Financial Services Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
I hope that this amendment drives the Government to sit back and think. Accountability is not criticism. We do not say to our schools, “You’re bad schools, therefore we have accountability”. Accountability is an important part of the general dynamic, and in this area of financial regulation, oversight, encouragement, advice and review have to be deeply embedded in the system. So I hope very much that people will take the import of this amendment and be supportive of it.
Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, one of the most important elements in this amendment is set out in the explanatory statement provided earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, which says that the proposed general review is

“not linked to specific fault or failure”.

When we consider the history of the development of both international and domestic financial regulation, it has almost always been reactive: a model of crisis, then response. As a result, regulatory reform has typically been made in an atmosphere of crisis rather than an environment of thorough, calm consideration. So a periodic report by a skilled group might enable our regulatory system to get ahead of change in financial markets rather than persistently lag—and change, as we know, is persistent and indeed accelerating.

Another important factor that favours the proposals by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, is the extraordinary complacency evident in the documents issued with the Bill and in those issued so far that are associated with regulatory framework review. Organisations that in the past displayed a total lack of understanding of systemic risk in the markets they were supposed to be regulating should not resist external scrutiny and advice from well-informed parties; indeed, such external scrutiny would be in the national interest.

However—I am afraid I now come to that word—given the assurances of the Minister in summing up the debate we had on parliamentary scrutiny, I wonder whether we are at risk of creating too many committees and too many reviews. A well-resourced parliamentary scrutiny committee, which I trust the Minister has in mind, would recruit expert, experienced advisers to help them in the discharge of their responsibilities and would conduct periodic reviews. I must say that I was struck by the comment by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, that the buck stops with Parliament; indeed it does. I therefore suggest that it would be more fruitful for this Committee to concentrate on ensuring that well-resourced parliamentary scrutiny is indeed introduced, rather than taking the path suggested by the noble Baroness.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this amendment would require an independent review of both the FCA and the PRA every five years, and it sets out a number of things that the review would have to cover. The FCA was created to ensure that relevant markets work well. In practice, that means regulating the conduct of firms to make sure that the financial services sector is serving the interests of individuals, businesses and the economy as a whole. It has a broad remit and is responsible for regulating nearly 60,000 firms.

I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles: the recent investigations by Dame Elizabeth Gloster and Raj Parker have shown that the FCA does not always get this completely right. However, the FCA is wholly committed to learning from past mistakes. It is addressing the recommendations in both these reports and we can see that commitment being translated into action.

The FCA has set out how it will accelerate its ongoing process of reform, including through its transformation programme led by the new CEO, Nikhil Rathi. It has committed to provide public updates on progress every six months, and it is right that the Government and Parliament hold it to account on delivering these important changes. The FCA absolutely knows what it needs to do, and that it needs to do it under a spotlight, both from the Treasury and from Parliament.

That is one part of my answer to my noble friend Lady Noakes, who asked me how the Government assure themselves that the regulators are fit for purpose. But the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, spoke about the need for assurance and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, similarly, on the need for accountability. I reassure all three noble Baronesses that there already exist a number of mechanisms to hold regulators to account, both to Parliament to the Treasury. I believe that these existing mechanisms are sufficient to achieve the outcomes that this amendment is aiming at. I touched on some of these points in my previous remarks to this Committee, but I will attempt to provide a short summary here.

First of all, the regulators are required to produce annual reports and accounts, which are laid before Parliament by the Treasury and certified by the National Audit Office. The regulators are subject to full audit by the National Audit Office, and the NAO has the associated ability to launch value-for-money studies on the FCA and PRA. The FCA is subject to scrutiny via departmental Select Committee hearings, including the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Select Committee, which holds regular six-monthly meetings with the FCA CEO and Chair. The Treasury Select Committee scrutinises the appointments of the FCA Chair and CEO posts, and the Treasury has direct control over appointments to the FCA board and powers under the Financial Services Act 2012 to commission reviews and investigations.

The Treasury is also able to launch investigations under Section 77 of the Financial Services Act 2012 where it suspects there may have been regulatory failure. There are a number of informal mechanisms as well: there is nothing to prevent a Select Committee of either House launching inquiries, taking evidence on them, and reporting with recommendations; that is a decision for them. In speaking to Parliament about this Bill, both the PRA and FCA have stressed that they are committed to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny and will always respond to requests for engagement. Combined, these measures ensure that there is sufficient independent scrutiny of our regulators.

I am the first to agree that this is particularly important in light of Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s findings, but I reassure the Committee that, in addition to these measures, the Economic Secretary meets frequently with the FCA CEO to monitor progress on these critical reforms and ensure that the FCA remains focused on effectively delivering against its objectives. Of course, however, as we have discussed, the future regulatory framework review is considering the appropriate accountability mechanisms for the regulators, so this will provide an opportunity to consider these issues further. I hope that these remarks are helpful and sufficiently reassuring to the noble Baroness to enable her to withdraw her amendment.

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I have no grip on what the degree of exposure is for small businesses. We know that this is global, as it involves not just UK businesses and citizens, and the outstandings on a daily basis calibrated to Libor exceed $35 trillion. How this is going to work its way through, I honestly do not know, but if it goes nastily wrong and small businesses are exploited as a consequence, that will be a second set of stains on London, and I do not want to see that.
Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, the Libor scandal has precipitated a regulatory nightmare. How is the FCA to fulfil its statutory responsibility to ensure that markets function well when one of the foundation stones of those markets, the Libor benchmarks, are to be discontinued and replaced by untried underpinning?

The change in benchmarks is not only a problem for individual contracts, it is a systemic risk that the measures in the Bill do not—the FCA itself admits—entirely mitigate. To quote the FCA:

“Where parties to contracts referencing LIBOR cannot reach agreement on how those contracts would operate in the event of LIBOR’s cessation, discontinuation could cause uncertainty, litigation or loss of value because contracts no longer function as intended. If this problem affects large volumes of contracts it could pose risks to wider market integrity of contracts/financial instruments.”

The section in the Bill dealing with benchmarks attempts to limit the potential damage. The FCA describes one area of potential damage in these terms:

“This is to cater for a scenario where either a benchmark administrator informs the FCA of its intention to cease publication of a critical benchmark, or where contributors to the benchmark have notified the administrator of their intention to withdraw submissions to the benchmark before the relevant provisions in this Bill are commenced.”

Note that this is a plausible scenario in the FCA’s view.

How is it to be met? Among other measures there is the totally unrealistic proposal in Clause 9(3) that the FCA

“compel the administrator to continue publishing the benchmark”.

I cannot think of anything more likely to precipitate the systemic events that the FCA wishes to avoid. Then, remarkably, it amends Article 22(b) so that the FCA must provide

“a written notice stating that it considers that the benchmark is not representative of the market or economic reality that it is intended to measure or that the representativeness of the benchmark is at risk”.

What do we think that would do to the markets?

Despite the attempts in the Bill to deal with the cessation of the publication of a benchmark, there is, as the House of Commons Library notes suggest,

“risk of legal challenge and prolonged market uncertainty”.

That is the core of the problem that the Libor scandal has precipitated. I admit that the clauses in the Bill do their best to mitigate the risk, but even the authors of this section know that there is no entirely satisfactory solution. All they can do is cross their fingers and hope for the best.

The greatest risks are in retail markets: the ordinary family investor or, more pertinently, the ordinary family’s pension fund and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, said, small companies. They are the ones who are really at risk. There is nothing in this Bill to protect retail customers from that risk. When the Minister replies to this debate, perhaps she could reflect on the protection that should be provided for retail customers should the worst fears of the FCA be realised.

Amendment 44 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, seeks further to strengthen the defences against the plausible scenario by introducing continuity of contract when a benchmark is changed. This is an undoubtedly worthwhile addition to the armoury. It does not prevent adverse market reaction and loss of value—that problem remains—but at least continuity of contract will be there.

As I see it, Amendment 45 removes protection from the retail customer by preventing

“claim or cause … or liability in damages”.

This may well be unfortunate. The noble Baroness referred to claims companies. Pernicious though they may be, they were often the only recourse of the retail customer. As I understand it, the administrators of benchmarks could implement these changes themselves because powers that are given to them under Article 23D, where they are granted discretion, allow them to implement changes themselves, without concern for any consequent damages inflicted on holders of particular financial instruments. While I understand the thinking behind this safe harbour, I fear that it stands in stark contrast to the lack of protection for retail customers. Having read this section of the Bill carefully, I feel that the benchmark consultation is clearly necessary. The problems have not as yet been solved.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, as this debate has illustrated, when you hear about Libor it is hard not to think about the benchmark’s manipulation in the wake of the financial crisis. However, since then there has been substantial reform to the regulation of benchmarks and significant improvements have been made to the governance and controls around the submission and administration of Libor itself.

As a result of declining activity in the wholesale lending market that Libor seeks to measure, in 2015 the Financial Stability Board recommended a transition away from certain interest rate benchmarks including Libor to alternative rates based on active and liquid underlying markets. As Andrew Bailey remarked in his speech on Libor wind-down last summer,

“Public authorities and market participants … have … been working together to transition away from reliance on Libor for a number of years.”

It remains of the utmost importance that firms continue to prioritise the move away from the use of the Libor benchmark where possible. We need to reduce the number of contracts that refer to the Libor benchmark as much as possible before the agreement between the FCA and panel banks to continue submissions to Libor to facilitate this transition ends. For most Libor currencies, that is the end of this year.

However, it has been clear for some time that there will be certain tough legacy contracts that will not be able to transition away from Libor in time. In May 2020, the Working Group on Sterling Risk-Free Reference Rates highlighted the need for legislation to support these contracts. Without government intervention, parties to these contracts would be left without a means of determining contractual obligations when panel bank submissions cease, resulting in significant disruption.

Shortly after that, the Government announced their plans to give the FCA the powers to manage an orderly Libor wind-down through this Bill in a manner that protects consumers and market integrity. This includes legislation to deal with these tough legacy contracts. The UK was the first country to set out an appropriate regulatory framework to manage the wind-down of critical benchmarks, and this legislation has been very well received by industry.

My noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, asked about synthetic Libor. The proposed legislation does not prescribe what a synthetic benchmark might look like but allows the FCA flexibility and discretion as to what methodology change it might choose to impose. For example, the FCA could use this power to direct a change to Libor’s methodology so it is no longer reliant on panel bank submissions. The FCA has recently consulted the market on its proposed policy approach to using this power.

Turning to the amendments, Amendment 44 would require that where the FCA has used the powers given to it in this Bill to impose a change in the methodology of the benchmark, that new benchmark must be interpreted as the same benchmark in any contracts which reference the original benchmark. Amendment 45 seeks to reduce the scope for litigation where the FCA has exercised this power.

Since the introduction of this Bill, the Government have received representations from some key industry participants, highlighting a residual risk of disruption and potential litigation that they are concerned would remain even once the FCA has exercised its powers under this Bill. This risk is separate from the wider risks and impacts on markets that would materialise if the Government had not introduced legislation under this Bill, and it is this potential residual risk that these amendments seek to address. I appreciate noble Lords’ interest in this important issue and I reassure them that the Government are committed to looking at it and, if necessary, providing industry with any reassurance it needs. But I will now turn to the two fundamental reasons why we are unable to accept these amendments.

First, critical benchmarks such as Libor are widely used in a diverse range of products and contracts across the economy, so any action of the kind proposed in this amendment would affect a wide range of individuals and businesses. This must be taken into account before determining whether and how to act. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, have described, this would impact people outside the financial services industry.

Secondly, these amendments would intervene directly in private contracts, restricting the ability of contractual parties to seek legal redress were they to disagree with the imposition of synthetic Libor. I am sure that noble Lords agree that any such interference would need to be carefully considered and designed to be as narrow and targeted as possible while achieving the intended effect. It is therefore critical that the Government consider to the greatest extent reasonably possible the full range of Libor-referencing contracts and the impact any legal provisions, such as the ones proposed in these amendments, would have on parties to these contracts before deciding how to proceed on this issue.

For example, I am concerned that Amendment 45 would provide wide legal protection to parties using the revised benchmark against all forms of claim or causes of legal action associated with the exercise of the FCA’s Article 23D(2) power, as opposed to a more targeted form of legal protection. I have not yet been convinced that such a wide-ranging legal protection is appropriate, and it could have serious and significant unintended consequences.

For these reasons, the Treasury published a consultation specifically on this matter on 15 February, which is currently open for responses. This will allow us to properly consider these issues with the benefit of feedback from a broad range of Libor users. As the consultation is still open, I cannot say at this stage whether the responses provide evidence that a provision of this nature is necessary, or how such a provision should be structured, but I reassure noble Lords that the Government take this matter very seriously. Guided by the evidence gathered through this consultation, the Government will be well placed to decide if an intervention along the lines that these amendments intend is appropriate. I therefore ask that these amendments be withdrawn.

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Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, Amendment 46, in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, probes whether the reporting requirements on financial firms operating from Gibraltar in the UK market are sufficiently robust, and it questions whether we might find a way to make them more transparent. The Gibraltar authorisation regime continues the established practice of companies operating from Gibraltar in the UK, which is why it is important to review whether the UK taxpayer receives a fair deal from this arrangement. The Companies Act 2006 already mandates foreign companies to register and file accounts to Companies House, yet some Gibraltar-based companies with registered subsidiaries in the UK have successfully used this system to reduce their tax bill.

Transfer pricing plays a major role in switching money between jurisdictions so that the costs are burdened on the area with the highest tax rates, with the profits channelled to the areas with the lowest tax. This is of course a global issue that requires global tax co-operation, but that does not mean that where possible we as a nation should not take measures to remedy the situation where we can. Financial services are one of Gibraltar’s primary industries, which is why I have tabled the amendment. Ideally, through stricter and more thorough reporting standards between Gibraltar and the UK, these should apply to all sectors. For example, in the online services and gaming industry, transactions are often placed in the UK by customers but processed by servers in Gibraltar, a technicality that allows what in reality is taxable income in the UK to be taxed in Gibraltar.

If such practices are well documented among the online gambling sector, I do not doubt that they extend to the financial sector as well. Without public country-by-country reporting, identifying dubious transfer pricing will continue to remain difficult. However, that should not deter us from strengthening reporting between Gibraltar and the UK, particularly given our official links. Surely it simply cannot be right that some of the major UK gambling firms pay an actual corporation tax in the UK of between 3% and 13% by either headquartering or using subsidiaries based in Gibraltar. Incidentally, we only know this because the size of these firms has brought them under the scrutiny of journalists who have investigated them. Given the commonality of these methods among larger corporations, financial firms of the SME variety could, and possibly do, engage in similar methods.

The fact that companies have been able to rather openly reduce their corporation tax bill by incorporating some of their operations in Gibraltar calls into question the current mechanisms for the effective and proper exchange of information between the two jurisdictions in relation to profits subject to tax. During his evidence session, the Minister said that corporation tax rate was not a factor in relocation to Gibraltar. No doubt, the Mediterranean climate and lifestyle make it a very attractive place to reside. Indeed, I have thought of little else over the recent cold days. However, for the purposes of reducing your corporation tax bill, only a partial relocation is required. Furthermore, Gibraltar provides a unique service in the “non-resident company”, a simple and cheap offshore corporate tax entity that even the most cursory search online will see marketed as an international investment and tax-planning vehicle, with all the usual connotations that this implies.

I do not want the many good people of Gibraltar to confuse my concerns as an attack on their territory, but the continuation of access to UK financial markets by permitted Gibraltar-based persons without a review into the effectiveness of the information exchange and the transparency of reporting requirements between the two jurisdictions will leave open avenues and incentives for businesses to reduce their actual UK tax obligations through Gibraltar-based tax planning. I hope that the Minister will be able to reflect on some of these issues and perhaps help me understand what we can do to improve the situation because we might need to revisit this later on. I beg to move.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, the provisions in the Bill dealing with relations with Gibraltar raise a number of intriguing questions. The probing amendment in the names of my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and myself is really seeking some answers. The Bill in effect creates a single financial market with Gibraltar, even to the extent of offering customers of Gibraltarian entities access to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. In doing so, it forges a single market with a different jurisdiction, a jurisdiction that includes a different regulatory authority and notably—as the wording of the amendment in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans suggests—a fiscal jurisdiction that diverges significantly from that of the UK. I welcome the right reverend Prelate’s amendment.

When this country was a member of the European single market, there was, in essence, a single regulatory regime in the UK and Gibraltar, although the implementation of EU directives was not entirely uniform. In the Bill, the provisions on Gibraltar have been presented as a continuity measure. However, the UK’s new-found ability and declared intention to deviate from EU rules signals a substantial shift in our regulatory framework and potentially in its interplay with that of Gibraltar. The first part of Amendment 47 asks the Treasury to present in detail its assessment of how compatible the regulatory systems in the UK and Gibraltar actually are. It is important that people have confidence in the firms that will be allowed to operate in the UK. The Gibraltar authorisation regime, as it is called, being introduced by the Bill seeks alignment of law and practice in the UK and Gibraltar, but it does not prohibit Gibraltarian divergence.

I turn to the impact assessment. It is pointed out that the Gibraltarian authorisation regime will be established by a mix of primary legislation, secondary legislation, regulators’ rules, MOUs, policy statements and guidance. Given the unique nature of the creation of the single financial market, it is important that Parliament has the opportunity to assess this plethora of measures; hence the need for a Treasury statement in 12 months’ time.

It is further noted in the impact assessment that about 20% of motor insurance policies in the UK are written with Gibraltar-based insurers. When replying to the debate, will the Minister tell the Committee why he thinks that might be? What are the peculiar advantages of Gibraltar that have attracted such an extraordinarily high proportion of this UK business, and will those peculiar advantages continue as a result of the Bill?

At a time when the entire regulatory framework is under review, the Government might consider this to be the time to reassess the financial services relationships with the Crown dependencies as well. I am aware of the very different legal status of the Crown dependencies from that of Gibraltar and the fact that, given that the Crown dependencies were never members of the European Union, the UK’s exit does not pose the same range of new problems. However, the Minister will be aware that the financial services provided in the Crown dependencies are a vital part of the financial infrastructure of the UK, in particular with respect to the flow of liquidity into the London markets. Will the regulatory framework review cover the issue of the financial market relationships between the UK and the Crown dependencies? The regulatory framework review could take note, for example, of the fact that many regulatory practices in some Crown dependencies, such as the registration of beneficial ownership, are significantly superior to current practice in the UK. Given that the UK Government happily promote financial relations with Gibraltar, even though the Gibraltarian fiscal regime is significantly different from that in the UK, are they considering some enhancement of financial relationships with the Crown dependencies by, say, extending access to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, we have been making slow progress, so I will be brief. I rise to question the appropriateness of these amendments on Gibraltar and the Crown dependencies. I appreciate that the second amendment in the group, Amendment 47, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, is probing in nature and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Amendment 46 is extraordinary. It targets Gibraltar with new and additional requirements at a time when it is facing particular challenges following Brexit and with a new treaty with the European Union still under negotiation. It seems that there are three arguments against these proposals. First, Gibraltar is autonomous and has its own democratically elected Government, setting their own regulations and taxes. Secondly, reporting regimes on businesses and the individuals who run them are burdensome and costly, and divert management effort from serving customers and building for the future. Thirdly, in the case of Gibraltar we are talking about our good friends. Many British people love and support Gibraltar. Its Government is well led, as I know from taking evidence from the First Minister to the EU Committee of this House and visiting him and his Government with the committee. I know that they have demonstrated their commitment to meeting international standards on issues such as illicit finance, tax transparency and anti-money laundering. I do not believe that there is a case for making things more difficult for Gibraltar’s businesses or those involved with proposals of the kind in this group.