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Net Lending (Businesses)

Volume 558: debated on Thursday 7 February 2013

Figures from the Bank of England show that between January 2011 and December 2012 lending to businesses by UK banks increased in six months, and decreased in the others. The Government and the Bank of England are working to increase lending across the economy, for example through the funding for lending scheme and the new business bank.

Over the last two years net lending has gone down by £28 billion. What is the Secretary of State doing about that, apart from his various failing piecemeal initiatives, which do not get to the nub of the problem? The problem is a lack of consumer confidence and the banks’ failure to lend enough because of their lending criteria. What is he going to do about that, so that he will have a better record in two years’ time?

Certainly, the decline in net lending to SMEs is a serious issue, which I frequently refer to. It is a genuine problem and Government schemes have provided support in a variety of ways, including about £7 billion of net lending and £1 billion alone from the enterprise guarantee scheme.

Before we are lectured on this, we need to go a little further back and remember who was in charge when the banks collapsed and the lending crisis erupted. The hon. Gentleman may recall, given that, like me, he has been a Member of the House for some years, the Cruickshank report of 2000, which pointed out that the banks were overcharging their business customers, providing a poor service and making excess profits. The last Government had an opportunity to reform the banking system then. They did absolutely nothing about it, which is why we are in this mess today.

Small and medium-sized enterprises in Oldham have told me how they are struggling to access finance. We now know from Bank of England data that bank lending fell by £18.6 billion last year. On top of this, SMEs were owed more than £36 billion in late payments in 2011. Will the Secretary of State back an inquiry I am launching as part of my Be Fair—Pay on Time campaign to investigate the issues associated with late payments?

I would like to acknowledge the contribution the hon. Lady has made through debates in the House to this very important issue. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), has launched a significant initiative with business in order to reduce that problem. We also have a trade financing scheme, working with Kingfisher to try to ensure that credit flows through the supply chain. The key point is that credit does not depend solely on banks; it also depends on the big primes, whether in the retail sector or in manufacturing, and we are providing substantial support to small companies caught up in that problem.

Businesses in Huntingdonshire are reporting to me that access to credit has significantly improved over the last year, which is very good news indeed. The complaint I am increasingly getting is that banks are becoming detached from their customers—that, because of regionalisation and formulaic processes, they still cannot get to the right people. Are the Government addressing this issue?

Yes, the decline of relationship banking has been a long-standing problem and it underlines the difficulties my hon. Friend describes. The factual position is that last year a third of all applications to the banks for loans were declined, according to SME Finance Monitor. When appeals were made to an independent arbitrator, some 40% were successful, which shows how bad the banks are in sifting good credit from bad.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new business bank is not the silver bullet solution for all firms’ financial needs? What is he doing to diversify the sources of finance for business, particularly SMEs?

No, it certainly is not a silver bullet but it will make a significant difference in increasing diversity in the system, in providing wholesale financing for some of the new entrants into the market, and in making Government support more concentrated and easy to access. It will be an important contribution, and the plans are already under way. The expert committee met for the first time a couple of days ago, and we are already looking at products and projects that hopefully will provide some £300 million, geared substantially with private money, over the course of this year.

Banks tell me that small businesses will not ask for money because of their lack of confidence in a flatlining economy. Small businesses tell me that banks will not lend to them because of the risk factor and the desire to increase their capital balances. The Government say they are going to introduce a business bank. When will the business bank be up and running to address these problems, and in what different way will it operate to overcome them?

The business bank has already been organised and as I just mentioned, the expert committee met for the first time a couple of days ago and its products are already being prepared. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have to go through the state aid process before it can operate fully. In the meantime, it can operate within constraints—pari passu lending, for one thing—and I can assure him that it will make a significant contribution.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the news that in the third quarter of 2012 there was a record number of company formations in Gillingham?

Yes, and I think my hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that although we frequently hear from the prophets of doom on the Opposition Benches, a large amount of entrepreneurial activity is taking place. The percentage of the population engaged in business has increased from about 6% to 9% in the past two years, and what is happening in Gillingham is an example of that.

Once again, anyone listening to the recent exchanges will not have the slightest confidence that this Government are taking any meaningful steps that will make a difference. Six weeks ago, in the last Business questions, the Secretary of State told us that after the expert group had met he would come here to tell us the timeline and what was going to happen. He keeps telling us that this bank is going to make a significant difference, but nobody really believes we will see any meaningful progress in the next two years. Certainty and responsibility are very important, so can he unequivocally confirm today that the Government are following the policies that he is advocating on access to finance for small businesses? If not, can he explain what the Government should be doing to make a difference on that?

Of course I can confirm that we are pursuing the policies I have described. I get a sense that the hon. Gentleman has not the faintest idea about the issues involved in establishing a new bank. This Government have established, through government, two new banks, one of which is already operating on a significant scale— the green investment bank. The other is the new business bank, which is going through the necessary processes. [Hon. Members: “When?”] Opposition Members ask when, but do they have the slightest idea what is involved in running a bank and doing due diligence, having presided over the collapse of the banking system ignominiously and having allowed the banks to get totally out of control, with the disastrous consequences that we are now dealing with?