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Rebalancing the UK Economy

Volume 517: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010

Amid the feverish analysis of the size, scope and impact of the Government’s chosen spending cuts, a fresh debate is emerging about a desirable blueprint for Britain’s economic future. Such is the near-universal distaste reserved for financial services, that a determination no longer to rely on their economic contribution seems one of the few certainties in the debate. As a result, rebalancing is the new economic watchword. For sure, the financial crisis has painfully highlighted the UK’s dependence on the City and our collective exposure to the risks taken by the global banking fraternity. My worry, however, is that the phrase is being used—even, I fear, by some Conservative coalition Ministers—for playing to the gallery as part of the general banker-bashing sentiment.

It is superficially convincing to promote attempts to stimulate growth more evenly through the regions, and stepping up our game in the innovation and incubation of companies in the high value-added areas of high- tech manufacturing, engineering, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. I acknowledge my own part in that: I have played a role in ensuring the incubation of those small companies in the City of London. The Corporation of London is to be complimented for finding premises in double-quick time for such companies.

I wholly support the initiatives of the Government, in particular funding the £200 million science park in St Pancras. That is both welcome and highly commendable. However, we should be wary of how the aim of rebalancing is pursued. Unwisely, most of the focus so far has been on how we might shrink the City to reduce its relative importance, rather than providing a positive economic climate in which all other sectors can flourish.

Before we pursue what I believe would be such a dangerous policy any further, I wish to make the case why financial services must remain a central plank in Britain’s bid for continuing relevance in a fast-changing global economy. A strong financial services sector is overwhelmingly beneficial to our nation. It will provide the critical mass to draw business to this country. It offers diversified sources of capital to small business. It makes huge contributions to the Treasury’s coffers, in terms of tax and employment, and it supports a wide range of complementary industries, from law to leisure. It is also one of the very few areas where we might envisage significant growth in the decades to come.

The tens of millions of people who join the ranks of the global middle class annually from India and China have a greater cultural propensity to save, and they will seek expertise in investing their savings for the future. It seems evident to me that the entire drive for the west is directed towards capturing the growth of the developing markets. It is an argument that has been put to me in recent weeks by German industrialists. Here in the UK, we have already secured such an important competitive advantage. It is in the financial services sphere. Why throw that advantage away? Aside from that, there are several reasons for us to believe that the task of rebalancing might well prove trickier than we may wish.

It is time that we changed our attitude towards the City, from one of punishment, which has taken place in the past two or three years in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to hard-headed realism. How we treat our nation’s most valuable economic resource in the years ahead will be a litmus test for international business in determining how serious Britain is in its wish to be dynamic and have an open economy that embraces global talent, promotes aspiration and welcomes business.

I hope that the Minister will consider this: the UK should perhaps, for example, look at the way that the Isle of Man has quite successfully rebalanced its economy through promoting new growth areas but, crucially, in a way that has not undermined or diminished the importance of its own very important financial services sector. The Isle of Man has embarked upon a diversification drive that has built a thriving hub for high-tech manufacturing, including aerospace, which of course has strong links to the north-west of England economy. It has created a propitious environment for world-class e-gaming companies; it has established world-class high-quality aircraft and ship registers and created a diverse and thriving space commerce sector, with many of the world’s leading operators established on the island. Crucially, it has also continued to support—very vocally—and promote its successful financial sector, which is wholly compatible with, and supports, other sectors of its diversified economy. In essence, the Isle of Man Government have not picked winners at the expense of penalising other sectors, but have shown that they can build a balanced and diversified economy, while maintaining a strong and thriving financial services sector.

While the banking crisis was in full swing in 2008, it seemed that almost overnight the financial sector had become a useful scapegoat for all our economic ills. Many of the criticisms levelled at the banking fraternity have been legitimate, in part at least. The failure in that sector of the economy exposed the domestic taxpayer to such mind-boggling sums that it was, in many ways, scandalous, and seemed to confirm suspicions that the wealth created by the City was simply a mirage. Irresponsible risks were taken. Debt instruments certainly became too complex. Money was lent to those who could ill afford the repayments. Incidentally, I fear that one of the difficulties is when policy makers seek out so-called socially useful banking—the genesis of the sub-prime problem that occurred initially in the US and in the UK subsequently from the mid-1990s. Regulators—if not regulations—proved ill equipped at times for their job.

The City’s dominance in the domestic economy in the past two decades had some wide-ranging social consequences. For a large proportion of British people working outside the gilded corridors of the financial services industry, the growth of the City’s power increased the cost of living and reduced, at times, to just a wistful dream any prospect they may have had of getting on the housing ladder, except via colossal personal debt. It could also be argued that the City precipitated a brain drain from other professions and industries, with so many of our brightest and best graduates over the past quarter of a century tempted away by unrivalled starting salaries in the banking sphere.

In some senses, the City’s success has merely masked—until its failure uncovered—some more fundamental problems that had developed in the western economies. Governments had been spending far too much money. As individuals, we had also racked up far too much debt. We found it cheaper and easier to buy cheap goods from abroad, import migrant workers and pay off our own citizens with welfare, rather than confront the difficulties of either finding sufficient employment for blue-collar workers who were losing ground to eastern competition, or tackling the dearth of skills among the indigenous population. I am glad to say that with some of our welfare policies, the Government are definitely going down the right route to try to counter some of those issues.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I do not think that it is inconsistent to have a thriving financial sector and other thriving sectors, including small and medium-sized businesses. Thriving businesses will deal with the problems to which you just alluded, in terms of migration, skills training and so on. A financial sector would welcome further opportunities to invest in its own territory and internationally. The two things go hand in hand.

I would not disagree with my hon. Friend in any way. It is the rhetoric, I think, of some policy makers, both in the present, but particularly in the past, that could have applied something of a barrier to that very ideal goal.

Rather than openly confronting some of those issues post-crisis, the implicit and perhaps all too easy assumption has been that, had the banking sector not collapsed through the profligacy and greed of some its employees and key players, we might have continued as we had before. There is also an assumption that to solve our current problems we need simply to return to what used to be the strength of a couple of generations ago—rebalancing the economy towards making things. The intensity of the rhetoric that has built up around the role of banks in the economy is such that politicians and even bankers themselves have often been unwilling to stand up for the sector.

Alas, that rhetoric has not subsided as time has passed. In fact, it is likely to intensify in the months ahead as the cuts bite and questions are asked about how and why Government money can be found to prop up the banks and pay out what I suspect will be another bumper round of bonuses this year while public sector jobs and services, as well as benefits, face the axe.

In response, Governments approach the financial services sector as something to be outwardly chastened, while they privately recognise its importance to the wider economy and rely on the continued income and jobs that it provides. In public, banks are told to lend to inherently risky start-ups—small businesses and first-time buyers. They are berated for trying to take the collateral that small business owners will often have tied up in their own property. At the same time, however, banks are told—indeed, they are required—to meet stringent new capital requirements. The new £2 billion bank levy is announced with a fanfare and the 50% income tax rate remains in place, yet the Treasury quietly acknowledges that it cannot put further pressure on balance sheets while storms are still gathering in the eurozone, which I think will be one of the big stories in the months ahead.

This is a very interesting and timely debate about financial services. I declare an interest as a former City lawyer. I note with interest that you say financial services include lawyers, accountants and so on. Given that your concern is about publicity, do you agree that sometimes it is what some of the professional services have done themselves that has given rise to those problems? Furthermore, do you agree that, although it is not so much a City phenomenon as one related to smaller firms, the “no win, no fee” approach that law firms have adopted—as I say, it is usually adopted by smaller firms—has not really helped the cause of financial services?

As someone who is also from the “former lawyer” fraternity—I worked for a City law firm and I know that my hon. Friend worked for another City law firm over the years—I agree. There are elements of the ethics of business that concern me; I have never been a wide-eyed supporter of everything that has been done in the context of the City. Equally, it is important to recognise the City’s importance if this country is to get off its knees.

We witness, to an extent, the public baying for more blood after the banks have posted healthy profits, due, of course, to a combination of low interest rates, a lack of competition and a cut in corporation tax, yet the public are bemused when Government restrictions lead to increased bank charges for consumers.

The right answer to the question of how to rebalance the economy is not to shrink the financial services sector. However, the fact remains that we have the largest financial services sector in relation to the rest of the economy of any advanced economy; the financial services sector accounts for something like 27% of our economy. The interesting policy question is whether we want that percentage to increase as a percentage of the whole or whether we want everything in the economy to increase together.

I think that you also raised a point about the public relations problems that banks are suffering at the moment. Of course, banks have made a huge contribution to our economy, but during the last two years they have sucked in something like £150 billion-worth of Government money and they are not really answering the question about how they should restructure themselves. That question has been left to the Bank of England and others—whether through the Glass-Steagall Act, or whatever—to answer. Until the banks do that themselves, they will continue to be criticised over bonuses.

Order. I want to say something to the three hon. Members who have made interventions. It is fine that you made interventions, but on each occasion you have used the word “you” as part of your comments. This is just a small reminder—I did not want to stop you in mid-flow.

It is a credit to you, Mr Betts; it must be the informality of these arrangements that have allowed my colleagues to drop their guard somewhat.

I think that there is a lot in what my hon. Friend just said. As he rightly pointed out, in many ways a huge amount of money has been pumped into the financial services sector, yet there seems to be very little idea of what the global landscape of banking and finance will look like in the future.

The Government have a part to play in the process. We are, after all, majority stakeholders in two of the big four banks—the Lloyds Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland—and we need to utilise that muscle to try to make a case for how the banking world should look in the future.

To some extent, there has been a somewhat confused strategy that has been of no benefit to the Government, the banks or the public. In essence, the risk is that we are now penalising our single most competitive economic sector, while somehow fooling ourselves that a miraculous rebalancing of the economy can occur by default. In truth, the rebalancing will only be threatened by diminution of the financial services sector. Let us not forget why, on the whole, a thriving City makes for a successful Britain.

Since time immemorial, the City of London has enjoyed an international reputation as a bastion of commercial certainty and reliability. It has promoted financial innovation, it has provided an international market for global merchants and in commercial affairs it has rightly been seen as a watchword for justice, neutrality and fairness. Of course, it also has a number of innate advantages that ensure that companies’ loyalty to London runs deeper than just appreciation of its tax regime. Those advantages include, of course, a time zone that lies between those of north America and Asia, which makes the City an excellent base for international company headquarters, and the lifestyle assets of a culture, an excellent educational offering and a population so diverse that all can feel at home.

As a result, London has emerged as the global financial centre. Indeed, so successful has the British financial services sector been that it now contributes more than 10% of Britain’s economic output. We should also remember that although the sector is focused in central London, a significant amount of its activity takes place in a range of regional centres in the UK.

Of course, it is not only banks that benefit from our financial sector but complementary industries such as law, insurance, retail and entertainment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) pointed out. Our top-flight universities, the arts and the charitable sector also gain, the latter two from cultural funds or corporate responsibility grants that are, of course, often provided by the City’s top banks and bankers. The presence of our large financial sector gives London the critical mass to attract the best professionals from across the globe.

Banking bail-outs notwithstanding, the financial services sector contributes massively to the Treasury’s coffers in tax revenues, with an estimated contribution of £61 billion in 2008-09. Of course, it also contributes massively in terms of employment, with more than 1 million people employed directly in financial services across the UK.

The financial services sector also plays a critical role in supporting business, not only in attracting huge inward flows of foreign capital to help to fund our infrastructure but in propping up our companies and providing British companies with access to a diversified source of capital, to enable them to invest and expand.

Even if opposition to City dominance is practical rather than simply ideological, I suspect that it is unlikely any time soon that any other economic sector will be a world-beater in the way that the financial services sector is. I am afraid that the industries in which we are hoping to diversify are ones where competition will be very stiff. For example, the Chinese are as keen to develop their manufacturing capacity when it comes to green technology as we are.

Moreover, we should not assume that people in developing countries will start to spend their savings as the western world weans itself off debt and consumption. Britain is just one of the nations that have been pinning some of their hopes on export-led growth. However, despite a 20% depreciation in the value of the pound, the UK’s trade deficit has continued to widen. Meanwhile, with uncertainty infecting the financial system, British corporations have shown little appetite for expansion any time soon, as they accumulate cash cushions instead of investing.

My hon. Friend will have to forgive me for not giving way; I want to say a few more things and I obviously want to hear what the Minister has to say in response.

I am not convinced that London’s population is sufficiently equipped to deal with significant growth in new industries. Few people outside the capital may realise that, at 9%, London has one of the highest levels of regional unemployment in the UK. With Britain wedded to a model of high welfare and unemployment benefits, those living in the capital need to earn considerably more than the minimum wage to make it worth their while to work. As a corollary, it has of course been far easier in recent years to encourage hard-working migrants to fill the jobs that Londoners have been unwilling or unable to take up themselves. In the capital, a large proportion of the indigenous working-age population are without the skills or inclination to fill jobs of any kind.

Put simply, our financial services sector is a huge asset. With vast numbers of employees in the developing world entering the middle classes each year and earnestly looking for ways to save and invest, it is also one of the few sectors in which we can confidently predict significant growth in the years ahead. A nation of only 60 million people should be grateful to have one absolute world-beating industry that is, in normal times, incredibly lucrative and that feeds a wide range of other sectors.

By all means, we should focus on trying to help build up other sectors if we can, and on reducing the exposure of taxpayers to risk. However, economic diversification will not be an easy option and it should not lead to the neglect or diminution of the City. Indeed, if it leads to that, the task of diversification will become even harder. Global businesses and their highly skilled work forces do not necessarily have any innate loyalty to the UK. They will go where the legal, fiscal, regulatory, physical and social environment works best for them. I fear that the continued rhetoric of hostility towards banks and regulatory uncertainty only serve to deter such businesses. Why stay and put up with ever more grief?

In that respect, more pressing than diversification is the need to make the UK a place of possibilities, enterprise and entrepreneurship. It is not for this or any Government to pick winners and losers, or indeed to prop up losers and penalise winners. The continuing attacks on our financial services sector no longer serve any purpose. I understand the need, just before the election, to play a bit to the gallery—one had to recognise public sentiment—but we are now four and a half years from the next general election. I hope that the Government will have the confidence to make the case for our financial services industry. As long as we get the regulation right, we should not be fearful of confidently articulating the terrific benefits of a robust and expanding financial sector. Let us draw a line under this period of uncertainty and hostility while we still have that fantastic springboard to ensuring the UK’s great relevance in a fast-changing global economy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) on securing this debate. He made some important points that I will address. I think that we all recognise that our financial and professional services industry is world-class and that the UK can rightly be proud of it. It affects every constituency in the country. For example, my constituency has more than 2,000 people who work in financial services and related professions—1,600 of them are in financial services—and Fareham is not the centre of the global financial sector. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the sector contributes to employment in regional centres. Belfast, Birmingham and Bournemouth all host processing centres that support the work of international financial businesses based in London and headquartered overseas.

For centuries, the UK has been at the heart of international finance. Our openness is an asset to our economy that we are keen to maintain. The recent global financial centres index once again ranked London as the most competitive financial capital in the world. We should seek to preserve and enhance that competitiveness, but it is also important that we do not lose sight of the other areas of our economy that make the UK an excellent place to do business.

It is right that we should support investment in areas of our country where it has been absent during the past decade. That is why, as part of the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced the £1.4 billion regional growth fund to tackle the gap that opened during the last Government between the south-east and the rest of the country. The money is designed to lever in long-term investment in the capacity of our transport system, science and green energy across all parts of the UK.

I share the sentiment expressed in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). Many people, including me, have called for a rebalancing of the economy, but we will not achieve that by cutting down the tallest flowers; we need to make others grow taller and faster. I believe that we can have a more diverse economy and be home to the world’s leading financial centre. Indeed, the fact that the UK is home to a global financial centre can help us develop that more diverse economy.

Going back to the roots of the City and its success, the City flourished because it supported trade through insurance of trade finance. It found capital to invest in new enterprise and developed new and innovative ideas to provide security and certainty for businesses and households. It is an important part of the process of restoring confidence in financial services for the City to reconnect with commerce. We need banks to lend to businesses if they are to take advantage of new investment and trading opportunities, but it is not only banks that need to do so. That is an important priority for this Government.

We welcome the work done by the British Bankers Association on that issue, involving commitments to improved data, greater transparency and an army of business mentors to get businesses ready for finance. However, we also need to broaden the sources of finance available beyond banks. We need sources of new equity. Banks will be contributing to a £1.5 billion equity fund to support growth, but we know that there are other sources of capital from equity, such as business angels. Insurers have raised funds to invest in debt for businesses. We need to lever the skills, enterprise and success of London’s global financial centre to help businesses grow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster referred to the opportunities emerging in the far east and South America. Again, the City has an important role to play, not only by exporting its own services to emerging and growing economies but by supporting other businesses in their attempt to exploit those markets.

However, support for the financial sector cannot be uncritical. As my hon. Friend recognised, there were flaws in City practices in the run-up to the financial crisis, as well as a failure of the regulatory architecture. We need to resolve those issues if we are to provide a stable foundation for the financial services sector to grow. That is why the reforms that we have set out since the formation of the coalition Government in May are rooted in economic and financial stability, not the size of the financial services sector. That is an important distinction to draw. We want a stronger, more stable structure. That will require a reform of regulation, but it is not about the size of the sector.

We have been clear in the reforms that we have introduced that we want more effective supervision and a new structure to tackle emerging threats to financial stability. That is why we are setting up a Financial Policy Committee as part of the Bank of England to consider emerging threats to our financial stability and determine what response is needed to enhance the stability and resilience of the UK financial sector.

Does the Minister agree with the comments made last week by the Governor of the Bank of England vis-à-vis the current structure of the banking sector in the UK?

It is an important debate, and there is no clear consensus on what structure the banking sector in the UK should have. That is why we decided to set up the Independent Commission on Banking, under the chairmanship of Sir John Vickers, to consider structure as well as competition in financial services. Over the course of the financial crisis, we have seen a significant concentration of financial services and the banking sector—there are fewer banks from overseas operating in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector, and Lloyds has taken control of HBOS—and we want the independent commission to consider that and decide whether structural changes are needed to improve the resilience and strength of the banking sector, and whether we can introduce measures to improve the competitive landscape and provide greater choice for businesses and consumers looking for financial services products, whether they are loans, current accounts, business accounts or other products. We need to consider the structure carefully, which is why we set up the Independent Commission on Banking.

To return to the point about regulation, we recognise that there were flaws in the structure of regulation; that is one reason why we set up the Financial Policy Committee. We also want to examine how the Financial Services Authority operated under its dual mandate to consider prudential supervision and consumer protection. We decided to create two new regulatory bodies to replace the FSA. One is the Prudential Regulation Authority, which will be a subsidiary of the Bank of England and will focus on the strength and resilience of banks and insurance companies particularly; the other is the Consumer Protection and Markets Authority, which will ensure that consumer markets in the UK work effectively to support the long-term aspirations of consumers as well as considering how wholesale markets in the UK work. That is an important aspect of the financial services sector; a great deal of work on that issue is going on at an international or regional level through the EU, and it is important that the UK takes a strong lead in ensuring that those markets are regulated effectively. If we get the regulation of the financial services sector right—if we take steps to improve markets’ transparency, resilience and strength—I believe that it will provide a firm foundation for the continued growth of the sector in the years to come.

On the diversity of the economy, we must recognise that there is more to our economy than financial services. We have strengths in other areas, partly as a consequence of language, time zone and other aspects of the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) referred to the legal system, which is a huge asset for businesses seeking to work here due to the legal certainty that comes from our world-class legal framework. We have a deep and highly skilled talent pool and strengths in pharmaceuticals, construction and business services.

We need all those sectors to grow, but their growth does not mean that we should diminish the size of the financial services sector. A strong financial services sector can help develop the diversity the UK economy needs to demonstrate that we have learned the lessons from the financial crisis. We cannot have an unreformed financial sector, given the scale of the crisis that we have been through. Reform has been introduced to help the sector’s stability and resilience and produce a better outcome for businesses and households.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).