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Harriett Baldwin responds in debate on Royal Bank of Scotland ownership

5th November 2015

Responding to a debate on the sale of RBS, Harriett Baldwin outlines the very different position of the bank following restructuring and the Government’s commitment to bringing stability and competition to the UK banking sector.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I hope you will indulge me with a little time, Madam Deputy Speaker, to respond to a thoughtful and well-subscribed debate that has focused on the future of the banking system in this country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on suggesting this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on securing time for it on the Floor of the House.

The 15 contributions that we have heard highlight the importance and impact of our banking sector, and show how integral it is to our long-term economic plan. I assure the House that a key element of that plan is a strong, healthy, more competitive and diverse banking sector. When the Labour Government acquired RBS, it was the largest single bank bail-out in the world at more than £45 billion—the price that was paid is a matter of historical public record. It was only ever intended as a temporary privatisation to restore financial stability to our banking sector, and I remind colleagues that in 2008, Gordon Brown stated:

“The Government will not be a permanent investor. Over time we intend to dispose of these investments in an orderly way”.

RBS is very different now to how it was then, and it has been restructured to focus on banking in the UK. It has shrunk its investment bank, and it recently completed the disposal of its US business, Citizens. The creation, by carving out RBS branches in England and Wales and NatWest branches in Scotland, of the historic Williams & Glyn brand will mean 314 challenger branches—more than twice as many as recommended by the hon. Member for Edmonton.

Seven years on, despite starting the process of selling shares in the summer, the UK Government—and therefore taxpayers—still own 70% of Royal Bank of Scotland. The easiest thing would be to leave RBS in state hands and duck the difficult questions, but no one in this debate has argued that the situation we inherited in 2010, with large chunks of failing banks in taxpayer hands, is something that we should maintain for ever. The right thing to do for the strength of our economy and for taxpayers is to start selling off our stake as part of a phased disposal programme. That is part of our long-term economic plan to bring down national debt and secure a brighter future for hard-working people across the country.

The hon. Lady was not a Member in the last Parliament, but I am sure she will recall that in June 2013 the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), considered various options for dealing with the legacy of RBS as part of its wider review into the banking sector. Those included a radical restructuring of RBS and the creation of a number of regional banks. That option was dismissed by the Commission, which noted

“how difficult, expensive and time-consuming it can be to separate integrated activities”

of a bank.

The PCBS recommended that the Government undertake a review into the option of splitting RBS into a good and bad bank, and we acted on that. In November 2013 following the publication of our findings, RBS set out plans for the creation of an internal “bad bank”. It has now set out its new strategy to focus on its core British business. As I mentioned, it committed to sell off more of its overseas business, simplify its operations, shrink its investment bank and use the additional capital to support the British economy.

By the summer of this year, the strong progress RBS had made in implementing that plan had led us to a clear decision point. That is why, in July, the Chancellor sought the advice of the Governor of the Bank of England regarding the Government’s shareholding. It was the Governor’s view that

“public ownership has largely served its purpose”

and that

“it is in the public interest for the government to begin to return RBS to private ownership.”

He went on to say

“there could be considerable net costs to taxpayers of further delaying the start of the sale,”

and that

“Continued public ownership without a foreseeable end point runs risks, including limiting RBS’ future strategic options and continuing the perception that taxpayers bear responsibility for RBS’ losses.”

The Governor added:

“The Bank of England believes the interests of the people of the United Kingdom are best served by a vibrant, resilient and privately owned banking sector”

and that

“a phased return of RBS to private ownership would promote financial stability, a more competitive banking sector, and is in the interests of the wider economy.”

A lot of Members mentioned competition and choice. The financial services sector is now fundamentally stronger thanks to the Government’s reforms. A central part of the reforms has been to inject extra competition and choice into the banking sector, and specifically to help new challenger banks to enter the market. I mentioned already RBS’s process of divesting a new challenger bank, Williams & Glyn, but that is in addition to creating another eight challenger banks during the previous Parliament, including TSB, Metro, Virgin Money and Tesco Bank. During the election, we committed to ensuring 15 new banks would receive banking licences in the life of this Parliament. We are promoting competition between banks by boosting and helping to deliver the current account switch service. We have put competition at the heart of the regulatory system.

In the interests of time, I will respond to a few of the points made in the debate. On the FCA’s review of the Tomlinson report, which was mentioned by a number of colleagues, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), my understanding is that the FCA review should be published between now and the end of the year. I will keep Parliament informed if I hear differently.

A number of colleagues spoke favourably about the German banking system. It is worth noting, however, that the German banking system also required £70 billion of capital injection, as well as £100 billion of guarantees, during the financial crash.

Colleagues mentioned a range of other important points. I can reassure the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) that we think ring-fencing, separating the actions of retail banks from those of their investment banking colleagues, is an important part of strengthening the regulatory system.

The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned the bonus culture. He will know that that was rampant under the previous Labour Government. It has been brought very much under control under the previous Government, and that continues under this Government. He also said that we do not all want a state-owned bank run from Whitehall. I can only agree.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) made some important points, with which I have great deal of sympathy, about the bank branches in his very large and very rural constituency. I pay tribute to the staff and pensioners of RBS, of whom he has 105 in his constituency. I have a wide range of points to make about the specific towns he mentioned, but in the interests of time it is probably better if I write to him.

Today’s debate was very much on the future of the banking system and the importance of having a strong, healthy, diverse and competitive range of choices in our banking sector for customers and businesses. I recognise that the issues raised in the motion are extremely serious, but the Government cannot support the proposals in the motion. They run contrary to all the evidence presented to us. Instead, we will continue to put in place our long-term economic plan, which is bringing stability and competition to the UK banking sector and delivering a better deal for hard-working people across the country.

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