On Friday, Labour leader Ed Miliband announced plans to break the monopoly of the big five UK banks, creating two new ‘challenger banks’ in a policy move designed to tap into raw public anger following the banking crisis, recent scandals and continuing failure to tackle the toxic bank bonus culture.
Miliband’s speech was delivered at the University of London’s Senate House, as the Financial Conduct Authority announced yet another banking inquiry – into allegations of systemic fraud against RBS, this time involving struggling SME businesses.
Labour’s calls for a market cap in retail banking and more competition in the sector are welcomed: 2.4 million people switched accounts in 2012/13, and in September, seven-day switching made it even easier for customers to switch.
The Payments Council this week released figures showing more of us than ever before are moving our money, with a 17 per cent increase over the last 3 months, as compared with Q4 2012.
Relative to countries such as Germany with a strong regional banking network however, the UK is still dominated by large too-big-to-fail banks, and lacks real competition and alternative banking models. As a major stakeholder in two of the UK’s largest banks, the government has a unique opportunity to make the banking sector serve society instead of continuing to serve itself.
In the UK, just five banks RBS, Lloyds, HSBC, Barclays and Santander enjoy 90 per cent market share (and it’s important to note the big five banks currently own the back-end payments system, preventing new bank competition).
In public sector banking, the UK market is now even more consolidated, with the Cooperative Bank recently surrendering its market leading 35 per cent share, leaving only the ‘big four’ of Lloyds, RBS, HSBC and Barclays to service hundreds of councils, housing associations, universities and NHS Trusts.
Labour’s bank policy announcement follows the November release of the Tomlinson Report, which outlined systemic fraud at state-owned RBS – accused of liquidating hundreds of distressed SME businesses for profit, via its Global Restructuring Group and West Register property arm, prompting Lawrence Tomlinson to publicly call for the break up of taxpayer-owned RBS.
Miliband has already said he would like to usher in an era of regional and local banking as a way of rebalancing the economy away from finance, and encouraging greater growth outside London and the south-east, possibly by breaking up and re-tasking taxpayer owned RBS or Lloyds to lend to SME’s.
However, it’s important we do not fall into the trap of leaving financial reform solely in the hands of our elected politicians. While we wait for details of Labours ‘challenger banks’ to emerge, we should encourage citizen-led bank reform by saying goodbye to high street casino banking, and supporting one of the many alternative banks that already exist.
Citizens would be well informed to take matters into their own hands, moving our money to a financial institution that shares our values and uses our money wisely to invest in a more sustainable and equitable vision of future for us all.
As we witnessed with political rhetoric on bank reform in the years since the crisis, there’s a major difference between what politicians say in opposition, and actually do when, and indeed if, they are elected to power, walking the tightrope of pleasing party donors on one hand, and an increasingly fed up electorate on the other. Don’t delay, make your own statement and move your money today!