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Banking Reform

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

3. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the likely implications for Northern Ireland of banking reform and financial service regulation. (114372)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been in discussion with ministerial colleagues about this matter. The action plan announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on Monday will drive up standards and bring much-needed and long overdue regulation to the sector.

The Minister will recognise that Ulster bank customers are currently experiencing a third-class, poor standard of care. Does he feel that there is some risk of a similar syndrome whereby Northern Ireland is only an afterthought in the hierarchy of consideration when it comes to wider banking regulation and reform? We all rightly ask about the banking of business, but should more active consideration be given to the future of the business of banking in the region, particularly given the compound implications of reform and regulation from London and the changing Irish banking landscape, including moves on banking union?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, as was recognised in his exchange with the Chancellor on 28 June, when the Chancellor acknowledged that

“Northern Ireland has suffered enormously from the failure of banks in the UK and in the Republic, and it has paid perhaps a heavier price than anyone else”—[Official Report, 28 June 2012; Vol. 547, c. 476.]

On the specific point about banking reform, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a Banking Reform White Paper, the consultation period for which closes in September, so I urge him to contribute. On Ulster bank, I think we should be clear that this is not a failure of banking, but a failure of IT, and we should not confuse the two.

On that point about Ulster bank and the failure of IT, I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said, but is it not frankly outrageous and unacceptable that 15 days after the problem first appeared, individuals, households and businesses still cannot access their money in the normal way? Can he outline in more detail what he and his colleagues in the Treasury are doing to provide a little more flexibility for those facing cash-flow problems?

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman and some of this colleagues are meeting Ulster bank and RBS this afternoon to represent the views of their constituents, and rightly so. Let us not underestimate this. There are people in the Northern Ireland Office who cannot get money either, so this is something very close to many of us. He will be aware of the press release that RBS issued this morning. It is fair to point out in my conversation yesterday with Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman of RBS, he told me that they would

“treat our customers properly and fairly”

and that the bank will

“compensate fully for financial loss”.

We shall hold the bank to that undertaking.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and for raising the issue of compensation, but does he agree that, as well as reimbursing customers for direct costs, Ulster bank and RBS must ensure that where financial damage and loss has occurred, whether to a customer, either an individual or business, or a non-customer who has suffered loss as a result of the crisis, compensation in full must be paid in all those circumstances? I would welcome his support in lobbying RBS on that point.

The right hon. Gentleman will certainly have the support of the Secretary of State and myself in ensuring that no one loses out as a result of this IT failure. I was specific on that point to Sir Philip Hampton and I cannot do more than repeat the words he said to me, as I have just done. I will also check with him on Monday to ensure that the bank is making progress in clearing up this sorry mess, which it says it will do over the weekend.

Does the Minister agree that the ongoing problems at Ulster bank underline the need to look at how banks operate? Frankly, this is a crisis. Many families cannot pay their mortgages or rent, get their groceries, buy food or put petrol in the car, and older people cannot get access to their pensions. The Minister has told us what he has done, but what is he doing to try to sort this mess out?

I have a transcript of the shadow Secretary of State’s two interviews on the “Nolan” show, and I have read them carefully, but I am none the wiser as to what he is suggesting. When he was asked about the solvency of some businesses and about liquidity, he said that

“I would expect that government here in Westminster but also government at Stormont needs to consider what to do in those particular circumstances.”

Mr Nolan then asked:

“What could they do?”

The hon. Gentleman replied:

“I don’t know the answer to that”.

If he does not know the answer, we do: it is to make sure that this sorry debacle, involving an IT problem with the Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster bank, which, let us face it, affected the whole UK, is cleared up quickly so that people can go about their normal business in Northern Ireland.

What we have heard there is a complacent answer that does nothing to say to the people of Northern Ireland what should be done. What the Secretary of State and the Minister should have done, and what they should be doing now, is call an emergency summit—get a summit together—of all the people who are responsible for the situation, including the Treasury, Treasury officials and RBS senior management, and to get them to recognise the seriousness of the problem, get it sorted and get a grip. That is what the Minister should do.

I am not an IT expert, but I think that appearing on the “Nolan” show twice and saying absolutely nothing does not show tremendous activity. On the shadow Secretary of State’s further point about banking reform, he will be pleased that this Government have set up an independent commission on banking reform to look at the future of banking and to clear up something that his Government failed to do over 13 years—

It is not complacent.

This is another example of this Government walking around with a giant pooper-scooper to clear up the mess left by the hon. Gentleman’s Government.