Financial Conduct Authority: Accountability

Wednesday 1st May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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10:56
Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the accountability of the Financial Conduct Authority.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Philip. I welcome the Minister to his place. I know that he has an interest in these issues, and I hope that this debate will be a productive exercise for us all.

It may be worth explaining a little bit about how I came to be interested in the FCA. I probably speak more about fishing than financial services in this House, but the FCA came to my attention as a consequence of constituents who I have been helping. They were victims of a Ponzi scheme, and they lost hundreds of thousands of pounds as a consequence of fraud. The perpetrator was sentenced to 14 years, later reduced to 10 years, in the High Court of Justiciary.

On no fewer than three occasions, the FCA, or the Financial Services Authority as it was initially, failed to read the warning signs and take action. As a consequence, that was allowed to continue. Had it acted at the first available opportunity, there would have been only one victim of Alistair Greig, rather than hundreds.

As is often the case with these matters, a handful of people were determined to fight, but they were rebuffed at every turn. They were told, “No, this is nothing to do with us. It is not a matter of regulation; it is a question of the creation of a principal and of an agent,” and the rest of it. They took court action, which cost them £2 million, and they lost, but eventually the FCA was forced to put them into the financial services compensation scheme, which gave most of them compensation, albeit capped at £85,000. One of my constituents was out for £130,000, so he is £45,000 down and has suffered a further loss as a consequence of the fact that he was one of the brave souls who was party to the court action. The 95 people who were behind that court action are now left with a bill of almost £2 million.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a consequence of the way that the FCA has gone about its business, it wishes to have no further part in any discussions with the people who were affected. I organised the screening of a documentary in the House a few weeks ago. Even the judge who heard their case turned up. I have never heard of this happening before, but the Financial Conduct Authority did not want to know. No one from the organisation was prepared to come to this House, sit in a room for an hour with the people whose lives had been most dramatically affected by their decisions, look them in the eye and explain what they had done.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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My right hon. Friend is outlining a very concerning story. When many hon. Members think about the FCA, including me as an MP from the 2019 intake, it is in relation to its legislative authority for ensuring the changes on access to cash. Does he agree that ensuring that people get the right support so that communities have the access to cash that they deserve is a real concern?

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, as I hope will become clear as my remarks develop, the way that the FCA is going about its duties at the moment is working for nobody. It is clearly not working for the communities most directly involved, for the financial services sector or for members of the public such as my constituents, who have been left to beat their head against a brick wall for years in their dealings with the FCA.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I wholeheartedly endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that, for many of us who have brought constituents’ financial issues to the FCA over the years, the FCA often appears to be a barrier rather than a help for the ordinary man or woman? Let us be honest, that perception needs to be altered by a seismic shift in how the FCA engages. I know he feels the frustration that all hon. Members present feel.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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I am delighted and relieved to see the hon. Gentleman in his place; he is absolutely right. The engagement of the average constituent—I am legally qualified, but I include myself in that—with the financial services sector is often a matter of supreme consequence. Very often, they have to rely on the judgment and expertise of the people with whom they are dealing, who are regulated by the FCA. That is why this matters for all of us.

The parallels with the Post Office are unavoidable. It is the same situation time and again: a well-resourced public body decides to deny, deny, deny until eventually people have to give in. That worked for the Post Office, although we were able to break through it. That is just one of the most egregious examples. Lower down the food chain, where fewer people are affected, including my constituents, it is much more difficult for anybody to get justice.

That is how I became interested in the first place. As is often the case, when one starts to lift rocks, what is underneath takes one off in other directions. I am afraid that I have found little under any rock that I have lifted to make me think there is anything in the FCA at the moment about which we should be happy or optimistic.

The FCA is consulting on proposals to change its enforcement code. Essentially, it is talking about naming and shaming much earlier people who have become a subject of concern. That has to be viewed in the context of its performance: an average FCA investigation takes at least four years. In 65% of cases referred to it, no further action is taken. For such an industry, the reputational consequences of naming and shaming at such an early stage could be catastrophic. The people most directly affected are not the big City firms, because they are big enough to withstand the damage, but the small and medium-sized enterprises, for which the FCA does not demonstrate the level of concern that it should.

A report by Spotlight on Corruption in February showed that 90% of the value of fines against directors in the financial services sector was levelled against directors in SMEs, and only 2% against senior executives in large companies. It is part of the culture that the regulator seems to be staffed and driven by people in the big City firms, who seem to get a different level of service and, dare I say, protection than the SMEs. That matters in relation to the enforcement code changes because there is a real risk of undermining this country’s reputation for stable and predictable regulation. Given the importance of financial services to the economy as a whole, the wider national economic interest is clearly at play.

The culture also goes wrong when we look at the way in which the FCA runs itself. I have had the benefit of a briefing from Unite the Union, and will turn later to some questions it poses through me. Independently of that, I have spoken privately to a handful of people who work for the FCA. I am not going to tell the House what they told me, because even though what they told me was in general terms—just for my own background and understanding—they were concerned that if something I said allowed them to be identified within the organisation, it would be to their professional detriment. Just hold that thought for a second: they are so concerned, and the culture in the FCA is so poor, that they are not prepared, even anonymously, to speak to Members of Parliament. If anybody doubts that there is a cultural problem within the FCA, that should surely remove those doubts.

The morale among staff is pretty poor. I have to say, though, that the staff I met genuinely understand the importance of the work they do in the public interest; they value the role they play, but clearly feel undervalued by the senior executives and the people at the top—and, actually, they are undervalued. Sixty staff working at the FCA earn salaries of less than £29,500, which is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum salary recommendation that is required for an acceptable living standard. In fact, that amount would not even allow someone to bring a spouse into the UK under immigration regulations these days.

Unite the Union has surveyed staff extensively and speaks about the toxic environment within the FCA for staff reps, who are given little assistance or support and minimal information. The FCA carries out a quite remarkable performance assessment framework, which is not a million miles removed from the one that I knew when I first became a civil servant at the start of my legal career 30 years ago. I thought we would have moved well away from that, because it was hopelessly inadequate—but no; it seems as if it is almost designed to encourage mediocrity. It is the sort of system that was used by a number of public sector and City companies for a long time, but I do not know of many companies that have used that sort of framework for the last 10 years. It has destroyed the collaborative working environment within the FCA, and 81% of respondents to the Unite survey identified it as being unfair to them.

Unite has posed some questions to me that I will read into the record. I do not expect the Minister to answer them all, but perhaps he could follow up in correspondence. Why does a public sector organisation that pays its chief executive over £450,000 a year find it acceptable to pay a large number of staff below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard? Why has the FCA not made any cost of living adjustments for its staff in the 2024 pay round, following a punishing cost of living crisis? Why has the FCA not delivered the resource and priority it has promised staff representation in the wake of recent failures? If the FCA is committed to “best in class” staff representation, as the FCA chair Ashley Alder told the Treasury Committee last year, why will it not recognise a trade union?

What are the Government doing to hold the FCA leadership to account for the problematic culture of fear and burnout, the high staff turnover and the sinking morale that Unite the Union has consistently reported over the years? Why has the FCA persisted with a severely outdated model of staff performance grading, long abandoned by the industry it regulates? Surely the FCA should be leading the sector as a role model, should it not? Finally, why has the FCA made no headway in its large disability pay gap? Unite the Union reports that staff with disabilities, neurodivergence or complex personal circumstances are simply getting poorer performance and pay outcomes than their peers.

The FCA as an organisation does massively important work in the public interest but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), it is surely clear that it is working for nobody. It is not working for members of the public who rely on the protection it might give them, as evidenced by my constituents and the impact they felt from the Midas Financial Solutions Ponzi scheme’s fraud. It is not working for the benefit of the sector that it regulates, as evidenced by its proposed changes to the enforcement code. It is not working for our communities, as evidenced by the work on access to cash referenced by my hon. Friend, and it is most certainly not working for the benefit of the people it employs.

It is apparent to me that the poor culture in the FCA is driven from the top and then bleeds into every aspect of its work. As an organisation, it has lost direction and lacks leadership from the top. However, we all remember why we have it and why it was set up. For the national economic interest of us all, it is too important to fail, but surely it is apparent that it is failing, and somebody needs to take control and change that.

11:11
Bim Afolami Portrait The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Bim Afolami)
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It is a pleasure to be here. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for raising this extremely important issue for debate. Neither he nor the House will be surprised to hear that the Government agree—and I very strongly agree—that accountability for the financial services regulators is of the utmost importance. Before I was in my current post, I set up, chaired and ran the Regulatory Reform Group, which brought together over a dozen Members of this House to think about how we reform the regulatory and accountability structures in this country. I have thought and been concerned about that issue for many years.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and other Members will be aware that the FCA is operationally independent and must act to advance the objectives that Parliament has set for it. Independence of the regulators, however, must be balanced with clear accountability; appropriate democratic input, for which this debate is one forum; and transparent oversight. That is why the FCA is fully accountable to Parliament and the Treasury for how it discharges its functions.

To ensure that the regulators consider the financial services sector’s critical role in supporting the British economy, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, last summer we gave the regulators new secondary objectives to facilitate the international competitiveness of the UK economy and its growth for the medium to long term. By putting growth and competitiveness at the heart of our regulatory system, while retaining the primacy of protecting the safety and soundness for financial services firms and the wider system, we will ensure that the sector remains at the forefront of the global economy. It is vital that we hold the FCA to account for delivering on those objectives; I take that responsibility very seriously.

I will come on to some of the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman, in no particular order. What comes to my mind first is that he mentioned the FCA’s so-called naming and shaming proposals, which have been covered in the media and elsewhere. The Chancellor has been publicly clear that he thinks the FCA should rethink that approach, and I share his view completely. I am particularly interested in, and strongly support, the remark made by the right hon. Gentleman that it is most often the small players that see the sharp end of that approach. What that does to innovation, competition and actual money for individuals invested in those small players, be they customers or shareholders, is very significant. The right hon. Gentleman explained eloquently that the impact of being named and shamed very early could be significant. I want to put on record, following up on what the Chancellor has said publicly, that I believe the FCA should rethink that and rethink it quickly.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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That is my concern, given what I have heard today in relation to access to cash. One real concern of communities is that banks rush to leave town and leave one bank standing. When we think about banking hubs and communities, we are thinking about ensuring that the most vulnerable have access, so it is really important those bigger players are held to account. Does the Minister agree?

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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The hon. Lady makes an important and fair point. I agree with her that access to cash—which, as she knows, this Government legislated for—needs primacy in the way she has described. Banking hubs are a replacement when several banks have shut in a town or large village, and I believe that the assessment criteria relating to where they come in and the speed of the roll-out should be looked at again. To be fair, that is not down to the FCA. The expected timeframe for it to finish its consultation on access to cash is the third quarter of this year, and although the FCA is part of that process, it is worth saying that it is not the primary driver; the primary driver is the industry.

Let me come to a case that I know is close to heart of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: the failure of Midas Financial Solutions. Mr Alistair Greig perpetrated a large-scale fraud over a period of several years, lying to those who trusted him with their pensions and life savings. Those were people who had done the right thing in their lives—they had done everything right—and because of the fraud of that individual and his company, they lost out. The FCA intervened in 2014, following the receipt of intelligence related to the Midas scheme. The Financial Services Compensation Scheme was subsequently able to compensate eligible customers for a significant portion of what was lost, and Mr Greig was charged, found guilty of fraud and imprisoned.

It is imperative that the FCA continues to robustly enforce its rules and standards, not just against firms that are carrying out blatantly fraudulent activity as in the case of Midas, but to ensure that all the firms it supervises meet high standards and deliver high-quality outcomes. The FCA operates a risk-based approach, not a zero-failure regime. It is important Ministers say this: we are not in a world—nor should we aim to be in one—where it is impossible for anything to go wrong ever. What we have to do is say to the FCA, “Your job is to maintain a high standard and high quality in the market for all the firms you supervise.”

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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I have absolutely no argument with the Minister on that point—it is absolutely sensible—but the fact of the matter is that the regulator was told not once, not twice, but three times, and each time it failed to take the appropriate action. It was sometimes just as basic as putting people through to the wrong extension when they phoned. The truth of the matter is that if my constituent and the 94 others who took legal action had not stuck with it, nobody would have got any compensation from the FCA. That is why there is surely a basic point of fairness and justice here: having been the ones who got the money for everyone, the money that they spent getting that compensation should be recognised.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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I thank the right hon. Member for that point, which I will consider carefully while I discuss the accountability of the FCA to Parliament and the Treasury. The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 establishes multiple ways for the Government, Parliament and the public to scrutinise the FCA—through, for example, its annual reports, which must set out how it has advanced its objectives. This year, down to the proposals of this Government and this Treasury, the FCA will for the first time report on how it has embedded its new growth and competitiveness objective. The Treasury can direct the FCA to include extra things in its reports. The FCA also regularly publishes a large amount of data on its performance—for example, on the time taken to respond to applications for authorisation—which demonstrates to the public whether it is meeting its targets. Indeed, the Treasury can shape the focus of the FCA by writing to it to set out which aspects of Government economic policy it should have regard to when advancing its objectives and carrying out its functions.

The right hon. Member mentioned concerns that had been shared with him about the internal culture, and pay decisions by the FCA. It is not appropriate for a Minister to pronounce on those things, beyond saying that I will be with him in scrutinising the annual report when it comes out to see in which areas those things are addressed. I am happy to discuss that with him, as well as the methods for accountability in that regard. It is also important that we set out through the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 that the regulators are now required to respond annually to the recommendation letters. This provides greater transparency about how the regulators respond to Government recommendations.

The Treasury also has a range of powers to direct the FCA in certain exceptional circumstances. For example, it can require the FCA to conduct an investigation of relevant events where it is in the public interest. That happened once in relation to the FCA; in 2019, the Treasury directed the FCA to review the events relating to the failure of London Capital & Finance. After that report was done, the FCA subsequently accepted and implemented all recommendations, which included a significant overhaul of its operations through its transformation programme.

In addition to the Government and the Treasury, Parliament also has a vital role in scrutinising the actions and performance of the FCA. We have the Treasury Committee, and there is a new House of Lords Financial Services Regulation Committee, which regularly examines the work of the FCA. I would add that it is important that we think more about how we scrutinise in the most effective way. I fear that sometimes when it comes to the FCA, there are so many methods of accountability that it almost appears that there are none. They are so disparate, bitty and numerous that it is time consuming and expensive for the FCA, and often difficult to follow for Members of Parliament.

There is more work that we can do to streamline the process of accountability to ensure that it is rock solid and firm, and focused on not just consumer outcomes but ensuring the market works—and to do so in a way that makes sense for both Houses of Parliament. For example, between December 2019 and March this year, the FCA provided oral evidence to Select Committees on 36 occasions. That is a lot. In addition, there is constant discussion between Members of this House and the FCA. I think there is accountability, but we need to find ways to ensure that it is streamlined and more focused.

I hope I have reassured the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that the Government take holding the FCA to account very seriously—I know that I do in particular. The legislative framework is designed to strike the right balance between the independence of the regulators and ensuring that they are held properly accountable. The Government have built on that accountability through the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023. This House, and Parliament as a whole, will be able to judge the FCA’s progress through things such as the upcoming report on how it has advanced its new secondary growth and competitiveness objective since it came into effect last year, and whether it takes account of the view of this House and the Chancellor on its naming and shaming proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

11:23
Sitting suspended.