I would like to make a statement on the final report of the Independent Commission on Banking. The report is an impressive piece of work, broad in scope, incisive in its analysis and clear in its recommendations. The Commission has done what we asked it to do; it has come up with an answer to the question of how Britain can be the home of successful international banks that lend to families and businesses without exposing British taxpayers to the massive costs of those banks failing. Frankly, it is a question that should have been asked and answered a decade ago. We should all thank Sir John Vickers and the other members of the commission—Clare Spottiswoode, Martin Taylor, Bill Winters and Martin Wolf—for a job well done.
The commission and its report have not come about by accident. It was set up by the coalition Government to learn the lessons of what went so catastrophically wrong: a decade-long, debt-fuelled boom that ended in a dramatic financial crisis, a deep recession and a debt overhang that is still holding back our economy; a regulatory system that totally failed to spot enormous imbalances building up and proved incapable of dealing with the crisis when it first broke; and most importantly, in the context of this report, huge global banks that turned out to be “too big to fail”, so that taxpayers were called upon for many billions of pounds in order to prevent a financial meltdown. We still do not know, and may not know for many years, how much of that money will ever be recovered, despite promises made at the time that not a penny would be lost.
We are fundamentally changing the system of regulation and tackling the debts, but the bail-out for banks is the element of the crisis that has, justifiably, caused the most anger. It is an affront both to fairness and to the very principles of a market economy. It is not available to any other sector of the economy, nor should it be. It breaks the principle that those who take risks should face the consequences of their actions. As a result, it played an important role in encouraging the excessive risk taking that caused the crisis.
Of course, taxpayer bail-outs did not happen only in this country. An international regulatory response to the crisis is now emerging, with the new Basel rules and the anticipated new additional requirements for systemic banks, but here in Britain we cannot rely only on the international reform process to make our banking system safe. The challenge we face, and the risk for our taxpayers, is different from that in most other countries. The balance sheet of our banking system is close to 500% of our GDP, compared with just over 100% in the US and around 300% in Germany and France. Only Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland had larger banking systems, relative to their GDP, and they have all now taken action that goes well beyond new international standards. As the report states,
“part of the challenge for reform is to reconcile the UK’s position as an international financial centre with stable banking”.
This is what I have called the British dilemma: how to remain a successful global centre of finance without asking taxpayers to bear unacceptable risks or putting the broader economy at risk. We set up the Banking Commission to help us solve the British dilemma.
“the objective of such a ring-fence would be to isolate those banking activities where continuous provision of service is vital to the economy and to a bank’s customers.”
The costs should fall on shareholders and the wholesale debt holders, not on small depositors or on taxpayers. A successful ring fence will be able to ensure the continuation of vital payment services that are crucial to preventing an economic collapse, and this directly addresses the perceived implicit taxpayer guarantee, which is at the heart of the too-big-to-fail problem.
The commission has also proposed a more flexible ring fence. In terms of scope, it says that
“domestic retail banking services should be inside the ring fence, global wholesale/investment banking should be outside, and the provision of straightforward banking services to large domestic non-financial companies can be in or out.”
Many will see this as sensible, and it will reduce inefficiencies resulting from any mismatch between customer deposits and business lending within an individual bank.
On the strength—or height, if you like—of the ring fence, the commission recommends that the retail subsidiary should have what it calls “economic independence”. In other words, it should meet regulatory requirements on a stand-alone basis, and its relationships with other parts of the group should be at arm’s length and regulated in the same way as relationships with third parties. A great deal of detailed work will now be required to see how that principle can be put into practice.
Secondly, the commission has also made important recommendations to ensure that banks have bigger cushions to withstand losses, so the large retail ring-fenced banks should have equity capital of at least 10%. It also recommends that retail and other activities of large UK banking groups should both have primary loss-absorbing capacity of at least 17% to 20%, including long-term debt that can be written off, so that, unlike last time, both shareholders and bondholders bear losses, not the taxpayer. Within that, the commission recommends some regulatory discretion over the composition of this loss-absorbing capacity, and again many will see that as sensible.
Thirdly, the commission recommends the introduction of depositor preference. I repeat again in this House that the Financial Services Compensation Scheme covers 100% of eligible deposits up to the new European limit of €100,000, or £85,000. The depositor preference proposals would bolster the scheme by ensuring that other bank creditors were subject to losses first when a bank went bust, minimising the cost to the scheme and ultimately to the taxpayer.
The fourth set of recommendations relates to competition in the banking sector. These have not had as much attention as the other recommendations, but they are arguably as important to families and businesses. I agree with the commission that the best way to ensure a reliable and affordable supply of lending to our families and businesses is through competition.
The collapse of banks such as Bradford & Bingley and the merger of Lloyds and HBOS, which the previous Government welcomed, means that there is too little competition and switching bank accounts remains difficult. I welcome the commission’s recommendations to change that.
On the divestment of the Lloyds branches, the commission has said that the key test should be the emergence of a strong and effective new challenger bank, and I agree that that would be very much in our country’s interest.
Those are the recommendations. Let me turn to the implications for the wider economy, the implications for Britain as a global financial centre and the timetable for the Government’s response.
The report is clear that the right solution, implemented properly and to the right timetable, will help our economy, not hinder it. Let us remember that the mistakes made by poorly regulated banks ended up costing the economy many, many billions of pounds. The commission notes that some of its recommendations could reduce the profitability of some banks’ investment banking operations, and that is largely because we would be removing the subsidy that comes from any perceived implicit taxpayer guarantee. We should not confuse the interest of bank shareholders with those of the British taxpayer.
It is also critical that reforms of this kind do not lead to worsening credit conditions in the economy. Indeed, John Vickers says:
“Banks with more robust capital, together with the creation of the ring-fence, would provide a secure and stable framework for the supply of credit to businesses and households in the UK economy.”
The commission believes that its proposals could help to rebuild the culture of relationship banking which has been so sadly lost over the past decades, and that would help banks to understand the credit needs of their customers better.
Let me turn to the UK’s role as a global centre for finance and banking. I will be very clear: the Government want Britain and the City of London to be the pre-eminent global centre for banking and finance; and we want universal banks headquartered here, with all the advantages that that brings. The Vickers report explicitly addresses this issue, and, for those investment banks with credible recovery plans, it has not recommended higher equity requirements than those agreed at an international level.
This means that the global investment banking operations of UK banks can continue to be as competitive as any in the world, and we as a Government will continue to keep the City as a whole internationally competitive, as was clear last week when we welcomed, with the Chinese Government, the development of the offshore renminbi—RMB—market in London.
Let me end by explaining to the House how we will now take forward the commission’s report. We have welcomed the recommendations in principle. They would require far-reaching and complex changes; John Vickers is the first to say that they cannot be delivered overnight. The detailed work will start immediately. We will consult on the costs and benefits of the most appropriate way to implement these changes—and we will provide a response by the end of this year so that there is no uncertainty hanging over the industry. We will legislate in this Parliament to put the needed changes into law. We will consider which changes can be in the existing draft Financial Services Bill and which will need a new Bill, and we will discuss these changes with international partners to ensure consistency with international agreements and EU law. We will follow the advice of the independent commission and ensure that any changes to the British banking system are fully completed by 2019. This is a sensible timetable that fits with the international regime. As John Vickers himself said this morning,
“short-termism got us into this mess and we need long-termism to build a more stable system for the future”.
The question of how Britain can be the home of successful, global banks that lend to British families and businesses but do not have to be bailed out by British taxpayers should have been answered a decade ago, but it was not even asked—and that failure means this country is still paying the price for that failure. Billions of pounds have been spent and hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost as a result. It is this coalition Government who set up the Independent Commission on Banking—not just to ask the questions but to provide the answers. Today represents a decisive moment when we take a step towards a new banking system that works for Britain. I commend this statement to the House.
Let me start by expressing our thanks to Sir John Vickers and the Independent Commission on Banking for producing a report which will radically reshape our banking industry and our wider economy and which will echo all around the world. It is now the task of the Government and this Parliament to respond to its recommendations in an equally balanced, radical and timely manner, because taxpayers, customers and businesses want radical action. They were shocked and angered by the irresponsible actions of banks in New York, in London, in Frankfurt and in Amsterdam which caused the global financial crisis. But while they are angry at the banks, they are also angry with the regulators, the central bankers and the Governments who failed to foresee and prevent this irresponsibility.
As I have said before, for the part that I and the last Labour Government played in that global regulatory failure, I am deeply sorry. But let me say to Conservative Members and, in particular, to the Chancellor, who accused me in 2006 of supporting
regulation which, he said, would make
“cross-border market penetration more difficult”
“threatens the global competitiveness of the City of London”,
that perhaps the Chancellor also needs to show a little humility about that global regulatory failure.
In April, I set three tests which I believe the Government must meet in implementing banking reform: to protect taxpayers in the future; to secure international agreement to protect jobs in Britain; and to deliver a wider banking system to support the wider long-term interests of our economy. I will take them in turn. First, to protect taxpayers, we support the commission’s radical reforms on ring-fencing and regulatory standards. Unlike the Chancellor, who revealingly supports them in principle, we agree with the Business Secretary and support them in practice. We agree with the commission, which says that the current weak state of the economy does not weaken but strengthens the case for reform. These are complex reforms, and the cautious timetable that the commission has set is understandable. However, given the unsettling public bickering we have seen within the Cabinet in recent weeks, we strongly agree that the Government must provide clarity about their view of the commission’s recommendations as soon as possible—and move rapidly to put in place the necessary legislation and rules.
So let me ask the Chancellor this: will he agree to publish, by end of this year, alongside his response, a detailed implementation plan for the commission’s recommendations on ring-fencing, including clear milestone dates? Will he agree to legislate as many of these changes as possible in the draft Financial Services Bill? To make sure that there is no foot-dragging—to move beyond principle to practice—will he agree with our proposal to ask the Vickers commission to come back in 12 months’ time and publish an independent report on progress so far?
On the second test of securing international agreement, will the Chancellor ensure that the Vickers report is placed firmly at the centre of the global financial reform agenda? Will he set out a plan and timetable for that international process? In recent months, he has failed to deliver international leadership on the eurozone. If he fails on this agenda, we will see a global race to the bottom, with other financial services centres taking short-term advantage of our tougher approach, which would put thousands of UK jobs at risk.
Thirdly, on competition in the wider economy, the commission is right to highlight the costs to consumers and businesses of excessive concentration in UK banking. Greater competition is not the whole answer to the culture of short-termism that still plagues our capital markets, but we fully support the commission’s recommendations on divestiture, a new challenger bank, easier account switching and a stronger competition duty on the new financial regulator. However, until 2015 is too long to wait to judge whether progress is sufficient or whether we need a referral to the Competition Commission. Delays could leave consumers and small businesses to pick up an unfair share of the multi-billion pound bill for tougher capital standards. Will the Chancellor therefore commit to review progress not in four years, but in two years in 2013—two years earlier than the commission recommends?
Finally, none of these reforms can help the thousands of small businesses that are currently struggling to access the credit they need. As the Bank of England has confirmed, net bank lending to business is not rising, but falling. It is down £4 billion in the most recent figures, despite the Chancellor’s toothless Merlin deal with the banks. Will the Chancellor agree today to ensure that state-owned banks increase their lending in the coming months? Will he act now to have greater transparency on pay and bonuses and repeat the bank bonus tax for a second year? Will he recognise that rising unemployment and a flatlining economy will further depress confidence and small business borrowing until he changes course and adopts a plan B for growth and jobs? Today’s report provides some of the answers to the pressing problems we face; it is time the Chancellor woke up to the rest.
Let me start by welcoming the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the report of the Independent Banking Commission. I welcome the fact that he now wants to see it implemented in this country, as I understand it, even if the changes are not implemented abroad. That is a change in his position from April, which I welcome. We all enjoyed his apology for what went wrong. He has another four years of those, I think, before he makes up for the horrendous mistakes that were made.
The right hon. Gentleman was the Minister responsible for the City when Northern Rock totally lost control of its wholesale funding; he was the Minister responsible for the City when RBS launched its takeover of ABN AMRO; he was the Minister responsible for the City when HBOS was making all those unsupportable loans. No one in this House knows more about how to get it wrong than the right hon. Gentleman. He talks about unseemly bickering on the Government Front Bench, yet we have just been reading the memoirs of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), who is no doubt about to speak. What he reveals about the regime that the shadow Chancellor operated shows that this is the pot calling the kettle black, to put it mildly.
Let me come on to the specific points that the right hon. Gentleman made. First, on the legislation in this Parliament and the draft Financial Services Bill, he is trying to make hay by exploiting a completely false distinction between principle and practice. We support these measures in principle and will put them into practice through detailed legislation. One cannot support all of this in practice because it requires detailed legislation, which even John Vickers says is not for the commission. Let there be no doubt that we support the Banking Commission’s report and that we will legislate in this Parliament. The draft Financial Services Bill might well be a vehicle for implementing some of the changes, but we might also require a separate Bill. That is partly because we need to get the draft Financial Services Bill through the House so that the new regulatory regime, which we are also introducing, is up and running by the beginning of 2013. As I said, I think it is sensible to stick with the proposal put forward by John Vickers that we set ourselves the deadline of legislating in this Parliament.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the international environment. He knows, as many hon. Members do, that there has been a lot of movement on the international front to introduce the new Basel requirements, which are, of course, on the same timetable as the Vickers proposal that the changes should be completed by 2019. Those are sensible changes, but we will argue for other changes that we would like to see at international level, not least the implementation of some of the agreements made under both this Government and the previous one at G20 level, on such things as bankers’ pay and remuneration. We want to see those properly implemented in all regimes. Of course, we hope that other jurisdictions, the Financial Stability Board and others will look at the report, but John Vickers was not asked to produce a regime for the world; he was asked to produce a regime for the UK to reflect the fact that we have 500% banking assets as a proportion of our GDP.
Thirdly, I am afraid that I just do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman on competition, and nor does John Vickers. The right hon. Gentleman says that we should have a Competition Commission inquiry in 2013, but my office has contacted the secretariat of the Banking Commission today to ask it for its view. The commission said that the reason why it chose 2015 is that three vital things that it wants to be operational, including the new challenger bank and the new switching of bank accounts proposals, do not come into effect until 2013. By the way, the latter is a very significant proposal, and I hope that it will get some coverage in the media among all the discussion of investment banking—the proposal is that people can easily switch their current accounts, and their direct debits and so on will follow automatically. However, that does not come into effect until 2013, and the Financial Conduct Authority is not operational till 2013.
The Banking Commission considered that timetable, and it thinks that 2015 is the right year in which to consider whether the changes are working in practice. I agree very much with that—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says “12 months”, but he had 13 years to get these changes right. At the last general election, I remember having a debate with my colleague the Business Secretary and others in this House. The only party arguing against structural change of the banking system was the Labour party, so it is simply ludicrous of the shadow Chancellor to suggest that we are dragging our feet. We are getting on with it. We have produced this report within a year and a half of being in government, and now we are getting on and putting it into practice, so that we do not make the mistakes he made when he was in office.
After that uncharacteristically guilt-racked contribution by the shadow Chancellor, may I, by contrast, applaud the Chancellor for appointing this Banking Commission and for withstanding the intensive lobbying against it by the very same universal banks that very nearly destroyed the world economy? May I thank him also for accepting the recommendations of the Vickers commission? Finally, may I put it to him that I very much hope that we will proceed as he has promised, not only with legislation in this Parliament, but in implementing it as soon as possible, and well before 2019, when the long grass may have grown into a forest?
Well, I think my right hon. Friend was certainly alive when Messrs Glass and Steagall were, which most Members of the House could not say.
I respect my right hon. Friend’s experience. He has long argued for some form of separation between retail and investment banking and has been consistent in making that argument. Events have borne out his advice to successive Governments.
We asked John Vickers carefully to consider the timetable, and he gave a lot of thought to it. He recommends that all the changes should be completed by 2019, but that other changes should take place at earlier dates—he specifies those dates in his work. The 2019 back-stop is appropriate, because that is the date when the international rules also need to be in place. We should not underestimate the huge amount of work to be done in this House to get the report turned into legislation that works and that people do not find ways around.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for plugging my book, but when he gets a chance to read it, I think that he will see that political parties on both sides of the House went along with the culture that led to some of the problems we had to deal with and that some of the shrillest voices calling for light-touch regulation were those of Members now sitting on the Treasury Bench. Will he tell us a bit more about what discussions he proposes having with other Governments, in view of the interconnected nature of the banking system, which is only as strong as its weakest part? Will he also deal with the erroneous assumption that there will never be a case in the future when a Government might have to bail out an investment bank? We should remember what happened to Lehman Brothers. It cannot ever be said that we will never have to do that again, even with a bank that is not thought now to be systemically important. I welcome the report, but it has to be seen as part of a wider range of reforms necessary to make our banking system stronger and more secure.
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s experience of having been through all that he went through as Chancellor. He had to deal with these problems in real time over long weekends, and I have paid tribute previously to the work that he did on behalf of our country in those difficult months. As for his book, I have only just started reading it, but as far as I can see, I get off relatively lightly compared to the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown).
The right hon. Gentleman made a good point about the interconnectedness of the banking system. The Basel rules are significant, and I believe that that process was initiated when he was Chancellor and representing the United Kingdom. New arrangements have been agreed in record time. It took 10 years to come up with Basel II, but about 18 months to come up with Basel III. The international rules are important because they help us to deal with investment banks in foreign jurisdictions, such as Lehman Brothers, and to protect all globally systemically important banks and give them bigger cushions. As he well knows, new proposals are coming down the track for additional capital requirements on the most globally systemically important banks. That is significant. Also, we are putting in place the recovery-and-resolution ideas that, again, he initiated when he was Chancellor in order to ensure that we can deal with the failure of the UK end of an American investment bank. That will ensure that these banks do not just live internationally and die nationally, but that we can resolve any problems.
I would make a broader point, however. Yes, we have to do that at an international level, but we also have to consider regimes that have large concentrations of banking, such as Switzerland—let us, for a moment, leave aside Ireland and Iceland, which were obviously virtually bankrupted by what happened. It is interesting that Switzerland, which, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is as keen as anyone to remain internationally competitive, has introduced its own domestic regime for its banks. It is wholly appropriate for us to consider doing that in this country while, of course, recommending to other countries changes that we think are sensible for all jurisdictions.
Sir John Vickers has made a strong case both on competition, on which he has endorsed proposals from the Treasury Committee, and on the ring fence, on which the Committee will now be taking evidence from him. On the timing of implementation, however, rather than adding a ring fence to the list of measures in the current Financial Services Bill, which is already long and complex, surely it is sensible to commit now to a separate ring-fencing Bill in this Parliament, while making it clear now that full implementation of the higher capital and debt requirements, which might lead in the short term to lending risks, can be left at least until 2018 or possibly later?
The Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee makes a sensible suggestion. It is likely—I do not want to say certain—that we will need a separate piece of legislation on some of these specific changes to banking. However, I hope that we can also use the Financial Services Bill to implement other key parts of the reform. That is the case because we want to get this right. The draft Bill is currently being discussed by the Joint Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), and we simply will not be able to produce all that detail in the next couple of months before the Bill is introduced. We have to get this right. As John Vickers said, short-termism got us into this mess, and we need a bit of long-termism to get it right. However, I hope that the commitment to legislate in this Parliament reassures people that it is going to happen in this Parliament. This bunch of Ministers, this Government, will be held accountable if we do not legislate in this Parliament. We have given a clear commitment, and I am sure that the work of the Treasury Committee, which my hon. Friend chairs, in looking at how this report can be put into practice will be very valuable.
Why effect a firewall between retail and investment banking—which is highly complex and which the banks will use every device to get round—rather than effecting a clean break, which provided 60 years of stable banking after the great depression? Why wait eight years to implement some of the changes, when that will continue to expose taxpayers to another financial crash and when the banks are still too big to fail?
One of the original purposes of creating the Banking Commission was to try to resolve the argument, which is held in this Chamber and elsewhere, about whether to split banks, ring-fence them or leave things as they are. In this report John Vickers goes through all the arguments for a complete separation of the banks and comes down on the side of saying that it would not be sensible. He thinks that the cost to the economy would be particularly high, and without any real stability benefits. He also thinks that there are circumstances where one would want a retail bank to be supported by the rest of the bank—the investment bank—and have money transferred into it, which would enhance stability. The third point, which will not be universally popular in this Chamber, is that such a separation would be almost unenforceable under European law, because other European banks—or, indeed, one of our banks that had moved to another European jurisdiction—could passport money in. For those three reasons, John Vickers does not think it sensible to split the banks up.
Reform of the banks was one of the key foundation stones of the coalition Government, so I very much welcome today’s report. The public will certainly expect this Government to legislate as soon as possible to enact the various parts of the report, but they will need a reassurance today that there will be no excuse for the banks not returning to lending to small and medium-sized businesses, which are so necessary for our economies to return to sustainable growth.
The agreement among my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Business Secretary, me, the Prime Minister and other members of the coalition Government has been solid on this report. Anyone who has been looking for disagreement in the coalition has not really been able to find it today because both parties agreed that this was a good idea and we both support the report’s conclusions. On lending, briefly, we have the Merlin agreements and we are trying to protect small and medium-sized businesses as these huge banks deleverage, and the process has helped to do that. Indeed, the targets are for a big increase in small business lending, and I am confident that they will be met.
It does not take an expert in forecasting—or even the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to foresee large banks seeking to use the proposed changes to increase restrictions on customers accessing bank accounts, cashpoints and other services, or to impose charges for bank accounts. What reassurance can the Chancellor provide me and my constituents that his Government will not let that happen?
As I said in my initial statement, an important part of this report—it will not be at the top of the evening news tonight, but it is important—is the proposals to enhance competition on the high street and create a new challenger bank, so that customers have real choices. There is also a proposal for a free service that would enable anyone who wanted to switch their current account to do so almost immediately, with all their direct debits and all the other things attached to their account switched too. That will really help customers to shop around—at the moment, customers do not switch their current accounts because they think that it would be too difficult and cumbersome—and is one of the most retail-friendly proposals in the report.
If there is one class of people more unpopular than MPs, it is bankers—and I know where all the populist pressure is coming from. However, regulators do not create wealth; they stifle it. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that we have to live in the real world and that London’s pre-eminent position is based on the fact that we have the lightest regulatory regime in Europe? Will he undertake to preserve that for the sake of our wealth creation and not kill the goose that lays the golden egg?
Well, it was not much of a golden egg, unfortunately, in recent years. It is important for this country that London, Edinburgh and other centres remain globally competitive and that London remains the pre-eminent global centre for finance. Some of the changes taking place in the City, such as the one I mentioned, involving trying to develop an offshore renminbi market, are all part of London being a competitive place to do business. However, being a competitive place in which to do financial services does not mean that there has to be a huge taxpayer subsidy for universal banks and their retail banking arms in the UK. John Vickers explicitly deals with the competition issue. People might have expected him to come to a different conclusion on this, but one of the interesting things he said was that we should not impose additional capital-to-equity ratios on investment banks, precisely because he does not want us to make them internationally uncompetitive.
I thank the Chancellor for his statement, and for giving me early sight of it. I congratulate the commission on the report, and particularly on the report’s dealing with the resilience in the banks and its rejection of splitting up the universal banks in favour of flexible ring-fencing. However, the timetable for this is eight years from today until the final implementation. That is necessary because of the complexity and the potential cost to the banks of implementation, but will the Chancellor ensure that the banks do not consider the next eight years to be a hiatus during which they can return to business, and bonuses, as usual? Will he also ensure that he drives forward as many of these recommendations as he can as quickly as possible before the 2019 backstop?
I will not repeat what I have said about the timetable. Suffice it to say that it is what John Vickers recommended, having really thought about it. This involves a combination of getting the detail right and ensuring that the changes do not unduly damage credit supply in the short term. That is why he has recommended a longer timetable. As he pointed out at his press conference this morning, once we propose such changes and start to legislate for them, some of them will start to happen anyway as banks try to get ahead of the curve—that is certainly what happened with Basel, although they were arguably too quick to get ahead of the curve in that instance—and that is what he anticipates happening when the changes are introduced.
Given the report’s emphasis not only on the size of the British banking sector but on the lack of competition within it, will the Chancellor assure the House that he will follow through on the recommendations to encourage new and challenger banks to provide the finance that our small businesses desperately need?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The report addresses the issue of Lloyds, which is required to sell branches under European Union state aid requirements. John Vickers thinks that the key test for the Government’s handling of the Lloyds issue will be whether we have created an effective challenger bank. He thinks that any such new bank should have about 6% of the personal current account market, which is more than the state aid proposals would lead to, and that it should be properly funded. I take those recommendations very seriously.
What reassurance can the Chancellor give the House that the ring-fencing will be effective at the time when it is most likely to be tested—namely, in the run-up to another debt or liquidity crisis? I listened to his earlier answer about the investment banks putting money into the high street banks, and about that being an advantage for the proposals for ring-fencing, but I have to tell him that I do not find that wholly convincing. If the idea is to get support, he has to be able to explain to the House how this proposal will work when it is required to do so.
In a sense, the right hon. Gentleman is right. The proof of all the arrangements that we are putting in place, and the international arrangements, will be in the pudding—although it is not really the kind of pudding that we want, because it is a banking crisis.
Yes, perhaps there are too many kitchen metaphors. The point I was making is that we are trying to clean up the mess.
We should not just assume that banking crashes happen every 70 or 100 years. We must hope that they will never happen at all, but we need to put in place the regulatory arrangements, capital requirements and structural changes that will ensure that the person who is in the hot seat the next time it happens, and has to do the job that the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) had to do, will have more tools available to him than the right hon. Gentleman had as Chancellor.
Regulation in the banking sector has already changed beyond all recognition. In my view, the best bit of that regulation is giving accountability back to the Bank of England. There is no doubt, however, that yet more regulation will have a cost. We can see from bank share prices now that investors already think that the future of the banks is not as glowing as it was. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order for small and medium-sized enterprises and personal current account customers to benefit in the future, we need a more diversified banking sector and we need to encourage more competition and to go beyond what the Vickers commission is doing by promoting it through the Financial Conduct Authority as well as through our implementation of the Independent Commission on Banking proposals.
I hesitate to read out bank share prices, as they might have changed in the 45 minutes I have been on my feet The reaction from the banks today has not dramatically affected the prices of UK bank shares. There has not been a dramatic fall, nor indeed a dramatic rise. They have remained broadly flat—unlike those of French and German banks, which are very substantially down today. What that also suggests is that John Vickers—and, I would argue, the Government—did a good job in trying to price the proposals into the share price by giving clear signposts about the way in which we were going, so that it did not come as a big surprise. I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the Financial Conduct Authority. As a member of the Select Committee, she can look at some of the Vickers’ proposals potentially to change the FCA’s remit. We need to consider that, as do Members who are looking at the Bill.
I, too, used the phrase “back-stop” in the statement. Vickers recommends that the changes be completed by 2019, but also recommended in his press conference that they be legislated for in this Parliament and that some of the changes might take place before that. We need to consider all these issues, but I think we need to pay attention to the 2019 date that Vickers sets out in his report.
Yes, I will certainly do that. One of the discussions going on in international circles at the moment is how to make all the various standard-setting bodies more accountable. They are very powerful institutions now and they are not really accountable to national Parliaments or international bodies that represent national Governments. Discussion is going on about how the Financial Stability Board, which is the organisation that brings together different banking areas and different countries to discuss regulation, might be able to make the international accounting standards more accountable.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are going to be at the heart of any future economic recovery. I went around a number of businesses in my constituency during the summer recess and the message I was getting, which is different from what the Chancellor has said, was that they are still finding it difficult to get banks to provide lending and support. What is the Chancellor going to do about it? Those businesses cannot wait around for a few years for legislation to happen, so what is the Chancellor going to do today, next week and next month to improve the lending and support from banks, as it is still a problem for the businesses in my constituency?
I have already talked about how the Merlin agreements try to protect and indeed increase small and medium-sized business lending at a time when many of these banks are shrinking their balance-sheets, which were over-extended. We have talked a lot about timetables. The Lloyds divestment and the creation of a new challenger bank are things that have to be got on with this year. The offer has to be put to bidders this year and it must be completed by 2013—and, hopefully, sooner. In other words, we are encouraging the creation of a new presence on the high street, which should give the hon. Gentleman’s constituents greater choice and competition.
This report is warmly welcomed, as, indeed, is the Chancellor’s response. It has to be said, however, that 2019 is a long time away. Will the Chancellor reassure the House, business and the public by publishing as soon as possible the specific route by which these recommendations will be implemented?
As I have said, the 2019 back-stop is the considered view of John Vickers and his commission. They have spent an enormous amount of time thinking about this, about trying to get the balance right between getting the rules in place, getting the rules right, and ensuring that they do not damage credit supply in the short term, about which many Members have asked. The report contains other milestones—some of the changes that he wants to see put into place by 2013, for example. John Vickers has done a good piece of work, and given a lot of thought to the issues, and I do not want to second-guess them just hours after he has published his report. We will produce a full, detailed response to the report by the end of the year.
The Chancellor has referred to Project Merlin, which is generally regarded as a fairly ineffectual agreement, not least because, according to Bank of England figures, net lending to small and medium-sized enterprises has contracted month on month. Across the House, we can agree that it would be undesirable for politicians to seek directly to run the banks in which we have a public stake, but surely that should not preclude the Chancellor asking United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd to ensure that the banks change the culture that they exercise towards SMEs. When was the Chancellor’s last discussion with UKFI about that?
I talk to UKFI all the time, and one of the things I talk about is ensuring that the banks in which we have a public ownership of shares are meeting their Merlin lending targets. I congratulate Lloyds, which has changed its operations and advertising campaigns and has tried to encourage small business lending. The hon. Gentleman talks about targets, but again there is complete amnesia about the fact that Labour were in government about 18 months ago. The Labour Government introduced net lending targets, which he wants us to introduce, abandoned them after 12 months, after those targets were completely missed, and then said in the House of Commons that they would introduce gross lending targets for two banks, RBS and Lloyds. We have not just stuck with the methodology that they developed, but have extended it to the entire banking system. Before they criticise those trying to clear up the mess, Labour should remember what they did in office.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comment that we should not confuse the interests of bank shareholders with those of taxpayers. Should we not also remind ourselves, however, that unless the shareholders are doing well, the bank balance sheets will not be doing well, and ultimately small business borrowers will not be doing well? He is winning the argument on the reforms, but will he reassure the House that he is mindful of the cost of capital of banks? By raising business costs for banks, we would be in danger not only of driving them offshore, but of raising the costs of capital for UK business.
Of course, that is the difficult balance that we all must get right. The challenge is to ensure that banks can lend well, as people have been asking them to, while at the same time ensuring that they have a greater cushion should things go wrong. In his report, one of the things that John Vickers points to is that if a bank is ring-fenced, its retail deposits are more likely to be used to support retail lending than to support an investment bank’s activities. He thinks that the ring fence could positively enhance lending opportunities for ring-fenced banks.
Given that Northern Rock had no investment arm and Lehmans had no retail arm, does the Chancellor have any sympathy with the view that ring-fencing will add little over the proper capital requirements and ethical investment decisions that Vickers calls for, save for £6 billion additional cost to the UK economy?
The short answer is no, I do not. On pages 31, 32 and 33, the report of John Vickers and his commission goes through how the reforms would have improved the situation regarding Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers, RBS and HBOS. We must remember that the reforms are in the round. I have been asked a lot about ring-fencing and retail lending, but there are also higher capital requirements, and a requirement for a loss-absorbing cushion for bondholders. Those changes would also have helped with Northern Rock. On top of that, the new regulatory regime would, I hope, have exercised more judgment.
Of course, the ring-fencing idea, which is just one of the four or five major recommendations, is only really relevant to universal banks. The only universal bank listed by the hon. Gentleman that went wrong is RBS. As is clear from the memoirs of the former Chancellor, ring-fencing would have helped enormously to resolve the problems of a very complex universal bank without the need for recourse to the taxpayer.
The ICB’s ring-fencing proposals are not so very different from the Glass–Steagall provisions that existed in the United States. I worked for a United States bank under Glass–Steagall. I was also there when Glass–Steagall was abolished in 1999, and witnessed the adverse change in behaviour. On the basis of my experience at the coalface, may I reassure the Chancellor that he is right to welcome the proposals?
My hon. Friend—who wrote what I thought was a very good piece for The Times, published on 9 September—has made a point based on his personal experience. I may or may not offend someone when I say that he is probably the most senior former investment banker in the House of Commons.
That is because they leave the House of Commons and go to work for investment banks.
My hon. Friend's experience was that an investment bank had many incentives to use retail deposits to subsidise its activity. That was not always right, and Glass–Steagall helped to stop it. We are not reintroducing Glass–Steagall, or introducing it in the United Kingdom; we have a different set of proposals which John Vickers has spent time developing, and I think that they meet the challenge that my hon. Friend set out in his article.
The House will certainly have welcomed the statement that retail banks are likely in the future to funnel their deposits into domestic lending rather than the vast maw of the money markets. The Chancellor has said that there ought to be 10% capital for the retail banks. Presumably that is high-quality equity, and it is reported that a further 10% of non-equity may be required. May I ask the Chancellor to ensure that the capital requirements are no greater than those of Basel III? Too tall a requirement might cut across growth, and cut across lending to the small and medium-sized business sector.
Osborne: The 10% capital requirement against risk-weighted assets is based on the same definition as, and goes a bit beyond, the Basel rules, which recommend 7%. At present, however, the Financial Stability Board is developing proposals to add 2.5% for large, systemically important banks such as RBS and Barclays. The difference will be between 9.5% and 10%, which is quite close, for the retail ring-fenced side. On the investment side, as I have said, the commission does not recommend going beyond the international rules in order to keep London competitive.
On that point, let me say that I welcome the careful timetable that has been set out. That is particularly important when the Government are prepared to act unilaterally, which the last Government were not prepared to do.
May I urge the Chancellor, when faced with the inevitable whingeing from banks saying that they are considering leaving the United Kingdom, to bear it in mind that the UK retail business is unbelievably profitable, and to say that banks that want to leave should exit their business or be invited to do so?
I agree with my hon. Friend that London and the United Kingdom constitute a very attractive place in which to locate a universal bank. We have what I think will be the best regulatory regime in the world, with the best regulators. We also have a good rule of law. This is a good place in which to live, and it happens to have a good time zone as well. All those factors make it a very good place from which to run financial services.
The Chancellor may recall that the coalition agreement called for net lending targets for the nationalised banks. Why did the Project Merlin deal involve much weaker targets for gross lending?
May I commend the Chancellor on setting up the commission and on making such an unambiguous statement today? Will he confirm that he has the full backing of the Government, and that No. 10 will not be unleashing the “forces of hell” on No. 11?
The commission appears to have diluted its interim proposal to place a duty on the regulator to promote competition, but the Treasury Committee stated in its report on this subject that that was a crucial recommendation. The Chancellor has mentioned the importance of competition on numerous occasions today. Will he look again at this recommendation and ensure that we maximise the opportunities to improve competition in the market for the benefit of consumers and taxpayers?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is being entirely fair. A specific part of the report deals with the remit of the new Financial Conduct Authority, and it says that—although we have changed our proposal in the light of the interim report, as I announced at the Mansion House—we could go further and make the requirement to promote competition an overriding duty on the authority. We should look at that over the next couple of months. I would welcome the input of the Select Committee, and we could respond later this year.
On the impact of these reforms on lending, does the Chancellor agree that bad banks are bad for growth too, and therefore strengthening our banks and financial services industry, as proposed in the report, is good for the UK economy?
Yes, in short: I agree with my hon. Friend. John Vickers and his commissioners explicitly address the costs and benefits of these changes, and although they accept that there will be some additional costs, they will be more than outweighed by the broader benefits that include the benefits of having an environment in which banks are seen as more stable and the benefit to the UK economy of retail banks using their retail deposits to support retail lending.
Some 100,000 jobs in Edinburgh are reliant on the financial services sector, including many tens of thousands in my constituency. How can the Chancellor reassure the House and my constituents that the banks will not pay the cost of implementing the Vickers report recommendations by cutting my constituents’ jobs?
Of course, one of the groups of people who are the innocent victims of what went wrong are the many people who worked in the branches of banks such as RBS and HBOS throughout the country and who lost their jobs even though they were not investment bankers working in the City of London or trading mortgage derivatives and so forth. I hope that we can now build a successful and competitive banking system that, in Scotland and elsewhere, hires people, opens branches and reverses the trend of recent years. Such groups of people have definitely been the innocent victims of what went wrong and we must do right by them.
Of course, we all want to see the return of the banks to the private sector. If truth be told, the big fall in recent months in the share prices of these banks and others—American and European—around the world have pushed that timetable back a little further. I do not think that that is a surprise to anyone. Our objective is to get these banks back into private hands, and Northern Rock—the good part of Northern Rock, I should stress—is currently up for sale.
Many of my constituents worked for HBOS, and some of them still work for Lloyds TSB. Many of them—and many people throughout the country—would like to know whether the Banking Commission report will do anything to change the values and culture of the banking sector, which to them seems to have been characterised by greed, selfishness and irresponsibility. Is there anything in this report that will lead the sector to have higher standards of moral values and behaviour?
It will help to see a return of relationship banking, which disappeared over not just the past few years, but the past few decades. It will also make the people running large banks more focused on their retail arms and on delivering a good customer service. The arrival of new faces on the high street will also help to do that, because it will make people up their game. I am not sure that I would describe this as a return to “Captain Mainwaring banking”, as it is sometimes described, because, as I recall from “Dad’s Army”, he was not very good at running anything. What we actually want is good relationship banking where banks understand their customers—
Following on from the Chancellor’s answer to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), the figures in the Vickers report indicate that there will need to be between £200 billion and £400 billion of equity capital and other funds at risk within the ring fence. What impact will that have on the provision of capital and credit to business?
John Vickers explicitly examines the argument that this will somehow undermine credit and comes to the conclusion that it will not. He says that, first, because the broader benefits of a stable banking system to the banks themselves and to the economy outweigh the costs and, secondly, because retail banks will, as I say, be more encouraged to use their retail deposits to support retail lending.
One of the forms of banking competition that many people in Britain want is the encouragement of more mutuals, with a legal safeguard to prevent them from being refloated. What plans does the Chancellor have to progress that agenda?
We do want to see more mutuals created—we have explicitly said that in relation to Northern Rock, while not ruling out other potential options for Northern Rock. We have also taken action to strengthen credit unions, which are another part of the piece. It will be good to see mutuals growing, and the proposals in the report, particularly those on competition and the switching of current accounts, will help the mutual sector.
I welcome the Chancellor’s considered response to the Vickers report. Will he comment on the implications of the proposed reforms for his strategy of rebalancing the UK economy towards manufacturing and regions outside London and the south-east?
The proposals will help because they will mean that these universal banks will have retail banking arms, in a ring fence, that are very focused on getting lending going to the economy outside the centre of London. We may think of it like this: the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland a couple of years ago would have had someone running NatWest—running a ring-fenced subsidiary—who would have been totally focused on trying to get NatWest lending as a successful retail bank, rather than worrying about whether they could take over a Dutch investment bank. The ring fence will mean that parts of a universal bank will be extremely focused on getting support to businesses, in the black country and elsewhere.
Eight years is a long time, given that we are facing a sovereign debt crisis across Europe and, possibly, the end of the euro in that time frame. Does the Chancellor accept that the taxpayer will continue to foot the bill in the event of an investment bank, such as Lehman’s, collapsing? Does he accept that we will remain in a situation where bankers can take irresponsible risks and receive massive bonuses if they come up trumps, and where the taxpayer will continue to have to pay out if they go down?
The hon. Gentleman is being unnecessarily defeatist. I do not see why we cannot construct a regime that means we do not have to bail out banks when they fail. There are a number of different parts to this: requiring banks to hold more capital, including requiring people who hold bonds in the bank, as well as shareholders, to suffer a loss should the bank fail; the role of the regulator in preventing banks from doing stupid things, such as buying a big Dutch investment bank once the credit markets had already frozen up; and the proposals on ring-fencing. We have to work to get to a system where we are not standing behind banks that are too big to fail. If that were the case, we would end up with a banking system that is just a utility, and that would change the way in which banking interacts with our economy. We want banking to be successful and to be out there lending, but we want it to be properly regulated and we want to make sure that we do not have to stand behind it.
I very much associate myself with the remarks about mutuals and credit unions, but I want to ask the Chancellor about what the commission says about competition, for which it has some excellent recommendations and it is all too easy to think that they apply merely to the retail sector. Does the Chancellor support the idea that we should be taking the wholesale sector as seriously as the retail sector, given that equity underwriting fees, for example, have gone from 2% 20 years ago to something like 4%, 5% or even 6% today?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of competition in the investment banking sector. It is not often talked about outside the pages of the Financial Times, but it can be very uncompetitive, the fees can be exceptionally high, and there is that old maxim that no one ever got fired for hiring Goldman Sachs. The report will enable Britain to remain a home of competitive investment banking while protecting retail customers. That should encourage new entrants and drive down the fees that are charged. That would all be a good thing.
In the first six months of this year, the five major UK banks lent £63 billion to non-financial corporations, excluding small and medium-sized enterprises. The Vickers recommendations would not oblige the banks to protect that lending via the 10% capital requirement for retail banks within the ring fence. Does the Chancellor agree with that recommendation, which would contribute to up to two thirds of all bank balance sheet holdings being outside the protection of the ring fence?
Again, I think we should trust the judgment of John Vickers and his commissioners. They explicitly considered whether to prescribe more closely than they have the scope of the ring fence—I am not talking about the height now, but the scope—and whether to include lending to larger corporates inside or outside it. They decided to leave that open to the banks. We will consider that advice and recommendation, but it strikes me as quite sensible to have some flexibility about the scope, if not necessarily the height, of the ring fence.
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement this afternoon. The availability of lending for small businesses and competition in personal banking are as significant to my constituents as they are to those of other Members. In Northern Ireland, however, both are impacted on directly by the Irish banks. What aspects of the report could inform the ongoing discussions with the Irish Government to ensure that those issues are effectively addressed for Northern Ireland businesses and individuals?
We are in near constant discussion with the Irish authorities about the Irish banks and their impact on the rest of the UK, including, of course, Northern Ireland. In the next few weeks, the UK will disburse the first part of its loan to Ireland, which formed part of the Bill that was passed through this House at the end of last year. Because we passed that Bill and made the loan to Ireland, we are around the table having that discussion all the time with the Irish authorities about the impact of the Irish banks on the rest of the UK. I do not think we would be at that table if we had not made that loan, and I assure the hon. Lady that both I and the Financial Secretary have been spending a huge amount of time on the Irish banks, and we are well aware of the impact on Northern Ireland. If she wants to talk to us about that at any time, we would be very willing to have that meeting.