Previous Section Index Home Page

7.40 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). I have heard him make similar speeches about how individuals should take responsibility to manage risk. He has given the same treatise about moral hazard before, and I know that he is not comfortable with the full, all-deposit guarantee. I understand his point when it is applied to normal circumstances, and I would agree with him in normal circumstances.

However, the economic climate is very unusual at the moment. Obviously, we welcome the increase in the deposit guarantee to £50,000, although we would have liked it to have gone much further. With the increase
14 Oct 2008 : Column 746
came the argument that the guarantee covered 98 per cent. of all depositors, which is absolutely true; the problem is that it goes nowhere near covering 98 per cent. of all deposits. That is why local authorities, charities and pension funds have huge exposure if they put part of their money into some of the banks and schemes.

Icesave was used as an example. I am aware of one organisation that put a substantial amount into one of the Icelandic banks. It did not simply look up the website and send a cheque. It checked not with one credit agency, but all three; it did all the due diligence that it could, and it still might get stung. When we get to the stage of considering regulation more generally, rather than the narrow but important element in the Bill, the Government should consider how the credit rating agencies work, and the agencies’ transparency and fee structures. I do not mean to be over-critical, but something has gone seriously wrong when people depend on credit ratings that turn out to be wholly false.

I shall not range too widely; I want to stick to specific clauses in the Bill. Before I do, I should say that I agree with many hon. Members that we need to have the debate on the necessary changes in regulation soon and that I want to go into a little depth on the subject of my earlier intervention on the Chancellor. The Banking Bill flows from “Banking reform—protecting depositors: a discussion paper”, published in October 2007; from the Chancellor’s statement on 11 October that he would review the existing supervisory regime; from the January 2008 “Financial stability and depositor protection: strengthening the framework” document; and from the July 2008 “Financial stability and depositor protection: further consultation” document. I should not forget the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill, which allowed the nationalisation of Northern Rock.

All those other documents were informed mainly by the Northern Rock crisis. This Bill follows in the wake of a new banking crisis and must set out the framework for dealing with failing banks generally—bank insolvency, bank administration, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, inter-bank payments and other matters such as the Scottish and Northern Irish note issue, on which I shall touch briefly at the end. Other aspects of rebuilding confidence and stability in the banking system are variously the responsibility of the FSA, the Bank of England or the Treasury and may not require legislation; existing powers may be able to introduce such measures.

I am pleased that we are finally getting round to discussing the Bill, not least because the foreword to the July 2008 Treasury publication that I mentioned stated:

It is right to put on the record that nine months ago, on 21 January, I asked the Chancellor a question that others have also raised: would it not make sense to draw up the detailed changes needed to deal with failing banks before a nationalisation or takeover was required? He said that that would take some time, although I did not expect it to take this long.

Since the Northern Rock debates—let alone the Northern Rock rescue plan, which happened some time later—three banks have been recapitalised, the takeover of Bradford & Bingley has been facilitated, there has been a massive expansion in liquidity provision and an increase in
14 Oct 2008 : Column 747
depositor protection, and the Government have stood behind inter-bank lending. Although I back those plans and expect them to work, it seems staggering that a key plank of the Government’s programme—to have in place the full panoply of protection that we needed, including to deal with failing banks—is being introduced a year after we first discussed it in October 2007 and 18 months after what the Government recognise as the start of the financial crisis in summer 2007. We are putting in place provision to deal with failing banks after the banks have failed and a year after we started debating the issue.

I want to turn to some of the clauses, although I am not going to go through all the clauses of concern to me because that can be done in Committee, and other hon. Members have raised many of my concerns already. However, I have a few questions that have not yet been touched on. Before I come to those, let me mention the special resolution regime and in particular the concept of the bridge bank as a stabilisation option. During the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill, I said that there was the facility for a primary transfer of private assets to a public body and then the provision for a secondary transfer back to the private sector. However, there did not appear to be provision for what we might call a private sector administration and then a secondary transfer to the private sector proper. I am very pleased that the bridge bank concept is there as an intermediate stage to allow secondary transfers to wherever; that is particularly helpful.

Clause 19 relates to the use of a share transfer instrument. That can allow bank directors to be appointed, removed or have their contracts varied, and that is extremely sensible. However as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and others said, we need to look again at the relationship between the state and the banking system because of the new arrangements—the huge stake that the Government and the taxpayer have in the banks. It is worth the Treasury considering that that power to have bank directors appointed, removed or their conditions varied should be applicable only to the Bank of England and that the Treasury should not be included as a body able to hire, fire or vary contracts. If it had those powers, that would bring a real risk—even if only of perception—of the wrong sort of political interference. By all means, the Bank of England should have the powers, and quite right too. However, if the Treasury took such decisions, that might give the wrong signal. Why has the Treasury been included as a body able to direct such hiring and firing and the amendment of bank directors’ contracts?

Clauses 42 and 43 are about the restriction of partial transfers to protect certain interests. That is also welcome, not least because it gives the Treasury the powers to avoid the difficulties with “set-off” or “netting” arrangements; that is incredibly important if everything is to be done properly. However, all that will be achieved by secondary legislation. When will the Treasury publish the draft statutory instruments? Will there at least be codes and guidelines for us to see in Committee?

Clause 64 has been touched on, and it is extraordinarily wide. It allows the Treasury, by regulation, to make provision in relation to capital gains tax, corporation
14 Oct 2008 : Column 748
tax, income tax, inheritance tax and stamp duty of varying sorts. Subsection (4)(a) allows it to

The Chancellor said earlier that that would only happen in the prosecution of the delivery of a special regime for a failed bank—I am paraphrasing, but I think that that is what he said. They are very sweeping powers, and if the Economic Secretary could tell us why the Treasury deemed it necessary to include such a wide list, that would be helpful.

Clause 73 covers the distribution of assets on dissolution or winding up the surplus after creditors and shareholders have been paid. I presume that the power to alter priorities is to ensure that, where taxpayers money has been used to prop up and assist a building society, money can be returned to the taxpayer should there be any surplus left, rather than dispersed in the normal way with the winding-up of a company. I would be grateful for confirmation of the logic behind the power to alter priorities in clause 73.

Part 4 of the Bill will empower the Treasury to regulate the pre-funding of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. We have heard a lot about that, and I want to go on record to say what everyone else has said: it is absolutely right and proper that pre-funding takes place, but to do it now at a time of fragility, thin balance sheets and terror in the banking system might not be the cleverest idea. It would be useful if the Economic Secretary could advise what the Government’s thinking is on that, and tell us whether they want to see heavy-duty pre-funding now, or whether it will be rolled out over time as economic circumstances improve.

I turn briefly to part 6, which deals with Scottish and Northern Ireland banknotes. I understand that the provisions will allow authorised banks to continue to issue them in the normal way. The question that arises with the Lloyds TSB takeover of HBOS is whether the Bank of Scotland part of HBOS, or Lloyds TSB-HBOS, will still be an authorised bank to ensure the continued printing and distribution of Bank of Scotland notes, or would the new entity be authorised to do so? I am sure that that is the case—the Chancellor seemed to indicate that it was earlier—but clarification would be helpful.

I would like to end with two questions, which have been touched on, about the Bank of England. Clause 218 might effectively reduce the number of meetings of the court of directors by half, and clause 223 removes the requirement for the Bank to produce a weekly return of accounts. At face value, that opens up questions about the proper level of internal questioning and scrutiny, and of external transparency of the Bank. I understand the Chancellor’s argument that when the Bank of England is the lender of last resort, in extremis, any indication that Bank A, B or C has borrowed £5 billion, £10 billion or £15 billion from the Bank of England might send a particular signal to the market. But on the basis that the Bank is currently almost a lender of first resort, that stigma has gone completely, and I wonder whether that lack of transparency and the consequent opaqueness is the right thing to do.

I am sure that the Economic Secretary has taken notes on those questions and will give me full answers in few minutes time when he sums up, or in Committee at some later point. We have no intention at all of standing in the way of the Bill. We welcome the stabilisation
14 Oct 2008 : Column 749
package, and we have said that we expect it to work. We may table amendments with the purpose to probe, or to improve, and we may well have tough questions on the rationale for certain things, but tonight at any rate, we will certainly not be calling for a Division on the Banking Bill.

7.54 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I welcome a Bill on this subject, and I am glad that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are in a collaborative spirit, because this is a case where working together might improve the Bill. It needs a lot of improvement, because the main things that have gone wrong in the past 11 years stem from the grave weakening of the Bank of England that occurred in 1997.

I would like the Bill to go much further than the current draft in giving back to the Bank of England the powers that it had before 1997. I would like the Bill to make it clear that the Bank of England needs to see and understand all of the business in the money markets. The Bank needs to have powers and duties so that it is the prime driver of the money markets. I would like to see the Bank have those powers back so that it is a better judge of the amount of cash and liquidity that we need in the system at any given time, and so that it is more able to enforce its interest rates in the marketplace, which it has been unable to do during the recent, extraordinary breakdown of the markets.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) and others, I believe that this is not just a story of big banking error—although it is clearly such a story—but a story of massive regulatory failure. I would highlight three regulatory failures, in a different way from my hon. Friends so as not to bore Members or repeat things that have already been stated. The first failure is the regulatory failure of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. In the early part of the decade, the committee kept interest rates far too low. It seemed unaware of the power of low interest rates to drive ever more credit, lending and borrowing in the system, and it ignored all the warning signs in the asset markets and the credit bubble that was emerging in the banking figures. Worse than that, the committee is now making exactly the same mistake in reverse. Now that there is a need to fight the problem of recession and deflation, the MPC is driving the car by looking in the rear-view mirror. It is shocked at how much inflation has got out of control, so it is keeping interest rates far too high for current conditions, and way out of line with those in the United States of America, for example.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman talked about restoring powers to the Bank of England. Is he about to make the point that monetary policy decisions on interest rates should be taken away from it, almost as a quid pro quo? In the example that he gave of interest rates being set far too low in the early years of this Government, to which I infer he refers, surely the Bank was in pursuit of the target that it was given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on inflation.

Mr. Redwood: It clearly was not because the target was to keep inflation to 2 per cent. Inflation is currently 5 per cent., so it is 150 per cent. over the target. I am afraid we have to judge that the MPC got it comprehensively
14 Oct 2008 : Column 750
wrong. I am not suggesting taking the ability away, or putting the matter back under ministerial control; I am making a plea for a much stronger Bank of England that sees all the market activity and Government debt, which was taken away from it and nationalised into the Treasury, and which sees all the day-to-day transactions of the banks because it is regulating them. It would then understand the money markets, and if bankers, alongside academic economists, were trying to produce a total package on how we intervene, how much money we supply and at what price we supply money, the institution would have a better chance of making those independent judgments in the interests of the whole economy. I do not think that anyone in this House can allege that the MPC has been a success, because inflation stands at two and a half times the target, the money markets are in meltdown, and interest rates are now far too high for most borrowers. That increases the likelihood of default on loans and further undermines the asset base of the banking system, which is in a very fragile condition.

The second set of errors that were made by the regulators relate to money market liquidity. Perhaps things were too integrated on this occasion, but in the early part of the decade the Bank of England reinforced the message of the MPC by making large amounts of cash available—the markets were too liquid. More recently, the Bank started to withdraw liquidity and every time it did so in 2007, and even in 2008, it exposed more financial institutions to difficult pressures, which we have seen bubble up from time to time. The lesson has been learned there, and while I regard the MPC as still making the same old mistakes, the Bank is now doing exactly the right thing, with Government help, by making huge amounts of liquidity available. There have been statements that it intends to carry on doing so while the fragility continues, and I am pleased we have got to that point, but if we look at the record of the previous seven years, we see—because the Bank did not have the knowledge and powers it used to have—that it was too easy in the easy times and that it withdrew too much liquidity at times of stress and difficulty.

The third set of problems has arisen in the way that banking capital and banking caution have been regulated, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon said. There is no doubt that, again, we had pro-cyclical regulation. In the easy money times, the regulator did not seem too worried about banking capital and the gearing. Indeed, we saw the gearing of institutions massively increase over the levels of the ’80s and ’90s. I am afraid that those Members who say that such problems date back to the ’80s do not understand the situation. The gearing in banks is far higher today than it was allowed to be under the system in the ’80s and ’90s.

Now we see, at this rather late stage, the regulatory pressures towards having more banking capital relative to the stock of debt, at exactly the point where the system is extremely fragile. I urge the Government to be careful not to go in for more pro-cyclical regulation, so that they do not increase the deflationary forces at exactly the wrong time, just as the regulatory system seemed to increase the inflationary forces during the days when money was far too easy.

I would like the Bank of England to be reconnected, by being the agent for Government debt, by being the
14 Oct 2008 : Column 751
supervisor of the banks, so that it sees all the money market transactions, and by being given more opportunity to manage not just the price but the quantity of money, so that we can have a smoother progression. We have lurched from boom to bust and from unacceptably high inflation to what I think will prove to be a lot of disinflation, as we see the impact of the credit implosion come through in prices.

When I was first invited into government, I was given the job of insurance regulator for the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The two main duties of the insurance regulator, which was then a ministerial role, were to ensure that the insurance companies were solvent and to ensure that they were run by fit and proper people. That regime was rather similar to the kind of regime that applies in broad outline to banks and it was perfectly sensible. Coming from a financial background, I had a great fear that conditions would get tough in the early ’90s and that there could be a casualty or two in the list, so I asked for proper information from my regulatory team. It took me a little while to get it in the form that I wanted, but we had the powers to procure it.

Once I had on my desk the balance sheet and the profit-and-loss risk, as we saw it, of those institutions, I managed it. If I saw an institution that I thought might be short of cash or in some other difficulty in six months or a year, I would get on the phone to the chairman of that company privately and say, “I am your friendly regulator. I do not have a power to instruct you to raise money, but it seems to me that it would be very helpful if you did raise some money.” In each case the chairman was very obliging and said, “Actually, it’s a good idea,” or, “Yes, we’re going to do it.” In each case they raised money and those institutions got through what was a fairly unpleasant insurance downturn with no problem.

It is not that difficult for a regulator to do that, because they have access to the information, but it is most important to follow this fundamental principle: they must always act in private. They must never name the institution or seek any credit at the time, because we are talking about incredibly price-sensitive information. If any wind or whiff gets out of the office that the regulator has even a scintilla of doubt about an institution, there could be a run on it and a lot of negative journalism about it. The regulator’s task will then be 10 times greater, because the institution will be on the slippery slope downwards and it will be damaged.

I therefore urge the Government to ensure that there are no leaks or running commentary to us and the public as such difficult and sensitive discussions are under way. Those occasions are ones when it is best if things are done in private and as speedily as possible, and if we are told only when the decision has been made and the proper authorities can be notified.

Next Section Index Home Page