New lending rules for banks: what's really at stake is choice for borrowers

Forget banks' "competitive disadvantages".

“Give us a chance, mate”, seems to sum up the reaction from new banks, to a report by the Independent Commission on Banking which claims they must hold up to seven times as much capital against mortgage loans as their high street rivals.

The regulation behind this state of affairs, specifically the offering of lower capital requirements to those banks able to use their own databases to model risk on individual loans, is being criticised because only the biggest banks have the critical mass to earn the rewards.

Of course, the rationale that capital requirements wouldn’t be lowered unless regulators felt the database resources of those favoured were of sufficient scale to mitigate the risk of doing so sounds a bit dull in its affirmation that bigger, in some cases, really is better in banking.

More stirring, surely, to condemn the rules as stifling to the range of borrowing options available to consumers and small businesses at a competitive rate. Hence comments in the FT about a “glass ceiling” from Arbuthnot-owned Secure Trust Bank and “competitive disadvantage” from new bank Aldermore.

Once again, it’s the unstoppable force of “SMEs must be fed” smashing into the immovable object of “banks must be risk-averse”; a ringing collision that has underscored four years of regulatory discussion like a tireless blacksmith bashing away at the back of a press conference.

What’s at stake in this particular iteration of the discussion is the range of mortgage options borrowers have access to. Regulatory impact on this range is definitely not great for the competitive landscape, and certainly frustrating to smaller banks, but it’s by no means hobbling. Aldermore, for example, is well known for having grown at a blistering rate since its inception in 2009, and has had little difficulty picking up all the new business it has had an appetite for.

It’s more troubling, perhaps, to remember how the same issue of capital requirements can prove fatal to the big league.

“Increased regulatory requirements coupled with additional fiscal charges, the on-going economic malaise and other negative ‘head-winds’ require a serious response”, read an explanation sent to me by the press office of Netherlands-based banking group ING at the end of October last year.

What the statement was casually explaining was the decision by the group – based on pressure on its capital base caused by obligations both to Basel III regulation and the Dutch government – to kick a £1.5bn hole in the UK asset finance market by putting subsidiary ING Lease UK into run-off mode.

ING Lease was hugely profitable, and provided a lifeline for thousands of small businesses in need of equipment finance – but it didn’t matter. It was just too much of a drain on what was available.

Looking at the asset finance market now (where Aldermore is, out of interest, one of the banks racing to fill the gigantic gap left by ING), it’s clear to see how the demands of regulation really can have a brutal impact on the choices available to borrowers. 

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.