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Financial Mutuals

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 16 February 2011

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for offering me the opportunity to have this debate. At the outset, I need to declare that I have a mortgage with Northern Rock. I am privileged to be chair of the Co-operative party and one of the party’s 28 Labour/Co-op MPs. It is in that spirit and with their support, but from the Back Benches, that I have sought the debate.

Yesterday, as the Minister will recognise, was business as usual for banking. Barclays bank was carrying on as if Ministers had never been worried about its bonuses or its profits. This is also the week for yet another re-launch of the big society. It is a concept in crisis, unloved by many of the Minister’s colleagues and viewed with profound scepticism by many people in the charity world. What better time, then, for the Minister to offer up a vision—and, crucially, the action to back it up—of the big society that is not an excuse for an attack on public bodies and hard-working public servants, but that instead leads to real change in an area of the corporate world, financial services, where the whole country has wanted a change in culture and behaviour?

Despite a coalition commitment to help mutuals, thus far in financial services there has been little of note. Mutuals and financial mutuals in particular are proof that there is another way—that, important as the public and shareholder-led private sectors both are, there is a way to combine the best of both traditions, to drive enterprise, to foster ambition and to cherish community throughout our country. Financial mutuals, building societies, friendly societies and credit unions were not responsible for the global financial crisis. They do not have a culture of large dividends or excessive bonuses, and they have much more, surely, to offer, but astute Government regulation will be required to foster and encourage the sector.

Both my parties—the Co-operative party and our sister party, the Labour party—were right to call for the remutualisation of Northern Rock at the last election, and I urge the Minister now to set out clearly the Government’s position on that issue. The Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008 allows state-owned banks to be converted into mutuals. That could be by sale, merger with an existing mutual or the creation of a new entity.

The long-term ownership solution for Northern Rock should take into account some key principles. Taxpayers should not be out of pocket as a result of the change. Hard-working families and small businesses should be protected. The institution that emerges should be secure and responsible and add to the financial stability of the UK economy. The new organisation should act in the long-term interests of its customers.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I share his interest in the promotion of mutuality. I am therefore a little disappointed by this being couched in Labour terms. Does he not think it would be helpful if the proposition put to the Minister were that there should be a proper review and examination of the opportunity of mutuality in relation to Northern Rock, rather than it being asserted to him that that is the only option? We should be examining it as fully as we examine any other option.

I end up at the same point as the hon. Gentleman, although I took a different journey to get to that point. I will come back, if I may, to the excellent work he has been doing in chairing the all-party inquiry into financial mutuals.

An expert think-tank based in the university of Oxford set out in September 2009 how and why Northern Rock could and should be remutualised, ensuring that its debt to the taxpayer was paid down, creating a stable financial services provider and constraining it from making the previous mistakes, while helping to secure a more competitive retail financial services market.

The next step, which the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) hinted at, would be a full feasibility study examining in detail the financial, governance and leadership issues in respect of a remutualisation. Will the Minister encourage such a feasibility study to be undertaken, either as a Green Paper examining the issues in all their complexity or, if the Treasury wants to maintain some distance, requiring UK Financial Instruments to do that instead? In short, will he now actively investigate the feasibility of the case for remutualisation?

In 2003, PA Consulting Group—not a body that one would naturally think of as being on the left—published an interesting analysis of the relationship between the profits of commercial banks and the market share of mutuals. In short, as mutuals gain market share—in other words, as competition between the various private banks and their mutual competitors increases—bank profits from the retail banking market come down. Potentially, that gives the Minister a significant opportunity to deal with the criticism that, under a Tory-led Treasury, it is business as usual for the banks; he can promote greater competition through the growing mutual sector.

The biggest advantage that mutuals can offer is their long-term view. They are not faced with the short-term need to secure profits. Indeed, Nationwide estimates that the mutual pricing benefit that it enjoyed between 1997 and 2007 because it did not have to put shareholders ahead of members totalled some £3.7 billion. New research, using the published accounts of six shareholder-owned insurers, shows that more than £2.2 billion was paid to shareholders in dividends. That is the dividend drag—the loss incurred by all who seek insurance as a result of buying from a business owned by shareholders. That helps to explain why mutuals, which do not suffer that drag, typically pay higher investment returns, provide better standards of service and pay more claims.

Treasury and Financial Services Authority orthodoxy appears to be that corporate form does not matter, but that what counts is what those various corporate bodies do for their consumers. Such a view is simplistic and not sufficiently considered to warrant the hands-off approach to corporate diversity that often appears to characterise the approach of the FSA and the Treasury. Let me be clear: I do not advocate a mutual-only way, but robust diversity is important in ensuring real competition and giving consumers a real series of options in the market.

New capital rules being introduced in the wake of the global financial crisis may give rise to insufficient care being given to protecting and increasing the remaining strength of the building society movement. The FSA’s new interpretation of the rules on capital may, over a number of years, bring about the end of friendly societies. Both sets of draft capital requirements could profoundly damage the competitiveness of financial mutuals, and they do not reflect the fundamental difference between financial mutuals that are run for members, and the basic banks or private insurers, which are run for shareholder gain.

The European capital requirements directive is designed to enable financial services businesses better to absorb losses following the introduction of the new Basel standards. I accept that that is an important part of the response to the global financial crisis; it focuses on improving the quantity and quality of capital, particularly what is called core tier 1 capital. Over the last 20 years, building societies’ capital reserves have been supplemented by permanent interest-bearing shares. However, they will not meet more demanding definitions for core tier 1 capital.

I recognise that building societies need to have access to new ways of securing capital that are permanent and that fully absorb losses. At the moment, the rules are being framed with only one type of corporate form in mind—the private bank. They do not recognise the fact that mutuals are structured and function differently, providing value to their customers over the medium and longer term. If building societies are forced to adopt plc-like capital, they will have to adopt plc-like behaviour. Building societies are trusted, safe and responsible precisely because they are not part of what “St Vince” calls the casino economy. Surely it would be a mistake to force upon them a new type of equity capital that would import excessive risk-taking.

I realise that there has been movement in the discussions between building societies and the Government on this matter, but I ask the Minister what progress has been made—and, just as important, what has he done personally to move things forward with his European counterparts?

There has been less progress in discussions with friendly societies. The FSA, revisiting its own rule book, seems hellbent on clinging to a piece of legal advice that has not been shared with the industry and which is at odds with every legal opinion that the industry has received. It seems to be based on a ministerial view from the mid-1990s that the then Minister publicly acknowledged was not intended for mutuals. Why cannot the FSA share its legal advice with the industry? If its motivation is that it does not want to damage friendly societies, why cannot a joint solution be found? If a solution cannot be found, mutual insurers would have to pay out a significant proportion of the capital held in their organisations; the consequence of that could be that they had little or no working capital and would have to shut up shop or demutualise.

I am grateful that Hector Sants attended the inquiry of the all-party group on building societies and financial mutuals, but frankly I doubt whether he has yet grasped the seriousness of the situation that friendly societies face as a result of his organisation’s proposal. Even now, I hope he will agree to an urgent review of the FSA’s legal advice and step up efforts to find a solution. If he does not, and if the Minister does not intervene, consumers will have less choice, plcs will take greater profits and customers will face higher charges. I would welcome the Minister’s response.

The Minister is responsible for ushering in changes to financial services regulations. They offer the opportunity to lock in a new requirement to champion corporate diversity and, crucially, new structures to ensure that we have people of sufficient calibre and status in the regulatory landscape to deal with building societies and friendly societies. Will the Minister support a requirement to promote corporate diversity in financial services when bringing forward the Bills to set out new arrangements for the City? What action is he taking to ensure that mutuals will be the responsibility of those high enough in the pecking order to make a difference when needed?

I turn to credit unions. The Minister will recognise that there is widespread concern about high interest rates for consumer credit and the activities of illegal loan sharks. I hope he realises the opportunity that properly managed credit unions can provide in meeting the needs of those wanting relatively small sums of money at affordable rates. Access to credit unions in the UK has been growing. For example, I understand that Wales has a credit union in every part of the country. That is not the case in England, although things have been slowly improving in recent years.

My hon. Friend may be aware that access to credit unions in Scotland has improved of late. I hope he will join me in paying tribute to Hamilton credit union, which is developing financial services for children and young people to help get them into the culture of saving, so that in future they will be more financially responsible.

I welcome the progress that has been made in Scotland, and particularly the work of the Hamilton credit union outlined by my hon. Friend. What action will the Minister take to champion the further growth of credit unions across the UK?

Mutuals make a vital difference by generating more competition in financial services, and they help to create more value for the consumer, as opposed to the shareholder. I look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions.

It is a pleasure, Mrs Main, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this debate. He roots his support for financial mutuals in the co-operative movement, which he represents in the House. Many on the Government Benches would see financial mutuals as a coming together of communities to meet the needs of their members, which may be an early articulation of the big society.

We should not forget the role that mutuals play in providing financial services. They hold about 20% of UK retail deposits, and provide financing for 17% of outstanding UK mortgages—including mine. They employ 70,000 people and half of the UK’s population are members of mutuals. The one member, one vote ownership model sets mutuals apart from their plc peers, as it enables them to focus solely on the needs of their members. It is unsurprising that mutuals frequently rank highly in surveys of customer satisfaction. As we know, many mutuals operate in areas of economic and social deprivation throughout the UK. They provide services that would be seen as sub-scale for big banks, including as the small loans offered by credit unions whose customers might otherwise turn to doorstep lenders.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about access to credit unions. When I read the transcript of a recent debate on high-cost credit, I was struck by the fact that one of the challenges is to increase access to credit unions as an alternative to doorstep lenders. In a moment, I shall discuss some of the measures that we will take. It is the importance of mutuals and the choice and diversity that they provide that drives our commitment to see them thrive and prosper.

The causes of the financial crisis have been stated many times, and I do not intend to rehearse them here. None the less, it is important that we learn from the crisis and take steps to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated in the future. The Government want to create a financial services sector that works differently and is driven by different values, which is why we are committed to implementing measures that will foster diversity in financial services, promote mutuals and create a more competitive banking industry.

The Government have established an Independent Commission on Banking to make recommendations on both structural and non-structural measures to change the banking system and promote stability and competition for the benefit of both consumers and businesses. A strong sustainable mutual sector, which has the ethos of working in the interests of members, can support that.

We must be realistic and recognise that the financial crisis and the subsequent economic climate have posed many challenges for mutuals. Those challenges include greater competition for retail deposits, more intensive supervision and tougher capital requirements. I do not apologise for the tougher regulatory environment that we are now in. Adapting to this new world has been, and remains, a key challenge for financial mutuals as well as for the whole financial services sector. The Government are keen to ensure that the legislative framework is in place to enable mutuals to fulfil their role.

There are number of changes to which we are committed to help create a more equal playing field in financial services. Let me turn now to the point about capital that the hon. Gentleman rightly raised. We are committed to achieving high capital standards across the financial sector, including for mutuals. At the same time, it is right that we have capital requirements that are appropriate for mutuals. The Government seek to address that issue in negotiations on the capital requirements directive. This is a matter that the Treasury and I take very seriously, and we are leading the debate on this in Europe to ensure that the specific nature of mutuals is taken into account while, at the same time, not compromising the quality of capital in the banking system. We expect a proposal from the Commission on that later in the year.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that one of the driving forces behind our reforms on capital is that we want to ensure that financial institutions never again turn cap in hand to the taxpayer for financial support in a financial crisis. That is why it is important that all deposit-taking institutions, regardless of their form of ownership, have access to loss-absorbing capital.

Capital is a key issue for mutual insurers, too, which is why the FSA is considering the use of with-profits funds. It will be publishing a consultation paper on that shortly. I do not want to pre-empt the proposals that have been made today, but having extolled the virtues of the mutual model, it is reasonable to expect that mutual with-profits policyholders should expect at least as favourable an outcome, if not a better outcome, than proprietary with-profits policyholders. It is important that mutual insurers ensure that they treat their with-profits policyholders fairly, too.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) alluded to the previous ministerial statement. He knows that it was a statement that I made, but it related to the position of stock-owned companies. It deliberately excluded the position of mutuals, because it was an assessment of what policyholders’ reasonable expectations were and it was based on previous experience. Those factors have been erased from the way in which the FSA has taken the matter forward, so will my hon. Friend agree to revisit that area?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and it is one that he and I discussed before this debate. His argument, which he has expressed publicly, is that his statement was not intended to be applied to all forms of with-profits funds. The FSA is aware of that view. None the less, it is important that this issue is treated very carefully. I am well aware that for many mutual insurers, their capital comes from with-profits funds. Without that with-profits fund, they would not be able to function in the way in which they do now. It is also fair to say that for a proprietary-owned business, the with-profits fund belongs to its policyholders. We have seen a number of firms go through a reattribution process in recognition of the fact that those funds belong to the members of that fund. There is a challenge there that we need to address and we need to be very careful about the impact of decisions on the ecology of the mutual insurer sector.

As I suggested in my remarks, the FSA’s position appears to be based on a particular legal opinion that it has secured. Will the Minister ask the FSA to revisit that legal opinion, bearing in mind that all the other legal opinions that the industry has received are at odds with that opinion? Will he also specifically ask the FSA to share that legal advice with the industry, as part of the process of trying to facilitate a solution?

The best route for resolving this is through the response to the consultation paper, which the FSA will publish later this year. It is for the FSA to decide whether or not it should disclose legal opinions, because it is an independent regulator. The consultation paper is an important way in which to resolve these issues.

I was talking about the need to create a modernised legislative framework for mutuals, and capital is part of that. The Government are also implementing legislation to allow mutuals to modernise the way in which they communicate with their members and to enable them to prosper. The Legislative Reform (Industrial and Provident Societies and Credit Unions) Order 2010 has been a long time coming. It will be re-laid before Parliament next month and will introduce many quite basic, yet far-reaching reforms that will enable credit unions to modernise and grow.

I know that my hon. Friend, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on credit unions, will have a great deal to say on this matter, but may I just finish my point? I may even be able to answer his intervention before he makes it.

One of the biggest changes will be to allow credit unions to admit corporate bodies to their membership. Those new members will be able to deposit in and borrow from their local credit union, which provides opportunities for investment and growth in communities. Alongside that, various deregulatory measures relax the rules on age limits for memberships, year-end dates and the ability to offer interest on deposits. These proposals should increase the appeal of local credit unions to the local community and increase their steadily expanding membership still further.

Many of us are waiting with excited anticipation for the legislative reform order. What expanded role does the Minister see credit unions potentially playing as a result of the changes in the legislative reform order both in a big society context and in encouraging enterprise because of being able to work with corporate bodies as well as individuals?

It would be a way for credit unions to make the greatest opportunity of this. We are trying to open up more possibilities for the financial and mutual sector through a number of our measures. I go back to the debate about capital. One of the challenges that I put to the building society sector and others is that if it had the opportunity to raise more capital, what would it do with it. How would it benefit more people as a consequence of having that flexibility? I say to my hon. Friend that corporate members could include charities and voluntary groups, and their deposits could help credit unions to expand their base, so that they can lend more to local communities. There is an opportunity there for the voluntary service to help expand that base. That will also help to create a much more viable credit union sector. Like me, my hon. Friend will have had conversations with Mark Lyonette, who wants to make sure that we move the credit union sector on to a much more stable and viable footing, enabling it to take deposits from others and pay interest on them.

The Minister may be aware that in Wales everybody has access to a credit union. Has his Department made any study of the policy of the Welsh Assembly in that regard?

That point about access to credit unions in Wales was made before the hon. Gentleman came into Westminster Hall for the debate. We need to learn the lessons. The Treasury is very open to new ideas and any thoughts that he has about why Wales has that degree of access to credit unions would be much appreciated.

We will also implement the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010 once the legislative reform order comes into force. That will modernise the industrial and provident society name and the powers available to update the legislation in the future. Other reforms include a consultation on the use of electronic communications in the mutual sector. That consultation closed at the end of January, and we will lay an order shortly to enable mutual societies to have the option of using electronic communications to engage with their members, which would reduce their costs.

Before I go on to talk about the regulatory framework, let me address the issue of Northern Rock. That issue was raised in the Treasury Committee, and I am aware of the work that has been done on it by Kellogg college. There is a degree of elegant circularity about remutualising Northern Rock, given its antecedence. But of course the responsibility for managing the Government’s investment in Northern Rock rests with United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd. UKFI gave evidence to the Select Committee, and if the hon. Member for Harrow West reads the transcript of that sitting, he will see that it is open to ideas about the remutualisation of Northern Rock. The principal objective of UKFI is to promote and create value for taxpayers from its management of our stakes in banks, but it also has to pay due regard to financial stability and act in a way that promotes competition. Clearly a remutualised Northern Rock might help it to do those things.

Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I will just say that the taxpayer has a £1.4 billion stake in Northern Rock, so any solution in terms of remutualisation would need to identify a clear way in which the taxpayer would receive a return on that investment. Furthermore, it is not clear how a large Government shareholding in a mutual would affect mutual status.

As I said in my opening remarks, I absolutely acknowledge the point about the taxpayers’ interest in Northern Rock. However, rather than just allowing the people at UKFI to sit there waiting for ideas, will he write to them and specifically ask them to conduct a feasibility study into the remutualisation of Northern Rock, addressing the taxpayer issue that he quite rightly mentioned as well as other wider issues? Will he take proactive action on this issue?

If the hon. Gentleman reads the transcript of the evidence given by UKFI to the Treasury Committee, he will know that remutualisation is very much on its agenda. In conjunction with Northern Rock, it is about to appoint advisers to advise it on the disposal process. I know that UKFI is looking at remutualisation. However, I have yet to see a proposal that demonstrates why remutualisation is in the interests of taxpayers. Nevertheless, we are open-minded on this issue, and we will wait to see a viable proposal emerge.

Regarding the regulatory framework for mutuals, we will bring Northern Ireland credit unions within the regulatory structure that is in place in the rest of Great Britain. That will enhance consumer protection and ensure that those credit unions become part of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which will enable their members to appeal to the Financial Ombudsman Service. It will also enable those credit unions to seek approval to enter new markets and therefore help them to grow. In addition, we are looking at the registration and regulation of industrial and provident societies as part of our review of the regulatory architecture. I know that that is a concern of the co-operative movement and we will seek views on it shortly.

The hon. Member for Harrow West raised the issue of an objective on diversity for the new regulatory structure. Again, that point has been raised with me before. My concern is to ensure that the new regulators, learning from the mistakes of the past, focus on what matters—confidence in financial services, and the stability and soundness of institutions. That should be their driving force and I do not think that an objective on diversity would fit within the new framework.

We want to see mutuals grow and thrive. We are introducing measures on legislative reform and new capital levels, and we are offering greater support to the mutual sector. Mutuals have a big role to play in the future development of financial services, and this Government are keen to do all we can to ensure that they continue to provide an important service to communities across the UK.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.