The British government has warned the country's major banks that it wants to see a "significant improvement" in lending to smaller businesses after figures released Monday fell well short of pledges.
The Bank of England revealed that the "Big Five" banks lent some 16.8 billion pounds ($27 billion) in the first three months of the year to small and medium-sized enterprises.
That's 2.2 billion pounds short of the amount they agreed to lend in the quarter under the so-called Project Merlin agreement with the government, a deal that has been criticized for being toothless.
"There is a serious problem with lending to good, small companies," said Business Secretary Vince Cable. "We looked to the Merlin agreement to rectify the problem and though these are early days we want to see significant improvement over the next few months."
Cable said the government will monitor the banks' performance "extremely closely and if they fail to meet the commitments they have agreed we will examine options for further action."
The Conservative-led coalition government struck a deal with Britain's top banks in February to curb bonus payments and boost lending to businesses as it sought to draw a line under a crisis that culminated in a multibillion-pound (-dollar) state bailout of the sector.
Project Merlin followed a public outcry about the banks' role in the financial crisis, including past large bonus payouts and ongoing criticism that they were hampering Britain's economic recovery by failing to lend to businesses.
Banks pledged to increase lending to small and medium-sized businesses to 76 billion pounds this year, equating to 19 billion pounds in the first quarter.
But the government also appeared to heed warnings from banks that excessive government interference would harm Britain's position as a global financial center, and the deal did not include any enforcement measures or penalties should the banks fail to follow through on their commitments.
The British Bankers' Association said the figures showed a solid start to the year and that available capacity was not fully taken up due to muted demand.
"Economic conditions remain challenging, and demand for lending is likely to vary through the year," the Merlin banks _ Barclays, HSBC, Santander, and part-nationalized lenders Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds _ said in a statement. "So whilst these numbers are encouraging, it is too early to draw conclusions as to the year-end outcome."
Ed Balls, the opposition Labour Party's Treasury spokesman, said that the figures were worrying "just at the time we need small and medium-sized businesses to grow so we can get our economy moving again."
In more positive news, the Bank of England figures showed that the banks were on course to meet overall business lending targets of 190 billion pounds this year, or around 47.5 billion pounds for the quarter.