Bishop of Birmingham takes part in Archbishop’s debate on banking reform

“More competition can be seen in the regional banks that may be emerging. From my own interest in the Church Commissioners, I know that the proposed Williams & Glyn’s Bank, which is emerging from the 300 RBS branches, may have an opportunity to demonstrate how to be a good bank in the terms that we have already heard about, but at the same time that it will be freed from some of the responsibilities of the bigger banks and respond to people’s needs locally.”

On 5th December 2013, the Bishop of Birmingham took part in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s debate on the work of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. You can read the Archbishop’s opening and closing speeches here.

01.04.14 Bishop of Birmingham

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I welcome warmly the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to your Lordships’ House and congratulate him on a most succinct but wise and constructive maiden speech. His knowledge of finance and banking is exemplary. We have already heard from my friend the most reverend Primate of the noble Lord’s service in the other place, notably as chair of the Treasury Committee. He also brings a wealth of experience in banking. The particular bank mentioned, Gatehouse, of which he is deputy chairman, has this remarkable attention to Islamic finance. As someone who serves in Birmingham, that is of course well known and much appreciated.

Your Lordships may also like to know that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, is a trustee of the St John’s Notting Hill restoration trust. That is something that he did not find time to mention in his maiden speech, but about which I hope that we will hear more in the future. It is a beautiful Victorian building which, at the same time, has a new community hub associated with it, bringing together a reimagination of ministry and parish outreach to ordinary people. On these Benches and across the House, we wish the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, great success in that project and a most enjoyable time as he serves here in this place.

I welcome the enormous contribution of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and recognise the structural and technical details contained in our extensive debates over the past few months. I want to focus on the imperative of driving change in our culture, which many noble Lords mentioned, including the most reverend Primate—as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, he played a blinder. I am sure that although he had the privilege of visiting Birmingham last night, it was not a peaky blinder—if your Lordships are aware of that television programme and early 20th-century behaviour.

The debates that we have had are about the balance of regulation and freedom. They have included a realistic approach to our position in global capitalism, and its benefits and dangers—the benefits and dangers, too, to our national economy—and to the remarkable achievement of the banking industry over the years. At the same time, there is an underlying desire to see enterprise, which develops wealth, continue. Those who know the parables of Jesus know that wealth for the ambitious and successful farmer was in no way criticised; what was criticised, and ultimately judged fatally, was the farmer’s use of the abundant wealth that he had created and his selfishness in keeping it for his own use.

The reports before us have serious recommendations about increased responsibility, greater and clearer accountability, more competition in the industry, better business judgment and a vision for the long term. Coming from a business city such as Birmingham, outside London, I would like to reflect for a moment on the perception of our progress so far in these areas. What we have done and are doing here will be judged by whether it makes a difference to the tens of thousands of employees of the industry, and to the hundreds of thousands of clients and customers who are necessarily dependent on its success.

What about increasing responsibility? I have noticed that in each of these areas we are encouraged to see the responses to the detail of the commission, as well as that of the Government to its recommendations, in a constructive and positive way. The Deutsche Bank chief executive, who was at a conference the other day of all the risk managers for the global company, said that his bank will combine a culture of performance with a culture of responsibility. This is a great ambition for a commercial operation, and one that the chief executive says will do good for the world.

Increasing responsibility is being taken at corporate level, and much of the detail of our work has been on that. It is also being taken at the individual level. For example, regionally in the Royal Bank of Scotland, local directors are responding to their chief executive’s advice that to know their community as well as their business and retail clients, is good for business, but also that it is the right thing to do in exercising power and success. Greater accountability is part of our debate, and we have heard about the regulations and regulators. The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility’s report, The Banks and Society, which was published and ignored in March 2011, is now on the agenda of regional and perhaps national bank leaders, along with its main recommendations—particularly the desire for transparency in the business activity of a bank in a region that is trying to develop the economy as whole. That kind of approach and permission from the centre will be much welcomed.

More competition can be seen in the regional banks that may be emerging. From my own interest in the Church Commissioners, I know that the proposed Williams & Glyn’s Bank, which is emerging from the 300 RBS branches, may have an opportunity to demonstrate how to be a good bank in the terms that we have already heard about, but at the same time that it will be freed from some of the responsibilities of the bigger banks and respond to people’s needs locally. The background to that bank’s ambitions touch on most of the areas that we have been dealing with in these debates, whether that is to do with remuneration, a reluctance to indulge in—or even a ban on—proprietary trading, the participation of all the staff, appropriate levels of leverage, and whether, simply, as all the banks seem to say, that it is important to treat your customers well.

Would we get better business judgment? We heard again recently of another series of bad debts, and of the difficulties one of the major banks had in dealing with them. However, to follow, for example, the recent discussion led by Andrew Whittaker of Lloyds Bank, the approach of proper risk management is something that people, both locally and nationally, expect to operate at a very high level of skill and attention. In a healthy and successful business one would expect certain things—the nuances of avoiding looking the wrong way at the wrong time, self-deception that gets going when we have a lot of power and adventure, opportunity taken without due diligence, misplaced assumptions about the future, lack of contingency, and so on—to be part of the bread and butter of how the governance is operating.

In conclusion, I will touch upon that discussion in the reports about longer-term vision. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, we not only hope that we will have a vigorous and world-beating industry here, we expect in the regions and localities that the powerful engine of the economy will also attend to bringing more of the poorer and less-powerful people into the economy. It can do that by attending to credit unions and to the needs of people by removing and managing unmanageable debt, and by the ability to go into all the communities and schools and enable young people from the very start to know that money is a very good and wonderful thing if it is managed responsibly for their own good and for the good of their community.

I hope that the areas of expectation that are woven through these reports will build up, as noble Lords have said, that elusive and most precious gift of a renewed trust in one of our most fundamental industries, for the good of community and of society. I hope that people will begin not only to say, proudly, that that industry is a good mega-engine driver for the economy, contributing to rather than drawing from taxpayers’ money, but also that their participation, as an ordinary citizen or a micro, small or medium-sized enterprise—which is how most of the people in this country begin to participate in the economy—will be one of the long-term fruits of all your Lordships’ work. I trust that we ourselves will continue to remain accountable for making sure that banks exist to enable the economy to work and not to be the economy itself.


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