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Banking Reform

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 17 June 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the Government’s plans to reform the institutional framework for financial regulation.

The tripartite system of financial regulation failed spectacularly in its mission to ensure financial stability, and that failure cost the economy billions. The British people rightly ask how this Government will stop it happening again. That is why our coalition agreement committed us to reforming the regulatory system for financial services in order to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis. Let me now set out in detail the changes to the regulatory architecture that will make that possible.

At the heart of the banking crisis was a rapid and unsustainable increase in debt. Our macro-economic and regulatory system utterly failed to identify correctly the risk that that posed, let alone prevent it. No one was controlling levels of debt, and when the crunch came, no one knew who was in charge. For that reason, we need a macro-prudential regulator with a more systematic and detailed knowledge of what is happening not only in individual firms, but across the financial system as a whole.

Only central banks have the broad macro-economic understanding and understanding of markets, the authority and the knowledge required to make macro-prudential judgments. We will therefore place the Bank of England in charge of macro-prudential regulation by establishing within the Bank a Financial Policy Committee. We will also create two new, focused regulators: a new prudential regulator under the Bank of England, headed by a new deputy governor, and a new Consumer Protection and Markets Authority. All the new bodies will be accountable to Parliament, and their remit will be clear so that never again can someone ask who is in charge and get no answer.

First, we will legislate to create the Financial Policy Committee in the Bank of England. It will have the responsibility to look across the economy at the macro-economic and financial issues that may threaten stability, and it will be given the tools to address the risks it identifies. It will have the power to require the new Prudential Regulation Authority to implement its directions by taking regulatory action with respect to all firms.

The FPC will be accountable to Parliament in two ways: directly, as is the case with the Monetary Policy Committee; and indirectly, through its accountability to the Bank’s court of directors. The Governor will chair the new committee. Its membership will include the deputy governors for monetary policy and financial stability, the new deputy governor for prudential regulation and the chair of the new Consumer Protection and Markets Authority, as well as external representatives and a Treasury representative. An interim FPC will be set up by the autumn, in advance of this legislation.

Secondly, we will create a Prudential Regulation Authority as a subsidiary of the Bank of England. It will conduct prudential regulation of sectors such as deposit-takers, insurers and investment banks. The PRA will be chaired by the Governor of the Bank of England, and the new deputy governor for prudential regulation will be the chief executive. The deputy governor for financial stability will also sit on the PRA board.

Thirdly, a new Consumer Protection and Markets Authority will take on the Financial Services Authority’s responsibility for consumer protection and conduct regulation. The CPMA will regulate the conduct of all firms, both retail and wholesale, including those prudentially regulated by the PRA, and will take a strong proactive role as a consumer champion. It will have a strong mandate for ensuring that financial services and markets are transparent in their operation, so that everyone—from someone buying car insurance to a trader at a large bank—can have confidence in their dealings and know that they will get the protection they need if something goes wrong.

The CPMA will regulate the conduct of every financial services business, whether they trade on the high street or trade in high finance. We need to ensure that this body has a tougher, more proactive approach to regulating conduct, and its primary objective will be promoting confidence in financial services and markets. The CPMA will maintain the FSA’s existing responsibility for the Financial Ombudsman Service and oversee the newly created Consumer Financial Education Body, which will play a key role in improving financial capability. The CPMA will also have responsibility for the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, but given the important role the scheme plays in crises, it will work closely with the FPC and PRA. We will also fulfil the commitment in the coalition agreement to create a single agency to take on the work of tackling serious economic crime, which is currently dispersed across a number of Government Departments and agencies. Before we set up these new bodies in their permanent form, we will conduct a full and comprehensive consultation, and we will publish a detailed policy document for public consultation before the summer recess.

Our goal is radically to improve financial regulation in the UK, strengthening the prudential regime by placing it in the Bank of England and delivering the best possible protection for consumers. During the period of transition to the new regime, the Government will also be guided by the following four principles: minimising uncertainty and transitional costs for firms; maintaining high-quality, focused regulation during the transition; balancing swift implementation with proper scrutiny and consultation; and providing as much clarity and certainty as possible for the FSA, Bank and other staff affected during the transition. In order to do that, we will ensure the passage of the necessary primary legislation within two years.

I am delighted that Hector Sants, the current chief executive officer of the FSA, has agreed to stay on to lead transition and become the chief executive of the PRA. He will be supported in his work by Andrew Bailey from the Bank of England, who will become the deputy in the new PRA. This is a strong team to ensure a smooth transition.

We all know that the financial crisis has cost taxpayers dearly. The regulatory system needs radical reform to make the sector more stable and stronger. The last Government could not do that because they were caught up in a structure designed by the former Chancellor and Prime Minister. The fundamental flaws in that architecture contributed to the failure in the banking sector and ultimately undermined economic stability. The continuing financial and economic uncertainty across the eurozone strengthens the urgency with which we must equip ourselves with better tools and arrangements to tackle any future financial instability.

We have already paid a high price for the previous Government’s failings. We must do all we can to prevent this from happening again, and I commend this statement to the House.

May I thank the Financial Secretary for advance sight of his statement, and as this is, I think, his first outing in his new role, may I congratulate him and welcome him to his post—and, indeed, wish him well?

While no one can dispute that a failure to regulate effectively was at the heart of the global financial crisis, the key failure by regulators in monitoring agencies and central banks across the globe was in understanding the growing systemic risks in financial services. We also should not overlook the failure in bank boardrooms to understand what was going on. This was not just an issue in the UK. Does the Financial Secretary accept that in some countries the central bank had prime responsibility for regulation, whereas in others, including ours, responsibility has been shared, and in our case between the Bank, the FSA and the Treasury, and that the Bank has always had responsibilities for financial stability?

Specifically, who will appoint the new Financial Policy Committee? Will individual members have their own vote, or will that be merely advisory to the Governor? Will FPC minutes be published, and will the Governor or the chief executive of the PRA ultimately be responsible for the decision on whether to act? Does the Financial Secretary also accept that there will be concern—not least among those who were victims of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has consistently reminded the House—about the record of the Bank of England in financial services supervision, and will he now consider publishing part two of the Bingham Report?

Will the Financial Secretary not acknowledge too that the Financial Services Authority today is a vastly different regulator from the FSA of 2007—as, indeed, the Treasury Committee has acknowledged? Will he acknowledge that a significant level of better trained new staff and the new activism of the FSA in its supervisory role has led to a bolder, more vigorous approach to financial services regulation in recent times?

How, in practice, will the Financial Secretary avoid the very real risk of a loss of energy as regulators now focus on their own future, given that there continues to be considerable uncertainty and instability in global financial markets? Specifically, can he clarify who will be responsible for supervision and regulation before 2012, and will he acknowledge the profound risk, given the proliferation of new bodies he has announced, of ongoing regulatory confusion—of issues falling between the cracks? Indeed, is it not right that there will now be effectively two different regulators for many financial firms?

I was surprised by the absence of any reference to the Banking Commission in the statement. Does the Financial Secretary not accept that proposals to break up banks would not have made any difference to Northern Rock, a retail bank, or Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, and that what is needed is increased capital held by banks and living wills to manage the possibility of future banking problems? Will he explain how the deliberations of this commission on a possible break-up of British banks, such as Barclays or HSBC, can be conducted in a way that reassures the markets and does not exacerbate financial instability?

Does the Financial Secretary recognise that the financial services industry employs over 1 million people and remains crucial to our economic future? Will he ensure that, whatever proposals he accepts—if, indeed, he does accept any from the commission—we do not put ourselves at a commercial disadvantage compared with other countries? Specifically, how will the proposals announced today impact on remuneration, and what ongoing effort is there to secure international agreement on banking levies again, so that Britain is not at a competitive disadvantage?

Is it not the case that while the work of each of the new bodies and the commission will be worthy of serious scrutiny on their own merits, as the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said yesterday, the Government risk creating a system that injects more, not less, uncertainty into the City? While the architecture of the regulatory system is clearly important, is it not the skills and judgment of individual regulators that matter most at the moment? Surely, it is not where they sit; it is what they do.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role and I am grateful to him for his welcome to me. Although I listened very carefully to his remarks, I am not quite sure whether the Opposition accept our proposals or whether they are stuck in the past defending to the last the former Government’s regulatory architecture, which they put in place in 1997. It is time that the Opposition faced up to this problem: do they accept that the system put in place by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was flawed and needs reform, or are they the last people to defend the status quo in this country?

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of detailed questions. Let me address them. He recognised the build-up of systemic risk in the economy over the course of the past 13 years, but he must acknowledge that the reforms introduced by his right hon. Friend in 1997 took away from the Bank of England the power to monitor and respond to those risks.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the appointments to the Financial Policy Committee, and they will be consistent with the approach currently adopted towards the Monetary Policy Committee. He referred to the Bingham report and the collapse of BCCI and, as he will remember from the exchange between the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday, the Chancellor is going to look into that matter.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the FSA has made progress, and that is one reason why we are delighted that Hector Sants has agreed to lead the FSA through the transition period and then to become the chief executive of the PRA. No matter how far the FSA improves in the execution of its role, the reality is that the flawed architecture that the hon. Gentleman’s Government put in place undermines all that it does. This package of reforms ensures that we have the right regulatory architecture in place to identify and tackle the systemic risks to which he referred and ensures proper protection for consumers so that they will never again be let down.

Is it not clear that if public money is to be put at risk during a financial crisis, the only person with the moral authority to take a decision will be the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Surely the Chancellor of the Exchequer should therefore have the power to assume the chairmanship of the Financial Policy Committee during a crisis. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that will be possible under the legislation that will be brought before the House?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about who takes control in a crisis. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor was very clear yesterday that, given his responsibilities in respect of public finances, he will ultimately be in charge in such situations.

Since the direct causes of the financial crash were colossal bonuses that drove recklessness, the use of fancy structured investment vehicles including sub-prime mortgages, the conflict of interest whereby credit rating agencies and auditing companies are paid by the company that they are supposed to be assessing and, above all, the overly lax culture of light-touch regulation, what precise, specific mechanisms is the Financial Secretary putting in place to deal with each of those underlying problems as opposed to merely shifting around the institutional infrastructure, which is all he appears to be doing?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He takes a close interest in these matters. Of course, he will remember that in 2006 the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) praised the system of “increasingly light-touch” regulation and claimed that he had

“resisted pressures from commentators for a regulatory crackdown.”

The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) ought to take up some of these historical issues with his own Front Benchers.

As regards a change to the regulatory approach, we need to see a move away from the prescriptive, box-ticking approach that we have seen in a recent years to a system in which the PRA and the CPMA can make more judgmental decisions about what is happening in the markets they supervise and with the prudential decisions that individual institutions are taking. If we put judgment at the heart of the system, we are more likely to avoid some of the issues that we have seen arise in recent years.

May I warmly welcome the Minister to his role? Will he tell the House about conversations that he has had with international colleagues about the need for radical reform of the regulatory system and the failure of the last Government’s tripartite system?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There have been a number of conversations with other colleagues globally about the lessons to be learned from the financial crisis and from the regulatory structures. It is interesting to talk to people in other jurisdictions about their views. Christian Noyer, the governor of the Banque de France, said in July last year:

“Indeed, one of the main lessons of the crisis may be that those countries where central banks assume banking supervision took advantage of their ability to react quickly and flexibly to emergency situations.”

Others have expressed a similar view and that is why I think that the reforms we are announcing today are in the mainstream of reforms in financial regulation—a mainstream that the Opposition seem quite happy to stay outside, yet again.

I welcome the evolution of financial regulation. I think that the present system was tested and found wanting, so the movement has to be welcomed. I want to press the Minister on the subject of the Banking Commission. It was interesting that he left it out of his statement and that worries me, because I note that it will take 18 months before it reports. If that is so, it will probably miss the Queen’s Speech for the following year, which suggests that it will be three or four years before we see legislation and the much-needed changes that will deal with the banks that caused the crisis. They continue to flaunt their behaviour on bonuses and have continued to hurt small business by not lending in the last two years. Urgent action is needed, so why is there this long timetable and why was this subject missing from his statement?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He has been a distinguished member of the Select Committee on the Treasury and has taken part in many discussions in that Committee and in Public Bill Committees when we have explored some of these issues. I sense that he is much more engaged in the need for reform than his colleagues on the Front Bench.

The Banking Commission is important and it is vital that we ensure that we learn some of the lessons that arise from the structure of the UK banking system. We have a very concentrated banking structure and three out of the four principal banks in the UK are universal banks. We need to understand what risks flow from that and how best to tackle those risks, as well as considering the impact of competition in the banking sector. The appointment yesterday of Sir John Vickers as chairman of the commission has been greeted with warm applause across the business and consumer community. There are four other commissioners— Martin Wolf, Martin Taylor, Clare Spottiswoode and Bill Winters—who are equally distinguished in their own fields. The commission will provide the opportunity for a proper debate about the structure of banking in this county—a debate in which the former Prime Minister and former Chancellor did not want to participate. We think that it is time to have that debate and when we have had it, that will help remove the uncertainty about the structure of banking in the UK.

Order. Before I take the next question, may I ask for short questions and succinct answers? That will help everybody to get in.

I welcome the Minister’s statement on these much-needed reforms. Will he tell the House how the reforms set out today will affect the insurance sector, which shares the same regulatory regime as the banks but clearly operates very differently?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the role of insurance. In this crisis, we must ensure that we distinguish between what has happened to the banking sector and the relative success of the insurance sector in withstanding the storms of this crisis. It is an important sector to the UK economy and a huge wealth generator. We need to ensure that the insurance sector, when it comes within the remit of the PRA, has the right sort of prudential regulation that recognises its strengths and challenges. It will of course be regulated as regards its relationship with consumers by the CPMA.

The people of this country want to see a bit of humility and payback on the part of the banks. One opportunity to do that would be through the so-called Robin Hood tax on banking transactions, with the money going to alleviate poverty here and to tackle climate change across the globe. Will the Financial Secretary urge his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to introduce such a tax and to influence colleagues worldwide to do likewise?

I must say that I think that some humility should be shown by the Opposition Front Benchers for landing this country with a system that led to the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. Does he agree that these banking reforms will help to boost confidence in the British economy once they are enacted? That will help to keep interest rates lower for longer, boost investment and create jobs.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. It is important to ensure that businesses have confidence that where macro-prudential threats arise in future, action will be taken to resolve them. They did not have that confidence in the previous regime and I hope that they will have that confidence following the reforms that we have put forward today.

Economic growth in the past decade was driven largely by consumption. As a consequence, £1.4 trillion-worth of personal debt is circulating in the UK economy, which means that the human cost of the current recession will be particularly severe. Will the new Consumer Protection and Markets Authority make sure that lenders have to undertake affordability audits so that individuals and families incur only debts that they can service?

The hon. Gentleman is right to pick up on this issue. One of the big challenges is ensuring that consumers are properly equipped to understand their borrowing and saving needs, and the Consumer Financial Education Body has a key role to play in improving financial capability in order to help people to make the right decisions. Also, there is an obligation on industry to make sure that it provides consumers with the best advice possible to help them to make the right decisions.

I very much welcome that direction of travel, just as I welcomed the decision of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), in 1997, to set the Bank of England free to make decisions on interest rates. Will the Minister clarify whether the Financial Policy Committee will publish its minutes openly and on a regular basis, and how it will deal with a situation in which it is concerned about a specific institution?

It is important that the Financial Policy Committee is transparent in its dealings. It is a great strength of the Monetary Policy Committee that it is transparent and that it can be held to account by the public for its decisions. We need to ensure that similar arrangements are put in place for the FPC—while respecting, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the confidentiality of individual firms.

Will one of the new organisations under the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility or someone else alert the Treasury if the housing market starts to get overheated again?

One of the roles of the Financial Policy Committee is to identify threats to financial stability as they emerge. I would expect the FPC, in its work of looking at overall trends in the economy, to identify that sort of risk and to make it known not just to the Treasury, but to the wider public through its regular reports.

Will the hon. Gentleman say how many people at the FSA and at the Bank of England currently earn more than the Prime Minister? Does he intend to apply the policy in the coalition document? If he decides to pay above the rate of the Prime Minister’s salary, should that element of the pay be performance-related, given the gravity of the decisions that such people will be taking?

There is an issue about pay levels, which we will need to look at. I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there should be a greater variable element in relation to performance, given that a critique of many is that an excessive bonus culture in the City contributed to the financial crisis.

Will the Minister please explain how today’s announcements will end the confusion in the markets and make sure that there is proper focus on regulation to end that confusion?

The package that we have set out today, which was greeted with a great deal of support last night when the Chancellor outlined it to the City, ends any uncertainty. The transition process that we have outlined today in relation to legislation, and the team led by Hector Sants, the current chief executive officer of the FSA, will reassure the City about the direction of travel on regulatory reform. The new settlement, which takes into account macro-prudential supervision, micro-prudential supervision and effective consumer supervision, will ensure that we have the right package of regulatory structures in future to safeguard the economy and to give confidence to consumers and others in the markets.

I welcome the Minister to his new position. I know that County Durham will be proud as he is a son of Country Durham. Has he given any advice to the regulator on the position of non-executive directors on banks’ boards, particularly regarding their role, remuneration and qualifications? He will know that one problem with Northern Rock was the fact that the non-executive chair’s only qualification appears to have been that he was a member of the Ridley family—he inherited it from his father.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the qualifications of non-executive directors. That is why the FSA has already instituted a process of interviewing senior members of staff and directors, before their appointment to boards or positions of responsibility, to ensure that the qualifications and experience that they bring to those important roles is checked.

Is the Minister seriously contending that had these arrangements already been in place, the financial crisis would not have occurred? If he is not making that absurd suggestion, will he accept that he cannot promise that such a financial crisis will not occur again with these arrangements in place?

It is clear that if the Bank of England had not lost its power to monitor and act upon the level of debt in the economy, it might have been in a position to consider what was happening in the housing market, to consider the role that Northern Rock played in fuelling the asset-price bubble and to take action to cool that down. The only person who tried to rule out boom and bust in the past was the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Governor of the Bank of England’s assessment that there was little real reform of banking regulation under the last Government, and that the Opposition should therefore welcome the measures that we are setting out today?

I hope that the Opposition will welcome the measures, but their views were not very clear from what the shadow Treasury spokesman said. In the past three or four years, when we have debated the reform of parts of the banking regulation sector, the problem has been that the then Government were unable to engage in the fundamental debate about whether the architecture was right. They failed to address that question, and that led to a new Government addressing that question and putting things right for the first time.

Will the Minister invite hon. and right hon. Members who are interested in the future of Liverpool football club to a meeting with RBS officials fully to scrutinise the deal that props up its leveraged buy-out by two American business men?

Given the global nature of banking, will the Minister advise us on how regulation will proceed on an international basis, bearing in mind the need to maintain as many jobs as possible in this country?

It is important to make sure that debates on regulation are co-ordinated at the global level, and my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister take an active role in those debates in the G20. I have recently taken part in ECOFIN’s summit, at which we discussed new supervisory arrangements in Europe. I am absolutely certain that we will engage in the debate both in Europe and globally to ensure that the structure of regulation supervision going forward is right to make sure that the system is stable and to ensure that decisions that have a fiscal impact are taken here, by UK regulators, and not in Europe.

I will accept that the banking reforms will make it more likely that if exactly the same problems happened in exactly the same way in exactly the same countries, we might be able to spot them, if not to do anything about them. Does the Minister accept that by failing to address the institutional failures in the banking system that are outside regulation—such as pay incentives within banking, the role of the rating agencies, the failure of international information flows and the lack of transaction costs in international financial markets—our country is just as vulnerable as ever to banking failures?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady. The package of reforms makes a significant improvement to the regulatory architecture in the UK, and there is further work that we can do at the European and the global level to make it more effective. She is right, in part, to say that institutions need to change their behaviour. We need to look at the structure of banking, which is why we will set up the Banking Commission that the Chancellor announced yesterday. Those reforms will help to improve structure, but let us look at what is important. Let us get the architecture right in this country, let us remedy the flawed system that her party’s Government introduced in 1997 and let us ensure that the Bank of England has the tools to do the job. That will make a significant contribution to improving financial stability.