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Banking: Co-operative Bank

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government to what extent their aims of producing more diversity in banking and of reforming banking culture will be affected by the change in ownership of the Co-operative Bank.

My Lords, the Co-op Bank is negotiating a deal on its capital with its creditors. It will cease to be fully mutually owned, but will continue to compete in retail banking markets. The Government’s reforms will make the banking sector safer, more competitive and diverse. We are implementing the recommendations of both the independent and parliamentary banking commissions. These fundamental reforms will be unaffected by the change of ownership for the single bank.

The fact is that the Co-op Bank will now be owned by a couple of vulture funds, which I suppose is diversity of a sort. What advice would the Minister give customers who are looking for ethical values in retail high street banking?

My Lords, the Co-op is undoubtedly having a significant change in ownership, but one would hope that even vultures will be able to see that the Co-op’s USP is its particular ethical stance. Its strength appears to me, at least, to be very much in that direction. So for the development of the Co-op, one would hope that they would see continuation of those traits being in their own interests, as well as those of anybody else. Of course, there are other mutuals that the discerning customer can put their money with; the Nationwide is very successful, as are other building societies. We must be clear on the difference between “for profit” and “ethical”. I would not want to brand every other high street bank as unethical just because they are also making a profit.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his comments on the Co-operative Bank, which after all is one of the few which did not go to the Government and to the taxpayer for support during these difficult times. However, what is the Minister proposing to do about increasing bank competition? Some 55% of the British population have never switched their accounts. The degree of switching and of competitive banking is low. Large banks owe their pre-eminence to historical development and being early in the field. Surely the Minister is going to take advantage of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill to enact some of the proposals from the banking commission, chaired by Andrew Tyrie MP, and also amendments being tabled by the Labour Opposition to increase competition in the banking sector, which it sorely needs.

My Lords, the banking Bill incorporates many of the proposals of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. On switching, a new seven-day switching service was introduced last month. In its first month, there has been an 11% increase compared with the previous year in the number of people who switched their bank accounts. One would expect that number to increase as the service becomes better known. This year the big change in terms of new entrants to the market is that the regulators have greatly reduced the time that it takes to become a new bank and greatly reduced the amount of money it takes to establish a new bank. Those are key drivers for getting new competitors into the market.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, has pointed out, it is perhaps somewhat of an irony that the Co-op Bank should being bailed out by hedge funds. The crucial point is that the Government have made clear that the time of taxpayers bailing out banks is over. Bluntly, if a bank cannot organise its own financial affairs, the resolution mechanism is the only alternative.

My Lords, one of the key purposes of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill is to provide, in ring-fenced retail banks, relatively risk-free places for ordinary customers to put their money. Beyond that, the key thing is that the Bill’s resolution provisions will require banks to put in place mechanisms to be activated if they got into financial difficulties, such that they would not need to come to government in those circumstances.

Is the Minister aware that when giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee yesterday, the former chief executive of the Co-op Bank said that he was assured by the financial regulator about the safe state of the Britannia Building Society? The Co-op Bank takeover of the Britannia Building Society has given rise to the liquidity problems in the bank. Will he acknowledge that and inquire what the financial regulator was doing in giving that assurance?

My Lords, I think the merger with the Britannia Building Society was one of the material causes of this problem. I cannot comment on what the regulator may have said. Generally, where banks of all sorts have sought to make large acquisitions and they have then gone wrong, the principal responsibility for due diligence rests with the management of the bank involved in the takeover. The role played by the regulator, whatever its scale, does not detract from the fact that responsibility for major corporate decisions of that kind lies primarily with management.

Will my noble friend confirm for all of us who believe in mutuality and are sorry that the Co-op Bank has got into its current situation—I believe that mutuality is supported by both sides of the House—that when the new owners have got the bank onto a stable footing and making a profit they will possibly return it to mutuality?

Well, my Lords, that is possible but, as noble Lords know, the sad truth is that the process has tended to be something of a one-way street with regard to mutuality. When mutuals have ceased to be mutuals, they have tended to cease to be mutuals for good. Still, one can always hope. I should also have mentioned the raft of provisions in the banking reform Bill to bring building society legislation up to date and make it easier for them to compete in the marketplace.