Financial Services Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Moved by
79: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—
“FCA duty to regulate buy now, pay later firms
(1) Within 3 months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament regulations which confer a duty on the FCA to regulate—(a) buy now, pay later credit services, and(b) other lending services that have non-interest-bearing elements.(2) The duty conferred in regulations under subsection (1) must take effect no later than 6 April 2022.(3) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require the Chancellor to confer responsibility for regulation of the non-interest-bearing elements of buy-now-pay-later lending to the FCA, with such a duty to come into force no later than the beginning of the 2022/23 tax year.
Lord Tunnicliffe Portrait Lord Tunnicliffe (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, many colleagues will recognise Amendment 79 as a response to the recent publication of the Woolard Review into change and innovation in the unsecured credit market.

The Government have been on something of a journey on buy now, pay later products. In December 2020, the Economic Secretary resisted a similar amendment tabled by long-standing personal debt campaigner and MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy. He said that while the Government were aware of potential risks resulting from a boom in the use of buy now, pay later products,

“we are yet to see substantive evidence of widespread consumer harm”,—[Official Report, Commons, Financial Services Bill Committee, 3/12/20; col. 398.]

and it would therefore be inappropriate to act.

To be fair to the Government, they did not want to pre-empt the findings of the Woolard Review, which was published a month ago and is a very strong piece of work. It warned of “significant potential customer harm” if there was not a role for the FCA. By bringing certain unregulated credit products under the FCA’s watchful eye, we could see requirements around affordability checks, as well as the introduction of proper protocols for individuals who find themselves struggling to repay the loans they have taken out.

The review also stressed the importance of ensuring a well-functioning debt advice sector, and the need for both government and regulators to take a more holistic approach to a range of issues around personal finance and debt. I know that this piqued the interest of my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, who has already dealt with the concept of financial well-being and will turn his attention to Victorian log-book loans shortly. We support his endeavours and hope that at the very least the Government will commit to a review of the antiquated legislation whose repeal was recommended by the Law Commission several years ago.

We strongly welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Woolard Review’s recommendations, as well as their commitment to implement the necessary changes as soon as practicable. It is in some ways a curious change of position, as the review’s discussion of theoretical risks does not appear to meet the evidence test set by the Treasury just three months ago. However, this is a policy change that we can support and, luckily for the Minister, this legislation provides a means of delivering on the Government’s promises.

No doubt we will hear later that this is a very complicated matter and the Treasury needs time to think through the consequences—intended and unintended. Mr Glen hinted at this back in December, talking about the need for the Government to “assess the options” and to weigh up whether they “would be proportionate” in responding to potential harm.

One worry previously cited by the Government related to the potential restricting of flexible payment options for such things as gym memberships or sport season tickets. Nobody would wish to restrict access to such options, in part because they have shown themselves over many years to be low risk. We therefore welcome the distinction made in the review, which talks of “certain new credit products” being brought under the FCA. Our Amendment 79 is more wide-ranging but is, as so often in Committee, a vehicle for debate.

Another worry of those who oppose regulation relates to the potential stifling of innovation in the sector. Of course we welcome new entrants and new services, but on the basis that they operate in a responsible manner. These products are booming in part because of Covid-19 and changes to peoples’ shopping habits. Buy now, pay later grew exponentially during 2020, with an estimated 5 million people using products from firms such as Klarna and Clearpay. The value of these transactions is in the billions, and that figure is likely to grow.

We do not oppose Klarna, Clearpay or other providers of these services. They offer a product which many shoppers wish to avail themselves of, and I am confident that such companies will continue to grow once subject to FCA regulation. All we are asking is that these players, as with others across the financial services sector, are subject to the correct balance of rights and responsibilities, including duties to those who may have problems with debt.

I have no doubt that the brilliant minds at the Treasury and the FCA can come up with a solution, and do so while the Bill remains under consideration. Our amendment mentions the 2022-23 tax year, and if we are to learn lessons from the past, including the failure to properly regulate payday lenders, surely we must keep this target at the forefront of our minds.

I know from previous discussions with the Minister and officials that they are working very hard on this. Therefore, I am hopeful of seeing a government text on Report, if not establishing the detail then committing to the principle and providing the powers that will be needed to implement changes in the coming months.

Other noble Lords with amendments in this group will be very keen to make their speeches, so I will not detain the Committee for too much longer. However, I want to voice support for the other amendments, including that from my noble friend Lord Stevenson referred to earlier in my remarks. I also look forward to the Minister’s response to the amendment on access to bank accounts and cash. Sadly, we continue to see the withdrawal of bank branches and cash machines from towns and villages across the country, suggesting that previous initiatives have not had the desired effects. I beg to move.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I start by expressing support for Amendment 79, introduced by my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe. As the Woolard Review pointed out, the buy now, pay later issue is a hotspot at the moment and in need of urgent action. My noble friend’s amendment would require that the non-interest-bearing elements of lending under that regime should be regulated by the FCA, and we support that. I thank the Economic Secretary for the time given to us recently on this issue and I appreciate that this is not easy to regulate for. However, as my noble friend pointed out, there is time to get this right by the next financial year.

At heart, this looks like a consumer-friendly initiative—something we could all support. Credit-financed purchases have been with us for a long time, and there are some examples of activity in this field that could be damaged if the regulations to be brought forward are too aggressive. My noble friend mentioned employees, advances of salary and season tickets, and similar arrangements. However, the real profit motive which drives these schemes lies in the small print. Like so many similar schemes, these buy now, pay later schemes put pressure on customers to make unnecessary purchases, do not make effective credit checks, and there is evidence that they can cause mental health difficulties for those who sign up. I am sure that it would be possible to get this side of things properly regulated. However, what is less easy to regulate—although in fact it is far more damaging to hard-pressed consumers—are the penalties that get applied to missed payments and the excess interest that is loaded when payments are missed. In addition, compulsory insurance is often levied against default, links to loyalty follow-up purchases are imposed, and no real comparator APRs are somewhere available for those who wish to shop around before purchasing.

The focus placed on the FCA’s duty to promote competition rather than on a duty of care is an issue in play here. When the FCA was asked to regulate payday lenders, this House made it clear that its concern was the usurious rates of interest being charged, often many thousands of percentage points measured by APR. The solution favoured by the House was banning the products, which was why many of us were mystified by the FCA’s proposed solution of reducing the number of players in this market to a smaller number of well-capitalised companies—which indeed got the interest rates down, but only to around 1,000% APR, so consumers were left facing usurious rates. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that the approach that the Government are thinking of taking to buy now, pay later will not fall into the same trap as the payday lender regulations. The aim is consumer care and stamping out egregious behaviour, and not just promoting competition by allowing companies to rip off vulnerable consumers.

My Amendment 101, which I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for signing, is also about high-cost credit. As I said at Second Reading, it is high time we repealed the Victorian bills of sale legislation, which permits an egregious area of high-cost credit to continue and flourish outwith current consumer protection rules. Harm is being done.

Bills of sale are an early form of mortgage, aimed at goods and chattels and not property, which allow individuals to use goods they already own as security for loans while retaining possession of them. The use of bills of sale grew from fewer than 3,000 cases in 2001 to more than 30,000 in 2016. The number has dropped recently, but it is probably still in the order of 15,000 a year and it is going up. Ironically, bills of sale were legislated for before cars were invented, but they are used today mainly for what are called log-book loans, where a borrower raises cash on the security of his or her vehicle. Borrowers may continue to use their vehicle while they keep up the repayments, but if they default, the vehicle can be repossessed, sometimes from outside their front door, without the protections that apply to hire-purchase transactions or other consumer credit. It is also difficult to discover, when a car is being sold, whether it has a log-book loan attached. The register is kept by the High Court and it is not easily searchable. The new owner has no protection against losing the car if that loan has been defaulted on by the previous owner. This is just not fair.

Bills of sale are currently governed by two Victorian statutes, the Bills of Sale Act 1878 and the amendment Act of 1882—the statute was apparently so obscure in 1878 that it had to be re-regulated for in 1882. The legislation is described by the Law Commission as “archaic” and “wholly unsuited” to the 21st century. The current law creates hardship for borrowers and for private purchasers. The Law Commission argues that it imposes unnecessary burdens on lenders, and the lack of a proper chattels mortgage system restricts access to finance for unincorporated businesses and high-net worth individuals.

The great majority of bills of sale are taken out by borrowers who have difficulty in accessing other forms of credit. The current APR in a recent advert that I saw was 450%. The Law Commission says that the statutory form of a bill of sale as set out in the 1882 Act, which has to be followed absolutely to the letter, confuses borrowers rather than helps them to understand the consequences. It is clearly an area that should be cleaned up. A simple way, which is what I propose in my amendment, would be to repeal the Acts. While I accept that some people currently using log-book loans would be adversely affected by such a radical change, the greater harm lies in continuing the status quo.

I currently have a Private Member’s Bill on this issue, drafted by the Law Commission, which includes provision also for a goods mortgages scheme. Perhaps a way forward on this would be for the Government to agree to take on all or part of this Bill in the next Session using the special scheme for approving uncontentious Law Commission Bills. I would be happy to meet the Minister on this issue, if he could find the time, to see whether this would turn out to be a way forward.

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Lord Tunnicliffe Portrait Lord Tunnicliffe (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I did not study this group with the care I should have, otherwise I would have realised what an extraordinarily rich group of amendments it is. They seek to address individual areas of customer concern and equalise the balance between customer and firm. It is interesting that, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, each has its merits.

I thank the Minister for his response and note the little chinks of optimism that he has allowed us to go away and, hopefully, talk. I hope he will also extend that invitation to many of the movers of amendments in this group, perhaps working together to see whether there are areas where more progress can be made. While normally we would not be happy with bits of legislation leaving most of it to happen via regulation, in comparison with the possibility of no finance legislation for a year or so, we must have an open mind about mechanisms going forward. Furthermore, I and my fellow noble Lords in this in no way seek that he accepts our wording. We know that the chances of our wording being acceptable to the Government are negligible, and therefore have an entirely open mind about his wording, provided that it leads to the same result.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, mentioned en passant the concept of duty of care. I know that terrifies Governments; they will have to come to terms with it sooner or later, but for the moment I recognise that we cannot get there. Sadly, in many areas of retail finance, products and services, sectors of the industry at least seem to have a duty to exploit. The problem is that this exploitation frequently leads to real harm to real individuals. These amendments are about real individuals and preventing real harm. The problem is that there is an asymmetry of power in the sector, certainly at the level of the individual, between the firms and your typical consumer.

Purists will argue that this asymmetry will be held back by competition. I am not that enamoured with competition. To me, competition is when, on a Friday morning, I drive out to do the shopping for the week and can turn left for Waitrose, straight ahead for Tesco or right for Sainsbury’s. That is real competition. Every week I make that decision—it is not like the bother and fear of moving one’s service providers in the financial world, if you are an unskilled typical consumer. Possibly nowhere in our modern society is the concept of intelligent regulation more necessary than in the financial services sector. The complexity on the one hand and the opportunity and possibility of getting into serious harm on the other are so significant that we must accept that intelligent regulation, of which the amendments in this group are all examples, must be part of the financial services landscape of activity. All we seek to do in this group is introduce intelligent pieces of regulation to make the whole thing fairer for the customer.

I look forward to further discussions with the Minister and his colleagues. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 79 withdrawn.
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Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, any one of us can go on to our smartphone and find an app for halal financing for someone who wants to buy a car or a house—they are called “halal mortgages”—or who needs money to support a small business. It is incredible and quite incomprehensible that we do not have a sharia-compliant version of student loans. It is not as though we do not know how to do it or the institutions do not exist in the UK. I suspect that many noble Lords have been, like I have, at general meetings of the financial services industry where, as well as talking about being world leading in terms of green finance, we have talked about London as a very important centre for sharia-compliant finance as we attempt to expand and have a much greater global reach. Six years is an incredible time to wait. It has been four years since enabling legislation was put in place.

I was looking at a Metro article on the web about students who were interviewed in 2019. Some had managed to put together a way to pay their student fees. One said:

“I was constantly broke as a student and never, ever did anything remotely fun. I always felt too guilty if I spent any money on myself.”

Students who started out and found that they just could not keep going left and went to work, but then found that, as this lady said,

“to progress further I need that degree so the plan is to go back.”

However, this young woman has no idea how to finance it. Another youngster talked about the stress of

“having to live scrupulously and scrape up enough to pay each instalment in time.”

We really should not be putting any student into this situation. I do not understand the delay. There does not seem to be an obstacle in terms of designing the appropriate facility or the appropriate legislation. I hope that the Ministers who are here, all of whom are people of understanding and sympathy, will go and put pressure on the Government to take this from the bottom of the in-tray and put it at the top. It could be a minor amendment that we make on Report.

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.