking industry to economic life in Scotland, we want to keep the matter under review. I understand that the Minister’s reputation does not put him among the worst of the Conservative Ministers—[Laughter.] I notice that he disputes that. I hope he will be prepared to work with us on an ongoing iterative relationship to keep the banks under review.
One of the generic problems, I suppose, of the Scottish Affairs Committee is that as a territorial Committee it is not our role to stray into general areas that are properly the remit of other Committees. Just as, in the work that we did on the forthcoming measures on the alternative vote and the changing of boundaries, we restricted ourselves to seeking advice and information from people on the aspects of the matter affecting Scotland alone, so, in the present case, we have sought not to duplicate the work of the Treasury Committee, but to restrict ourselves to considering those aspects that impinge on Scotland. We have looked, therefore, at the impact on Scotland in the context of the banking crisis.
I want to start by setting the report in the context of the banking crisis, a year or so ago. We would all, I think, accept that many of our economic difficulties now flow from the banking crisis. I remember Alex Salmond, as First Minister in Scotland, condemning the “spivs and speculators” who at that time were bringing down the Royal Bank of Scotland; unfortunately, he was not prepared to concede that the spivs and speculators involved were working for the bank at the time. I think that he was looking at the crisis that engulfed the Scottish banks as being of external origin, rather than having been to a great extent home-grown in those banks.
Those who brought down the Scottish banks were in them, working for them, gambling for them and mismanaging their money. We now have the responsibility of moving forward from that. The banks brought a crisis on themselves, but they brought it on the rest of us as well. The impact of the spending review next week will be very much influenced by that—indeed, more by that than by any other single factor.
It is undoubtedly a source of some shame to me as a Scot, and, I am sure, to many others of my Scottish colleagues, that a situation that developed at the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland resulted in the need for a bail-out—a rescue—by the Bank of England. The Bank of England should perhaps more properly be referred to as the Bank of Britain in this context. It was of course founded by a Scot, and therefore we do not need to feel quite the same guilt that we might have felt had we been bailed out by an external body. Of course, the way in which the Bank of England, acting on behalf of the British Government, was able to ride to the defence and support of the Scottish banks in crisis, demonstrates yet again the strength of the Union and the importance of Scotland’s remaining in it.
We must draw a number of lessons from bank failures and the bad behaviour of banks. The main one that the Committee drew at the time in question was that banks and bankers cannot be trusted to do the right thing unless they are under constant supervision. Where the previous Government went wrong was in the fact that new Labour, who in my view were unduly keen to suck up to big money, accepted the consensus, prevalent at the time, that regulation was in principle a bad thing that should be minimised.
I make that criticism of the Government whom I supported, as a valuable lesson, I hope, to new members of the Committee, so that they will understand that it is possible to be a member of a Select Committee and on occasion to be critical of the Government. I hope that that lesson will be supported by the Minister. If Committees are to work properly, there must be occasions when even the mildest criticism of the party to which one belongs is allowed. I hope that I shall be allowed that latitude here today.
Light-touch regulation became the mantra. New Labour was pressed all around by the then Opposition—now the leading party in the Government—the Scottish National party, the CBI and the City; all of them called for less and lighter regulation, and new Labour went along with that. The bankers ran wild, the system collapsed and we are now in a situation where ordinary people are left to bear the burden. The main lesson that we should draw—I hope the Minister agrees—is that we need to move away from an emphasis on minimising the examination of banks’ conduct and on a lack of intervention when they behave in a way that is not conducive to the development of the economy and the relationships we would want within it.
External influence, and the way it needs to be controlled, is beyond the purview of the Scottish Affairs Committee. Therefore we imposed a self-denying ordinance that we would not make recommendations on those matters. I intend to stick with that approach today, although some of my colleagues who have more flexibility in the debate may want to comment.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the coalition Government have made some excellent steps in firming up regulation, particularly with the proposals to put the Bank of England absolutely at the centre of the new regulatory regime? I am pleased that he seems to think that a good idea.
Yes, I agree with the general thrust of those remarks by my colleague, who is a new member of the Scottish Affairs Committee. I am sure that the Whips Office will have noted that he is keen to draw attention to something that has been done by the Government and with which I generally agree.
The new Government have followed on from the changed policy of the previous Government, who moved away from being quite slack in terms of focusing on the work of the banks, to being much more rigorous and controlling. The new Government are continuing that process. I welcome that; there is no point trying to identify disagreements that do not exist. There are enough disagreements that do exist without suggesting that we disagree on everything. There is substantial agreement in this area and I hope that we can build on it.
During our investigations, we held 10 hearings over seven days and received 16 written reports, all of which were helpful. We also visited the Republic of Ireland. For the younger hon. Members, I should say that was in the days when there was a fashionable concept, of which little is heard now, called the arc of prosperity, which was very much discussed in Scotland.
The general idea of the arc of prosperity was that if Scotland became independent it would become like Ireland and Iceland. For some reason that I do not entirely understand, that is no longer raised by Scottish National party Members of Parliament as much as it used to be. [Interruption.] We have just been joined by a SNP Member. Let me tell the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) that the arc of prosperity is no longer raised as much as it once was, largely because it is no longer there.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to inform hon. Members about unemployment in Norway, Iceland and Ireland relative to the United Kingdom and about the gross domestic product per capita in those countries? If he cannot provide an answer, I will.
Unemployment in Norway and Iceland is lower than in the UK and unemployment in Ireland is higher, so on unemployment the arc of prosperity beats the UK 2-1. GDP per capita in Norway, Ireland and Iceland is higher than in the UK, so on GDP the arc of prosperity beats the UK 3-0.
That is presumably why the SNP no longer mentioned it at all. Ever since Iceland’s economy became so bad that part of the island exploded, we have heard little about the arc of prosperity from the SNP.
We went across to Ireland because, like Scotland, it was—[Interruption.]
If people just mention the arc of prosperity the nationalists tend to become somewhat overexcited. I understand that and accept that it was my responsibility. I will try not to say anything else that might prove unduly provocative.
Visiting Ireland was interesting because—
I will try not to be.
Charges of €50 to visit a general practitioner, €85 per month prescription charges, 25% VAT, 50% income tax and £8 for a pint of beer, which is hard for some people to swallow, are all characteristics of small European countries regularly used as examples by the separatists who want to take Scotland out of the UK.
Indeed, all that is true. However, I am in danger of becoming diverted. Far be it from me to allow that to happen. I look forward to hearing exchanges on such matters later.
Our visit to Ireland was helpful and constructive. I want to put on the record that we were pleased that all those whom we met were prepared to be perfectly open with us and that they put everything that we asked for in front of us. That made the trip more interesting, enjoyable and educational than it might otherwise have been.
It is clear that in Ireland there was a sort of crony capitalism, where everybody not only knew each other, but lent each other money. The housing prices in particular rocketed upwards to such an extent that when the crash came the central bank was not able to bail out those who found themselves in difficulty in quite the same way that we in the UK were able to. Scotland had the great advantage of being part of the Union and therefore the Bank of England was able to bail out the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
It is unrealistic to expect that many in Ireland would want to return to being part of the UK, because people there felt that they wanted independence for Ireland even if it impoverished them. Many people we met recognised that, in many ways, they were becoming more of a colony of the UK now than they had been, because high streets in Ireland were run by Tesco and WH Smith, for example.
A relatively small number of Irish businesses seemed to have a presence and they no longer had influence on the UK. People there were unhappy that they no longer had control over their own currency, because, like the SNP, they wanted to—and did—join the euro, which meant that they were unable to devalue competitively in a way that might have produced a boost for their economy. There was much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, as perhaps the Irish are prone to do, about that issue.
There is no doubt that the difficulties faced by the Irish Government and people were exacerbated by Ireland’s being a stand-alone economy without control over its own currency. The Irish Government have been making huge cuts in public services—cuts in wages, pensions and services—all of which were going through when we visited. Some of those might come about now, but seeing all that was helpful and constructive.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be talking about the past. One conclusion of this report is that there is confidence in respect of financial services in Scotland, despite what happened. I believe that this debate and discussions on this topic should focus on how we can use the financial services sector, which has had huge success in Scotland, to create more jobs and private sector investment in this sector from overseas and from Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will come on to that later.
I am sure that I will. However, the debate is not about the future economic development of Scotland; it is about the Committee’s report, which we produced some time ago. My role as Chair is to discuss what we covered at that time and ensure that it is all seen in context.
It is a matter for the Irish people, not for us. In the same way, it is for Scottish and Welsh people to decide whether they wish to remain in the UK—and it would be for the people of the Falklands to decide whether they wanted to join the UK and for the people of Gibraltar to decide whether they wanted to join Spain. All these things are matters for the people involved.
Indeed, Mr Rosindell, I was led astray by bad boys.
I was asked about conclusion 3. The Committee stated in its report:
“We welcome the optimism of those working in the financial services sector who believe that the reputation of that sector in Scotland has not been permanently damaged by the difficulties experienced by two of Scotland’s, and the UK’s, largest banks. We are reassured that the quality of the location, the lower costs and the depth and diversity of its labour pool remain attractive to global corporations.”
That is particularly welcome in view of one of the Committee’s anxieties. We asked everyone we saw whether they believed at that time—the hearings took place in December 2009 and January 2010—that the financial crisis that had arisen from the activities of those working for the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland would have a long-term impact on the finance industry in Scotland. It was reassuring and supportive of what we were seeking to do to have a clear view from virtually everyone we spoke to that there was no doubt about that. A few people had some doubts, but we subsequently spoke to some of them informally and were reassured that they believed that the waters had calmed and that the Scottish finance industry, although shaken, had not been brought tumbling to the ground. I am glad to see the Government’s response to that conclusion, which is:
“The Government will continue to work with the Scottish Government to ensure that the financial services and banking sectors remain strong in the future.”
I hope that they are also prepared to continue working with the Scottish Affairs Committee, as well, to ensure that, as we monitor, we try to pull things together as far as possible.
Unfortunately, I must leave shortly, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have had the same experience as I have had. I was elected in 2005, and hold a surgery every week. Generally, the people coming to my surgeries had problems with tax, pensions, immigration, visas and so on, but in the past year or so, more and more members of the local business community have come to my surgeries complaining about how they are treated by the banks. Is that a common experience?
I have certainly had more people coming to my surgeries to talk about how they are being treated by the banks. I am also aware from money advice centres, Citizens Advice and other advice centres in my area that since the banking crisis the number of people complaining about how the banks have dealt with them has risen considerably. One is never entirely sure whether that is because the issues have been given more publicity—what we hear in our surgeries is not necessarily an objective assessment—but it is noticeable that the numbers have risen substantially, and I understand that that is a common experience.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is worth making a distinction between the bash-a-banker rhetoric, which probably many of us hear in relation to the problems that our constituents are having, and the success that Scotland has had in attracting back-office roles? Those roles have nothing to do with investment banking or lending, but are based on traditional Scottish accounting talents. Thousands of jobs have been attracted from a wide range of international companies to Scotland—to Edinburgh, Dundee and Stirling—and we must pay tribute for that. We must continue to try to attract such jobs to ensure that financial services play a role in making the private sector stronger in Scotland and lessening public sector predominance.
I am sure that those points have been noted by all concerned, including the Minister and the relevant Whip. I want to deal with the report, however, and while such matters are fascinating, the report does not deal with them. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the debate, which will no doubt cover anything that anyone misses out.
Let me make it clear that the Committee believes that it is of key importance to continue the supervision of banks in Scotland, because the banks’ behaviour and their success will be essential to the growth and development of the Scottish economy. We cannot build up a small or large business sector without having banks in Scotland that are able and willing to lend, understand their markets, and behave constructively and positively. I hope that that covers the point that the hon. Gentleman was making.
We wanted to identify the extent to which lending in Scotland had declined during the economic crisis. Our report contains a series of figures and statements indicating that there was a period when lending was far too loose—the banks had been intent on shovelling money out of the door, almost irrespective of whether the business propositions were viable. We were critical of the way in which bankers often seemed to be incentivised to make loans without due regard to their viability, whether they were for property or to businesses or individuals. The report states that the pendulum then swung too far in the other direction. For a period, banks were unduly restrictive. They were prepared to lend on almost nothing and found excuses to raise charges and interest rates to make it as difficult as possible for money to go out. We have now seen a swing back and there is a degree of equilibrium, but subsequent discussions that the Committee has had have not convinced me that the banks have got it right yet.
Recently, the Committee met representatives from the computer gaming industry in Dundee, the construction and road haulage industries in Edinburgh, and the local chamber of commerce in Dundee. In every case, the story we heard was the same—the banks do not understand us. No one in the construction, road haulage or computer games industries spoke up for the banks collectively. That was interesting, and not a little worrying. Everyone who expressed a view on such matters said that they did not believe that the banks had taken adequate account of the prevailing situation, and did not have a feel for their industry at the moment. They needed loans, floating capital and so on, but the banks were not willing to play along, except at exorbitant rates.
The banks have said that they are making more money available and that part of the difficulty is that lending is going down because companies are choosing to repay debt instead of taking out new debt; but it seems to me that, to some extent, the rates that the banks charge and the conditions that they seek to apply are still inhibiting meaningful lending. The Government and the Committee should give ongoing consideration to that. We have had some responses and updates from the banks involved that seem to paint a picture that is rosier than recently, but we are still receiving feedback from those who want to borrow that the banks are not being as helpful and constructive as they might be. I hope that the Minister and the Committee will be able to work together with the Scottish Parliament to ensure that we develop a mutually advantageous liaison and relationship.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the experience that I have witnessed and have been told about since the report was published? A major lending bank in Edinburgh told me that it has more money than it has ever had to lend, but that people are not coming forward to borrow it. I suspect that that might be due to the expectation of those who would like to borrow that they are being priced out of the market, or would not be granted loans.
Another major mismatch in the banking sector is between front-line staff, who have a relationship with industries, and the underwriters in the background. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that when people seek to borrow money, the front-line staff with whom they have a relationship believe that the criteria have been met, but the underwriters subsequently use different criteria. Has the Committee come across those issues since the report was published?
The first is certainly true. We have been told that money is available but is not being taken up, and money is being paid back faster than it is going out. We have not adequately explored the point at which decisions are made, not made, or knocked between front office and back office, and my hon. Friend gives us a valuable pointer. Having met representatives from three industries that are significant and important to the welfare of the Scottish economy, and having heard the same story from them all, it seems that something is still not right in the relationship between banking and its customers in Scotland.
When we met the CBI representatives, we did not quiz them as directly as we might have done because it was an informal meeting, but the same sort of message was coming back. I know from meeting various development groups in my local area, including construction companies, that people are concerned about the lack of co-operation that they receive from the banks. That is one area of the report where further work is required, and I hope that the Minister will be suitably co-operative on that.
I will now look at how banks deal with individual customers. We all deal with the public and we are aware from our activities and surgeries that there is a fair number of rascals, chancers, villains and incompetents in most constituencies, except my own. The banks are not necessarily dealing with paragons of virtue on every occasion and there are people who borrow irresponsibly. However, the volume of complaints present at the time of our report seemed far greater than could reasonably be expected. The stories that we have heard since from Citizens Advice, and the experiences in my surgery and those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), suggest that the banks continue to be less than completely understanding and helpful when dealing with customers in financial difficulty.
A number of examples of bad practice are quoted in the report, and it is perhaps appropriate to mention them so that they are on the record. In its evidence to us, Citizens Advice highlighted:
“Unfair overdraft charges; banks being more aggressive in their behaviour towards debtors; banks encouraging debtors to take out more products as part of their repayment; banks demanding higher repayments from clients in order to repay debt quicker;.”
Banks are also using the “right of set off” to transfer cash around people’s accounts. None of those are examples of particularly good practice. Many of us were worried by the way that banks were utilising call centres to a far greater extent than we believed was justifiable. In many cases, call centres were ringing up customers several times a day, and they often seemed to be in complete ignorance of arrangements that had been made with another section of the bank. Those call centres were often based abroad and perhaps there were difficulties in communication. The people who rang up and talked to the customer seemed to have no flexibility or power to negotiate or discuss matters, but simply reiterated that they wanted money back. Hon. Members will understand how stressful that was to people who, in many cases, were already highly stressed because of their financial position.
To some extent, the assurances that we had from the banks reminded me of Bart Simpson, who, when he was accused of anything, would say, “It wasn’t me, nobody saw me and you can’t prove it.” The banks tended to say, “We never did that, it wasn’t as bad as you say and we don’t do it now.” Clearly, the banks are now at some pains to distance themselves from some practices that have been going on, but I do not think that they have abandoned them entirely. We have been told that banks now show greater forbearance before taking people through the repossession process, and feedback I have received suggests that that is true. The Government are probably in a better position to clarify the figures. That is certainly a matter that we want to pursue.
We continue to receive feedback from Citizens Advice and other organisations suggesting that cases continue where one arm of a bank strikes a deal with a customer who is in financial difficulties, but another section continues to pursue the customer, irrespective of the deal done; and irrespective of the bank having been notified that somebody wants to use Citizens Advice or another intermediary as a representative, it continues to pursue the customer directly in order to harass them into making additional payments. There must be a degree of responsibility on the part of the banks. We understand that the banks need to try to recover their money, and, particularly when many of them are state-owned and state-financed to a great extent, we do not want to put them in a position where people can escape their obligations, but a balance must be struck. Paragraph 113 of the report states:
“We conclude that banks continue to use aggressive tactics towards customers who have fallen into debt.”,
We should all be concerned about that. We have been told by a number of bank staff that some of the processes and procedures that I have described continue. That is concerning.
Let me state for the record that the Royal Bank of Scotland used to be a client of mine.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if customers and constituents are having problems with lending or other general banking issues, they should be encouraged to bring their problems to us as Members of Parliament, so that we can raise concerns directly with the banks. We could give the banks specific examples of where their processes and procedures are going wrong, so that they can deal with them directly.
The hon. Lady is in a good position if she can say that the Royal Bank of Scotland was a client of hers. I used to be a client of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Not many of us have it the other way round. She is right—people should feel able to come to their MPs and ask them to raise issues on their behalf, but I fear that in some locations, the Members involved would run the risk of being swamped.
In my early days as an MP I was involved in establishing a money advice centre and a citizens advice bureau, simply because my office could not cope with the volume of complaints it received. We do not necessarily need to meet those involved in such cases directly in order to get information about them. I regularly get information from advice and information centres, which aggregate. There is always a problem for individual MPs when dealing with casework in this and a number of other areas, because one is never certain of the extent to which the problem presented is typical and shared by a lot of people, or whether it is due to a persistent constituent who wants to pursue the matter as far as their MP. Although I accept that it would be immensely helpful if MPs had more information, seeing people individually is not the sole way of getting it. However, I congratulate the hon. Lady on having had the Royal Bank of Scotland as a client. I hope that she treated it better than some of its clients have been treated by that bank.
I have spoken enough about Citizens Advice; in the accompanying papers, people can read an update from that organisation which indicates that not everything is flowing as well as it might. I conclude on this aspect by pointing out that there are always two elements to a relationship between a group such as Citizens Advice and an organisation such as a bank. First, it is important that the banks are willing to listen, and I think that they are getting better at that. However, they are not necessarily better at the second element, which is acting on what they have heard. Citizens Advice tells us that it has greater access to the banks, and the banks tell us that they have more meetings, but it is not entirely clear that the banks act on the information they receive in the way that we would want.
I want to make two other points. The first relates to the work force. It is important to stress that the vast majority of people working for the banks are not on megabucks—they are not enormously well paid or taking huge risks with other people’s money. The Committee had figures indicating that bank employees’ average pay was about £28,000 at Lloyds bank and £30,500 at the Royal Bank of Scotland, with the UK average being about £25,000. It would therefore be unfair and unreasonable to say that everyone working for a bank should be the subject of the same opprobrium and be held responsible for the activities of those at the very top. We want to make sure that bank employees at the lower levels are not held responsible or accountable and do not suffer the pain as a result of lay-offs and the like. We welcome the fact that the dialogue between the banks and the trade unions on a number of these issues has improved recently. As we take this matter forward, however, we will want to hear from the trade unions about what happens subsequently.
I also want to touch on the question of bonuses, which is related to the issue of staff but not properly part of the Committee’s remit, so I will allude to it only in passing. It was clear from the evidence that we took that the offence caused to many of those affected by the economic crisis by the paying of enormous bank bonuses was disproportionate. The issue was very high up the list of people’s priorities, even though people were not necessarily affected by it and notwithstanding the fact that those bonuses might not come to a lot if they were spread across all the bank’s clients. People simply saw the bonuses as immensely offensive and unfair, and the Committee’s view when the report was drawn up was that if we are all in this together, the Government—whichever Government—should be involved in ensuring that bonuses are curbed as much as possible. I very much welcome the fact that the previous Government dealt with that by introducing a levy and that the present Government have indicated that they intend to do something similar. We look forward to seeing the details.
As I said at the beginning, I hope that the report and this debate are not the end of the process. Given the significance of the banks to economic life in Scotland, I hope that the Committee will continue to keep these matters under review and that the Government will continue to work with the Scottish Government and others to ensure that there is an appropriate and constructive regulatory environment. So much economic development in Scotland depends on our getting our banking right. I hope that Committee members who are here today will be able to add to the points that I have made. I also hope that the Government will endorse the report and its conclusions, as they have already, and agree that most of the conclusions should be taken forward actively.
I am delighted to make a brief contribution to the debate. Although I represent a constituency south of the border, I retain a great affection for, and interest in, the Scottish banking system. I should declare that I retain my very first current account, which is with the Royal Bank of Scotland, and which I took out when I was in my first job. I hope that that shows that I have some interest in the debate and that what I have to say has some relevance.
The banking sector in Scotland has been a significant player in the Scottish economy for many years, and I hope that it will be for many years to come. I am relieved that, for all the problems that Scottish banks have gone through, they have avoided some of the major catastrophes that have befallen banks in Ireland and Iceland—I mention that with some trepidation because I do not want to reignite the arc of prosperity debate between the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) and, if I can get the pronunciation right, for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—that was not bad. I welcome the Committee’s finding that despite all the problems, Scottish banks’ reputation for excellence has not been permanently damaged. I am heartened that the Committee found that there are some signs of an upturn in the Scottish banking sector, with new investment taking place.
I want to make a specific point about the responsibility of Scottish banks, and indeed all banks, to promote good financial education among their existing customers and the population at large. I have fond memories of the time when the Royal Bank of Scotland came to my primary school in Hamilton to give us some basic lessons about how banks worked. It set up a small savings account, into which we were encouraged to deposit a small proportion of our pocket money. At a young age, that instilled in me some very basic and good lessons in sound finance. My friends might uncharitably say that I have kept those lessons with me and talk about my hesitation to contribute towards buying rounds and the like, but the lessons that I learned then were valuable.
Over the years, we have lost sight of such things. The events of the past couple of years have shown that all of us, including the Government, individuals, some businesses and the banks themselves, have lost sight of basic prudence—I seem to remember someone else using that word once in a while—which encouraged people to borrow only when it was sensible to do so and only for investment in genuine products, rather than just to fund current consumption. I want to use this opportunity to call on the banks to remember their responsibility. I am sure that they all have specific schemes in place and that they will say that they educate their customers and others in society, but I want to emphasise how important it is that they do that, that they do not lose sight of such things and that they do all they can to boost them.
I was concerned to read in the Committee’s report—the hon. Member for Glasgow South West expanded on this—of evidence that the banks are placing undue pressure on customers to take out products that might not be in their best interests and to take on more debt than is sensible. It causes me some concern that the lessons of the past few years have not been learned. I welcome the Government’s initiative to establish the consumer protection and markets authority. When the legislation to introduce the authority is introduced, a central part of its remit will be to remind the banks that they have an obligation to promote good financial education and sound financial advice so that we do not get back into a position where everyone—everyone probably is guilty of this in some respect—takes out too much debt, funding their lifestyle rather than sensible investments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must also have transparency about deposit rates and good depositor information? I and other colleagues have constituents who are completely flummoxed by the way in which deposit systems work in banks, and a great deal more morality and transparency in that area would not go amiss.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I would extend it even further: any banking product should be utterly transparent so that people know what return they will get or what interest rate they will have to pay in the long term. People often get an attractive headline rate of interest for the first year or two, but then find themselves locked into a more punitive rate. As my hon. Friend says, better transparency across the board is vital, and I hope that that, too, will be a central theme of the new authority.
It has always been a central belief of mine that we have sound finance in this country, but we have lost sight of it, and I hope that the lessons have been learned by the banks and everyone else.
I should perhaps start by assuring hon. Members that, unlike some of my hon. Friends, I have never been led astray by bad boys. Indeed, I have made a career of challenging bad boys’ behaviour and threatening that all sorts of awful things would happen to them if they continued to misbehave. With those opening remarks, I should perhaps move quickly on to the start of my brief comments.
I begin with the place that to me is perhaps the centre of the universe—Auchinleck, in my constituency. A few weeks ago, during an unexpected lull in the excitement of the football match at Beechwood Park, which for the uninitiated is the home of Auchinleck Talbot football club, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a constituent asked whether he could have a quiet word with me. I am not unused to that sort of thing happening. Usually it is about a particular problem, and I am usually able to tell the constituent that he can call me at the office, or we have a chat about it. However, in that instance, the constituent prefaced his remarks by saying, “Before you say anything else, I have to tell you that I am a banker.” He went on to make the serious point that often he cannot now tell people what his employment is. He is not one of the high fliers, one of the big bonus earners. He is simply someone in the middle management sections, or rather he was before he was let go—I think that those are the words used these days. He finds the situation very difficult because he personally has faced some of the opprobrium that has been heaped on the banking community as a result of what happened with the banks.
I place on the record my thanks to the previous members of the Scottish Affairs Committee for this thorough report. I will refer to some of its conclusions and recommendations. It was a thorough piece of work, and timely. We can think back to just how awful things were when some of the major banks in Scotland and, indeed, elsewhere were on the brink of extinction. I hope that no matter what side of the House hon. Members sit on, they will understand that Government intervention was necessary at that stage and had to take the form that it took in order to ensure that those banks survived.
I shall focus on a couple of the recommendations in the report. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) has already talked about bankers’ bonuses. It is clear when we talk to ordinary people on the doorstep that that issue is now in the public psyche. I am referring to the fact that many people in the banking system were simply paid far too much, very unfairly, and people did not see what those bankers had done to justify those very large amounts of money, when many of them were struggling to get by, whether on the minimum wage or on very low incomes, and were taking what they felt was the brunt of the crisis. We still have some way to go to convince people that that whole area has been evened out and that we have moved towards a fairer system.
My hon. Friend also referred to another point in the report—recommendation 5 in relation to viewing repossession as the last resort, saying that the banks and building societies should perhaps view matters differently. It took legislation, particularly in the Scottish Parliament, to ensure that that happened, because there were fears that, despite all the exhortations, the banks were still not looking at repossession as the last resort. Many people, particularly sole traders in small or medium-sized businesses, had been required to put their homes up as security in order for the businesses to continue and they found themselves in danger not only of losing their business for lack of finance, but of losing the roof over their head.
Some of the most awful experiences that I have had as an elected politician have involved seeing business men whom I knew to be pillars of my local community and who had contributed a huge amount in the local area suddenly finding themselves in very difficult times, coming to my surgery and breaking down in tears in my office because they felt that they had literally no one else to turn to. I hope that we shall not see any more of those situations and that people will be more sympathetic. In my role in the Scottish Parliament, I was one of the people who pushed for the relevant legislation.
I want to focus on the issue of fair treatment of customers, which has been mentioned and was the subject of recommendation 7. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West has already referred to the wording:
“We conclude that banks continue to use aggressive tactics towards customers who have fallen into debt.”
Citizens Advice has given us an update on what that means for real people living in our communities. It states that, in 2009-10, 135,032 new debt issues were brought to Scotland’s advice bureaux, which helped people to deal with those issues. It states that more than 4,200 problems with bank accounts were brought to its bureaux in 2009-10 and that a number of those issues were connected with the interest and charges associated with the account, while a high number were connected with the difficulties of opening accounts. There are still situations in which that occurs, despite all that has happened.
We may talk about high finance and the economic impact of what is happening with the banks on a global scale, but many people living in our communities still cannot get a bank account that they can afford to operate, and of course they rely on that to be able to manage their business. Basic bank accounts are very important, but we should not underestimate the difficulty that people encounter if they do not have a credit history, if they have not been in employment or if they are a young person leaving the care system. In those circumstances, trying to open a bank account is extremely difficult, and there is much more to be done in that respect.
The report mentioned overdraft charges and, again, Citizens Advice Scotland has given us an update on some of the problems that people face. It says that clients report incurring overdraft charges due to mistakes often made by others, including the banks themselves, benefit agencies and companies failing to cancel direct debits.
People will be aware of the case that was taken up by the Office of Fair Trading and pursued very ably by Mike Dailly, the principal solicitor at Govan law centre, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. He will know it very well. People still face real difficulties as a result of what are seen by the banks’ customers as unfair charges.
Let me give a couple of illustrations, because it is worth having on the record what Citizens Advice tells us. It says that one client
“accumulated over £1,000 in bank charges over a three month period while his bank refused his application for an approved overdraft limit.”
The client was overdrawn by £270 and simply wanted an overdraft facility so that he could make arrangements to pay off the money that he owed without facing multiple charges. A single mother was being charged £5 by her bank for every day that she was overdrawn and £25 for every transaction that she made during that period. That woman was living on income support with a five-year-old daughter. Incurring bank charge after bank charge after bank charge, with no assistance to get out of those problems, is no way forward for people in those circumstances.
Again, my hon. Friend was right to highlight the problems in relation to set-off. If anyone has ever lived in a situation in which every penny is a prisoner, and they have to budget and know exactly where their money is coming from and where it is going week to week, they will know that they can manage in many instances because they have a degree of certainty. What is impossible for people on very low incomes to cope with is the unexpected. For some people, the right of set-off means that earnings that were paid into the bank were taken without their knowledge and without any discussion with them beforehand and were used to pay their debts. I am not suggesting for a moment that people should not pay their debts or should not be helped to budget where that is appropriate, but many people on low incomes are very good at budgeting.
What is happening is simply not acceptable. Citizens Advice gives the example of a lone parent’s bank taking £400 from her account to repay debts without her permission. After her wages had been paid in, that money was taken out and she had literally no money at all to live on. In another case, a client’s bank used the right of set-off to put the client’s wages towards arrears on a loan. That individual was working only 10 hours a week and receiving £11 a week in benefits. When they were paid, the bank took the full amount towards the arrears, leaving the individual with no funds whatever. There is more to look at on that.
The banks are saying in their responses that it is now easier for businesses to borrow, but I think that there are still difficulties. I regularly hear from start-up businesses that they have to use personal loans or continue to use their homes or other security. They are not able to access funding that would help to match the start-up funding that may be available for the business, so there is a disjoint in those contexts. There are still difficulties for businesses suffering temporary cash-flow problems. A reputable business in my area with lots of orders coming through contacted me recently. Simply due to delays in receiving payment owed for contracts, they are in a difficult cash-flow situation and looking to their bank to give flexibility, but they are not getting it.
In conclusion, I want to return to where I started in Auchinleck, which is not a bad place to return to, and talk about financial education. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) mentioned the days when there was a bank book and one could pay in money; in my school days it was into the Trustee Savings bank, and in my constituency it is the Cumnock and Doon Valley credit union, which goes into schools and has a junior credit union in Auchinleck primary school. Ironically, in the same week that some bailed-out banks sent letters advising me that I could go along and hear what they were doing about financial education in schools, I paid a visit to the young people who run the junior savers scheme in Auchinleck primary school. They seem to have got the message pretty clearly. They were involved in taking the money, keeping the accounts and looking at what they were responsible for, which was highlighted when the photographer who came to look at what we were doing asked whether he could have a pound coin out of the cashbox to illustrate what was happening. The young people said no, because he was not a member of the credit union, and it was not his money or their money to give away. I will finish on that very salient point. Others should perhaps take note.
I was not a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in the previous Parliament, but I want to congratulate its then members on the excellent report that they produced, and congratulate the new Chair, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), on securing the debate today. I agree that it is important for the Committee to keep banking services in Scotland under review because the banks are obviously an important and essential part of our economy.
The analysis of how we got here is fairly straightforward. For far too long the banks were undertaking far too much risky lending, and when panic broke out, they went to the opposite extreme and lent hardly anything at all. We would have hoped that the situation would improve, but time after time, when I meet the owners of small businesses in my constituency, I get the same story: they are finding it very difficult to get loans from the banks, even for viable projects or when they have a good order book. Often, even established companies find that they cannot get a loan from the bank on reasonable terms.
There is clearly a lack of competition. Business owners tell me that, even if they go to other banks for a better deal, the cost of moving from one to another is prohibitive. They have to pay a break fee to the bank that they are with and pay a joining fee to the bank to which they want to transfer, so the cost of the switch far outweighs any benefit that they might get from a slightly better deal. I hope that the Government will look at that and investigate how we can have genuine competition in the banking industry. Small business owners often say to me, “Please don’t write anything down” or “Please don’t take this up with the bank”, because they are frightened that, if the bank knew that they had dared to complain, the situation would get worse. Although there may not be evidence coming forward, I and other hon. Members I am sure have found that the same problem exists for many small businesses.
I was pleased that the Government response to the Committee report stated that they believed that banks need to promote lending to SMEs better and that they would be working with the industry on disclosure of regional lending data. I hope that the Minister can update us today on progress on that.
Concerns from individuals are often about unfair banking charges, which is a subject that goes back many years. It has not just happened since the banking crisis of two years ago; for many years before that, people complained about unfair charges. Someone may inadvertently go into overdraft for a day or a few hours, and suddenly huge charges appear on their account, and that can often be the start of debt. For someone on a very small income, for whom every penny is a prisoner, a charge of £30 or £40 can be the start of deeper debt.
The previous Committee recommended that the regulatory authorities monitor banks for bad practice. The Government response was that they were introducing measures to end unfair bank and financial transaction charges, on which I hope the Minister can update us. Other hon. Members mentioned the evidence that Citizens Advice Scotland gave in its update for the debate, but it is important to stress it again. It said that banks are listening more, but the problem is not getting them to listen, but getting them to act. I hope that the Minister will look at that and mention it in his response. I was pleased to note that the Government said in their response that they were committed to providing a free national financial advice service and an annual family financial health check, which the new social responsibility levy on the financial services sector would fund. They said that financial support for Citizens Advice Scotland would be considered in the spending review. I know that the Minister cannot pre-empt the spending review, but I hope that we will get good news either today or next Wednesday.
It is important that banks have a presence in local communities, particularly remote communities, which many in my constituency are. Banking managers based in large towns or cities cannot properly understand small remote communities. That issue was brought to the fore last year when HBOS decided to reorganise its small business managers. Until then, managers were based in many communities in my constituency, but it withdrew them. There was complete uproar on the Island of Islay at the thought of losing the local business manager. It is only fair to HBOS to say that the reason why nearly all the businesses on the island were its customers was that it had a local business manager on the island, unlike the other banks. Many small businesses were with HBOS because it had provided a better service. The decision to take the manager away and operate with managers based on the mainland caused uproar, and there was a massive campaign to keep the local manager. It is important that banks have roots in local communities, and HBOS made a big mistake by withdrawing the business manager and having people phone managers on the mainland. A manager occasionally coming to see small businesses is not the correct way to run a banking business.
Finally, on the theme of banks in small communities, I have long supported the campaign for a post bank, and I hope that the Government will take it forward. A bank based at the local post office would provide much better banking services to small, remote communities—both to businesses and to individuals. I hope that the Government will develop the idea, and that we might see a post bank before long.
I declare an interest as a trustee of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service in Scotland. I act in a voluntary capacity, with no remuneration. The CCCS is a debt advice charity, which has been greatly active on many of the matters raised by my hon. Friends and others during this welcome debate.
The debate is about a most welcome report. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) said, the report, which was thorough and worth while, was published at the end of the previous Parliament. It was incredibly important, given the estimated one in 10 jobs in Scotland that are linked to the long-standing financial services industry. Jobs, of course, have subsequently been lost in Scotland, as they have elsewhere, bank branches have closed, and the whole economy has been affected by the credit crunch.
On this, my fourth day in my new role as shadow Financial Secretary, I anticipate having many debates on financial services and their impact on consumers in all corners of the country. Although I spoke far too much and at great length in my previous guise as a Back Bencher, I will take this opportunity to reiterate my default position on many of these matters and, in particular, on the three clear questions that I believe are fundamental to my new portfolio.
First, what reforms are necessary to minimise the systemic risk to a well functioning economy and society following the experience of the credit crunch? Secondly, how can we create a thriving and healthy financial services industry in the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, rebuilding it with a reputation for sustainability, solidity and trust? Thirdly, how can we ensure greater fairness for the consumers of financial services products, so that the industry operates on the basis of common sense and fair play?
It is heartening that many of the contributors to this debate not only focused on what might sometimes seem to be ethereal issues between the players in the industry, but considered matters very much from the consumer perspective, speaking of people’s encounters with issues that are central to their lives.
The report contains an excellent collection of evidence, taken over a long period, going back to November and December 2009. I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the visits to Ireland and to evidence heard elsewhere, successfully bringing in the arc of prosperity and making important points on the changing circumstances and the erroneous arguments made by members of the Scottish National party.
Many interesting lessons on the housing market, on public sector deficit reduction and its impact on growth, on the regulation of credit rating agencies and so forth, are all brought out in the report. Perhaps most notable is the impact of the credit crunch on Scotland in respect of changes to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland—HBOS—and we should not forget the difficulties that affected Dunfermline building society. The report is an eloquent exposition or post-mortem of the lessons that need to be learned from that period, and it is worth reiterating them.
The report was eloquent. Did it make the hon. Gentleman reflect on the Labour Government’s role in what went wrong, and the lax regulatory regime that had been allowed to develop, which was the source of many of the problems for the financial services industry in Scotland?
Certainly we all have lessons to learn from the credit crunch. Countries across the world, including the UK, did not frame correctly the regulatory environment in which financial services operated. That is absolutely clear. However, it reminds me that we do not state often enough that it was the previous Labour Administration who saved our economy from falling over the cliff edge and into the abyss. Although the current Administration sometimes give the impression that they would not have committed the resources necessary to achieve that, I believe that any Administration of any colour would have had to take those steps. I am proud that my party did so, even though that may be the root cause of some of the deficit questions that have subsequently arisen.
Key lessons need to be learned. Too few people had proper cognisance of the true liabilities on the books of our major banks, either because of the complexity of the various products involved or because of the poor risk assessment of those financial instruments. Banks were over-reliant on the wholesale capital markets to finance their investments and lending, which created excessively leveraged positions and left the banks incapable of coping with the freezing up of the wholesale markets. In addition, the underlying market sentiment, which, like the banking practices, had existed for a long time, implied an assumption of continuous expansion, creating expectations of never-ending profitability with high-scale rewards and bonuses, which clouded the judgment of too many practitioners in the sector.
Much as we in politics might like to think that everything done in the political game shapes society at large, my view is that the economy and society around us—not only in this country but in the world at large—suffered from too much exuberance when it came to the allure and attraction of profitability in that sector. We should have taken a far more hard-headed approach all round. Much as I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on trying to make a party political point about the root cause of the global credit crunch, it would not be fair to pin it on one or two politicians in one or two countries. The problem was systemic and we must all learn the lessons from it; otherwise it will be repeated—and that will affect Scotland as well as the rest of the world.
HBOS was merged with Lloyds TSB to form Lloyds Banking Group, and subsequently took advantage of Government capitalisation, which led to 43% public ownership. RBS received public funds resulting in 63% public ownership, rising to about 84% with subsequent injections of new capital. Special liquidity support and a number of other instruments created circumstances where the Government were very much foisted into the driving seat of our financial services industry.
The Government set a number of conditions, and I am glad that the present Administration have maintained a number of them. They include urging the banks to maintain competitive lending to retail and business customers at 2007 levels and encouraging the banks to deal with several of the failings that they experienced, including issues of remuneration, restricting dividend payments, helping people struggling with mortgage payments and so on. Of course, experience tells us that we still need to hold the feet of the banks to the commitments drawn out of them in exchange for the resources that were given to save their very existence. We should certainly ask the Government and the Minister to what extent they are succeeding.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new role as shadow Minister. Does he agree that some of the rhetoric used, such as “holding the banks’ feet to the fire”, has created an awful situation for many of those working on the front line in the banks, who receive abuse or suffer the emotional difficulties that some Members have described today? We need to move away from that rhetoric and towards the understanding that only a small group of people were involved. The main reason for the banks’ difficulties was the lack of regulation in the past 10 years or so. The banks became such complex organisations that they almost lost control over what they were doing. Unfortunately, it is those now on the front line who are taking abuse for what was done by those who have now moved on to other highly paid roles.
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. It would be unfortunate if a cashier or teller was wrongly blamed by a member of the public for something that their bank or institution had done. I know that only a small number of individuals were involved in what happened, but this is an institutional problem and not just a personalised one. We cannot just change the faces of the directors at HBOS or RBS and expect that all the problems will be ironed out. Although we must consider the regulatory environment, we should understand that the problem is more the culture of the companies in that sector in general. As we know from other circumstances, Government can cajole and set the rules, but ultimately they are not the ones who should be running those firms responsibly. Good corporate governance should have taken a different path; it did not in the credit crunch. I hope that we can get things back on the rails, so that we have a sustainable and solid—perhaps some would say boring—financial services sector in future, and regain some of the trust that the City and the financial services industry both here and in Scotland truly deserve.
The report raises issues that definitely deserve attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West talked about the bonuses paid to high earners and the juxtaposition between ordinary front-line staff and the well paid senior executives. I am glad that the previous Chancellor instituted that one-off bank bonus levy of 50% on discretionary bonuses above £25,000. It yielded £2 billion, which was far more than expected. It will be interesting to watch how the current Administration and the Minister seek to deal with the ongoing concerns of the general public about excessive remuneration. Those concerns are legitimate and need to be addressed to rebuild the trust that is much deserved by those who are genuinely working hard to do their best in a very complex industry.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) mentioned the willingness of banks to lend to businesses. Discussions are under way with the British Bankers’ Association and others, and reports have been published today. We are hearing many conflicting reports. The banks themselves are adamant that money is available, yet the reports that we consistently receive in our surgeries across the country is that small and medium-sized enterprises are finding the hurdles that they have to jump over too high and that, too often, banks are not willing to do business with them. That exerts a lag effect on our economy in general and the problem definitely needs the Minister’s attention. We want the commitments that were given at the time of the rescue of the banking sector to be properly enforced. We should also see the public stake in our banking sector activated. Given that the public own that stake, they, like any owner of any company, should be able to ask that lending arrangements are fulfilled in the best interests of our economy.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is moving away from the previous Government’s position of managing RBS and Lloyds Bank at arm’s length to one in which the Government play an active role in their day-to-day management and lending decisions?
I certainly do not mean in the day-to-day lending decisions. That would be an incredible position for a politician to take with a bank. None the less, our constituents could legitimately say that if we—through the Treasury and UK Financial Investments—hold a stake on their behalf in these large institutions that play such a valuable part in all our lives, but do not ask questions about the commitments that were given and do not scrutinise the attention that banks are paying to those commitments, we are failing in our duties. That is my point. There is a level of active scrutiny, attention and challenge that the Government should adopt in that respect.
It is important, too, to focus on the point made in the report about lending to homeowners. Although it did not crop up often in the debate, that is a problem in Scotland. First-time buyers are more likely to find it hard to get mortgage finance. The deposit currently required is something in the order of 25%, which is an incredible burden on many of my hon. Friends’ constituents. The Chartered Institute of Housing says that there are more problems with house lending arrangements in Scotland than there are in the rest of the UK.
Concerns about the fair treatment of customers were well set out. They include unfair banking charges and the mark-up in rates of interest. The difference between the wholesale rate of interest that the banks pay and the rate of interest that they charge their customers, both businesses and retail, has been growing, probably fuelled by the requirement of the banks to rebuild their own balance sheets. None the less, that is something that customers in Scotland and elsewhere are extremely sceptical about. There are also questions about aggressive debt collection. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) said that something like 135,000 debt problems had been brought to Scottish citizens advice bureaux in 2009-10. The massive job of providing such advice is falling on the shoulders of a very poorly funded voluntary sector in Scotland.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) raised the important topic of financial education. I should like to see us revisit the extent to which the national curriculum explores how we teach young people about the basics of money. Certainly, it is the responsibility of the new consumer protection markets authority to consider that as well in due course.
This debate has been very worth while. Both directly and indirectly, banking has a massive effect on the lives of people in Scotland. The report is a perfect example of how the Scottish Affairs Committee speaks out for the interests of Scotland.
First, let me congratulate both the Chair of the Select Committee on opening this debate, and you, Mr Rosindell, on chairing your first Westminster Hall sitting. You need no lessons from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) on controlling bad boys.
This is a helpful report. Every hon. Member at the start of their speech has positioned themselves in relation to it. It was my predecessor, Lord Myners, who gave oral evidence to the Committee, but it is this Government who responded to the report. I want to take the opportunity to talk through our response and the progress that we have made since July and to address some of the issues that hon. Members have raised. It is worth bearing in mind some of the remarks that have been made about the Scottish financial services sector. Although the problems at RBS and Lloyds TSB and the failure of the Dunfermline building society cast a long shadow, they are only part of the Scottish financial service sector—a point made to me when I visited fund managers and insurers in Edinburgh earlier this year.
It was more than 300 years ago that William Paterson founded both the Bank of Scotland and the Bank of England. Today, that heritage of innovation, education, and expertise is still very much alive, and reaches across a whole range of financial services, beyond the roots of banking in Scotland in the 17th century. General insurance, life and pensions, asset management and related services all have a place in Scotland’s financial hubs of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and also in people’s high streets. We think of financial services as being related to the City, Canary Wharf or the big centres in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but of course they are part of our high streets too. We cannot forget that.
Some of the reasons why we see a vibrant financial services sector in Scotland are the highly talented and educated work force, the strong infrastructure and the first-class support businesses such as law and accountancy, which all provide a firm foundation for the Scottish financial services sector. I believe that the sector will play a role in our recovery and future prosperity, not only in Scotland but in the United Kingdom as a whole. However, that will happen only if it reconnects with businesses and families.
The financial services sector in Scotland has been through difficult times. Extraordinary action has been taken to restore stability to the financial services sector, as the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) said in his remarks. Since March, when the Committee’s report was published, I think that the situation in Scotland and throughout the UK has improved considerably. Actions taken by financial authorities, along with improving global conditions, have enabled banks and building societies to stabilise, begin restructuring and slowly start to restore consumers’ trust.
However, we must continue to be vigilant. We cannot take the strength of Scotland’s financial sector for granted and I welcome the Committee’s contribution to the discussion about how improvements can be made. The opportunity exists now to deliver real and lasting reform of the financial sector, to ensure that it is stronger, safer and more resilient. The Government are determined to deliver that reform.
In the future, we must examine the structure of banking, including the links between size, risk and competition. To that end, we have tasked the Independent Commission on Banking, under the chairmanship of Sir John Vickers, to consider structural and non-structural reforms to the UK banking sector, in order to promote stability and competition.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) talked about competition in the banking sector. Clearly, we need to think about issues such as the transparency of the financial information available to customers, so that they know how much their bank account is costing them. During an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) talked about improving data on interest rates and the Government have made steps, following a super-complaint on individual savings accounts, to ensure that there is much more transparency and that people can move their accounts from one provider to another more quickly.
As a follow-up to that point, I wonder whether the Minister can ensure that the mutual sector is not unfairly disadvantaged, given that it largely avoided the problems that we have seen with some of the other banks. Will he ensure that any changes in legislation support the continuation of the mutual sector?
Indeed. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning that point, because one of the commitments in the coalition agreement is, of course, to foster diversity and ownership in the financial services sector, including strengthening the mutual sector. The hon. Lady’s intervention also reminds me that she raised issues about set-off. I know that set-off is very important to many consumers and she will be pleased to know that the Financial Services Authority is reviewing it at the moment.
I was talking about reducing risk and the role of the Independent Commission on Banking. The debate about how we reduce risk is not just a UK debate. We have been at the forefront of developing common international standards of regulation—for example, in Basel and through the capital requirements directive negotiations in the EU. In addition, we have led the way in developing approaches to minimise the risk of failure and to ensure that, when failures do occur, the call on the taxpayer is minimised. Of course, it was the previous Government who introduced the special resolution regime, which we supported, and “living wills”—the recovery and resolution plans that were in the Financial Services Act 2010. We also supported that measure.
We will continue to work with international colleagues to ensure that the implementation and sequencing of regulatory changes are taken forward in a way that balances the need to act now on the lessons of the crisis with the need to maintain the competitiveness of the industry.
A number of hon. Members talked about the regulatory framework. Clearly, the reputation and long-term success of Scotland’s banks also depend on trust. Customers need to know that they will be treated fairly and appropriately by all financial institutions. The robust regulatory framework that we are creating will help to cement the attractiveness of Scotland’s financial sector, by providing certainty for banks and confidence for consumers without stifling innovation and growth.
We have learned the lessons from the financial crisis and set out a radical reform to the architecture of financial regulation that we inherited. Earlier this year, the Chancellor announced that the Government will legislate to create a new prudential regulation authority as a subsidiary of the Bank of England. The PRA will be responsible for prudential regulation of all deposit-taking institutions, insurers and investment banks. It will cover all issues affecting the safety and soundness of individual firms, including remuneration. It will have the focus, expertise and mandate to ensure effective prudential supervision and regulation of individual firms, thereby strengthening the UK’s financial system and its resilience to future crises.
We will ensure that financial regulation delivers financial services and markets that are secure and within which private individuals, small businesses and multinational firms have all the information available to them to make the right choices, as well as the right level of protection if things should go wrong. That is crucial.
Consequently, alongside the PRA we will establish a consumer protection and markets agency, which will be a new and integrated conduct regulator. The CPMA will take a tougher, more proactive and more focused approach to regulating conduct in financial services and markets. That will ensure that the behaviour of firms—whether they are based in the high street or trade in high finance—is placed at the heart of the regulatory system, giving consumers greater clarity. The CPMA’s primary objective will be to ensure confidence in financial services and markets, with a particular focus on protecting consumers and ensuring market integrity.
Appropriate regulation is vital to instilling confidence in financial services, protecting customers’ interests and ensuring clean and efficient markets, where both retail and wholesale customers can engage confidently and with the degree of protection appropriate to their needs.
Regulators are continuing to monitor firms for poor practice and they will develop new initiatives to ensure that consumers are treated fairly. A specific focus will be given to cases of unarranged overdraft charges. Working alongside the industry, the Office of Fair Trading has developed commitments on unarranged overdraft charges. They include an agreement that consumers should be able to opt out of unarranged overdraft facilities and minimum standards for how that process of opting-out should work.
Furthermore, earlier this week we laid the regulations to turn on the new section 404 powers—a provision in the Financial Services Act 2010, which was passed just before the election—that will enable the FSA to require firms to establish consumer redress schemes. We believe that it is right to turn that provision on.
However, we also need to ensure that consumers have advice at their fingertips. We have already announced the introduction of an annual financial health check. That check will help families and individuals to get into the habit of taking a thorough look at their finances. It will show them where they are most at risk and how they can regain control of their finances and plan for the future. It will give people a “prescription” that will offer clear advice on what they can do to improve their financial situation now and for the years ahead.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun talked about the importance of inculcating the habit of saving among children early on in their lives—indeed, the hon. Member for Nottingham East also highlighted that issue. It is absolutely vital. Of course, it is a responsibility that we all share and it is an idea that is supported by a number of financial services bodies.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned the Cumnock and Doon Valley credit union. Across the UK, credit unions play an important role in this area of education. I have been to see a project that HSBC sponsors in primary schools; I saw it in the Wallisdean infant school in my own constituency. It was quite interesting to talk to children between five and seven about the importance of saving and spending. Clearly, even at that early age they have thought about this issue very carefully.
The new consumer financial education body will roll out the national financial advice service, which will be free and impartial. Of course, that service will be funded by the industry through a social responsibility levy. The cost of the service will not be picked up by the taxpayer; the service will be industry-funded, as part of the industry’s contribution to tackling some of these issues. I think that the service will help consumers throughout the UK to get the best from their financial providers and to give them the information that they need to manage their finances responsibly. The service will be further complemented by the simple products initiative that we announced in July.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West raised the issue of repossessions. I say to him that in 2009 47,700 homes were repossessed, compared with an estimate that 75,000 would be repossessed. In the first quarter of this year, 9,800 homes were repossessed and in the second quarter 9,400 homes were. In part, that is due to the forbearance of lenders, but clearly the low interest rate environment has made it possible for more people to stay in their own homes. That is to be welcomed. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I want to respond to the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute about the Post Office bank. Part of the coalition agreement was that we would consider the case for a Post Office bank. He will know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), has responsibility for the Post Office. We are looking through the options at the moment and thinking about how the Post Office can expand the scope of the financial services that it offers across the counter. That would be of benefit to many—particularly those in rural areas, where the nearest post office may be closer than the nearest bank.
I shall move on to address the issue of lending to small and medium-sized businesses, which has cropped up in a number of contributions. Banks can and do play a critical role in providing finance for new start-ups, growing enterprises and our largest corporations. A thriving banking sector is therefore critical for our economic recovery. Ensuring the flow of credit to small and medium-sized enterprises is particularly essential to supporting growth. In Scotland alone, SMEs account for more than 1 million jobs, so they are an important part of the economy in not just Scotland, but every constituency and part of the nation.
The importance of getting credit flowing to SMEs meant that the Chancellor made a series of announcements in the June Budget. There was the extension of £200 million to the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which will benefit 2,000 additional small businesses across the UK and bring the lending covered by the EFG up to £700 million. In addition, an enterprise capital fund to support small businesses with high growth potential was announced, combining both Government and private sector funding. In July, we also published a Green Paper on financing a private sector recovery—consultation on that has closed—which considered a broad range of finance options for businesses of different sizes, including bank lending. We will respond formally to that in the next few weeks.
The Select Committee’s report expressed concern about the availability of lending and whether Scottish banks are truly open for business. Again, those concerns have been mentioned in the debate. Today the banks have published, through the British Bankers Association taskforce, a series of measures to help improve customer relationships, promote better access to finance and, crucially, provide better information on the availability of and demand for credit. That point was raised by the Chair of the Select Committee and by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute.
One of the things that prompted the proposal to bring together better information is this debate. When I talk to banks’ chief executive officers, as I do regularly, they say that they have enough capacity to lend to small businesses, but that the demand is not there. When we talk to small businesses—hon. Members have raised various examples from their own constituencies—they say that they do not believe the banks are interested in listening. Part of that might be a pricing issue. The survey, which will be based on information supplied by the banks but prepared independently of the banks, will address those issues and raise the quality of information. It will enable us to scrutinise the banks more closely about their lending practices, including the rate at which they are lending.
This discussion has always struck me as a bit odd, because banks need to lend to make money. I understand the things that the Government are doing—the two things that the Minister mentioned—but are there not two real issues here? First, it is not that UK banks are lending less; it is simply that a lot of foreign banks have left the market and UK banks have not filled that gap.
Secondly, the banks’ real issue is the requirement that has been placed on them to rebuild their balance sheets and to change their credit ratios in the run-up to Basel 3. They have less money because the Government are effectively telling them to do two contradictory things: to lend more; and to rebuild their balance sheets and have better capital ratios.
My hon. Friend raises two interesting points. On his second point, a number of banks have raised the point about whether the capital requirements restrict their lending. The agreement reached last month on Basel 3 requires banks to raise their core tier 1 capital to 7%. UK banks are already well placed to achieve that, so that is less of a constraint. They have been given until 2018 to achieve that level, which will enable them to phase in the increased capital requirement, so I do not think that that necessarily acts as a disincentive to lend.
The other side of the argument relates to the risk attached to lending to SMEs, which is an issue that banks have raised with me. The Bank of England’s financial stability report stated that there is scope for banks both to build capital and to continue lending to the real economy, so that is less of a concern than my hon. Friend suggests. However, he made the valid point that a number of foreign banks have exited the market, creating a gap that several UK banks have sought to fill, and we should not overlook that fact in any debate on banking.
It is important that we have the necessary information available to be able to hold banks to account on lending across all parts of the UK. I know that the Scottish Government, in the absence of that information, commissioned a review of lending in February 2010. When we start to look at the regional data, we will be helped by the fact that the banks will want to engage in an outreach programme at regional level, through chambers of commerce, to start to discuss what is happening in the sector on a regional basis. It is not only about what is going on in London and in the headquarters; it is also about engaging in the regions. That is an important part of the process.
Much more data on mortgage lending are available through the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which publishes regional and national data. A positive story on that from Scotland is that mortgages to the value of £1.4 billion were advanced there in the second quarter, compared with £1.1 billion in the first quarter. That increase in Scotland is actually greater than the increase for the rest of the UK as a whole, so clearly we should recognise that there is strength in the Scottish housing market.
In addition to the enhanced information requirements that banks are committed to, they have agreed to establish and invest in a new business growth fund, which will build up to £1.5 billion. That will help to address the equity gap and will be aimed at investments in the £2 million to £10 million bracket. All previous Governments have thought about and tried to fill that gap. The banks are going to try to fill it in that practical way, as 3i, or the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation, did in the past. We have been absolutely clear that banks need to improve the lending environment for small businesses, and we welcome the taskforce’s report as an important first step. It is now important that banks deliver on that.
Bonuses were referred to several times in the debate. We need to bring about a cultural change in the sector. The issues on bonuses that were mentioned in the report are at the heart of that. Recent stories of bank bonuses have caused concern, which is understandable given the current environment.
The Government are taking action. We have already introduced a permanent bank levy, which will raise £2.5 billion—something the previous Government refused to do—and we will shortly consult on a remuneration disclosure regime that will require the disclosure of detailed pay information from large banking organisations operating in the UK. Performance-related pay is an important part of rewarding valuable contributions, but it must be reward for long-term success that takes into account an appropriate level of risk. It is important not to abolish bonuses, but to ensure that they encourage the right sort of behaviour.
The FSA issued a consultation paper on a revised remuneration code of practice in July, laying out detailed principles that will require not only large banks, but a wider range of financial services firms, to establish remuneration policies that are consistent with effective risk management on a proportionate basis. The Government are also exploring with international partners the costs and benefits of a financial activities tax on profits and remuneration. When I talk to banks operating in the UK, they say that the UK regime is tougher than those in place elsewhere in the world. That is a matter of complaint for them, but I think that it is something from which we can take a degree of satisfaction.
In conclusion, the UK economy turned a corner in 2010, but the recovery of both our economy and our financial services industry will necessarily be gradual. It is vital that we act now to support a sustained recovery, backed by a resilient financial services industry that serves the needs of consumers and the broader economy. In that recovery, Scotland will continue to be proud of its long history in providing financial services and of the new financial centres that are emerging. It strikes me as entirely appropriate that Scotland, which pioneered the modern-day ATM, should now host the headquarters of one of our new financial services players, Tesco Personal Finance. We are confident that the Government’s proposals will restore to Scotland a secure, profitable and sustainable banking sector that will be capable of serving the customers, businesses and economy of Scotland.
I express my gratitude to all those who have contributed, not only to the debate, but to the report. That includes our witnesses and those who provided written evidence. Some of the contributions have been excellent. I hope that the Government Whips have taken note of the expressions of undying loyalty that were made by some of the newer Members. Nevertheless, I am sure that they will develop out of that in due course. I also thank the staff of the Scottish Affairs Committee for all their work in preparing for the debate and the report.
When I was much younger, there used to be various cartoon characters who could rub a brass lamp and say, “Abracadabra”, so that a genie appeared. Earlier, I mentioned the arc of prosperity and a nationalist appeared. In some mysterious way, he disappeared thereafter. I have mentioned the arc of prosperity again, so I am waiting to see whether he will pop in again.
The wider matters to which the Minister referred—I understand entirely why he did so—are more the responsibility of the Treasury Committee than of our Committee. We have tended—rightly, I believe—to restrict ourselves to those aspects that impact on Scotland. However, I was heartened by what he said about encouraging the mutual sector. Several of my colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), will be looking at ways in which we can have a discussion about the mutual sector in Scotland. I hope that in due course we will have some dialogue with the Minister on that. As we have done elsewhere, we hope to have some informal sessions with witnesses before moving to formal hearings and visits, which will be helpful.
We are likely to support some of the changes that the Minister outlined that seem to be moving in the right direction, but there are areas on which we would like ongoing dialogue and input from his staff when we prepare documents. It is not immediately clear, for example, how overdraft charges will be handled. It seems to me that there is a need for ongoing discussion on how those proposals will be implemented and what their impact will be.
I welcome the fact, which the report made clear, that Scotland remains a good place to do financial services business. The question now is how the Committee adds value to that whole exercise. In our discussions, we have identified several areas where the system seems to be breaking down. [Interruption.] I thought that that was a nationalist returning, having mentioned the arc of prosperity, but it is not.
The construction, road haulage and video games industries—the three industrial groups that we met—all said that the banks did not understand them properly. We ought to turn our attention to various steps that we can take to improve those relationships.
Perhaps I could provide more recent information than the Minister did. The Bank of England’s Agents’ summary of business conditions in September reported:
“Smaller businesses, and those operating in the construction and property sectors, continued to report difficulty in accessing affordable finance. For these businesses, fees and spreads remained significantly higher than pre-crisis levels”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is further work to be done in those areas?
That is a helpful contribution—there clearly is further work to be done in those areas—which runs along the lines of not only our report but, to be fair, the Minister’s contribution. The Government recognise that more work needs to be done.
We need to continue to focus on the two elements of lending—mortgage lending and lending to businesses—and also on how the banking industry deals with its customers. The Minister has advanced general principles and rules, but the question is whether they will be implemented in practice, and we will want to follow through on that.
The interventions by the Government in several areas are very much to be welcomed, and I have no hesitation in welcoming something that is said by the Government. New Members will no doubt recognise that no thunderbolt has arrived and, therefore, that it is entirely possible for people from one party to recognise that something done by a different party is good. I hope that the new Members who are here will undertake to pass that on to colleagues who have left the Chamber.
In conclusion, this has been an excellent exercise. We have heard witnesses, drawn up the report, held this debate today and come to a general consensus on the importance of the banking industry to Scotland and the need to go forward working together to improve the economy of Scotland. I hope that we continue to work together for the next couple of years or so.
Question put and agreed to.