Some thoughts to bear in mind before digging a grave for the Funding for Lending Scheme

FFS, FLS!

Six months into the Bank of England’s Funding for Lending Scheme (FLS), and we seem eager to anticipate its demise, like wolves padding after a limping bison.

The scheme, which offers banks funding at a discounted rate of interest so long as those lower rates are passed on to customers, has so far seen £13.8bn drawn from the Bank’s pot of £100bn, of which £9.5bn was accessed in last year’s final quarter.

The problem was, Q4 also saw overall bank lending drop by £2.4bn compared to the previous three months.

Oh those naughty, naughty banks. Lloyds Banking Group, RBS and Santander cut their lending totals by a combined £7.6bn during the quarter, despite drawing down £4.8bn between them through the scheme, while Barclays, despite growing lending during Q4, did so by only £5.7bn while drawing down £6bn.  

Of course, if banking was simple, we’d expect lenders to have squirted money into the hands of consumers and small business owners with wild abandon, in exactly the quantities drawn down.

But then, despite all our desires to the contrary, banking isn’t particularly simple. Here’s some thoughts to bear in mind before digging the FLS’ grave early.

First, as the Bank has already pointed out, the fourth quarter is never the strongest time for lending in the first place, and we would have been worse off without the boost of the FLS

Second, we shouldn’t forget the wider context, of major banks being mandated to shore up their capital bases in order to avoid being as exposed to ruin as they were in 2008. Unfortunately, the main way for them to do this is by cutting back on lending.

Third, there is a time delay on the reduced cost of funding offered by the scheme trickling through to customers, as it takes time for loans to make it through from application to payout. This has now been stated by the Bank often enough to feel a tiny bit “dog ate my homework”, but is still a fair point.

All things considered, I’m surprised people’s expectations were so high. Even before launching the scheme, the Bank predicted that we’d have to get some way into 2013 before we saw the real benefits of the scheme.

And before we expect miracles, let’s remember the fundamental obstacle facing the scheme: it can’t do anything at all about the cost of risk, i.e. what banks have to put aside in contingency for loan defaults.

Very small businesses, very new ones, and those in sectors considered by lenders to be on the ropes, will still have great difficulty being touched with a bargepole while the discounted funding can be channelled into lending to safe bets.

And who can blame the banks? We’ve spent five years pillorying them over subprime lending, so is it really a surprise they are so risk averse now? By demanding that banks pile more money into the SME sector, we are explicitly asking them to take greater risks.

So let’s give Threadneedle Street the benefit of the doubt and have this whole conversation again after Q1. If the scheme isn’t working, replacement isn’t out of the question - after all, the FLS was created to replace the underwhelming National Loan Guarantee scheme, which was quietly phased out after only six disappointing months.  

But let’s also revise down our expectations of what will constitute success for the FLS. If used correctly it will be able to soothe the symptoms of a deeply troubled system, but it’s never going to touch the roots of the problem.

Bank of England. 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.

Photo: Getty
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.