Belfast Telegraph

Wilson to meet King for talks as loans from banks plummet

By Noel McAdam

The role of banks in lending to help tackle the economic crisis is to feature in top-level talks between Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King.

Their meeting next month comes after the DUP minister disclosed that bank lending to small businesses in Northern Ireland dropped by 30% over a six-month period.

And he told the Assembly on Monday that it had proved difficult to "get to the bottom" of the problem over loans and whether banks have sufficient liquidity to do more.

Mr Wilson has held talks with banks several times in recent months involving representatives from Ulster Bank, Bank of Ireland, First Trust, Northern Bank, Barclays, Santander and HSBC.

He said the discussions focused mainly on the state of the financial sector and the property market as well as bank lending and implementing the business finance task force recommendations to improve banking services.

"Just last week I attended a bank lending clinic at Barclays' Belfast branch to promote lending to small businesses, and I am due to meet the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, in November to discuss banking issues as they relate to Northern Ireland," he said.

In response to his party colleague Trevor Clarke, who said there is a perception that banks are restricting the amount of lending, Mr Wilson said: "It has been surprisingly difficult to get to the bottom of that.

"One of the reasons why we have engaged with the British Banking Association and asked it to implement all of the recommendations of the task force report in Northern Ireland is to try to find out what is actually happening to bank lending."

The Stormont minister said the first report of the task force showed that between the last quarter of last year and the second quarter of this year, bank lending to small businesses in Northern Ireland has gone down by 30%.

"We probably need the data for a year or two to show whether there is any significance in that.

"However, the anecdotal evidence and high-level evidence presented to me causes me some concern.

"On the other hand, the banks would say that 90% of all loan and finance applications made to them are actually granted," he added.

The SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell said despite all the suggestions from the banks, there is a "serious shortage of credit liquidity for small businesses".

Mr Wilson said: "First, the constant meetings with the banks give me an opportunity to raise the issue of lending to businesses.

"Secondly, the information that is now going to be provided on a quarterly basis as a result of the task force report and the requirements of the British Bankers' Association will give us data that we can look at.

"Thirdly, I will meet Mervyn King to discuss banking in Northern Ireland and to see whether we can get more detailed information on the figures that are produced by the banks for the Bank of England. That, at least, will give us a full picture."