Financial Services Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, I read all the amendments in this group, and I found myself in support of every one of them. It is an excellent group. We all realise now that Amendment 136F, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is in the wrong group, which I suspect is why she is not speaking on this group under the heading that I loosely call offences.

Picking up on that theme, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, that he was the victim of an attempted fraud. It is astonishing that action did not follow. When we discuss that group of offences, one of my underlying concerns is about the lack of resources to pursue offences of any kind within the financial services spectrum, so I suspect that that is probably where the resistance has been coming from. It is an area that we need to resource properly, and we need to make sure that when a red flag is raised by an experience such as his there is follow-up, knowing that that will have been one of many attempts to defraud and that some of them will have succeeded. I hope that the Government will look at resourcing.

When I look at quite a number of the amendments in this group, whether on buy now, pay later, bills of sale or mortgage prisoners—which I think we will deal with in more detail later—it strikes me that all of them could have been headed off at the pass as problems if we had had an underlying duty of care. That takes me back to the first group of amendments that we dealt with, because with that in place we would not have had a regulator hanging back to see what the competitive implications were, whether or not various tests were reached and so on. It would have shaped very early the framework within which these activities sat. It really is a very strong argument for that duty of care.

On the excellent Amendment 79, I understand, following Chris Woolard’s report, that we are to expect action. The Woolard report raises the issues in detail; I will not repeat them here today but I will say this: if the FCA does nothing more than introduce an affordability test, which is how it tried to manage the payday lenders, we can guarantee that this House will intervene. We will expect stronger action than that, to make sure this problem is grasped—and not allowed to encourage people to fall into debt which frankly they cannot handle—and to put a proper framework around what is essentially a form of lending. I note in that context that Klarna is described today as the most valuable new start-up in Europe; its rate of growth and the appetite for buy now, pay later should set alarm bells ringing.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for supporting my Amendment 92. It is a probing amendment that deals with a crucial aspect of financial inclusion—I find echoes of this in some of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. The inadequacy of basic bank accounts and the reluctance of many of the banks that offer them to engage with the needs of basic bank account customers is an underlying problem. It certainly means that basic bank accounts do not lead to appropriate vehicles for people in the most disadvantaged end to borrow or save, or to engage much more broadly with financial service products. In this day and age, that is a serious issue.

The situation is better today than it was a few years ago; I remember listening to high-street banks who would encourage those coming in to open a basic bank account to go down the street to Nationwide, where they would receive a friendlier reception. Basic bank accounts were regarded just as cost; this was not only inappropriate but meant that those who were welcoming ended up with the greatest share of the burden. I have always taken the view that trying to make an institution provide a service to a customer that they do not want will mean a failed product. We have about 7.5 million people with basic bank accounts and some 1.2 million people completely unbanked. We have to grasp this nettle.

In the United States, intended or not, the approach to people who have been shut out of the financial services system has been different and rather more effective. I would like the Government as well as the regulators to go away and look at it. Under the Community Reinvestment Act 1977, any bank that sought permission to acquire or merge with another bank—something almost every bank was doing at the time—was required to demonstrate that it fully served the disadvantaged communities in its service area. As a civil rights measure, banks were basically red-lining African American, Latin American or Central American communities. They were allowed to serve those communities by supporting local institutions identified as much better fitted to the purpose. This gave a new lease of life to community development financial institutions—CDFIs—of all kinds, including credit unions and community banks. The major banks invested in them to pass that threshold and be able to do acquisitions and mergers, and supported them with expertise in marketing and technology.

I would very much like to see that model here; that is the purpose of my amendment. The DWP’s 2019 report on financial inclusion states:

“Social and community lenders such as credit unions and … CDFIs … provide a lower cost alternative to high-cost lenders, they are small in comparison and lack the visibility and capability to compete at scale. The UK needs a much larger, more vibrant social lending sector”.

CDFIs know the needs of their clients—that is where their work is targeted. They often work with local charities and civil society groups to provide money advice, business advice and a wide range of additional support to make people financially capable.

Some investors in the UK are developing new entities in this space. I am aware of two potential new mutuals, one in the south-west and one in London, targeted at this group of people. The recent report by Ron Kalifa on fintechs identified that new fintechs have the capability to provide a tailored, low-cost offering. But the reality is that very few new players have emerged to serve the excluded sector, which tells me that the system that we have at present is not working. I want all major UK banks to engage with this sector and for the regulator to make it a requirement, not just an act of charity or public relations. That could be done within the banking licence or through regulation, but that would change it from being a passive set of actions to an active way in which to make sure that this gap in the market is filled by people capable of doing it well.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and others who supported Amendment 93, which deals with the current and accelerating crisis of access to cash. The Government promised legislation at last year’s Budget, but there is no sign of it yet. Covid has driven a sharp drop in cash usage from three in 10 people before the crisis to just one in 10 people. That is a huge drop, but it still leaves about 5 million people who rely on using cash. Of course poverty and age are often a characteristic, but for many people it is a strong cultural preference; they want to use cash, and it is really their right.

As I understand it, the Government are going to follow the direction recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes; they will be able to confirm whether that is correct. That would permit retailers to provide cash without a purchase, which would help, but it is still very hit and miss. The Access to Cash Review done by Natalie Ceeney in 2019 highlighted the fact that retailers’ reluctance to accept cash is driving a lot of the change. Bank branches are closing across the country, especially in rural and disadvantaged communities. LINK, the largest cash machine network, has a contract with the Post Office, but it has about 18 months or so to run. Free-to-use ATMs are disappearing fast; when I talked to the industry, the estimate that I was given was that, if we do not do something quickly, half the ATMs in the country will be pay to use within 18 months.

We will need intervention by the FCA. Lots of commercial companies are involved in the system and any change or rationalisation throws up competition issues. The banks, for example, could be given an obligation to provide free access to cash but then allowed to use a utility model whereby they combine to provide free, shared smart machines capable of a range of services, perhaps with an assistant present to help users to navigate the machines. That changes how we think about this issue quite dramatically—and normally we would have time to do that, but we are now faced with an urgent situation.

I quote one final phrase of Natalie Ceeney’s report, because to me it says it all:

“It is … critical that action is taken now, so that no-one is left behind.”

I recommend that the Government take urgent action to deal with access to cash.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken very genuinely, because we are considering an important group of amendments on consumer access to credit. I am very grateful for the continued and thoughtful interest of noble Lords in this area. I assure all those who have spoken that we are listening carefully and will read this debate.

Amendment 79 would require the Treasury to introduce legislation to bring buy now, pay later products into FCA regulation, to which all speakers referred. The Government are committed to protecting the interests of consumers and, since Second Reading, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said in moving his amendment so ably, the Woolard Review has recommended that these products should be brought into the scope of FCA regulation. The Government are acting swiftly, following the outcome to this review, just as the Economic Secretary committed to do during this Bill’s passage through the other place. That is why, on 2 February, we announced our intention to legislate to bring them into regulation. However, it is important to know that these products are interest free and, therefore, inherently lower risk than most other forms of borrowing, so it is essential that regulation protects customers in a way that ensures that they can continue to use these products to manage their finances, rather than more expensive forms of credit on which they might otherwise rely. The Government therefore intend to consult stakeholders to ensure that a proportionate approach to regulation is achieved.

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Lord Tunnicliffe Portrait Lord Tunnicliffe (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, the last Labour Government were supportive of facilitating access to sharia-compliant financial services, and we understand—and welcome—that Her Majesty’s Government have made similarly helpful noises during their time in office. This is an interesting time for financial services as some firms prioritise divesting from fossil fuel projects, and so on. If such moves are possible, surely we can make progress on services that do not have involvement in industries such as gambling or alcohol?

Amendment 88 raises the issue of sharia-compliant student finance, which was subject to a recent e-petition on the Parliament website. In their response, the Government recalled their consultation on the matter back in 2014 and said that they intend to publish an update on progress later this year. While we appreciate that it takes time to engage with communities to understand their needs, evaluate feedback, devise new schemes and ultimately make them operational, there has been a significant wait for new products, and we need evidence from the Minister that we will soon turn a corner.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, as has been eloquently expressed, these amendments relate to sharia-compliant finance and specifically to the availability of sharia-compliant student finance products. This is an area where the Treasury and the Department for Education are in close contact. The Government are committed to ensuring that all students in England with the potential to benefit from further and higher education are able to access it. I know from this debate and from others that many noble Lords of all parties are keen to see action on this.

On the specific amendments, which the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, stated are probing, Amendment 80 seeks to require the Treasury to publish an assessment of the availability of sharia-compliant financial services, I can assure noble Lords that the Government are committed to ensuring that no UK customer is denied access to competitive financial products because of their faith. As referred to in the debate, the United Kingdom is indeed the leading western hub for Islamic finance, a position we have maintained for several years now. Treasury Ministers and officials conduct regular engagement with key stakeholders in the Islamic finance sector to inform our policies.

Amendment 88 seeks to add access to sharia-compliant student finance to the FCA’s objectives within Section 1B of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. It would be ineffective to add this objective because student loans are exempt from FCA regulation, meaning that the FCA would not have the powers to fulfil this duty. Additionally, student finance provision is a devolved matter while the FCA is our UK-wide regulator. Finally, as I have explained, work is under way in government to ensure that all eligible students are able to access student finance.

A number of noble Lords commented on the pace of this work. As the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, said, the Government published a consultation in September 2014 into a potential model that could form the basis of a new student finance product. The Government signalled in the consultation response that they would need to take new primary powers to enable the Secretary of State for Education to make alternative payments in addition to grants and loans. These were secured in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The Government have also carried out work with the Islamic Finance Council UK on an alternative student finance product for tuition fee and living cost support compatible with Islamic finance principles.

As has been stated, the implementation of alternative student finance is currently being considered alongside the review of post-18 education and funding. The interim report of that review was published on 21 January and the review is due to conclude alongside the next multi-year spending review. The Government will therefore provide an update on alternative student finance in due course. We should not underestimate the scale of complexity here. The Department for Education is trying to replicate a system of student finance that delivers the same results as now where students do not receive any advantage nor suffer any disadvantage through applying for alternative student finance.

I am sure that our colleagues in the departments concerned have heard the concerns expressed by noble Lords. I hope that, for these reasons, the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD) [V]
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I thank everybody who has spoken in the debate on this group. I confess that I should have said clearly at the beginning that my amendments and their text were not the issue; the amendments were simply the fossilised remains of my scope negotiations with the Public Bill Office and a means of introducing the subject of sharia-complaint student finance.

I must say that I am, as usual, extremely disappointed by the Minister’s evasive and unconvincing response. It is a great pity. I still do not understand why there has been such a long delay in addressing this serious problem. The Minister has not offered a reason for the delay except to point at various complications. Perhaps I should remind him that the takaful version of the Help to Buy mortgage system was introduced from a standing start in six months. This has taken nearly seven years, and we have not got there yet. I simply do not understand why this is going to be prolonged and why the Minister cannot give us any assurance about a firm date for the introduction of a sharia-compliant student product.

I also do not understand—I never did—why the Augar review is at all relevant; perhaps the Minister can explain why at some other point. However, I understand that the Muslim community continues to suffer a direct disadvantage without any good reason or plausible excuse. The Government are acting in a completely mean-spirited and heartless way. They are failing in their moral duty, failing to fulfil their explicit promises and failing to provide any real comfort that they might eventually do what they should have done long ago. They are behaving neglectfully and really rather disgracefully. We will return to this issue later.