All 3 Debates between Baroness Noakes and Baroness Worthington

Wed 25th Jan 2023
Financial Services and Markets Bill
Grand Committee

Committee stage & Committee stage & Committee stage
Wed 13th Jul 2022
Mon 11th Jul 2022

Financial Services and Markets Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Baroness Worthington
Baroness Worthington Portrait Baroness Worthington (CB)
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I shall seek to remember where I was in my speech. I was talking about international co-ordination and how the FCA currently is part of a global network of regulators, and therefore has a more effective chance of spotting systemic risks building up in the global markets, and that the exchanges would not be plugged in at the same level of international co-operation and co-ordination. The FSB warned, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that

“prices have swung wildly, with liquidity temporarily evaporating in some commodity derivatives market segments and a number of traders coming under strain”.

So I ask the Minister: in these uncertain times, how certain are we that UK exchanges can be patched into that wider market scrutiny and regulatory infrastructure, which the regulator currently has the power to do?

The powers retained by the FCA are limited to intervening on operational objectives and, most relevantly here, consumer protection and integrity, but I am concerned that that definition of consumer may be rather too narrow. It could refer, as it does in Section 1 of the 2000 Act, to the investor, rather than the man or woman on the street. I worry that “integrity” could simply refer to soundness, stability, orderliness and lack of crime. I would welcome the Minister’s view on how this maps on to the existing grounds for regulation that are to be revoked, which are much broader and relate to preventing market abuse and market distortion and try to ensure that there is no artificial inflation of commodity prices.

My concern is that we can have a sound and orderly market which works very well for investors but inflates prices for consumers and businesses and adds extra costs on to essential commodities. I believe the FCA should retain the power to intervene in these cases, and that the definition of grounds for intervention should be as broad as it is currently.

I mentioned the over-the-counter derivatives no longer being covered in regulation. I was rather worried to read in the Treasury’s consultation on wholesale markets that:

“The objective of including them as part of the regime was to prevent market participants from circumventing regulatory requirements that are applicable to exchange traded commodity derivatives by dealing in lookalike OTC contracts. However, in practice, identification of these contracts has proven difficult, and they have only been reported in a very small number of instances.”

Therefore, the Treasury concluded that

“the inclusion of these contracts and uncertainty about the scope of this requirement imposes increased legal risk and potential compliance costs for firms.”

To me, that sounds as though something important is proving difficult and, rather than seeking to solve it, make it easier and provide clearer guidance, we have decided to drop it altogether.

The consultation goes on to say:

“to ensure market integrity, the government proposes that the FCA and trading venues should continue to take account of relevant OTC contracts when monitoring markets.”

But amendments to Regulations 27 and 28 take away the power from the FCA to do this and to request information on these contracts. That is my reading of it, but I look forward to reassurance or clarification from the Minister. If the FCA is not able to monitor these transactions, how can we oversee them? Would it not be more desirable to have the FCA retain the powers it has?

I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for my amendments. Essentially, they seek to unhook the legislation from the EU but continue to require the FCA to maintain the same powers to set position limits and to intervene as widely as possible to ensure proper consumer protection and maintain international co-ordination, which is so essential in these markets.

Amendment 41 requires the FCA to make rules requiring listed companies to publish the revenue and earnings attributable to trading commodity derivatives and economically equivalent over-the-counter contracts. I think this is important because I have personal experience—and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence—of firms that are operating very significant trading activities but hiding their profits in their financial statements and in other parts of their accounts, because to disclose quite how much was being made from trading would bring a lot of questions about the nature of those companies. I am specifically talking about energy companies, which have very significant trading activities and are not, at the moment, required to disclose in their accounts the level of profit they are making from those activities.

This is important because it materially affects the ability of financial services to assess the health of these companies. If we are not seeing the extent to which they are engaged in these derivative-trading activities and we are unable to see where the profits are being made, how can we make fair and open assessments about the nature, success and propriety of their business? It is important that we give ourselves the transparency to see exactly how much of this is happening and the degree to which it is altering the balance sheets of companies in these sectors, which are so essential to maintaining our standard of living and, in the case of energy and food companies, have such a material impact on our environment and global climate.

I am sorry that that was a very long speech, but I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses and to continuing the debate.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington. I do not support them, because I think that what the Government are trying to do in this Bill is moving in the right direction.

We have to remember that derivatives are basically a success story. It is a huge financial activity. The total value of derivative trading is sometimes estimated to be a multiple of global GDP. Of course, commodity trading is only a relatively small part of that, but it is important because the advantages of trading allow effective risk management, price discovery and market efficiency. Those are the sorts of things that actually help consumers, at the end of the day, so we must be very wary of trying to interfere in what is fundamentally a successful part of our financial infrastructure.

Of course, speculation is involved in derivatives, there is risk for some counterparties—and sometimes systemic risk—in derivatives, and sometimes they are extremely complicated as individual instruments, even to understand. But they are part of and underpin something that works well for markets overall. We should intervene in that only if absolutely necessary.

My own view is that the changes in the Bill probably do not go far enough to take the dead hand of EU prescriptive regulation away, but they are a solid move in the right direction. As the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, pointed out, they replace a mandatory regime with a permissive one that allows the rules to be designed for the particular markets. In particular, the changes in Schedule 2 will allow the FCA to transfer responsibility for setting position limits to trading venues, if indeed position limits are needed. For some time now, the FCA has not been enforcing excesses on position limits in respect of the majority of contracts, and the world has not come to an end.

I think Amendments 21 and 22 are a step backwards in trying to preserve a mandatory EU regime. So too is trying to drag over-the-counter derivatives into that regime, because—as the noble Baroness pointed out—it has been found that they are extremely difficult to identify. Their removal from the regime was almost universally supported in the consultation that the Government carried out on changes to the derivatives regime.

Amendment 41 from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, is about putting additional information in annual reports and accounts. There are already obligations on companies to report things that are material to an understanding of the financial position of those companies. They are required to describe their trading model and the operating segments that are relevant to them, but they are not required to identify income streams from particular instruments that they operate. There is a good reason for that. Annual reports are already very long, complicated and difficult to understand, and the noble Baroness is asking for information that in very many cases will be wholly irrelevant to an understanding of the financial position or operations of the companies that involve some trading. For many, it is embedded in their marketing activities for the products they engage in. I do not support any of the amendments put forward by the noble Baroness.

Procurement Bill [HL]

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Baroness Worthington
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lansley has three amendments in this rather diverse group. The first is Amendment 118, which adds another requirement for tender notices under Clause 20. It would require the tender notice to provide a period during which potential suppliers can ask questions and get answers, which would then be shared with all potential suppliers. This procedure is often used in practice and it has advantages for both contracting authorities and potential tenderers, in clearing up any misunderstandings. For potential suppliers, it can clarify whether it is worth the time and effort of tendering. It allows suppliers that are not already familiar with a contracting authority to get up to speed. This would be particularly helpful for SMEs, as it would provide a relatively low-cost way to establish whether bidding for a contract is right for their business.

I have a slight concern that the amendment’s requirement to share answers with “all potential suppliers” might be onerous, but this is a probing amendment and I hope that the Minister responds positively to the idea behind it.

My noble friend’s second amendment is Amendment 123, which amends the provisions of award criteria in Clause 22. Under this amendment, the award criteria must enable innovative solutions to be offered in meeting the purposes of the tender. This returns us to one of my noble friend’s themes for this Bill—namely, that public procurement must foster innovation. It is much easier for a public procurement to specify the detail of what is to be delivered than the objectives or purpose of a contract, but good procurement would positively encourage innovative solutions, because innovation is the key to unlocking value for money for the public sector. I hope the Minister agrees with the aims of this amendment, as well.

Lastly, my noble friend Lord Lansley’s Amendment 149 seeks to amend Clause 26 by creating another reason for excluding suppliers, where no good reason is offered for a low tender price. The “most advantageous tender” rule in Clause 18 does not require the acceptance of the lowest-priced tender, but that will often be the outcome. This amendment is designed to provide encouragement to contracting authorities to understand why a tender price is abnormally low and to eliminate those that are lowballing on the basis that they gain a contract and then, later, find some way to negotiate up the price. This unfortunately happens in real life, sometimes.

Baroness Worthington Portrait Baroness Worthington (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to two amendments in my name. I am grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma, Lady Boycott and Lady Parminter. At this stage in Committee, we have had the debate about why we feel this Bill is lacking specificity, does not provide sufficient guidance and is a missed opportunity, so I do not propose to rehearse those arguments. I think that, if the Bill were different, we would not be seeking to amend Clause 22 on award criteria in this way. It is evident that we are trying to convey our concern that we need more guidance on these important long-term targets that need to be embedded in the procurement process.

I ask the Minister whether, under his interpretation of

“the subject-matter of the contract”

in Clause 22(2)(a), a contracting authority can set criteria that specifically relate to the public good that derives from environmental benefits that relate to the things we have put into our amendment. If that is the case, we have a workable solution. If it is not, we need something else in the Bill. To be clear, my question is: in setting award criteria under Clause 22, can a contracting authority put in specific, measurable criteria that relate to the wider public, environmental and social good?

Procurement Bill [HL]

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Baroness Worthington
Baroness Worthington Portrait Baroness Worthington (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 49 and 58 in this group referring to Clause 11 on procurement objectives. I am very grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Parminter, on these amendments.

We have just had a very interesting debate about the need to support small and medium-sized businesses as a more explicit goal within the Bill. I am here on this group of amendments to make the case for more explicit support for future generations. We have a climate crisis on our hands. We are potentially facing temperatures of 43 degrees this weekend. This is not a pleasant situation to be in; it is going to cause people to die. This is not something we should turn away from, and we must future-proof every single piece of legislation that passes through the House during our watch. This Bill offers an opportunity for us to do just that. The Government have not introduced anything in the Bill that goes beyond guidance other than simply the words “public benefit”. This needs to be given much more clarity, and my amendments seek to do that.

It was stated at Second Reading, and I apologise for being unable to attend it, that we need to improve the existing drafting. Therefore, I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister and, I hope, to meeting the Minister as I have to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. It feels that there is a huge amount of cross-party support for being clearer in this Bill about our intentions and that somehow or other we need to see something more explicit in the Bill, so a meeting on this topic would be most welcome.

Amendment 49 seeks to add more specific targets and a list of matters that the contracting authority must have to regard to including the importance of contributing to targets on our carbon budgets, the natural environment, air quality and other matters. I do not think anybody here is wedded to precise wording, and a number of noble Lords have come forward with different wordings in this group. Obviously, this is not an amendment I would seek to make final, but there must be a form of wording we could all agree on.

We have talked at length about the opportunity the £300 billion per year spent on government procurement offers in terms of driving forward the agenda we wish to see and increasing Britain’s productivity, innovation and the diversity of the companies able to engage in the transition we need to see. Business as usual is no longer tenable. We need to drive change, and we know that procurement is a hugely important lever for doing that.

I asked some questions about precisely how much procurement is responsible for driving global carbon emissions, but I am told that that information cannot be given, so we have no way of knowing how well aligned government policy is to the achievement of these broader goal, which is regrettable. We want to see more clarity in the Bill so that we can, over time, know whether procurement is delivering on these multiple goals.

I am sure there will be responses from the Minister that call into question the sense of these amendments and suggest that somehow it would distort the hierarchy. I reassure the Minister that that is not what we are seeking to do. We are not trying to tie the hands but are simply trying to provide the clarity and direction for such an important lever. I am sure we will be told that the next clause on the national procurement policy statement should be relied upon to deliver this clarity. Yet—and we will debate this—there is not a requirement on the Government to produce a statement; it is simply a “may”. Also, there is no fixed timetable I can see about when that will be produced so, really, we have nothing. There are no reassurances at all that this very poorly defined concept of public benefit will be given more flesh and more detail.

There is a precedent for putting something in the Bill. I highlight Section 9 of the Health and Care Act 2022, on which this amendment is modelled, which amended the National Health Service Act 2006 to give similar duties to the NHS to have regard to climate change including in relation to procurement, so it is not incoherent or without precedent to put this in the Bill. It would be more consistent to have it in legislation. If we do not do it, people will say that it was done in the NHS Act and ask why it was not done in the broader framework Bill that came subsequently. There is well-established similar terminology in the Financial Services Act 2001 and the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, so we must be consistent about the future-proofing of Bills to ensure that we are sending the right signals and bringing about this transition.

I hope I have explained why I think this approach should be taken. I highlight that public benefit being undefined is a problem, which brings me to Amendment 58. Of course it is legitimate for a Government not to seek to define every word in legislation, and some legislation can be unambiguously understood when the words have the ordinary meaning that you would find in a dictionary. The trouble with not defining a term that needs to be understood by all and for that meaning to be as consistently understood as it can be is that it will introduce a level of subjectivity and a lack of clarity. In a search through existing legislation, I have found no use or definition of public benefit, except in relation to charities law, but that cannot easily be read across into procurement decisions. Amendment 58 seeks to remedy that and to define it more clearly. It would include local priority outcomes as well as national ones.

I am sure the Minister will say that the understanding of public benefit will evolve over time and therefore a degree of a flexibility is required, but that is why we have selected only the issues which are enduring and which will be playing out of the long term. We have chosen three national and local priorities. Of course, that does not limit other priorities, but these will be enduring outcomes that will be with us for the long haul and will not change. The need to address the issues that we have highlighted here will get only greater. I think this amendment should be supported; I am not particularly wedded to this way of doing it, but there needs to be something in the Bill to provide the clarity that enables us to future-proof it. We need to take the current crisis and the responsibility we carry for future generations seriously in all legislation we consider, and I therefore look forward to the Minister’s response.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, this group includes my noble friend Lord Lansley’s Amendment 53. Like some of the other amendments in this group, it is defines “public benefit” in Clause 11, which the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, has just covered in her speech. My noble friend Lord Lansley regards it as important that there is a definition in the Bill. Public benefit is a very elastic term, which is good in some ways because it allows us to future-proof the use of the language for changes in circumstances, but there should be more guidance in the Bill on the kinds of things that are intended to be encompassed by it.

Clause 11 should be the guiding star for procurement professionals and we owe it to them to make it as clear as possible what is expected from them in applying Clause 11 in their work. I think most people would understand that public benefit includes economic and environment benefits and social value, which is included in my noble friend’s definition, but my noble friend is concerned that innovation and levelling up, which he also includes in his definition, should be mentioned explicitly. They are important topics and central to government policy, and they might not be obvious to procurement officials as coming within the term public benefit. Omitting them from the Bill raises questions about how important the Government think they are. The Minister may well say it will all turn up in the national procurement policy statement, but that is not the same thing. If something is important, it can easily bear repetition.

Other amendments in this group—Amendments 58, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, has spoken, and 59—also seek to define public benefit. They reference innovation but both contain rather long lists. One problem with rather long lists is that they tend to raise questions about what is not included in them, which is why drafting a long list is often a dangerous approach to trying to explain what something means in statute.