Financial Services Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, I offer a few words of caution on the subject matter of Amendment 35 in the name of my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, who has done so much to promote financial and digital skills since we joined the House together in 2013. The amendment is concerned with the very real problem of the “financially excluded”, in today’s jargon. This problem is of long standing. Under the description of the poor, the New Testament informs us that “they will always be with us”, and similar quotations can be made from the Old Testament. More recently, as just mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we have had good reports on the subject from our own committees.

Experience shows that another ancient saying is also relevant and helpful. I refer to the injunction on doctors when seeking to treat disease—“first do no harm”. Unfortunately, this latter injunction was not followed when the United States authorities sought to improve the lot of the financially excluded, which arguably led to the subprime crisis of 2008 in the United States, or at least made that crisis much worse than it would otherwise have been. Noble Lords will recall that, when it came to the attention of the federal authorities in the United States, some communities, called marginalised groups, received fewer house loans per head than others. The lenders concerned were threatened with prosecution under federal laws on discrimination. That was a major factor behind many subprime loans being made, which those receiving them had no real likelihood of being able to repay. Such loans were included in bundles sold to investors, which in many cases inevitably defaulted. The end result was a crisis in which some of the worst affected were those who had received the subprime loans in the first place—namely, the financially excluded, whom we are trying to help.

None of this argues against the amendment before us proposed by my noble friend Lord Holmes, although I note that my noble friend Lady Noakes has some reservations. We always need to listen to her because of her great expertise in this area. However, it shows that, in efforts to improve the lot of the financially excluded, we need to proceed with as much prudence and attention to the risks to them and more broadly, as we do in pursuing other wider objectives.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, I am delighted to support government Amendment 14, and congratulate my noble friend and the ministerial team on listening to concerns expressed across the House, and in particular, in echoing my noble friend Lord Holmes, for introducing the follow-up provisions under the affirmative procedure. I will also address, perhaps more supportively than other noble Lords, my noble friend’s Amendment 35. I must say that I am increasingly envious of my noble friend Lady Noakes and, in particular, the rather splendid account that she had previously with the Bank of England. She must be torn, not wanting to destroy her rather splendid cheque book. For security purposes, she might err on the side of caution and do so.

My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond has done the House a great service by raising this issue. Yes, we can debate whether it should be a Bank of England account, which I understand no longer exists; perhaps this is not the right time to revisit that. I have become increasingly concerned—as, I know, have many in consumer circles with much greater knowledge than I about this—by the way in which one’s credit score can be disadvantaged. All sorts of extraordinary things seem to be happening at the moment, without us even knowing. We are apparently encouraged to do regular credit checks; I did, and was delighted to see that on one, the Experian account, my credit score was sound. But apparently the Government have discontinued Experian, so I do not know to whom to address that in future.

This raises the issue of those who have a poor credit score and are having trouble finding a bank account. My noble friend Lord Holmes has identified the difficulties in doing so. If it is not the wish of the Government to support the terms of Amendment 35, I hope that the Minister responding to this debate will nevertheless look carefully at the circumstances by which it is becoming increasingly difficult for those with poor credit scores to access even the most basic banking services.

I understand what my noble friend Lady Noakes said about how we are coming under increasing commercial pressure to make banks’ retail services financially viable. This is causing great concern for those of us in rural areas, because it is increasingly difficult to keep small rural branches open. To me, they perform a social function as much as anything, particularly for local shops, in banking their cash, allowing them to access bank accounts and, for example, banking their money when there has been a local mart. My noble friend has identified these very real concerns and I hope that the Government look on them sympathetically.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I will speak briefly on government Amendment 14 and say a few words in support of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, because of his ongoing campaigns and successes in making us think harder about financial inclusion and the use that could and should be made of fintech, in reaching out to those who are not provided for by the financial system. Government Amendment 14 has our support because, as seems obvious from the Woolard review and other comments, there is an issue around this new-technology approach to purchasing.

Buy now, pay later has all the ring of a scam around it although, having talked to some providers and looked at their business plans in more detail, it seems to be a well worked-through and carefully crafted approach to the process of trying to buy goods, mainly. It may also apply to other services. Those on reasonable budgets who are unable to pay, with confidence, the amount for the goods that they are purchasing get the benefit of the opportunity to spread the payment over more than one month—the majority are for three months—largely at the expense of the retailer. The amounts are small and the sanctions applied by the providers are severe: you get dropped if you miss a payment or two.

There does not seem to be a sense of some of the fringe approaches that were available in other schemes that the House has looked at and which we have read about in the papers. In a sense, this may not be quite the scam and worry that we thought it was when the Woolard review came out, but the Government are right to ensure that the regulatory book is in order and that there is an opportunity to keep a close watch on this, and to act, as and when required.

Therefore, although it is unusual for the Opposition to offer powers to the Government in this way, we are reassured by the way that they have approached this, having brought us into the discussion and debate. We are aware that any regulations brought forward will, in practice, be under the affirmative basis and therefore open to scrutiny within your Lordships’ House and elsewhere in Parliament. We support this approach, even though to do so is slightly unusual. We think that doing it this way is a good move by the Government and hope that it will not be necessary, in the sense of some of the scare stories that we have read about. But if it is, at least the powers are banked.

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When he comes to respond, I hope that the Minister will be clear that the Government will continue to reflect on this issue as part of an upcoming workstream, which I believe will begin with the review of the broader consumer credit regulatory framework and then consider a range of possible reforms. While we would not wish this issue to be rushed, we need to be assured that the issues around high-cost credit will not simply be filed as “too difficult.” If the Minister is able to address our concerns and speak to this last point on timescale, we would see no need to test the opinion of the House on this occasion. I beg to move.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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It gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and lend my support, with my co-signing, to an important follow-through from the Law Commission’s conclusions and recommendations. I echo the remarks I made in my support in Committee, and I believe the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has been modest today. We are seeking reassurances, and I echo his concern about a definitive timescale.

It is interesting to note, as a non-practising Scottish advocate, that bills of sale do not apply in Scotland, so the Act does not extend to Scotland, and the provisions only really apply to England and Wales in this regard. Bills of sale, being mainly used for logbook loans, relate mostly to vehicles. But this is an opportunity, in supporting the amendment before us this afternoon, to probe my noble friend and the Government a bit further about what their plans are to review the recommendation.

Law Commission reports do not come along that often, and they come along often at the invitation of the Government. I would like to ask my noble friend about his intentions to give effect to the recommendations of the Law Commission report of 2017. In the consultation paper, it was proposed that the Bills of Sale Acts should be repealed in their entirety and replaced with new legislation to regulate how individuals may use their existing goods as security while retaining possession of them. Out of the 32 consultees who expressed their views, 24—75%—agreed to that.

I entirely endorse the Law Commission’s opinion that:

“The Bills of Sale Acts are written in obscure, archaic language, using words such as ‘witnesseth’ and ‘doth’.”

That sounds a bit like “the Leith police dismisseth us”. In the interests of modernising the legislation and making it more transparent, the purpose of Amendment 17 is entirely clear, and I take this opportunity simply to nudge and press my noble friend on what the Government’s intentions are now, four years on from the Law Commission’s recommendations.

Lord Holmes of Richmond Portrait Lord Holmes of Richmond (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady McIntosh, and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, on all his efforts in this respect. The Law Commission’s recommendations seemed pertinent and on point in 2017; four years on, they seem similarly pertinent and on point. Will my noble friend the Minister set out the pathway and the timetable for consideration of those arcane statutes, and tell us what issues and other legislation, which he alluded to, may also be under consideration along that pathway?

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The existence of such an obligation would surely ensure that the regulators would maintain an ongoing dialogue with the committees on their policies as they evolve but would not unreasonably restrict or delay their ability to act when necessary.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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I find I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments in this group. Before I address them, what has concentrated my mind as to how I will vote is that I understand there is a business Motion to be considered tomorrow that Standing Order 44, that no two stages of a Bill be taken on one day, be dispensed with on Monday 19 April to allow the Financial Services Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day, and that therefore under Standing Order 47 we will not have the opportunity to amend on Third Reading. If that is the case, we have to decide today how we are going to deal with this group of amendments and will not have the opportunity to return to them at Third Reading. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister, in summing up, can confirm that my understanding is correct in that regard.

I am always full of admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and support the main thrust of her Amendments 18, 19 and 20. For once, I find myself in good company with my noble friend Lady Noakes; I hope this trend will continue. As yet I have not persuaded my noble friend Lord Trenchard to join us in this venture, but I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, has identified reasons for us to support this proposal. Of course it is right that the Government should consult industry, practitioners and consumers, but what is missing—it is the major omission addressed particularly by those amendments I am minded to support in this group—is any opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise what will be major changes to our law in this Bill.

I was most interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, ask at the end whether Ministers would attend committees when required. I always thought it was the case that they had to have a very good reason not to attend parliamentary committees, but I stand to be corrected when we hear the summing up.

I could not put it any better than my noble friend Lady Noakes as to why I cannot support my noble friend Lord Blackwell’s amendment: it appears to be looking through the rear-view mirror. If anything, we need the opportunity to look at these regulations and provisions before they come into effect. There was a full complement of signatures so I was not able to sign Amendment 45, but I have lent my signature to Amendment 48.

I believe that, whether we adopt Amendment 45 or 48, or Amendments 18 to 20, they have a great deal of merit. As I said earlier, it is an extraordinary omission for the Bill not to provide for advance parliamentary scrutiny and, in the words of my noble friend Lady Noakes, parliamentary accountability of very important regulators in this field. We need only to look back at the financial crisis and subsequent moves to see how important the role of financial services is in the whole economy.

I conclude by responding to my noble friend Lord Trenchard. I do not believe that it is a very good argument to say that we cannot scrutinise the role of regulators because committees do not have sufficient resources. If anything, that is an argument to have more members. Many of us are not able to serve on committees at this time because they do not have enough places, so, if anything, I would support his call for more resources for these committees to ensure that we can. Whichever amendment we adopt—I am sure that this a subject close to the heart of the Deputy Speaker—we must provide the resources and the time to perform a proper scrutiny role in this House. With those few remarks, I am tempted to support Amendments 45 and 48 or Amendments 18 to 20 this afternoon.

Baroness Shafik Portrait Baroness Shafik (CB) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and all the previous speakers, who have added a great deal of expertise and judgment to the debate so far. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important group of amendments, which would make sure that there is sufficient parliamentary scrutiny of the regulators, who are the ultimate referees in determining whether financial markets are fair, effective and serve the public interest.

The key question is how to make sure the referees are doing a good job, and there were many excellent proposals put forward today on how to enhance scrutiny, including Amendments 18, 19 and 20 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady Kramer, Amendment 37A from the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, and Amendments 45 and 48 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles, Lady Noakes and Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. Those amendments all focus on putting in place reporting requirements to Parliament. I want to focus on who is best placed to receive this reporting, given its highly specialised nature.

I realise that this is an issue not of legislation but of how Parliament chooses to organise its affairs. But what we put in legislation also depends on the institutional structures that are in place, and meaningful scrutiny needs to be adequately supported. I support the recommendations of the All-Party Group on Financial Markets and Services, which argues that to enable effective scrutiny of regulators there needs to be a new Joint Committee of parliamentarians from both Houses with a specific remit for financial services, supported by expert advice—something to which the noble Lords, Lord Blackwell and Lord Bruce, have also referred, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh.

I know from my time as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England how technical some of these regulatory issues are. A dedicated joint committee would be able to draw on independent advice and respond flexibly to issues that arise to ensure the public interest is well served. Such an institutional structure would be in the spirit of a principles-based regulatory regime, rather than relying on more detailed legislative approaches. It would also be consistent with the welcome letter sent today by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to the chief executives of both the FCA and the PRA seeking to have proper parliamentary oversight of financial services regulation in future.

One area where potential parliamentary scrutiny of the FCA and the PRA could be useful is around how their work supports UK competitiveness. I know this is an issue that has already been covered at some length and with great expertise by this House, and I know that many have argued for strengthening the competitiveness objectives for the FCA and the PRA.

I would prefer to stick to the current language for four reasons. First, in my many years of doing surveys of investors at the World Bank, I have never seen easier regulatory standards featuring as a factor that makes a country more competitive. Instead, macroeconomic and financial stability, a skilled workforce and good infrastructure were what mattered most across the world. Secondly, just as you do not want a weak referee in order to have a good game, markets operate best when they are fair to all players. Thirdly, we have been able to support innovation in areas such as fintech through the use of things such as regulatory sandboxes, which allow experimentation while containing risk. Finally, there are many others who do a very good job of promoting financial services in the UK, including Her Majesty’s Treasury, the lord mayor and the many industry associations.

I also suggest that, for the moment, climate change is an area where parliamentary scrutiny, rather than legislation, might be useful. Central banks and regulators around the world are moving quickly to address climate risks. We are in a moment of great innovation, with climate stress testing, improved disclosure requirements, scenario planning, looking at climate exposures on both sides of the balance sheet and enhancing accountability for senior managers. All of this is wonderful, and I especially welcome the move to setting regulatory requirements for all market participants based on agreed definitions and rules, rather than relying on voluntary approaches and inconsistent criteria.

For now, I am comfortable with requiring regulators to have regard to climate issues—the recent remit letters are a good example of this—with appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of how that is happening. However, we should definitely return to this issue as part of the future financial framework once we have more evidence and experience from current innovations, so that we can codify in legislation the best possible approaches to addressing climate risks. Here as well, having a Joint Committee with access to relevant expertise would only enhance the quality of scrutiny around issues of climate change.

In conclusion, I very much hope that the Minister will be able to further reassure the House of how expert parliamentary scrutiny will enable Parliament to play a key role in future oversight of the regulators.