My Lords, the Government are helping more small and medium-sized businesses to access financial schemes including Funding for Lending, the enterprise finance guarantee and Enterprise Capital Funds. The enterprise finance guarantee scheme has enabled £1.2 billion of lending to 11,700 businesses, the Enterprise Capital Funds scheme has invested over £110 million in over 80 companies, and Funding for Lending has supported many more. The Government recognise that more can be done and are launching the business bank with £1 billion of new capital to bring the schemes together.
The fact is that net lending to SMEs is down again. That may not be surprising. Only a quarter of all SMEs are aware of the Funding for Lending scheme. The banks must know that you cannot sell a product if your customers do not know about it. Does not the figure of 25% of SMEs aware of the Funding for Lending scheme strongly suggest that the banks do not actually want to lend to SMEs?
My Lords, the Government’s own research shows that awareness of the access to finance schemes has fallen in recent years. This is why we are launching a tailored marketing communication campaign to increase the awareness of many government access to finance schemes available to small and medium-sized businesses. This activity usually results in a highly successful brand. The launching of the business bank next year will solve part of that problem.
My Lords, has the Minister seen the recent survey by BDRC, which showed that only 23% of SME companies knew anything at all about the Government’s initiative? The survey also found that of SMEs applying for the first time, only 50% were accepted. Does he have some new initiative that might help?
My Lords, my answer is no different from that to the previous question about awareness. Yes, we are doing everything possible through the Bank of England and the clearing banks to make their customers aware of the different schemes available to SMEs to borrow money through government incentives.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sharkey is absolutely right: knowledge of the funding available does not seem to be percolating through. That is a real shame, because SMEs account for some 98% of all businesses in the UK and internal market. They also account for so much activity, and there could be a huge opportunity for growth and for employment, because if every SME in the UK, and where possible in the internal market, took on one extra employee, there would be no unemployment. The combination of getting the banks to let go of some funding for SMEs, plus trying to encourage more employment by the SMEs, could get us out of trouble very quickly.
My Lords, since the banking crisis in 2008, the banks are a little risk averse. They do not want to have excessive lending. At the same time, the SMEs are risk averse too; 61% do not actually borrow money for their businesses, mainly because they have retained profits to run their business but quite often because they use their own capital. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that awareness is key. This is where we have partly failed, and we are taking steps to ensure awareness. Having said that, we launched the Funding for Lending scheme this time last year, and so far we have lent £16.5 billion through it. That is a pretty good record for the Government.
My Lords, we have already heard from noble Lords about the deplorable situation with respect to Funding for Lending. Loans in general to SMEs year on year are down by more than 3%, and Funding for Lending in the last quarter was down by £300 million. Billions of pounds are being drawn down by participating banks, but precious little is getting through to SMEs. It simply is not working. What we really need in this country is a fully fledged business investment bank with a strong regional presence. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, the Funding for Lending scheme is working. As I said, we have lent £16.5 billion in the past 12 months. We have also got other banks to join the scheme. Given time, it will prove to be successful. We have £80 billion allocated for that scheme. It is the best scheme available for SMEs. I also said that the banks are risk averse. They do not want to go through the crisis that they went through in 2008. SMEs are partly risk averse too. Not many SMEs are borrowing, which is why there is a little contraction in actual lending.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the banks scored an own goal not after 2008 but over 20 years ago, when they took the managers out of the branches and that in fact there is nobody for the average SME to relate to but a relationship manager at the end of a telephone, whose only word is no? The real problem we have is to bring back a relationship between the banks and the small firms. The Government are trying to do that—we are introducing growth vouchers and a whole lot of other measures—but unfortunately it is the banks that have let them down rather than anything else.
My noble friend makes a very important point and I agree with him. In fact, when I was at an SME 20 years ago I had direct contact with my branch manager, and it was the manager who did the lending. Now, most banks have corporate offices and half the decisions are made on their computers rather than by human brains. I agree with my noble friend, but the good news is that we have set up competition within the banking sector and that the new banks—Shawbrook, Aldermore, Metro and Cambridge & Counties—all have branches with branch managers now.
My Lords, this point may have been made already, but it is worth making again. Does the Minister not accept that many small businesses do not know how to get different sources of funding, as there are so many that are potentially available? Specifically, what is being done proactively to let businesses know what is available out there for them to tap into? I know from running my own small business that you have very little time indeed when you are running it and trying to survive in this day and age; you do not have time to do this work. Are local enterprise partnerships and others doing this to help?