With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
It is now well known that the tripartite system set up by the last Government failed spectacularly in its mission to maintain stability. The decision to divide responsibility for assessing systemic financial risks between three institutions meant that, in reality, no one took responsibility. The crisis dramatically exposed that flaw and cost the taxpayer a vast amount of money. We cannot allow another crisis such as the one we have just witnessed. Shortly after taking office, this Government set in train a consultation on reforming our system of financial regulation. Today, after two extensive rounds of consultation, I am presenting to the House a White Paper, including draft legislation, setting out the blueprint for a completely new system of regulation. Let me summarise the main proposals.
A permanent Financial Policy Committee will be established within the Bank of England. Its job will be to monitor overall risks in the financial system, to identify bubbles as they develop, to spot dangerous inter-connections and to stop excessive levels of leverage before it is too late. It has already started operating on an interim basis and is having its first formal meeting today. Subject to legislative process, the permanent body will be in place by the end of next year.
We will abolish the Financial Services Authority in its current form and transfer its significant prudential functions to a new Prudential Regulatory Authority that will sit in the Bank of England. The Prudential Regulatory Authority will focus on microprudential regulation and will bring judgment to the vital task of regulating the soundness of individual firms that manage risk on their balance sheet, particularly banks and insurance companies. We recognise, of course, that such firms engage in very different businesses, which is why we are proposing to provide the PRA with a specific statutory objective for its insurance responsibilities.
We are also bringing in a new approach to protecting consumers. A financial conduct authority will oversee the conduct of financial services firms, the operation of markets and the protection of consumers, with new powers to ban the sale of toxic products. I can confirm that as an integral part of its mission to secure better outcomes for consumers and investors, the authority will also have a new duty to promote competition. Judgment, discretion and proactive intervention will be the hallmark of our new regulators.
We are bringing forward the draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny, for which a Joint Committee of both Houses will shortly be convened. We are seeking valuable input from Members on both sides of the House as it is in all our interests to get this right.
Last week, we also established under Sir John Vickers an Independent Commission on Banking to resolve the debate about the structure of the banking sector in the UK. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Sir John and his fellow commissioners for the excellent job they are doing. The commission’s interim report made two particularly important proposals: bail-in, not bail-out, so that private investors, not taxpayers, bear the losses when things go wrong; and a ring fence around better capitalised high street banks to make them safer and protect their vital services to the economy if things go wrong. I can confirm that the Government agree in principle with both proposals.
Of course, we will await the commission’s final report, but I can tell the House that any reforms will need to meet the following principles: all banks should be allowed to fail safely without affecting vital banking services, without imposing costs on the taxpayer, through reforms that are applicable across our whole banking industry and in a manner consistent with EU and international law. I can also confirm today that we welcome the commission’s recommendations on increasing competition in retail banking and we are working closely with it to achieve this aim.
We are also taking the first steps towards normalising the Government’s involvement in the financial sector. One legacy of the crisis is that today’s taxpayers have a direct interest in several banks through large-scale guarantees and shareholdings. We do not believe the Government should be a long-term investor in financial institutions. It will take some time—possibly several years—before we can make a complete exit from our investments in the banks, but today I can confirm the start of that process.
On the advice of UK Financial Investments, we have decided to launch a sale process for Northern Rock. This follows extensive work over the past three months to consider potential options for returning Northern Rock to the private sector while generating the best possible taxpayer value. The sale process will be open and transparent and in line with state aid rules. I have already written to the chair of the all-party group on building societies and financial mutuals, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), to reassure him that any interested parties can bid for it, including mutuals. This reaffirms the Government’s commitment actively to promote the mutuals sector. That does not mean that other options to return Northern Rock to the private sector have been ruled out, but I believe that at this point in time a sale process is the most promising.
I also want to make the House aware that following an application by the Bank of England to the High Court today, Southsea Mortgage and Investment Company Ltd, a very small bank, has been placed into the bank insolvency procedure. That follows a decision by the FSA that Southsea no longer satisfied its threshold conditions for operating as a deposit taker. The Financial Services Compensation Scheme has been triggered and eligible depositors with balances up to the limit of £85,000 are safeguarded. Eligible depositors with amounts in excess of the insured limit of £85,000 may be entitled to receive a share of their savings above this limit as part of the insolvency process.
Finally, I want to update the House on the ongoing negotiations on international financial regulation. When I was in Brussels yesterday, my message was clear. We must learn the lessons of the crisis and create the foundations for stable and sustainable economic growth without fragmenting global markets. That is why global standards are in our national interest. Much of the debate has focused on the implementation of Basel III and we have been busy making the case for implementing it in full right around the world, including here in Europe. Last week’s International Monetary Fund assessment supported our arguments for minimum standards here in the EU, with discretion for national authorities to increase them where necessary.
When the coalition Government came into office, questions were being asked about the future of banking and regulation but they had not been answered. It has been our job to resolve them. Our goal should be a new settlement between our financial system and the British people; a new settlement where the banks support the people, instead of the people bailing out the banks. The statement today sets out the progress we have made towards building this new settlement and the actions we are taking to complete it and I commend the statement to the House.
What utter contempt the Government are showing to Parliament by announcing these major proposals first to the bankers in the City yesterday and only today to elected representatives. Time and time again, Ministers give policy speeches outside this place and the House of Commons is merely an afterthought. Why is the Chancellor not here to make these announcements today?
That total disregard for the democratic process is reflected in the draft legislation, which hands vast new powers over the lives of all our constituents to the unelected Bank of England and leaves a gaping accountability deficit, with no mention of parliamentary accountability in all its 408 pages. Why are Ministers still so sketchy about the detail of these new powers for the Bank of England, with nothing on the face of the Bill, and is it true that there may be no further clarity on the toolkit for the Financial Policy Committee until next year?
Why is there still no clarity about the crisis management memorandum? Why have the Government not yet published the consolidated Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 draft for Parliament to see? Why is there no clarity about where consumer credit regulation will fit into this alphabet spaghetti of new quangos? Why are they still fumbling around with the composition of the Financial Policy Committee? Why have they failed to negotiate the flexibility needed from the European Union and the European banking regulators to ensure that all these new UK structures are allowed discretion to use the macro-prudential tools in the first place?
There will be significant concern, especially in the Portsmouth area, about the news on the Southsea mortgage bank—Southsea is perhaps a name that resonates in other ways—but we will need to watch developments closely.
Although there are clear inadequacies in the proposals published today, we will consider them carefully, and there are areas where we agree with the Government. The Chancellor is right that this was not a financial crisis made in Britain. It was caused by a failure in the banking industry in every major financial centre and a global failure in banking regulation. Families and businesses worldwide have paid a heavy price for the irresponsible actions of the banks, but Governments and regulators failed to see this coming and we in the Opposition must accept our part in that. Thankfully, however, we ignored the advice of the Chancellor, who called for lighter regulation and opposed the previous Labour Government’s decisions to step in to prevent financial catastrophe by nationalising Northern Rock and Royal Bank of Scotland and by cutting VAT to get the recovery moving.
Today’s announcement vindicates the rescue measures taken by my right hon. Friends at the time and shows that taxpayers always had a good chance of recouping the lion’s share of the sums involved. But on Northern Rock, can the Minister explain the haste in the sale? We hope he is not playing politics and rushing for a fire sale when a measured approach to maximising value and diversifying the banking system would be better. Why has the Treasury failed to consider mutualising Northern Rock and is the Minister really content to see it return to business as usual as yet another plc without exploring the benefits that a new building society might bring?
There are three tests by which the Chancellor and the Minister should be judged. First, are taxpayers and bank customers adequately protected from future bail- outs by the so-called firewalls in the bank structures? How can the Chancellor say he agrees with the conclusions of the Vickers Banking Commission before it has even published its final report?
Secondly, has the Minister secured sufficient international agreement on regulation and bank restructuring to secure a workable system protecting jobs here in Britain? Sadly, the Treasury has already shown a woeful lack of leadership internationally on pay transparency and bankers’ bonuses, which, by the way, should be taxed to pay for jobs and businesses here at home.
Thirdly, will we end up with a banking system that delivers the goods for our economy as a whole? Are small businesses getting the bank loans they need and why is Project Merlin already unravelling with confusion between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury over so-called “stretch” targets, or capacity targets, how they are going to be enforced and whether the banks are really participating wholeheartedly? We need a diverse banking system, which should include a strong mutual sector—something that was promised in the coalition agreement but that the Government seem uninterested in delivering. We need clear and comprehensible regulatory structures with far clearer lines of accountability, and we need a Government who put customers, taxpayers and the real economy first.
That response clearly demonstrated the emptiness of the Opposition’s thoughts on these matters. They have had a year to consider whether these reforms are in the interests of strengthening financial regulation and whether they will strengthen the banking system, but here they are today, a year later, with no idea on the best way to proceed. That is not surprising given that the shadow Chancellor was a champion of light-touch regulation when he was the City Minister and he presented that argument not just in London but across the world. It is time for the Opposition to make their mind up: are they prepared to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and accept the tougher regulatory regime we have proposed, or are they going to cling to the legacy and wreckage of the previous Government’s financial regulation system?
Let me deal with one or two of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. It has been clear from the outset that one of the roles of the interim Financial Policy Committee, which is meeting formally for the first time this afternoon, is to provide advice to the Treasury on the macro-prudential tools that it believes would be appropriate for the FPC. Until the interim FPC has concluded its work it is very difficult to give the House information on that, but what we are doing in the Bill is making sure there is a process in place to ensure there is consultation and that there is discussion in the House. Those tools will not be given to the Bank until we have gone through a legislative process in this place.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Northern Rock. As someone who was born and brought up the north-east, I understand his concern and the importance of Northern Rock to the regional economy. We have, as part of our review, considered remutualisation and our financial adviser Deutsche Bank is reporting to UK Financial Investments on Northern Rock. The advice is to proceed in the first instance with a sale option and the option of remutualisation has been explored with Co-operatives UK and the Building Societies Association, which commissioned the report by Professor Michie. The final decision will be judged against such other options as an initial public offering or a stand-alone remutualisation, but I remind the Opposition that it is important to secure taxpayers’ interests, as we have invested £1.4 billion in Northern Rock.
On the Independent Commission on Banking, we have indicated that we would support the proposal, but we have said that we want to see the final proposal that Sir John Vickers makes. We have dealt with an issue that the previous Government failed to tackle. They closed down the topic of whether there were some structural issues in the UK banking sector that put taxpayers at risk. They were not prepared to confront that debate, but this Government have been prepared to do that and to take some serious and difficult decisions on that matter.
On the issue of bank lending, it is all very well the hon. Gentleman preaching, but the previous Government did not in any way attempt to get the big banks together to talk about increasing lending to small businesses. As the banking sector and the economy deleverage, it is important that those businesses seeking finance have that opportunity. That is why we secured commitments from the banks, and they are held to account on the published targets that were announced earlier this year. The package of measures we have announced demonstrates the progress we are making towards a new settlement on financial regulation and banking, and it is a pity that the Opposition are not prepared to face up to their responsibilities and take part in this debate.
I thought that the shadow Minister let the Government off far too lightly regarding Parliament. This place should hear new policy from the Government first. Yesterday, this was published by the BBC first and was then announced at Mansion House. I am afraid that the Government have failed on this occasion. Will the Minister please publish the media grid?
I would just point out to my hon. Friend that last night the Chancellor did not read out the White Paper—the blueprint for reform that we have before us today. That is the centrepiece of today’s announcement. We have engaged fully with Parliament on this and he will be aware that what we are doing is starting a process of pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure that Members across the House can take part in debate on this. Throughout this whole process, we have sought to keep Parliament informed of the actions we are taking and to ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise the decisions that the Government have made.
Northern Rock is headquartered in my constituency and my predecessor MP, Jim Cousins, played an important role in saving the bank when the Conservative party had no understanding of the crisis and would have let it go to the wall. Could the Minister explain how the auction will be structured so as to promote Northern Rock’s mutualisation, which he says he wishes to see? Could he also say what guarantees he will offer on the name, headquarters, jobs and community contribution of Northern Rock?
The hon. Lady raises some important points about how a potential bidder would seek to maintain employment in the north-east, how they would use the Northern Rock name and how the headquarters would be structured. That is a case that the bidders will need to make in putting together their bid. I would encourage all those who have an interest in bidding for Northern Rock to engage with the people of the north-east and present to them why they believe that their deal would secure the best future for Northern Rock and its employees.
Drawing on my 19 years as a banker—[Interruption.] I was far more popular then than I am now. Drawing on that experience, may I say that the Minister has rightly identified some deep structural problems with the UK banking system? Although over the coming weeks and months he will hear some howls of protest from certain sections of the UK banking community, may I reassure him that the principles he has outlined today will lead to a safer and more stable UK banking system?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I am not quite sure at times which is the more popular profession, MP or banker, but he has experience of both. He is absolutely right that we need to stick to our course on this. There are some important issues that we need to tackle to make sure that the banking system is safer, to improve the regulatory structure and to ensure that the style of regulation is much more interventionist and proactive than in the past. That will doubtless cause some institutions some difficulty, but we have to recognise that it is in the long-term interests of the stability and sustainability of our economy for there to be better regulation of the banking sector and the financial services sector more broadly.
The Government set up the Independent Commission on Banking last year. The commission produced its interim findings in June and its final recommendations will not come out until September, but the Chancellor yesterday in his Mansion house speech and the Financial Secretary today in this Chamber have pre-empted two of those decisions, although it was made clear by the commission that it had not reached its final conclusions. Do not the Government owe an apology to members of the commission of inquiry?
Is that it? I really did wonder. The hon. Gentleman has played an important role in the Treasury Committee in challenging both this Government and the previous Government and holding them to account on banking reform and I should have thought he would welcome the fact that we are taking action to strengthen regulation of the banking system and to make sure that our banks are more secure. It would have been great if he had supported those measures.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but may I remind him that the reorganisation of the regulators or, indeed, of the banking structure will do little to stimulate demand quickly? Mortgages were down 9% in April on the same period last year and other sectors are seriously under pressure. Will the Government think more seriously about stimulating demand?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and one reason why it was important to reach agreement with the banks on Project Merlin was to send a clear signal to businesses that there was credit available to viable businesses, as well as encouraging businesses to come forward to banks with applications for loans. Also important is the work that the British Bankers Association taskforce is doing to commission an independent survey to look at the relationship between banks and their customers. One concern is the amount of discouraged demand in the system and I believe that by looking very carefully at the relationship between banks and their customers, we can see whether banks are putting off businesses from making those applications.
I listened with care to the Minister’s statement, but he has not mentioned the Northern Rock Foundation, which has disbursed millions to deserving causes in the north-east over several years. That disbursement is about 1% of profits, yet Treasury officials told a reporter from Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle this morning that the retention of the Northern Rock Foundation will not be a condition of sale. How will the big society survive in a region such as the north-east, let along thrive, without such a guarantee?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I am pleased that he gave prior notice during business questions. We all recognise, particularly those of us with strong roots in the north-east, the important work that the Northern Rock Foundation has done not only in the north-east, but in Cumbria. An agreement was reached that Northern Rock would continue to contribute 1% of its profits to the foundation between now and December 2012, but I am sure that any bidder looking for support from the north-east will think very clearly about the role that the foundation will play in future.
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance to the House and to the country that the sell-off of Northern Rock will not proceed unless there is absolute certainty that every penny of taxpayers’ money that was put into it will be recouped, plus interest, and that the proposed transformation of the banking system will begin to give people some trust in the system again?
My hon. Friend makes two important points. In the process of selling Northern Rock and returning it to the private sector, we are seeking to get the best possible deal for the taxpayer, given the investment we have put in so far. He is absolutely right that one of the challenges is to restore trust and confidence in the banking system, which has taken a blow in recent years for a range of reasons, including the mis-selling of payment protection insurance and the financial crisis itself. There is a big challenge for banks. The best way that they can establish trust and confidence is by demonstrating to the people of this country that they are doing what they should be doing, which is helping families and businesses realise their full potential by ensuring that credit is flowing to our businesses and that our constituents have opportunities to buy their own homes.
The Minister, who knows the north-east very well, will be aware that when Northern Rock was a building society it was a highly respected institution, not only because of its prudent lending, but because it was the first choice for many small savers. Although he reaffirmed in his statement the Government’s commitment to mutualisation, will he not be straight with the people of the north-east and say quite clearly that mutualisation is not an option and that Northern Rock will be privatised, as was spun out in the newspapers this morning?
As I said earlier, re-mutualisation is an option. The advice we have received is to proceed with the sale process, which could be to a proprietary business or another mutual. Once that process is under way, we will be able to compare that outcome with the other two possible outcomes, which are an initial public offering or a stand-alone re-mutualisation. I am keen that United Kingdom Financial Investments engages with this, as it has done already, to see whether that is a viable option.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) noted in his remarks. It is absolutely vital that the Bank has a good and robust relationship not only with the Treasury, but with this House. I think that we all agree that the relationship between the Treasury Committee and the Monetary Policy Committee, for example, is one of the most transparent between any central bank and any legislature across the world. We want similar standards of transparency and openness to apply in the relationship between the FPC and the House.
The White Paper sets out how the relationship between the Treasury and the Bank will be strengthened and how the Governor will meet the Chancellor to discuss the outcome of the financial stability review. We are also in the process of developing a crisis memorandum of understanding to ensure that the proper channels of communication are open between the Treasury and the Government. That is a much better set of arrangements that will ensure that the House is kept informed and that we can hold the Bank to account for its new responsibilities.
Is there not an inherent contradiction in Government policy? On the one hand there is stricter ring-fencing of banks’ capital reserves, and on the other there are the Business Secretary’s proposals, via Project Merlin, for banks to lend more to small businesses. Who will win this battle of economic policy—the Chancellor or the Business Secretary?
There is no dispute between the two. It is very clear that we need banks to hold more capital and, based on the work done at Basel III on the implementation of the higher level of capital, that should not restrict the amount of credit available. Yes, we need to see banks deleveraging and reducing the size of their balance sheets, but that should not be at the cost of businesses in our constituencies and across the country that need capital in order to grow and expand. Banks should be reducing their lending to each other, rather than reducing the exposure to businesses in this country.
I welcome the Financial Conduct Authority if it genuinely gives consumers greater protection. Under the current regulations, a constituent of mine, Mr Joseph Choonos, was pressured into taking out a Barclays loan in the most inappropriate way by a course provider, which then dumped the course. Barclays is now pursuing him dreadfully for the loan, which he has no way of paying back. He has no way of having a good dialogue with Barclays. If the proposals help vulnerable consumers in any way, I will be truly grateful.
I cannot comment on the case my hon. Friend raises, but we have corresponded about it. We need to see better outcomes for consumers of retail financial services. As she may be aware, we are also consulting on the future regulation of consumer credit and will announce our response to the consultation proposals shortly. One of the challenges we face is the disjointed regulation of consumer financial services. Credit, in the situation she raises, is regulated by the Office of Fair Trading, and other aspects of financial services are currently regulated by the Financial Services Authority and, in future, the Financial Conduct Authority. Whatever body is the regulator, we need to see better outcomes for our consumers, which will help to restore the trust in regulation that we all recognise is so vital.
Further to that point about the powers of the Financial Conduct Authority, will the Minister clarify whether it will have oversight of the consumer credit market, particularly the high-cost credit market, which is a source of concern for many Opposition Members? Perhaps he will take the opportunity to confirm whether the FCA’s powers of intervention could include capping the total cost that lenders can charge for lending where it is detrimental to consumers so that we can deal with the toxicity of the legal loan shark market.
The hon. Lady will have an opportunity later this afternoon to quiz me on this in more detail as we are meeting to discuss it. She will recognise that credit, particular the high-cost credit to which she refers, is currently regulated by the OFT, not the FSA. We will announce shortly our response to the consultation on who should regulate consumer credit in future.
Many of my constituents depend on the existence of a thriving financial services industry in London. They are hard-working, responsible and diligent employees and not at all deserving of the opprobrium that is often heaped on people who work in the sector. Like Professor Willem Buiter of the London School of Economics, they are very much of the view that the financial crisis damaged London’s prestige and international standing much more than it did other leading financial centres around the world. Does the Minister share that view?
The financial crisis clearly had an impact on London’s standing as a global financial centre, but my hon. Friend will be pleased to note than in the most recent survey of global financial centres London still came top. That is a recognition of London’s continued strength. It is important to ensure that we have a well-regulated and well-functioning financial services sector that can not only meet domestic demand, but serve the interests of an array of international companies. I believe that the package we have announced today, coupled with further regulatory changes being made in the European Union and internationally, will help to ensure London’s continued pre-eminence as a centre for financial services.
Before the general election, the Chancellor and the Business Secretary were involved in a verbal fistfight about who was going to be toughest on the banks, so it is not surprising that neither is here today to make this business-as-usual statement. If the previous Government were charged with light-touch regulation, are not this Government guilty of light-touch reform?
The reforms we have set out are proportionate, and the recognition of the need to strengthen the banking sector through structural reform is a significant move. We, unlike many other economies, were exposed to a financial sector challenge of some scale, and it is right to respond to that. We have ensured a proper debate about those issues, which the Independent Commission on Banking has led, and the reforms announced in its interim report have been widely welcomed. That gets the balance right. It is not about being tough or about being light touch; it is about getting things right.
Do the Government agree that the best form of regulation is exit from the market? Does the Financial Secretary agree with me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) that there should be a primary duty on the regulator to promote competition?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about exit. One area on which we are all working, not just in the UK but elsewhere, is to ensure that, when an institution fails, the matter can be resolved and that the resolution can take place without an impact on the taxpayer. That will help with competition and to tackle the broader issues, whereby taxpayers have to stand behind banks. We need to get that right.
On competition, we need to recognise that the role of regulation in financial services is quite broad. Some of it is about promoting competition, and some of it is about consumer protection when there are asymmetries of information. In the blueprint that we have published today, we see an acknowledgement of the role that competition will play, and that is why we have given the Financial Conduct Authority a primary duty to use competition in pursuit of its regulatory objectives. That gets the balance right between the different roles that the FCA has to play.
In three weeks’ time, 5 July marks the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The Minister on that day 20 years ago was a young accountant working for Price Waterhouse, the much-criticised auditors of BCCI. For 20 years, the bank has been in liquidation and for 20 years we have been asking for the publication of the confidential parts of the Bingham report, which, as the Financial Secretary will know, was the basis on which we had the system of regulation that he has just changed. Is he absolutely certain that the best way of dealing with these matters is to hand them back to the Bank of England? If he is, will he please do what the previous Government failed to do and ask the Chancellor to publish the confidential parts of the Bingham report?
I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s request, and his right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) has made a similar request, to which he did not seem to accede when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new regulatory regime does learn the lessons of the past, and the supervisory style and confused mandate of the FSA mean that we need to change.
The lesson that we have learned from the financial crisis is that, importantly, the Bank of England’s expertise in market surveillance and in understanding macro-prudential trends can best work with the needs of a micro-prudential supervisor by ensuring that that micro-prudential supervisor is an independent subsidiary of the Bank. And, just so the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) does not get the wrong impression, I did not work on the audit of BCCI.
My hon. Friend will know that the financial services industry in this country employs some 1 million people and generates £50 billion a year in tax revenues. Will he assure me that these proposals strike the right balance between protecting the consumer, whom the Financial Services Authority failed so much, and maintaining our leading position in the global financial marketplace?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the numbers of people employed in financial services not just here in London, or in Edinburgh and Glasgow, which are well-known financial services centres, but throughout the country. We need to ensure that the industry continues to be a strong contributor to employment, to economic growth and to tax revenues, and to ensure a balance so that it does not pose an excessive risk to the strength of the UK economy. The measures that we have put forward today strike the right balance between encouraging the industry to continue to be a wealth and employment creator and ensuring that the right protections are in place for consumers, so that they buy the products that those companies sell. Those companies will not thrive unless there is consumer appetite for buying pensions, for investing in their futures, for taking out deposit accounts and for buying life insurance policies. We need to get that balance right between consumer interest and business interest, but businesses will be best served if consumers feel happy about buying products from them.
The Minister rightly says that a key part of the recovery of the banking sector’s reputation is an increase in the public’s confidence in the system, and he is putting a lot of power and confidence in the role of the Bank of England. What specific new powers will the Bank have to enable more public confidence in a safer banking system in future?
The Bank of England and the FSA published a couple of weeks ago a document setting out the new regulatory approach that the PRA will set. They were clear that, rather than waiting for a bubble to burst and for problems to emerge, they will intervene earlier to force firms to take action to correct problems, and that shift in style—from waiting for a problem to happen to trying to pre-empt its creation—is absolutely vital. We are reliant on the judgment and the discretion of the regulators in following through that new regulatory approach, but rather than waiting until it is all too late, as happened in so many different examples over the past 10 years, giving the regulator the power to intervene early will have a significant benefit on outcomes for our constituents.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Does he agree that the best way to protect consumers is to have a fully functioning and competitive free market, and that the best way for the free market to work efficiently is, ultimately, for all companies, including banks, to be allowed to fail?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which goes back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) made about exit from the financial system. That is why it is important that resolution tools are in place to enable firms to be wound up in an orderly fashion, rather than being reliant on taxpayers’ money to keep them going.
The Minister is well aware that savers are getting a very low interest rate, while for those who try to borrow there are high interest rates and unattractive terms—not just for individuals but for businesses. That must be stifling the economic recovery. The banks are not meeting Project Merlin’s targets, so should not the Government use regulation and their ownership of banks to address those issues?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that it is important that banks lend to businesses. If the economy is to continue to recover and to pick up momentum, banks need to be able to lend. That is why we introduced the lending commitments under Project Merlin, and we will monitor them very carefully. We have said that we will not be afraid to use any tools at our disposal if those targets are not met.
Continuing the theme of competition, and being mindful that the Vickers report will be published in September, will the Minister assure the House or provide guidance on how any future framework will provide genuine competition? In the US, in particular, banks fail without adverse publicity or at any cost to the public purse because there is a larger proliferation of smaller banks, and that would swim against the tide of mega-super-banks, on which we have been over-reliant.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about diversity in the financial system. One of the points that the Governor of the Bank of England made in his Mansion House speech last night was about the need to reduce the barriers of entry to the banking system in order to encourage more competitors to come forward. That is an excellent way in which we can promote choice and competition and get a better outcome for consumers, whether individuals or businesses.
I, like many hon. Friends, believe the Government’s decision to proceed so quickly with a sale process for Northern Rock shows that they are willing to miss a golden opportunity to learn the lessons of the financial crisis and diversify the UK banking sector. On remutualisation, will the Minister undertake to release all the advice he has received, information on all the meetings he has been to and all the rest of the paperwork, so that we can decide—Co-operative MPs such as myself, and other Members—whether remutualisation has been taken as seriously as it should have been?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I reiterate what I said before. Yes, Northern Rock has been put up for sale. The purchaser could be a proprietary company or another mutual. An acquisition by another mutual could actually help strengthen the mutual sector. I have made it clear that as the sale process proceeds, we will compare the outcome with either an initial public offering or a stand-alone remutualisation. The challenge that those supporting a stand-alone remutualisation need to address is how we ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money from that.
Although I warmly welcome the long-term direction that the Government are taking, may I press the Minister a little further on the short-term problem of the regulators’ demands for banks to improve their balance sheets? That is leading to deleveraging, which is starving businesses of the funds that they need to provide the growth that we need. Is there any way in which we can force—or encourage, at least—the regulator to go against the cycle and, when times are tough, to be a little more relaxed and allow banks to lend more in these difficult situations?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Chancellor was very clear last night. Yes, we do want the banks to deleverage, but one way of doing that is to reduce their exposure to other banks and to the financial sector. That will give them the capacity within their capital, as they build up their capital levels, to continue to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises and larger corporates. That is one of the reasons why we set out to establish a commitment from the banks to lend up to £190 billion this year to businesses of all sizes, including £76 billion to SMEs. I think we have the right approach. We want a stronger, more sustainable banking system but we need one that will lend to small and larger businesses. Project Merlin helps us to achieve the right balance. We need the banks to deliver on that commitment.
The challenge is to make sure that we tackle the legacy that we have been left and that we get the banking system back on a firm footing. What we have announced today is a process in which the Government will cease to be a long-term investor in the banking system. We would all agree that that is the right approach.
The package of proposals that the Independent Commission on Banking is developing is aimed at tackling that. It is one of the reasons why it proposed a retail ring-fence and increased capital so that the ring-fenced retail business will continue to be strong. But we need to make sure that we have the right resolution tools in place in the event of a bank failure. I commend the previous Government for their introduction of the special resolution regime, to which I referred in my statement in the context of Southsea Mortgage and Investment Company Ltd. We need to continue to work on tools that will help us resolve a bank failure without the taxpayer having to pick up the bill. That is the position that we ought to be in.
My constituents in Kettering want to know that the household savings that they have deposited in their local high street bank are safe from financial speculation and that never again will large banking groups imperil the UK economy through unsustainable banking practices. How far does the Minister’s statement today go to reassure my constituents?
My statement today has demonstrated the action that we have taken over the past year to create a more stable and sustainable banking system. That should give comfort to my hon. Friend’s constituents in respect of the safety of their savings. Savers and depositors should be mindful of the limits on deposits imposed through the financial services compensation scheme, but the range of interventions that we are making, through this statement and further reforms, will ensure that we have a safer, more sustainable banking sector in the future—one that does not impose a burden on the taxpayer, but makes sure that it continues to meet the needs of businesses and households across this country.
Does the Financial Secretary share my astonishment at the selective recollection of historical facts by Opposition Members? The run on Northern Rock started well over a year before the global financial crisis, and it was the first run on a bank in this country for more than 100 years. In rebuilding the stability of the financial system, will the Financial Secretary repeat for my constituents the reassurance that their deposits up to £85,000 are now effectively guaranteed by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme?
My hon. Friend makes two important points. The first is to recognise the role played by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in protecting depositors up to that £85,000 limit. The other point is that there is collective amnesia among the Opposition about their role in the financial crisis. Yes, Northern Rock took place before the global financial crisis—and they were the champions of light-touch financial regulation and introduced the tripartite system of regulatory reform that was shown to fail during the crisis. The Opposition need to recognise their responsibility; until they do so, it will not be possible for them to move on.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the recent report from the other place saying that the tripartite authorities
“failed to maintain financial stability and were found wanting in dealing with the crisis, in part because the roles of the three parties were not well enough defined and it was not clear who was in charge”?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point. The failure of the financial regulatory system put in place by the Labour party when in government was hard-wired into the system. It was destined to fail because of the failure to identify a clear match between the people who had the power and those who had the responsibilities for managing financial stability. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The previous system was destined to fail. We have learned the lessons from that crisis; I am not sure that the Labour party has.
I welcome the statement and the announcements today. However, will my hon. Friend elucidate on the expected time frame for the setting up of the new regulatory bodies? There must be at least a risk that one or more bodies that are being abolished will take their eye off the ball while they are doing their work, and there will be a time frame before the new bodies are set up.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We hope that the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill will start shortly. It is programmed to take 12 sitting weeks. We want to make sure that the legislation progresses through this House and the other place as quickly as possible and that it is properly scrutinised. We need to make sure that we do not make mistakes in haste that we repent of at leisure. It is also important to recognise that the FSA is starting to adopt the new style of supervision that we would like to see it exercise, and that should give us some comfort that the lessons have been learned and are now being put into practice.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, which I am sure will go a long way towards reintroducing stability within the economy in general and the banking system. What reassurance can he give that the stability will apply to the banks as well as consumers, so that the banks can go on generating wealth? That will reduce the risk that banks’ headquarters will leave the UK to establish elsewhere.