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Banks: Mutual Ownership

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they envisage the sale of banks in which they have a stake being accompanied by the revival of mutual ownership.

My Lords, UKFI, which manages the Government’s investments and financial institutions is responsible for devising appropriate exit strategies. Its mandate requires it to act in a way that protects and creates value for money for the taxpayer and pays due regard to financial stability and competition considerations. It is currently exploring the options available for disposing of Northern Rock plc. All exit strategies will be considered, including remutualisation.

I am grateful to the Minister for his moderately helpful Answer, especially the reference to the activities of UKFI. Does he agree that traditionally and well deservedly mutuals have had a very high reputation among customers generally for satisfaction with their activities, that mutuals have engaged less than banks in speculative and risky activities, and that certainly they have provided a great deal of competition and diversification over the years? In this new set up today, when there will be some sales of existing state-owned parts of banks, will the Minister ensure that the mutuals get a great deal of understanding in this regard? Perhaps the Government could initiate a feasibility study through UKFI, which would be most helpful.

Yes, my Lords, I think I can agree with the noble Lord. The important thing is the stability of our financial system. The Government are committed to fostering diversity in financial services, including, where appropriate, mutual ownership, and to creating a more competitive banking industry. That is why we have set up the Independent Commission on Banking: to recommend reforms to the banking system that meet those objectives, including promoting financial stability and consumer choice.

Will my noble friend confirm that it is the Government’s intention that the shareholdings in question will be sold during the lifetime of this fixed-term Parliament? Will he also inform the House of the best estimate that the Office for Budget Responsibility has made of the proceeds of these sales?

No timetable has been set. UKFI does not think that it is possible or desirable to set firm targets, such as time or proceeds, that would drive the Government’s sale of shares. When UKFI has a proposal, it will offer it.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that all building societies that transferred into plcs in the 1990s are now no more. People realised that there was strength in the mutual principle and framework. Will he go further and assure the House that UKFI will engage with the Building Societies Association to ensure not just that there is a war on words but that there is a proposal on the table to ensure that we will have competition and diversity in the marketplace in the future?

I think I can perhaps go a little further in saying that the Government are implementing a number of legislative reforms that will allow financial mutuals greater flexibility to develop and expand, and so promote mutual ownership in financial services. These include such things as completing the passage through Parliament of the Legislative Reform (Industrial and Provident Societies and Credit Unions) Order, commencing the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010, and bringing Northern Ireland credit unions under FSA regulation. As I have said, the Independent Commission on Banking will also consider competition in the banking sector and make recommendations on this as part of its report.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware of the excellent report in 2006 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Building Societies and Financial Mutuals that identified the beneficiaries of demutualisation as essentially the directors, who saw their remuneration go up. Among the biggest losers were those who live more to the financial margins, require basic bank accounts and are at risk of financial inclusion. Will he ask that when a future is considered for Northern Rock and others that this test of serving the financially excluded is part of the specification and that the work that mutuals do in this area is recognised?

My Lords, the noble Lord on a couple of occasions has referred to the Independent Commission on Banking. Will he confirm that in recent weeks there have been threats of resignation from the commission if its remit is in any way constrained?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the major issues in this area is the lack of trust in the large banks? Does he accept that trust is much higher in organisations that retain a mutual element, such as the Nationwide Building Society or the John Lewis Partnership? Will he affirm that there is a need, whatever arrangements are being made, for real attention to be paid to the need for a restoration of trust within the sector, of which mutualisation might well be a very important part?

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that mutual benefit societies of a wide variety are perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of the big society working, and that we will partly judge the Government’s views on the big society by the enthusiasm with which they pursue mutualisation in this area?

My Lords, what a highly helpful comment from the noble Lord. I will make sure that the Government are made aware of it.