I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to move Second Reading of the Bill. It is the product of many years of thinking, policy work in opposition, extensive consultation in government and impressive pre-legislative scrutiny in Parliament. I want to thank at the start the Joint Committee on the draft Financial Services Bill, which has made it a better piece of legislation, the Treasury Committee for challenging us to develop clearer lines of accountability in the Bill and the Treasury’s own Bill team, who have worked so hard for the past 20 months to produce the Bill before us.
The genesis of the Bill is obvious—the biggest failure of economic management and banking regulation in our country’s history. Its purpose is clear as well—to dismantle the disastrous tripartite system created 14 years ago and replace it with a structure of financial oversight that supports successful, competitive financial services while protecting the British taxpayer from the risk that those services run.
Of course, the Bill is not the complete answer to what went so spectacularly wrong. It should be seen alongside the Basel reforms to capital and liquidity, the living wills and resolution regimes that have been developed and the reforms to the structure of banking proposed by the Vickers commission. It is not by itself a sufficient response to the mistakes of the past, but it is absolutely necessary.
Let us remember what happened. Over the last decade before the crash, Britain experienced the biggest increase in debt of any major economy in the world. The total of household, corporate, financial and public sector debt in the UK reached a staggering 500% of gross domestic product. Our banks became the most leveraged in the world, and whether it was Northern Rock’s 120% mortgages secured on wholesale funding, Halifax Bank of Scotland’s catastrophic commercial property deals or the Royal Bank of Scotland’s reckless decision to buy ABN AMRO after the markets had frozen, such things did not attract the intervention or, it seemed, the concern of Britain’s tripartite regulatory system.
That system had been established as a by-product of the decision by the new Labour Government to give the Bank of England independent control of monetary policy. Without warning to the Bank, or anyone else, that institution was stripped of its historic responsibility for regulating the banking system, which was given to a new Financial Services Authority. It was a fateful decision, and one that we now know very nearly prompted the resignation of the then Governor of the Bank, the late Eddie George.
The comment 14 years ago by the Conservatives’ then shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), during the passage of the Bank of England Bill, which created the tripartite system, was remarkably prescient. If he does not remember it, I will remind him of what he told the House. He warned that
“with the removal of banking control to the Financial Services Authority…it is difficult to see how and whether the Bank remains, as it surely must, responsible for ensuring the liquidity of the banking system and preventing systemic collapse.”—[Official Report, 11 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 731.]
He was spot on. However, at the time he and the Opposition whom he led through the Division Lobby were lone voices.
Fourteen years later, the general consensus is clear. There were fundamental flaws in the tripartite system right from the start, which are today painfully apparent to the whole world. The first and most serious flaw was that no one in the tripartite system saw it as their job to monitor risks across the whole financial system. The Bank of England focused increasingly on its monetary policy responsibilities; the FSA looked at individual firms, but was more focused on tick-box regulation of individual products than on the prudential health of whole businesses, let alone the financial system; and the Treasury took the fatal decision to run down its financial services division, turning the whole area into an under-resourced backwater in the Department.
The tripartite committee did not meet once in an entire decade, so no one was looking at the whole system or at the staggering build-up of debt in the economy and leverage in the banking system. As Lord Turner said in his review of the regulatory response to the banking crisis:
“The failure to do this analysis and to take action on it was one of the crucial failures of the years running up to the financial crisis.”
As my right hon. Friend is setting out what is essentially a political failure, will he enlighten the House on whether the report on one of the great victims of that failure—RBS—names any Members of Parliament as being specifically involved in the problem?
Well, the report names Tony Blair, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and the shadow Chancellor. One of the interesting things is that the shadow Chancellor was, of course, instrumental, as I understand it, in creating the tripartite committee. We will hear in his response a detailed defence of the decisions he took.
It sounds like the right hon. Gentleman cannot remember it himself. No doubt he will use the time allotted to him to tell us about the role he played both as the adviser at the Treasury during the years when the system was created and as City Minister when the ABN AMRO deal was signed off, and about his role in the Cabinet when it decided on its response to those things.
When I asked the chair of FSA, he said he could have inserted into the footnotes of that 400-page report any number of quotes from the Chancellor, who was at the time in opposition. Will he remind the House of any of his quotes from that period on the dangers of excessive regulation that could have been included in the FSA report?
First, the FSA report on RBS is worth reading and stands by itself. The chairman of the FSA chose to put the right hon. Gentleman’s name in it, which clearly irks him. Secondly, in opposition, we not only voted against the creation of the tripartite committee but consistently warned about growing debt in the economy—not just me, but my predecessors as shadow Chancellor. We will see tonight whether the Opposition vote against our proposed arrangements. We made those warnings; we are now proposing reforms to ensure that those sorts of things do not happen again.
Perhaps the Chancellor should remind the House that the shadow Chancellor at the time also voted against Bank of England independence. In November 2006, the then shadow Financial Secretary, who is now Financial Secretary, said:
“Effective light-touch, risk-based and principles-based regulation is in the interests of the sector globally.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 995.]
Could that quote have been included in the FSA report?
I think the key word is “effective”, which is clearly what was lacking. If the right hon. Gentleman wants me to read out the legion of quotes that we have from him as City Minister, how about this one? He said:
“I believe that we are right to avoid prescriptive, heavy-handed regulation in Britain. Indeed, I believe that while it is Bank of England independence that is regularly cited as the Government’s most significant financial reform, the establishment of the FSA has been as important for Britain”,
“It is important the FSA continues to deliver a light-touch and risk-based regulatory approach.”
We have ended up having a ding-dong across the Dispatch Box, but if he is against what we propose to do to change the system he created, will he vote against the Bill tonight?
The Chancellor also said in June 2006 that this
“regulation has been burdensome, complex and makes cross-border market penetration more difficult.”
In June 2005, he said that
“we need to build our capacity to deliver world-beating goods and services, whether it is complex financial derivatives pioneered in the City of London”.
Are those quotes that could have been included in the FSA report? There are many more.
Well, that is a bit like the John Cleese sketch—the right hon. Gentleman started it by creating the biggest banking crisis in this country’s history. We are trying to clear it up. That is what this Bill is about. In all those interventions, we heard not one word about whether he will support what we are doing to clear up the mess he created.
Does not the ding-dong of the last four or five minutes illustrate the dangers of political interference in regulation? Once we get back to the subject of the Bank of England, and given that the top 1% of taxpayers provide 28% of total taxes, can we have regulation in the future less by populism on bonuses, salaries and the rest, and more by the raising of the right eyebrow of the Governor of the Bank of England?
The key issue in our regulatory system that we are seeking to restore is judgment by the regulator, and I will explain how the Bill will enable us to do that. I agree with my hon. Friend that the financial services are an incredibly important industry for this country. They employ more people than any other industry in Britain and, crucially, its proper regulation is not only good for the economy, but essential to prevent taxpayers from being exposed to what they have been exposed to in recent years.
As we are in the mood for recollection, and I am one of those who strongly opposed the tripartite system of supervision when it was introduced, may I say that I very much welcome the Bill? However, the whole strategic object of what we should be doing now is to ensure that we get rid of the shibboleth of the bank that is too big to fail. I doubt whether this admirable Bill, even combined with the Vickers report, will go anywhere near to restoring Glass-Steagall. We will not get rid of banks that are too big to fail until we get back to Glass-Steagall.
My right hon. Friend has been entirely consistent in the views he has expressed, and he was right all along about the weaknesses of the tripartite system. On the explicit issue of whether to introduce the actual physical separation of retail and investment banking—in other words, to introduce Glass-Steagall- like legislation in Britain—I asked John Vickers, who everyone accepts was an independent and extremely expert person for the job, to look specifically at this issue with his commissioners. Some of them were probably inclined at the start to believe that physical separation was the right way to go, but when they examined the issues—and they took an enormous amount of evidence—they believed that the same objective of protecting retail customers from the collapse of an investment bank, and giving the authorities of the day greater powers to protect retail customers as they resolved problems in a retail bank, could be achieved through the ring-fencing proposal that the Vickers commission put forward. That would also maintain some of the benefits of one part of the bank being able to support another part in trouble.
The commission explicitly considered the Glass-Steagall issue, but decided that ring-fencing was a better approach. We will introduce legislation that I hope and intend will have pre-legislative scrutiny in the House during the coming Session. I hope that that will be an opportunity for Parliament to examine the issue that my right hon. Friend rightly raised. As a country, we must decide once and for all how to proceed with the structure of our banking industry.
I hesitate to take the Chancellor back to the FSA report on the failure of RBS, which says that political pressures to be light-touch were partly to blame for the bank’s collapse. What exactly were those political pressures, in his understanding, and what lessons can be drawn from them?
My hon. Friend is tempting me back into the fertile territory of the shadow Chancellor’s role in the banking crash, but not least because I do not want to provoke a reaction, I think that I should probably move on to the flaws of the system that the right hon. Gentleman helped to create as Treasury adviser.
To take the Chancellor back to my experiences in 1997, I was in business, and my bankers at the time were at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Shortly after the general election in which the Labour Government were elected, I had a meeting with my bankers. I expressed my disappointment at the election result, but they were extremely upbeat. I asked them why, and they said, “Labour Governments are never any good at regulating the financial services industry. We’re going to make a lot of money in the banking industry.” Were not those words prophetic?
For a while, they did make an awful lot of money. Unfortunately, they then lost an awful lot of money, which is one reason why we are here talking about the legislation.
Before any Minister comes to the House of Commons to ask for an existing regulatory regime to be replaced, it is incumbent on him or her to explain why it is felt to be necessary, so let me explain. Another flaw of the current system is that when the crisis hit in 2007 and 2008, no one knew who was actually in charge. The Treasury Committee of the last Parliament, led by John McFall, said in its report:
“The biggest failings of the Tripartite’s handling of Northern Rock were that it was not clear who was in charge, and, because the Tripartite took a minimalist view of their respective responsibilities, necessary actions fell between three stools.”
The House of Lords Committee, which also did some excellent work on the matter during the last Parliament, said that
“the tripartite authorities in the United Kingdom…failed to maintain financial stability and were found wanting in dealing with the crisis, in part because the roles of the three parties were not well enough defined and it was not clear who was in charge”.
In other words, a whole system of financial regulation had been created by the previous Government, yet no one knew who was in charge.
That led to the third fatal flaw that became apparent. The Government of the day, accountable to Parliament and the public for the use of taxpayers’ money, simply did not have the powers to do what they felt necessary when the crisis hit. My predecessor as Chancellor said in his recent memoir:
“The whole system depended on the chairman of the FSA, the Governor of the Bank and the Chancellor seeing things in exactly the same way. The problem was that in September 2007, we simply did not see things in the same way.”
That, of course, led to the confusion in the autumn of 2007. As he said,
“I could not in practice order the Bank to do what I wanted”,
even when taxpayers’ money was at stake.
On top of all those flaws in the tripartite system, it is not as though customers were being better protected from the mis-selling scandals that have beset the industry for the past 30 years. The payment protection insurance saga happened on its watch. In 2001 alone, firms were forced to pay more than £1 billion-worth of redress to consumers who were mis-sold products.
Those are the flaws of the tripartite system—flaws that cost this country in output more than 10% of our entire gross domestic product, flaws that have led to hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, flaws that wiped out the savings of millions of small shareholders, and flaws that saddled an entire country with more than £1 trillion of debt. The British people need to be confident that mistakes have been acknowledged and that lessons have been learned. The legislation that we have put before the House today shows that they have been learned.
Without wanting to disrupt too much the Chancellor’s political narrative, I ask him to remind the House of the regulatory structure and of who was in charge of regulation during the scandals involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Barings, Equitable Life and Johnson Matthey. Were those scandals all the result of the tripartite structure, or might some of them have preceded it, at a time when the Bank of England had the lead on banking and financial regulation?
I would make this important point to the right hon. Gentleman: of course those were failures of regulation, and of course the Bank of England was in charge of banking regulation when they happened, but they were failures of regulation in individual firms—detailed work was done afterwards to find out what went wrong and to try to put it right—not failures across the system. The collapse of Barings did not bring down the whole system, whereas the run on Northern Rock created shockwaves around the world. The decision in 1997 to remove the Bank of England’s macro-prudential role was a fatal mistake.
The right hon. Gentleman calls it rubbish, but let me say this: he was instrumental in a way that no one else in the Labour party was in designing the system that I am proposing to dismantle. He is well within his rights to get up and say, “I defend the system that I created. I think that it is the best way of regulating financial services, and what you have come up with is wrong”, but if he believes that, he should have the courage to vote against the Bill tonight. If that is his view, he should get up and say, “I’m going to vote against your approach because I don’t think it’s the right one”, but I do not think that he has the courage to do so, because he is trying to escape his past, rather than defend it.
I will set out our position in my speech, but the idea that by making the Bank of England independent and adding a second deputy governor with responsibility for macro-prudential financial stability on both the Monetary Policy Committee and the FSA board, the Bank’s role in macro-prudential stability is diminished or removed is plain wrong. The Chancellor should not be allowed to state things that are outwith the facts.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to that view, but it is not shared by the Select Committees that have considered the matter, including during the previous Parliament; it is not a view shared in the work by the FSA on what went wrong and the failure to conduct macro-prudential analysis; and it is not a view shared by almost everyone who has looked at the failures of the British regulatory system during the period in question. He is perfectly entitled to his view—I am not surprised that he holds it, given that he was responsible for creating the system—but if it is his view, he should have the courage to vote against our proposals to dismantle it.
Nor was the view of the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) that of the Governor of the Bank of England, who said:
“All we can do at present…is to write our Financial Stability Report and give speeches.”
The Bank was completely emasculated by the right hon. Gentleman's reforms.
My hon. Friend reminds me that in the Mansion House speech in 2009, I think, the Governor, appointed by the previous Government, said that the Bank was being asked to do things that it had not been given the powers and tools to do. It was a striking speech—I cannot remember whether the right hon. Gentleman was there—but the difference between the views expressed by the Chancellor and the Bank Governor in the space of one evening was striking.
I will now go through the details of the Bill and see whether it commands all-party support. I shall go through what we are doing to address the flaws that I have identified in the existing system. First, we are going to establish a new macro-prudential authority in the Bank of England to monitor overall risk and levels of debt in the financial system. Secondly, we are making the Bank of England the single point of accountability for financial stability, ensuring that there is a decisive answer to the question, “Who is in charge?” Thirdly, the Bill ensures that in a crisis, when taxpayers’ money is at stake, the power to act sits with the Chancellor of the day, accountable to Parliament. Fourthly, the legislation creates a strong conduct regulator that is able to give its undivided attention to promoting competition and protecting consumers. Let me take each in turn, and in some detail.
First, the responsibility to monitor risks across the system falls to the new Financial Policy Committee in the Bank of England, established by clause 3 and entrusted with responsibility for the stability of the whole system. Its job will be to identify bubbles as they develop, spot dangerous interconnections, warn about poorly understood financial instruments and take action to stop excessive levels of debt building up before it is too late.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the risks in the banking sector have been shown by the recent crisis to be rather different from those in the insurance sector, for instance. He will also know that the Joint Committee on the Bill recommended that a member of the Financial Policy Committee should be someone with insurance experience, but that does not appear in the Bill. Perhaps he could explain why not.
We do not want to prescribe in the Bill the qualifications of the external members of the Financial Policy Committee. That would be a mistake. However, I would obviously want to ensure that the external members—I will say something about this shortly—have broad and current experience of the financial system. There is an issue, as I will set out, about how this House—and, indeed, the political system—approaches conflicts of interest. In other words, we have to make a trade-off between appointing as external members to such bodies people who actually know what is going on in financial services and, at the same time, wanting to direct conflicts of interest, being careful not to rule out anyone simply because they work in financial services. The Select Committee on the Treasury and the Joint Committee that looked at the Bill have made an important recommendation for us all: to be careful about creating a system in which no one who has current experience of financial services sits on the bodies that regulate individual firms or, more importantly, system-wide risks, and that includes insurance.
With the tripartite system, of which I believe the shadow Chancellor was the architect, a tick-box culture of regulation grew—a one-size-fits-all approach, and that sort of thing. Will the Chancellor tell the House a bit about how we will get rid of that tick-box culture and move towards a culture of more individual and tailored regulation?
The key thing is to empower the regulators both to exercise judgment and then to be able to do something about it. One reason for locating both the macro-prudential role and, when it comes to individual firms, the micro-prudential role in the central bank is the culture in central banks—not just in the Bank of England, but in central banks generally—of exercising judgment and acting on it. I very much want to encourage that. My hon. Friend is right: there was no shortage of regulation, in that sense, in 2006-07. RBS complied with every bit of regulation in its decision to try to take over ABN AMRO; it is just that no one felt empowered to say, “Is this the right thing, for this firm and for the financial system, at a point when the financial markets have already frozen up?”
Rather than wait for this Bill to pass through Parliament, we have gone ahead and created the Financial Policy Committee on an interim and non-statutory basis. It is already meeting regularly to assess risks across the financial system, such as the need for banks to provide for adequate capital before determining the distribution of profits, as well as drawing attention to specific products, such as exchange-traded funds, whose excessive use may be a cause for concern. It has already produced two impressive financial stability reports.
At the time of the collapse of Barings, I was working at Abbey National Treasury, which was involved in a joint venture trading derivatives with Barings. I was one of those brought in to clear up the mess, for which—I hasten to add—I was not responsible.
It was clear from what happened at Barings that there was a huge gulf between what the traders understood about their trading activities and what the management understood, and an even bigger gulf between the management and the regulators at the Bank of England. The Chancellor has said that the new committee will look at exotic and complex financial instruments, but how can he guarantee that its members will really understand what is happening on the trading floor?
That is the task that we are giving them. They must ensure that they have the necessary expertise and resources. The interim committee is looking across the piece—I will deal later with the role of regulating individual firms—but it is interesting that its two financial stability reports highlighted a specific financial instrument, the exchange-traded fund, and expressed concern about its rapid growth. I am not aware that the regulatory system that existed in 2006-07 spotted, for example, the rapid increase in the use of collateralised debt obligations. It did not warn about specific instruments and the growth in their use. The financial stability reports of the committee that we have already set up demonstrate an attention to particular complex market instruments and their potential systemic risks.
Will the Chancellor explain why, if the key is locating regulation in the central bank, those pressures before 2007 were not spotted by the US Federal Reserve, which was the central banker and the regulator? He is giving a very UK-specific analysis. What about all the other examples of central banks failing to spot these growing problems?
There are examples of central banks, such as the Canadian and Spanish central banks, which were much more aggressive in counter-cyclical regulation, and which felt empowered to make the decisions. In the United States—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has had conversations about this with the United States Treasury Secretary and the Federal Reserve chairman—things have been taken to the opposite extreme. There is a plethora of regulators—too many different regulators. The single biggest problem in the United States probably occurred in the insurance industry, in the American International Group. There was an insurance regulator based in one particular state and it was not something for which the Federal Reserve had a responsibility. Ben Bernanke has talked about the role of central banks, and I shall say something about his view later.
I think it right for us to create a Financial Policy Committee that is on a statutory footing. I have talked about the importance of its having external independent members who are able to provide market expertise and challenge received opinion, but I believe—and this may be something that we can tease out in Committee—that we should think about how we can get the balance right, and avoid conflicts of interest while also bringing in people with real expertise.
What makes the Financial Policy Committee that the Bill will establish such a radical departure in terms of policy making is that we are not only asking it to assess the risks throughout the financial system, but proposing to give it powerful tools with which to do something about those risks. The Monetary Policy Committee assesses the risks of inflation and whether it will overshoot or undershoot the target, and then alters interest rates as appropriate. The Financial Policy Committee will be given macro-prudential tools with which to hit the financial stability objectives set out in the Bill, and to reduce and remove systemic risks to the stability and resilience of the UK financial system.
The shadow Chancellor raised the question of both Barings and BCCI, and it underlines the nature of the regulatory problem. The Barings failure was largely a failure of the Singapore regulatory authority. I was closely involved with Singapore as an adviser to the monetary authority at the time. The Government in Singapore were horrified by the fact that a British rogue trader had not been spotted, but it was the responsibility of Singapore to find him.
As for BCCI, which I also knew well in my stockbroking days, its regulator was in Luxembourg, which was the reason why the Bank of England did not spot the problem until too late. That problem will continue. There are considerable limits to what any regulator can ever achieve. In worldwide banking, there will always be people overseas who are up to mischief, and no regulator based in London can ever conceivably know what they are all up to.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the international nature of this business. We must try to design a regulatory system that protects the British taxpayer from rogue traders and illegal activity in individual firms that might create broader systemic risks. We must also be alert to broader risks building up in the system—for example, when trying to moderate the impact of a credit boom. This is not just a question of dealing with individual risks and individual firms; it is also a question of dealing with risks across the financial system.
My right hon. Friend is completely right to draw our attention to the need for regulators to work together better internationally. The least well-developed piece of the financial regulatory system, post-crash—the one lesson that has not yet been taken far enough—involves the way in which we can better protect the world from large international businesses that live internationally but die nationally, such as Lehman Brothers. Co-ordinating resolution regimes across the different jurisdictions will be the work of international bodies such as the G20 and the Financial Stability Board in the year ahead.
My right hon. Friend has talked about the macro-prudential powers that the Bank of England will have, beyond its monetary policy powers, to step in and help to cool down the economy. Those powers will include setting the ratio for the multiples of earnings that can be borrowed to secure a mortgage, which could have serious consequences across the country. However, those regimes have not yet been published or discussed. Can he give me an assurance that, when those macro-prudential powers are published, the House will have a debate on them?
Yes, I can give that assurance. This is an important point that I want to flag up so that the House understands what we are collectively embarking on. We are seeking to give the Financial Policy Committee the tools to help to dampen down a credit boom or to help in a credit crunch. As my hon. Friend has said, it will be able to alter the maximum loan-to-value ratios in mortgage lending in order to curb an unsustainable rise in house prices. It will also be able to do the reverse, should we face unwanted house price deflation. It will also, potentially, be able to alter capital requirements for banks, in a counter-cyclical way. I should say that these are just possibilities; they are potential tools that the committee might want to use.
One key feature is that the measures will be independently applied, so there will be no political pressure to, say, keep a housing boom stoked up as an election approaches. Another key feature is that the Financial Policy Committee should act symmetrically—that is the intention of Parliament. Its job will be to act not just to moderate a credit boom but to try to alleviate a credit bust. The precise tools that we give the FPC have yet to be determined, as my hon. Friend has just said. We have sought the advice of the interim organisation that we have created, and it will come to us with proposals for the kind of tools that the permanent body will need. We will then seek the approval of both houses of Parliament through the affirmative resolution procedure—which will of course involve a debate—before we pass those tools over.
I freely accept that we are in largely uncharted policy- making territory, here or anywhere in the world. Many other jurisdictions are considering such measures, but we are ahead of most of them. Surely the experiment of making no attempt to moderate the credit cycle—letting the bubbles grow and burst, then cleaning up afterwards—has been an unmitigated disaster, and we would be failing if we did not look for an alternative approach.
One suggestion from the Treasury Select Committee was that the Chancellor should not send the proposals to a statutory instrument Committee. That would involve a 90-minute discussion and the proposals would not be amendable. He should instead allow the matters to be debated seriously on the Floor of the House. I wonder why he would think it attractive and helpful to send them upstairs where they cannot be amended; that would suggest a foregone conclusion by the governing party that they would be accepted.
I would certainly be happy to have a debate about that on the Floor of the House. It is a decision for my colleagues, the usual channels and so forth, but in my opinion the important tools given to this body will have a real impact on our constituents. It will affect the kind of house they are able to afford on their income—the bread and butter of people’s daily lives—and it is important for us all to understand that as we create instruments of policy.
We are seeking to address another flaw in the system by making the Bank of England the single point of accountability when it comes to the prudential regulation of banks, large and complex investment firms, building societies and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) reminded us, significant insurance companies. A new prudential regulation authority will be established within the Bank to perform that major new function.
As the shadow Chancellor pointed out, the Federal Reserve in the US already has responsibility for the prudential regulation of major banks, but not of other financial firms. Let me cite what Ben Bernanke said in what I believe was testimony before Congress:
“The Federal Reserve’s role in banking supervision complements its other responsibilities, especially its role in managing financial crises...During the current crisis, supervisory expertise and information have repeatedly proved invaluable in helping us to address potential systemic risks involving specific financial institutions and markets and to effectively fulfil our role as lender of last resort...The Fed’s prudential supervision benefits, in turn, from the expertise we develop in carrying out other parts of our mission—for example, the knowledge of financial and economic conditions we gather in the formulation of monetary policy.”
I raise this matter because at the heart of the new arrangements we are seeking to establish an understanding that today’s financial markets are so interconnected that the failure of a single firm can bring down the whole system, and risks across the system can bring down many single firms. These feedback loops are what proved so devastating in the crisis.
Some critics of the legislation now accept the need for a macro-prudential Financial Policy Committee, but still doubt whether we should give the Bank responsibility for the micro-prudential regulation of individual firms, too. I would argue that because the interconnections are so great, the FPC could not do its job without knowing what is going on in firms, and a prudential regulator could not do its job without knowing about risks across the system. The best way to combine the insights is to put them both under the aegis of the same institution—the central bank.
I understand that the shadow Chancellor is concerned that our Bill does not create additional lines of communication between the deputy governors of the Bank and the Chancellor, bypassing the Governor, so he might like to explain what he meant. I considered the idea, but rejected it. I think we need to force the Bank of England itself to reconcile its internal differences rather than create additional lines of accountability between the Chancellor and a deputy governor. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] He says, “Dear me”, so perhaps he will explain why he wants to institutionalise a regime in which the No. 2 constantly undermines the No. 1.
The Joint Committee and the Treasury Select Committee have raised what I regard as a far more relevant concern—the accountability of the Bank of England, given its important new responsibilities. We have listened carefully to the recommendations from both Committees and while I do not propose to abolish the court of the Bank of England, I do propose to give it important new powers to hold the executive Bank to account. The Governor and the court of the Bank of England have agreed that a new oversight committee, consisting of the non-executive members of the court, should be created. This group of external independent people will ensure that the Bank discharges its financial oversight responsibilities correctly; it will be able to commission both internal and external reports on the Bank’s policy makers’ handling of particular events and particular periods of policy making. Those reports will be published, with market-sensitive information protected, if necessary.
The Governor is of course, as is the case today, a key figure in the arrangements. It is important that he or she is not only independent of the Government of the day, but seen to be so. The recent experience of reappointing Governors after their first five-year term has expired has not been a very happy one. It has created unnecessary uncertainty and called into question political confidence in the Governor. Although I would hope that this Government would handle the whole thing better than their predecessors did, it makes sense simply to eliminate the possibility of discord entirely, so schedule 2 provides that the next Governor of the Bank of England and his or her successors will serve a single eight-year non-renewable term. That is a sensible reform.
The third flaw in the current arrangements was the fact that the Chancellor of the day felt he did not have the necessary powers to act in the interests of taxpayers. This is another area where the work of the Joint Committee and the Select Committee have proved invaluable. The Bill makes it clear that the day-to-day responsibility for financial stability lies with the Bank of England. We do not want the Treasury second-guessing that work. Beyond setting the parameters for the regulatory system, the Chancellor should become involved only if there is a material risk to public funds. The responsibility in this regard is made clear in the Bill, and in the memorandum of understanding that we have drawn up with the Bank. The Bill makes it clear that the Governor has a responsibility to inform the Treasury immediately as soon as there is a material risk of circumstances arising in which public funds might reasonably be expected to be used.
The Bill is also rightly clear that the use of public funds is entirely a decision for the Chancellor, as he or she is the person accountable to Parliament, and through Parliament to the public. My predecessor is, again, revealing about the limitations of the current arrangements in his book:
“My frustration was that I could not in practice order the Bank to do what I wanted. Only the Bank of England can put the necessary funds into the banking system…I asked Treasury officials if there was a way of forcing the Governor’s hand. The fact that we had given the Bank independence had a downside as well as an upside.”
Of course my predecessor had, as any Chancellor does, the general power of direction over the Bank that the Bank of England Act 1946 provides, but that general power of direction has never been used, so it is a nuclear option that might blow up anyone who tries to use it. That was the conclusion that my predecessor reluctantly came to.
That is unsatisfactory. The Bank must, of course, be protected from politicians who want to use its balance sheet against the wishes of the Governor simply because those politicians want to avoid using the Government’s balance sheet, but the Bank should not be able to use that as an excuse to withhold its services as an agent from a Government prepared to use its own Government balance sheet. Otherwise, in many situations that becomes, in effect, a veto on an elected Government’s fiscal decision making.
The Bill and the memorandum of understanding give the Chancellor of the day not only the right to be informed when there is a material risk to public funds, but the right to ask the Bank to analyse different options that might be available to deal with the risk, and in the newly added clause 57 the Bill gives the Chancellor a defined power of direction to require the Bank to provide liquidity to a particular firm or to put a particular firm into resolution or to provide liquidity to the general system, provided that the Chancellor does so using the Government’s own balance sheet, and makes that clear.
Can the Chancellor envisage a situation in which the Governor of the Bank of England may judge not to inform the Chancellor that there is both a material threat to stability and the need for the use of public funds—and if a Governor were to make such a judgment not to inform the Chancellor, would that be his personal judgment?
This is important, so I will ask the question again. Can the Chancellor envisage a situation in which the Governor of the Bank of England would choose not to inform the Chancellor because in the Governor’s view there was not a material threat to financial stability, and therefore no need for the use of public funds? And if the Governor chose not to come to the Chancellor in such a situation, would that be the Governor’s own personal judgment—for example, if the deputy governor for financial stability or the head of the Prudential Regulation Authority took a different view?
The legislation makes it clear that that is the Bank’s responsibility. Of course, the Governor is chair of the key committees—the Financial Policy Committee and the Prudential Regulation Authority—that would make these judgments, but we have to require the Bank to resolve its internal differences. Obviously the Bank has its own procedures to deal with any dispute, which it will develop, but we have deliberately created boards and committees that have independent members and external oversight. Of course there are three deputy governors, but ultimately—perhaps that is just going to be a point of disagreement between me and the right hon. Gentleman—I do not think it is right to create different lines of accountability from the Bank of England to the Chancellor of the day. The Chancellor has to deal with the Bank, and with the person of the Governor. However much legislation we write and however many clauses we put in place, those who do my job and that of the Governor also have a very important responsibility to get on with each other and to try to make that arrangement work.
The problem is that in the legislation, in the memorandum of understanding and in the Chancellor’s own answers there is a gap, a hole and an ambiguity. In his speech he referred to the judgment of the Governor, then he talks about the judgment of the Bank and then he says that the Bank must resolve whether the Governor’s view is the same as that of the rest of the Bank. I repeat my question: can the right hon. Gentleman envisage being concerned by a situation in which the Governor chooses not to come to him asking for funds because the Governor believes that there is not a systemic risk, even if it is coming to the Chancellor’s attention that other senior statutory office holders in the Bank have a different view? Can the right hon. Gentleman envisage such a situation, when the Governor chooses, for example —as he said, this is a judgment for the Governor—that the moral hazard overrides the systemic potential threat?
As I say, it is the responsibility of the Bank to inform the Government: that is what the legislation and the memorandum of understanding make clear. The Bank, of course, has its own procedures for coming to a view within the Bank. Creating a system where a deputy governor could bypass the Governor and go directly to the Chancellor would be a recipe for division at the Bank. We have to force the Bank to come to a collective view and then deal with the Government of the day.
This goes absolutely to the heart of the issue. The reality is that if we have a tripartite or quartet system in which the statutory regulator is not the same as the Governor, the head of the PRA or the head of the Financial Services Authority can have a different view and say that in their judgment the threat to the company and to the system is so great that it justifies action, even if the Governor judges that the moral hazard risks from intervention override that threat, and that therefore there should not be a request for public funds. In the current system, the Chancellor would hear from the head of the FSA—from Adair Turner—whereas under the new system and the memorandum of understanding he will not hear, other than from the person of the Governor. My question to the Chancellor is: does he worry about that and about the potential instability and misinformation to him that could come as a result of the memorandum of understanding that he has drafted?
The first point I make to the right hon. Gentleman is that the Bank Governor does not come to the Government when he thinks public funds should be used; he does so when—this is set out in the legislation— there is a material risk that public funds may be required. Of course the decision to use public funds would be one for the Chancellor of the day.
The second point that I make is that the problem with the tripartite committee was one set out in my predecessor’s book: in autumn 2007 there were three different views and there was no way of reconciling them—and there was no clarity about who had power and responsibility. What we are talking about here, and what I am explaining, is a new power of direction. Of course any Chancellor would think very carefully before using it, but this power makes it absolutely clear that once there is a material risk to public funds, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not only a power, as the current person doing the Chancellor’s job has, to authorise the use of public funds—that is what my predecessor did in respect of the Royal Bank of Scotland—but a power of direction to provide liquidity to an individual firm and liquidity to the system. Those were not powers that my predecessor had. Of course, as I will come on to discuss, there are certain constraints and things that have to be done to inform people before they are used, but these are new powers that we are giving so that the Chancellor of the day does have powers, provided that he or she is prepared to use the Government’s own balance sheet.
The whole point—this is so important, and goes to the heart of one of the debates in the Committee—is that in the historical examples given by the Chancellor, when the then Chancellor wanted to act and others in the regulatory system did not, the Governor of the Bank of England was one of those who did not. In the situation that the Chancellor has now set up—article 20 of the memorandum of understanding states this clearly—there will be a personal relationship between the Chancellor and the Governor. This ‘twin-peaks’ system is a personalised conversation, in that the Chancellor hears the Bank’s view from only one individual. I ask him again: would he be worried if he did not hear a view in such circumstances? Is this really a matter for the Governor’s judgment, as the MOU says, or should the statutory office holders—the head of the Prudential Regulation Authority, the Financial Services Authority and the deputy governor from the Financial Policy Committee—have not only a view but a right for that view to be heard by the Chancellor and then by Parliament? That is my question.
We can explore this at greater length in Committee, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman now that we are trying to avoid a situation in which different people in the Bank think they have a direct line to the Chancellor. We are trying to require the Bank to resolve its internal differences, and we are creating various committees, balancing the membership between external and internal members, but we absolutely see a central role for the Governor of the Bank—and I do not make any apologies for that.
I was not in the room when some of these conversations happened in recent years, but as far as I can see, and as has been reported since, it is clear that personal relations between the Bank Governor and some of the very senior members of the Government completely broke down. That is not a situation we want to see in the future, and I think that the person who does my job and the person who does the job of the Governor of the Bank of England have an obligation to get on with each other and maintain the personal relationship; that is a very important part of both our jobs. No amount of legislation or MOU—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) says that it is not about getting on with each other. Frankly, it is about working at this very important relationship at the top of our financial system, and not getting into a situation in which those involved are not able to pick up the phone and talk to each other. Yes, of course we are institutionalising the arrangement, creating memorandums of understanding and so on, but I do not want to detract from the fact that there is also a personal responsibility for the Chancellor of the day and for the Bank of England Governor to ensure that they can work together in the national interest.
I hate to intrude on this Socratic dialogue between the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), but can the Chancellor not see that in these critical decisions there will be differences? I do not draw a direct comparison with the military, where the Chief of the Defence Staff has a right of appeal or a direct line of communication with the Prime Minister, but in these critical decisions it is not enough for a hard-headed, narrow-minded or too-forceful Government to insist on a point of view. A release valve is needed to reach a balanced judgment, and the No. 2s in all the crucial areas should have the right to come straight to the Chancellor. Good foresight and good judgment are involved in that.
The other point that I would make—the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is reminding me of it—is that the Treasury sits on all those committees as a non-voting member. It is in on all the discussions, with a Treasury official sitting in on and understanding the debate.
Does the Opposition’s proposal not seem to be an attempt to re-create a tripartite structure in which there is more than a relationship between one and one other? We have problems with the concept of “too big to fail”, and the example of Barings has been cited. That bank did not bring the rest of the system down: the directors ended up losing their jobs and the person responsible went to prison. Will the Chancellor consider the scale of that failure, compared with what happened in 2008 when the whole system collapsed?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. Surely the issue is the clarity of the relationship between the Governor and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in relation to the confusion in the tripartite system. That would not prevent, and should not prevent, any Governor worth his salt from at least making it clear that there were other views within the Bank, albeit that it was his judgment in the advice to the Chancellor. That gets away from some of the confusion about whether we are looking to sweep away an integral part of the tripartite system.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. This is all about the Governor’s responsibility to do his or her job in managing the Bank, and about the Bank coming to a collective view. The job of the Chancellor of the day is to manage the relationship with the Governor. For all the virtues of the tripartite system that the shadow Chancellor seems to be extolling, I understand that those at the principal level in the tripartite system did not meet for 10 years; perhaps he can correct me, as he was there.
The tripartite standing committee met every month at the deputy level, from its inception until the crisis. The responsibility for triggering a full meeting of principals was in the hands of the Governor and the head of the FSA. Throughout that entire period either the systemic regulator, the Bank, or the individual firms regulator, the FSA, could have triggered a meeting, but did not. There were two people who could have triggered that, but in the Chancellor’s world there will be only one trigger. That is my concern.
The right hon. Gentleman keeps saying there were two people, but there were three principals in the tripartite committee. It was chaired by the Chancellor of the day—the Chancellor whom he advised—but as I understand it, that Chancellor never convened the tripartite regime at the principal level. [Interruption.] I can tell the shadow Chancellor that under the tripartite regime now—that is still the current arrangement—there are meetings on at least a monthly basis with myself, the Governor of the Bank, the chairman of the FSA and so on. In the tripartite system that the shadow Chancellor saw at first hand, the principals, including the Chancellor of the day, never in 10 years—we are not talking about 10 weeks or 10 months—convened a meeting of the principals. The fact that he says that it was entirely the job of the Governor of the Bank of England or the chairman of the FSA to call a meeting, when the chair was the Chancellor, who could have called a meeting at any time he wanted, is very revealing about what went wrong.
Is the power to direct, to which the Chancellor has referred, contingent on the Governor of the Bank of England formally advising the Chancellor of a material risk, or could the Chancellor exercise that power to direct on the basis of his own concerns, which may have been conveyed to him from the industry, Parliament or any other intelligence? The Bank might be loth to advise the Chancellor formally in that way if doing so would trigger the power to direct, because it might want to avoid that, and the wider concerns that it might raise. Once the Bank has had the “Shall we tell the Chancellor?” discussion, what should the Treasury representative do during that discussion and after it?
As I have said, when the Bill is passed, the statutory responsibility will be on the Bank of England to inform the Government if there is a material risk that public funds might be used. We are trying to get away from a system in which it is the Treasury’s responsibility to try to regulate the financial system on a day-to-day basis in peacetime. We are giving the responsibility and clear accountability to the Bank of England so that it will trigger the arrangement by informing us of a material risk. As is set out in the legislation, twice-yearly meetings between the Chancellor and the Governor to discuss these things are required, although there could also be further meetings. Once the Bank has informed the Treasury of a material risk, which it will have a statutory responsibility to do, there will be a power of direction. I should just say, for the sake of completeness, that if we wish to keep the details of the use of this power confidential, I or my successors would have to inform, on a confidential basis, the Chairs of the Treasury Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, so that representatives of Parliament were informed.
The fourth and final flaw in the system that we are trying to address is that customers and consumers too often get a raw deal from the regulation of financial services. The disappearance from the high street of names such as HBOS and Bradford & Bingley has inevitably reduced competition in an industry that was becoming more and more consolidated even before the crash. The existing regulator’s dual prudential and consumer remit means that it cannot give consumer interests its undivided attention. In response to the Vickers commission and the Joint Committee, the new authority will have an explicit responsibility to promote competition. We have listened to the Joint Committee and announced that we will also bring the regulation of consumer credit into the authority’s remit so that, for the first time, the regulation of all retail financial services will be under one roof, and things like payday loans will be subject to tougher regulation.
The banks that have gone from my high street have been replaced by high-cost credit companies that offer exorbitant rates of interest. I know that the Financial Conduct Authority will have powers over competition. Does the Chancellor accept the argument, made by many Opposition Members, that price inevitably reflects competition, so it is absolutely right that the FCA should look to regulate the price of those products and finally tackle the legal loan sharks?
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has commissioned a review of the cost of credit, but I think that the Bill takes a significant step on that, partly because of the Joint Committee’s recommendations, because the regulation of all retail financial services will now come under the remit of the FCA. It will have the power to ban specific products, to name and shame particular firms and to publish details of misleading promotions, so there will be considerable new powers that were not previously available. On the hon. Lady’s specific concern about the price of credit, that is something the Government are looking at. Of course we are also looking at the recommendations of the FSA’s recent report on RBS—I do not wish to reopen that issue—in relation to legislation on the sanctions available for bank directors who fail in their role.
The Bill is an important piece of legislation. I believe that it replaces the confused and dysfunctional system that presided over the biggest banking crisis in our modern history. It creates clear lines of accountability by putting the Bank of England in charge of monitoring and dealing with debt levels in our economy. However, no amount of new clauses, powers or institutions can substitute for something for which Parliament cannot legislate: judgment. There were thousands of pages of financial regulation in existence in 2007, but that did not stop the queues forming outside Northern Rock or prevent RBS from making its final, fatal, bid for ABN AMRO. I hope that we have learned that financial stability depends not simply on a checklist of regulation, but on individuals within our regulators feeling empowered to trust their judgment, and our giving them the power to act on it. By putting our central bank in charge of monitoring overall levels of risk and the soundness of individual firms, we are trusting in its judgment. By giving the elected Government of the day the power of direction in a crisis, we are trusting in their judgment, and that of Parliament, to which they are accountable.
Britain has paid a higher price than most for what went so badly wrong in our banking system. The errors of the economic policy that led to such a boom have cost every taxpayer dear. Today we show that we are learning the lessons and passing on to our successors a better system than the one we inherited. I commend the Bill to the House.
Let me start by striking a rather different tone from that of the Chancellor’s performance in the House this afternoon by setting out where the Opposition agree with what he and the Government are trying to achieve and offering some constructive proposals to tackle the flaws in the legislation before us and help make it a better Bill. Financial stability and the effective regulation of our banking and wider financial services industry are vital for stability, for consumers to save and for businesses to invest. Getting the balance of regulation right is an important task for any Government, especially when hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on the industry. That is a task in which all Governments throughout the world failed during the previous decade.
We can all agree that the irresponsible actions of the banks themselves caused the crisis, but there were major failings in financial regulation, in law, in corporate governance, in procedure and in judgment in America, Asia, throughout Europe and here, too, in Britain. We did not regulate the banks in a tough enough way and stop their gross irresponsibility here in Britain or throughout the world, and after a financial crisis on that global scale we need to learn the right lessons and to put in place the right reforms in order to do what we can to stop such a crisis being repeated.
In that spirit, we welcome aspects of the Bill before us and, in particular, the establishment of the new Financial Policy Committee and the competition and consumer focus of the Financial Conduct Authority, but we are worried that the Bill falls well short of being fit for purpose.
In an excellent report, the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill stated:
“To be successful reforms will have to change the regulatory culture and philosophy,”
“not something that legislation can guarantee but legislation can influence the culture of a regulator by: setting objectives; allocating and aligning powers and responsibilities; establishing appropriate systems of accountability.”
Despite the changes that the Government made in response to the Joint Committee’s report, the Bill as it stands does not meet the objectives that the Committee set. What the Chancellor proposes in the Bill and in statute is essentially to move from the current tripartite system of regulation to a new quartet system—the Treasury, the Financial Policy Committee, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority, with the Monetary Policy Committee sitting alongside—with, at best, opaque structures for decision making and accountability under the Bank of England umbrella, albeit now with not two deputy governors but three, and all with overlapping responsibilities.
Unless we get the detail of that quartet system right, we risk delivering a more complex and less transparent system that is harder for the Chancellor and for Parliament to navigate and understand than the current arrangements. Several of those substantial misgivings have been echoed in recent weeks and days by the Treasury Committee and by many City, business and consumer groups. The responsibilities are confused; there is insufficient accountability in the new, more cumbersome system; there is insufficient focus on consumer protection, financial education and exclusion; and, as the CBI has highlighted, there is no objective for the Financial Policy Committee proactively to support growth and employment.
We intend to work with the Government and the Treasury Committee to amend the Bill in Committee to deal with its many shortcomings. To that end, we will not vote in opposition to the Bill in its entirety on Second Reading today; we will see whether we can make progress in Committee and then decide our Third Reading vote only when we have seen whether we have been able to make the progress and the change that is needed in the Bill.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the crisis was caused in very large part by a complete failure of the auditing industry? If the auditors of all those companies and banks had spotted that worthless bits of paper, claimed as assets, were flooding the world, we might not be where we are now. Does he agree that we need to do something fundamental about auditing?
The problem was the US sub-prime mortgage market, and that the failure of regulation there rippled around the world. There were failures also of lending and regulation at Northern Rock here in Britain. I do not in any way deny that there were failures here in Britain and failures of regulation, but I do not accept that it was solely a UK failure, because it happened in America, France, Germany, Japan and all around—
I will make some progress and take both interventions in a minute.
I understand why politically the Chancellor is so keen to blame the structure of UK regulation—the tripartite relationship between the Bank, the Treasury and the FSA. He wants to claim that his particular institutional reforms are the solution, but my advice to him is to be very careful indeed, because this was not a peculiarly British crisis; it was a global crisis. It hit countries with tripartite systems of regulation, quartet systems, twin peaks, more powerful central banks, less powerful central banks and statutory and non-statutory regulators alike, and it was not a failure of regulatory structure, but a collective global failure to see the risks inherent in the structure of the global financial services industry.
We heard from central bankers earlier, but Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the US Federal Reserve and architect of the US system, when asked by The New York Times about his and the world’s understanding and management of risk, said:
“The whole intellectual edifice…collapsed”.
He was right. It was not simply a failure of structure, but a flaw in the way regulators understood the financial system, and that is why the British Bankers Association is right in its submission on the Bill to say that
“we consider that successful regulation depends more on regulatory culture, focus and philosophy than structure.”
On that very point, I should like to understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from in his objections to the Bill. What was his philosophy in terms of separating the supervision of banks from the Bank of England, which has day-to-day responsibility for monitoring that canary in the goldmine—their day-to-day funding operations?
I am going to come on to explain my analysis. I am not sure I fully understood the question, but I might as time passes.
At its heart, the regulatory failure of the global financial crisis was not a failure of one approach to the institutions of regulation, but a failure of understanding and risk assessment which covered central bankers, regulators and Treasuries throughout the world. That line is not in the Conservative party Whips’ briefing, but it is absolutely true none the less.
In a second.
And yes, it was a failure shared here in the UK, across the Treasury, the FSA, the Bank of England—and I have to say the then Opposition, too.
Let me remind the House that the legislation to give the Bank of England independence, and to shift from self-regulation to statutory regulation after 1997, for the first time established a Bank of England deputy governor with explicit responsibility for systemic financial stability and with an ex officio seat on the FSA board. As the seeds of the crisis were sown in the years before it, neither the FSA nor the Bank of England nor the Treasury rang the alarm bells, despite meeting every month in the tripartite standing committee.
The Chancellor, in a second breath a moment ago, said that we are now rightly taking the Treasury out of making such decisions, having criticised the Treasury for not triggering a crisis meeting that neither the Bank of England nor the FSA asked for—a point that seemed to be deeply confused. That demonstrates not that structures do not matter, but that there is no evidence from Britain or throughout the world that a different and arguably more complex structure, the new quartet structure before us, would have spotted a crisis that neither the Bank of England, the FSA, the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank nor anybody in a regulatory position of responsibility spotted.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain the regulatory things that went on when the previous Prime Minister pushed Lloyds bank into buying HBOS, which was a catastrophe in itself? How much regulation went on then, and how much discussion went on between the Bank of England and the previous Government before it was pushed through by the previous Prime Minister?
Those were decisions for the Chancellor and the Prime Minister of the day. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a blow-by-blow account or any detail of what happened between the FSA, the Treasury and the Bank of England, because at the time I was the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and was dealing with the failure of the test administrators to deliver the standard assessment tests for year sixes at the end of key stage 2.
I have apologised to the country and have asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do the same. Did this Chancellor ring the alarm bell in the crisis? No, he did not. Did he worry that regulation was insufficiently tough? No; he said in 2006 that financial regulation was
“burdensome, complex and makes cross-border market penetration more difficult”
and that it
“threatens the global competitiveness of the City of London.”
If the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate about who should apologise and who should accept responsibility, he should look at the evidence and the judgments of the past 10 years. Let us not forget that it was the Conservative party that voted against Bank of England independence and the move from self-regulation of the City by the City to statutory regulation for the first time in this country. It was this Chancellor who personally opposed the rescue of Northern Rock, saying:
“I am not in favour of nationalisation, full stop.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 186.]
It was this Chancellor who opposed the rescue of RBS; who negotiated the flawed and foolish Merlin deal; who refuses to enact proposals on transparency for bonuses of more than £1 million; who resists the reform of remuneration committees; who is selling off Northern Rock at a loss, prompting a National Audit Office investigation; and whose decision to cut the deficit too far and too fast has choked off the recovery and led to us borrowing £158 billion more. We will take no lectures on judgment from this Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I will set out what needs to be done to turn this bad Bill into a good Bill and to put the public interest, not party politics, in the driving seat in financial regulation. I will set out four objectives that should guide this legislation. The first is stability. We must ensure that we have a system of financial regulation that is robust in good times and in bad times. The second is to protect the taxpayer. We must guarantee that the public purse is protected from irresponsible decision making and wider systemic failures. The third is to be on the side of the consumer. There must be effective regulation, more competition and action on financial education and exclusion. The fourth is to support growth and employment. Let me take each objective in turn.
On stability, provisions to improve the structures for financial regulation and financial stability are at the heart of the Bill. As I have said, we support the FPC and we look forward to debating its powers. We are pleased that the Chancellor has today done a U-turn and decided that the Government will take up the recommendation of the Joint Committee that the macro-prudential tools to be used by the FPC should be properly scrutinised by Parliament. I hope that he will ensure that that happens not just when they are introduced, but when they are subsequently changed and updated. We believe that a new scrutiny committee should be established in this House to play that role. We will propose such an amendment.
On the splitting of the PRA and the FCA from the FSA—I know that these acronyms are hard to keep up with, but this is quite a complex system—it is fair to say that there are advantages and disadvantages. The jury is out. The Chancellor’s decision to put all this new and more complex architecture under the umbrella of the Bank of England, and arguably under the personal direction of its Governor, raises serious questions of accountability and clarity in decision making, as has been highlighted by the Treasury Committee and the Joint Committee.
We share the Treasury Committee’s concerns about accountability within the Bank and accountability to Parliament. As the Committee stated,
“the governance of the Bank needs strengthening and…it needs to be more open about its work. The Bank must be held more clearly to account”.
The Committee has proposed that
“the role of the Court of the Bank of England should be substantially enhanced. It should be transformed into a leaner and more expert Supervisory Board, with the power to conduct retrospective reviews of Bank policies and conduct.”
The Chancellor has said that he does not want to go down that road. He has made some moves, but we think that there is further to go to ensure that there is proper accountability. Again, we will propose reforms in Committee.
It is on the issue of crisis management and the processes for deliberation and decision making within the new, more complex structure, that we have misgivings. The Joint Committee was right to state:
“The powers and responsibilities of the Bank of England and the Treasury during a crisis are key.”
However, the Bill and the memorandum of understanding are deeply confused and opaque, as we have just heard from the Chancellor. We welcome the fact that the Chancellor has accepted the Treasury Committee’s recommendation that the Chancellor should be provided with a discretionary power to direct the Bank when there is a material risk to public funds. The British Bankers Association also welcomed that in its submission, but stated that it was
“unclear that the assignment of powers now proposed is consistent with the strategic division of responsibilities envisaged by the Government, including the proposed power of direction over the Bank.”
Article 20 of the memorandum of understanding exposes the hole. I will quote it in full:
“During a potentially fast-moving crisis, it will become especially important to ensure close and effective coordination so as to maintain coherence in the overall crisis management process. At the heart of institutional coordination during a live crisis will be frequent contact between the Chancellor and the Governor. However, the Chancellor and the Governor may agree to establish ad hoc or standing committees at other levels to support this process.”
Under the Bill, there will be three deputy governors at the Bank, a new Financial Policy Committee, two new sub-agencies at the Bank—the PRA and the FCA—and a new quartet of relationships, in which there are separate statutory responsibilities for the Treasury, the FPC, the PRA and the FCA, as well as for the MPC. Will the Chancellor hear any of the views in a crisis, or pre-crisis, from the statutory office holders? Only, according to the MOU, if the Chancellor and the Governor decide that he should. It states that there will be frequent contact just between the Chancellor and the Governor. It is inevitable that there will be a variety of views and dissenting voices, not only at senior levels within the Bank, but between the different statutory agencies, because those agencies have overlapping and, in certain types of crisis, contradictory objectives. Those different statutory responsibilities are being put under one umbrella organisation—the Bank of England.
In a second. I will make the argument and the hon. Gentleman can then ask a question.
Senior and responsible figures who hold statutory offices will get to put their views to the Chancellor only if they are on one of the ad hoc or standing committees, which do not yet exist. It seems as though the Governor will decide whether they should exist at all and who should attend them. My advice to the Chancellor is that one cannot just rely on Treasury officials or gossip by the water pump. Unlike many of the Back Benchers who have intervened, I am not seeking to play a party political game; I want him to change the Bill. [Laughter.] Honestly. This is a deeply confused and highly dangerous ambiguity.
I will give way in a minute. Let me just make the argument, and then the hon. Gentleman, with all his experience of crisis resolution meetings at the Bank, can share his intervention with us.
In the run-up to a crisis or during a crisis itself, having such a high degree of ambiguity in the structure and placing such a concentration of power and access to the Chancellor in the person of the Governor would be highly unstable. If the deputy governor and head of the PRA—a statutory individual, but not the Governor—the head of the FCA or the majority on the FPC believed that there would be a systemic risk from one troubled company without support from public money, the Chancellor must know about it, and in time so must Parliament. They must know about it whether or not the Governor agreed. Whether or not the Governor believed that there was or might be a risk, and whether or not he believed that the moral hazard outweighed the risk, the Chancellor must know about it.
If the Chancellor wants a personalised, twin-peak system with all the responsibilities and accountabilities of the Bank of England located in just one person, the Governor, as is set out in the memorandum of understanding that he has negotiated with the Bank and as it seemed he did at times during his speech, the Bill is flawed. The new system will be unstable and the taxpayer will potentially be more exposed. All the statutory architecture of the FPC, the PRA and the FCA will be for the birds.
If, instead, the new committees and agencies are to have a separate statutory identity with clear and separate purposes that may sometimes conflict, and with leaders who must be properly heard, that must be clarified in the Bill. That was what the Chancellor seemed to suggest at other times in his speech, and the Bill seems to suggest it in places. It must be clarified not just in the memorandum of understanding but in statute.
The Bill sets out clearly the statutory identities of the FCA, the PRA and the FPC, which seems to suggest that the Chancellor intends to move from the tripartite system to a quartet system under the umbrella of the Bank of England—the Treasury, the FPC, the PRA and the FCA. If so, he should say so clearly in the memorandum of understanding and in legislation, for reasons of accountability, financial stability and effective decision making in a crisis. We will table amendments to that effect in Committee.
It is not, by far.
The accusation that the right hon. Gentleman makes undermines his point that the Bill sets out a quadripartite system. It sets out a bipartite system, involving the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor. The fact that it will be delivered through the person of the Governor, who has to manage his own institution with appropriate accountability to court, means that it is a binary system rather than a tripartite one. It will therefore be better at resolving crises at the rushed times when they occur.
I made it very clear that I was not defending any particular regulatory structure. I do not think the crisis was caused by institutional structures in particular, because other countries with different structures had a crisis as well. We will seek to support the Government in reforming and strengthening the system of financial regulation, including through the addition of the FPC and the new powers of the PRA and FCA. However, all those individual agencies are being given statutory authority in the Bill.
The Bill cannot be setting out a binary or twin-peak system, because there will be the Treasury and the Governor of the Bank of England, then underneath him there will be a deputy governor who is also the head of the PRA, another who is also on the Financial Stability Committee, the head of the FSA—also a statutory office holder—and another deputy governor on the Monetary Policy Committee. The Bill is designed to bring in not a twin-peak system but a quartet system, which will be more complex than a tripartite one.
There may be very good arguments for having a quartet system and for splitting the FSA into the PRA and the FCA, and I support the FPC, but the system will be more complex, not simpler. The Chancellor is trying to fudge the matter by giving the impression in the memorandum of understanding that it will be not a quartet system but a twin-peak system, because things will be sorted out between him and the Governor.
That is not an ad hominem point. Other Chancellors and Ministers from Governments through the ages have known very well that there is an inevitable conflict in financial regulation between the regulator, examining systemic risks from individual firms, and the guardians of the system, who worry about potential systemic risks on the one hand and moral hazard on the other. The Chancellor’s role is as the guardian of the public purse and wider financial stability, so there are different points of view.
My advice to the Chancellor is that to try to subsume all those points of view into a separate institution away from him, without transparency and with multiple and overlapping roles for different statutory office holders, but then say, “I’m only going to deal with the Governor,” is ahistorical, deeply foolish and flawed. If the Chancellor changes and clarifies the Bill, we will be pleased, but at the moment it is a terrible fudge.
I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s criticism of our proposals, but what is his response to what my predecessor says? He has written:
“The whole system depended on the chairman of the FSA, the Governor of the Bank and the Chancellor seeing things in exactly the same way. The problem was that, in September 2007, we simply did not see things in the same way.”
My predecessor, who went through the banking crisis, says that he was dealing with a system in which differences of opinion were not accommodated. The system could not adapt to them, and there was no power of override. What is the shadow Chancellor’s response to my predecessor’s criticism?
My response to the current Chancellor, who has not yet dealt with such a crisis, is “Welcome to the real world.” In reality, there will be times, as there have been, when the regulator, and potentially the deputy governor for systemic stability, will say, “We are really worried about the potential read-across from this particular large institution to the financial system more widely.” However, the Governor will say that for reasons of moral hazard and the desire not to set false precedent, he does not believe funds should be provided.
As the Chancellor has said, it is really hard when there is a disagreement between the regulator and the prudential systemic overseer or the Governor. The Chancellor has elected to take the power to make the decision in those circumstances. I agree with that strengthening of his powers, but—
The Chancellor does not listen. He wants to play this game so much that he does not hear. I agree with the increase in his powers. He is right to take them, but he cannot use them unless the Governor comes to him and says, “I fear a crisis may be building,” having made a judgment about moral hazard outwith the views of the heads of the PRA, the FCA and the FPC.
In the structure set out in the Bill, the statutory office holders will be formally kept out of the room under the Chancellor’s own memorandum of understanding, which is foolish. I understand why it has happened—it will be easier to negotiate. In all the years when previous Chancellors wanted clarity, it was hard to negotiate. However, negotiating the wrong clarity in a way that keeps information away from the Chancellor is not stabilising and in the public interest but destabilising, opaque and against the public interest. The Chancellor should take some advice from people who have seen that not working and ensure that he hears the views of the people to whom he is giving statutory responsibility in the Bill. That is my very strong advice, and I hope he will listen to it.
The shadow Chancellor is telling us something illuminating—that if a Chancellor does not want to listen, no system will have any impact at all. Under the last Government, siren voices started in 2002, and the then Chancellor refused to listen. We had a systemic deficit problem, and again he did not want to listen. The shadow Chancellor has been through all this, so would he advise the current Chancellor to listen more than the last Chancellor did during the crisis?
My very clear advice to the Chancellor is that when he gives people a clear statutory responsibility for a particular function and legislates for three deputy governors who are the heads of individual agencies, he should also design his crisis resolution and decision-making procedures so that his experts are in the room and he can hear the array of their views. The idea that it is better for the Chancellor to require the Bank to resolve such issues internally and come to him with one voice—one Governor, one decision maker—is a flawed structure of regulation. The point, however, is that that is not what the Bill intends. It intends for the FCA and PRA to be important institutions, in which case the Chancellor should get them in the room.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but to be honest I do not have strong views on that. The reality is that there was not cross-party support or support more widely in civic society for Bank of England independence when we established it. The Conservatives voted against it. In those circumstances, it would have been difficult for the then Government to pass legislation for one eight-year term—there would have been a lot of opposition to the idea of giving one unelected individual such power for an eight-year term. This Bill moves us not only from a four-year to an eight-year term, but gives one individual massively more power than they ever had. That is what concerns me.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does not his argument—that we cannot have an umbrella regulator under which inevitable tensions are resolved, and that we must instead have separate organisations—show exactly the thinking that led to the problems in the tripartite system, under which responsibilities were segregated and separated and problems fell between stools? The FSA and the Bank were told that one was to look at the regulation of individual banks and the other at the macro-economy, and never the twain shall meet. That is precisely the problem that needs to be addressed.
The Chancellor referred to his years of thinking about this legislation. I am afraid that his former adviser demonstrates the kind of muddled thinking that has got the Chancellor into this difficulty.
I am not saying that the tripartite system is the best one. I am quite happy to go along with the shift to the quartet system—I can see the advantages of the FPC and the split of the FCA and the PRA. I am not worried because individual statutory agencies will be under the umbrella of the Bank of England; I am worried because the deputy governor and head of the PRA, who has a clear responsibility, is not part of the decision-making process. That is what I am worried about. I want the MOU to say that at the heart of the system—in pre-crisis and crisis—there will be a “clear view” group, in which the Governor and his key deputies, who will have separate and sometimes contradictory statutory responsibilities, come together with the Chancellor to make the decision.
Even if the Chancellor—this is not an ad hominem point—has the umbrella of the Bank of England and the quartet system, he should want to hear from the person whom he appoints on a very large salary and in law to be the head of the PRA. What I do not understand is why that would not be written into the MOU. Actually, I sort of do understand. There is a history in the Bank of England of the Bank equalling the Governor of the Bank—of wanting to personalise the appointment—as the Chancellor has described. However, we cannot personalise something as complex as the proposed system. It is not just that the system is complicated; there are also tensions and differences of view.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) is quite right that it is hard to operate a tripartite system in which there are different views, but those differences will not be avoided by burying them under the table and pretending they do not exist. Had that happened at key moments in the previous crisis, the wrong decisions would have been taken.
I thank the shadow Chancellor for giving way once more. The Chancellor’s plan is for the financial and prudential regulation buck always to stop with the Bank of England. The shadow Chancellor has concerns about moral hazard on the part of the Governor, which suggests that he is not as strong a fan of the independence of the Bank as he has previously made out. Should we not trust a Governor of the Bank of England to work effectively with the Chancellor?
The hon. Gentleman does not understand that the buck does not stop with the Governor of the Bank of England, but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, in the end, is the guarantor of the public purse and taxpayers’ money, and of the wider stability of the system.
If the Governor comes to the Chancellor and says, “In my view, and based on the views of my deputies, our collective view is to intervene,” the Chancellor has the power to do so. Rightly, the Chancellor has given himself the power in the Bill to override the Governor if the latter says we should not act. The concerning situation, which I am trying to explain—the hon. Gentleman does not quite get it—is that there will be different views within the overarching Bank of England, because it will be huge, with different, overlapping and sometimes contradictory statutory responsibilities for systemic stability, prudential regulation of individual firms and managing risks to consumers, let alone monetary policies.
In those circumstances, my strong advice to the Chancellor, with whom the buck stops, is that he should not allow the decision to be made in the Bank of England. He should not allow the Governor to say, “I know you want to act and that you want to us to act. Thanks very much, but I’m the Governor, and I don’t think we should.” We should not allow the Governor to tell the Chancellor, “The Bank does not propose action.” I would not put myself in that position.
The idea that such a situation is okay because the Chancellor will have heard before the meeting—from Treasury officials or on the grapevine—what those other office holders want is unbelievably naive. We are talking about the Bank of England’s legislative responsibilities and the statutory power of the office holder. In that key meeting of only the Chancellor and the Governor, the Chancellor cannot say, “I’m sorry, Governor, but other people take a different view from you.” That is not how it works.
Shall I move on, Madam Deputy Speaker? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] That is a very important argument to which we will return in Committee.
On Europe, that problem of complexity is mentioned in the Treasury Committee report, which states that there is
“a risk that the single UK regulatory voice in some cases is weakened by the fact that two or more organisations will share the representational role in the various international regulatory committees.”
The Chancellor has proposed a new committee, which is welcome, but I urge him to look harder at that arrangement. The Opposition will table amendments on that in Committee.
Let me move on quickly, because it is important to get other things on the record on Second Reading. As I have said, on consumers, the Opposition welcome the recognition of the need for a single regulator for all retail financial services, but we will highlight a number of concerns in Committee. In particular, we want to ensure that the FCA has the powers it needs to require providers of financial services to understand its fiduciary duties.
On disciplinary action, the Joint Committee has recommended a requirement to consult before disclosing the fact that a warning notice has been issued. We think the Government are wrong to reject that recommendation. That transparency should be in the Bill.
The Joint Committee has also recommended that the FCA should be given concurrent powers alongside the Office of Fair Trading to make market investigation references to the Competition Commission. We do not understand why the Treasury has rejected that.
We are also disappointed that the Government have not used the Bill to bring forward the Vickers recommendation for a review of progress on competition. We propose having one in 2013, rather than in 2015, as Vickers proposed, not least because the Lloyds divestiture has so far not produced the strong, effective challenger that we sought.
The Chancellor says that he is in favour of financial education in schools and the Prime Minister says he is reviewing it, but they vetoed that proposal when a Bill was before the House. There is cross-party support on financial education. The all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people is the largest such group and will propose an amendment for statutory financial education in schools for all young people.
The Opposition are worried that the Government are allowing the banks to go backwards on financial exclusion, with charges for basic bank accounts being increased in the case of Barclays, and with new charges on basic bank account holders using automated teller machines in RBS and Lloyds. We want to strengthen the obligation on the banks to produce a universal service for all retail banks. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) will no doubt push us to ensure that the Government agree to our amendments to give new powers to the FCA to restrain the ability of firms to charge ultra-high interest rates for prolonged periods.
On growth and employment, the CBI was right to say in its submission that
“the Bill should ensure that the new regulatory authorities have a specific objective to focus on—and support—economic growth.”
As it points out, the macro-economic tools used by the FPC could by their nature have a significant impact. The CBI says that the FPC should be required in statute to act
“in a way that is consistent with promoting the medium and long-term growth of the economy”.
The Joint Committee also proposed a strengthening of the growth obligation for the FPC, and we will propose amendments to that effect. I hope that the Government will look at this issue again, because it is important, not least for the supply of credit to small and growing businesses. Even the British Bankers Association says:
“We would suggest that the legislation underpinning the FPC should specify that its objective is to maintain a sustainable supply of credit to the economy”.
Bank of England figures show a £10 billion fall in lending to small businesses, and in November the Chancellor said that his new credit easing scheme would relieve constraints in the supply of bank lending in the short term. The short term is becoming the long term, because there is still no sign of that credit easing scheme. No wonder, with small business lending down and bonuses high, the Merlin deal is looking rather tawdry. At least the Chancellor has recognised that executive pay needs to be covered in the Bill, but as the Institute of Chartered Accountants said in its briefing,
“at the moment the Bill is drafted too broadly to be effective in encouraging proportional executive pay.”
We will look at amendments in Committee and tomorrow the House will have the chance to debate the Opposition’s call for a repeat of the bank bonus tax to provide 100,000 jobs for young people.
This is a badly drafted Bill. On stability, there are gaping holes in decision making and accountability. On protecting taxpayers, there are flaws in the advice the Chancellor will receive. For consumers, there are flaws in the powers for referral to the Competition Commission and a worrying lack of action on financial education and exclusion. On growth and employment, there is a gaping gap that must be filled. We will not oppose Second Reading, but we want big changes in Committee. Otherwise, to protect stability, taxpayers, consumers, growth and jobs, we will have to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.
It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Chancellor, who began by promising us—somewhat uncharacteristically—a speech that would not be partisan or adversarial. I am sure that the House would have been as disappointed as much as surprised had he fulfilled that promise. I shall endeavour to do so for him because, as Chairman of the Joint Committee scrutinising the Bill, I had to adopt a more consensual approach than is sometimes my wont.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for responding so positively to the Joint Committee’s report and taking on board the substance and spirit of most of our recommendations. I hope that we have helped to make the Bill better. This was my first experience of the Joint Committee procedure, and I found it extremely productive, not least because the members, Chairman apart, were all of an immensely high calibre, brought great experience and approached their task in a thoroughly constructive way. However, it is salutary to remind ourselves that the first ever Joint Committee was set up to scrutinise the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which this Bill effectively replaces.
My Committee was conscious that, despite the eminence of our predecessor Committee, it did not diagnose the problems that subsequently ensued—above all the lack of focus on banking supervision and systemic stability. I hope history will not show us to have missed the elephant in the room.
The Bill is essentially about changing the structure of regulation from the tripartite system to a twin-peaks model in the light of the recent banking crisis. However, the Committee was struck by the weight of evidence for two things. First, no system of regulation can guarantee that there will never be another banking crisis. Consequently, it is essential to have a process in place to resolve the situation if banks get into problems. I urge the new FCA to make it a priority to see that major banks draw up their living wills as soon as possible. It is also essential to know who is in charge if a serious crisis erupts. We heard from the previous Chancellor that during the last crisis there were serious differences between the Treasury and the Bank of England and no easy way to resolve them. We recommended that, once the Bank has identified that a problem could lead to a call on public funds, the power to exercise responsibility should lie with the Chancellor, even though he may continue to leave that power in the hands of the Governor. I am pleased that the essence of that recommendation has been adopted.
The second point made by many witnesses was that regulatory structure is less important than the culture, focus and philosophy of the regulator, as the shadow Chancellor reminded us. That culture will depend crucially on the leadership, staffing and training of the new regulatory bodies, which are beyond the scope of this Bill. The only way in which legislation can influence the culture and focus is by setting clear objectives, powers and responsibilities, and systems of accountability for each of the new bodies. We made a number of detailed recommendations to clarify those and I am glad that most have been taken on board.
The House will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to go through all 70 recommendations item by item, but the biggest change of culture is from what has been described as box-ticking regulation to discretionary or forward-looking supervision. The Government advocated that change before the Joint Committee was established, but we found it hard to see where in the Bill the approach was given legal backing, especially for the Prudential Regulation Authority. I hope that the Chancellor is confident that regulators will be fully empowered under the legislation to behave in that way.
As our work progressed, the Committee became increasingly aware that, however well drafted, the Bill will have a decreasing impact on how the British financial system operates, as regulations are increasingly being set at a European level. A veritable tsunami of EU regulation is about to wash over the City, so it is vital that the UK exercises the maximum influence on decision making in Brussels. However, the architecture of the regulatory structure being created in Brussels is different from that in the UK. It’s is based on sectors and ours will be based on prudential and financial conduct. There is a danger that our lobbying input to the EU regulators will be fragmented, divided and weakened as a result. We therefore proposed the establishment of a high level committee, chaired by the Treasury and reporting to the Chancellor, to co-ordinate the UK lobbying effort in Europe of all the bodies created by the Bill, and in international forums such as Basel. I am glad that that recommendation has been adopted in the memorandum of understanding between the various bodies, but it is obviously also important closely to consult financial firms—both British and foreign—that do business in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK, whose lobbying power also needs to be deployed in Brussels.
I should mention that while I was in Brussels last week on other business I had the opportunity to meet Monsieur Barnier, the commissioner responsible for most of the proposed financial services legislation. I am grateful to him for seeing me. When I told him that many of us on the Committee had been surprised to learn about this tsunami of financial services legislation descending upon us, he rightly said that we should not have been. The measures were in the public domain and followed from the decisions of the College of Commissioners and the Council of Ministers. He is correct. Mea culpa—or nostra culpa: the fault is ours in this House if we pay too little attention to what is brewing across the channel until it is too late. The European Scrutiny Committee does sterling work, but I wonder whether our procedures need to integrate its work more closely into our process of scrutiny on the Floor of the House, bringing Ministers here to explain our negotiating position at an early stage.
As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not agree that it would be strengthened if the European Standing Committees had permanent instead of ad hoc membership which means that the work is not taken so seriously?
That is probably a good point, and I hope that the relevant powers will listen to it.
When Monsieur Barnier came to London a few weeks ago, he defended his legislative programme as necessary to creating a single market. If it would create a single market, most Members on both sides of the House would wholeheartedly support it—I certainly would—but I cannot see how any of the measures will open up a single new opportunity for financial companies to trade outside their own national markets across the single market beyond what is already open to them. Most if not all of the directives are about centralising regulatory powers over the financial sector in Brussels rather than in nation states.
Monsieur Barnier did not dispute that, but he argued that the financial crisis had been caused by lack of regulation of “British and American banks”, so it was essential to impose regulation at an EU level. I gently reminded him that the credit crunch had been sparked when a French bank, BNP Paribas, announced it could no longer put a value on its property funds, that it subsequently emerged that continental banks had far higher levels of gearing than Anglo-Saxon banks, and that the current euro crisis is, at its heart, a banking crisis, as continental banks are so under-capitalised that they cannot absorb the losses on their holdings of sovereign debt and their Governments cannot afford to recapitalise them openly and immediately, as British and American Governments did.
Monsieur Barnier also argued that a single market requires a single rule book. However, that was promptly negated by his promise that that does not mean a one-size-fits-all regime and that
“we also need to allow considerable flexibility for national supervisors”.
Either there are separate national rule books, or there is a single EU-wide rule book. We cannot have or pretend to have both—or rather we can, and in a sense we do. Under the second banking directive, any bank or similar financial firm can operate anywhere in the EU under the supervision of its home authority, so any individual bank can operate under a single rule book throughout Europe. Of course, that rule book must obviously meet minimum requirements agreed at EU level. I believe that that is the model that we should retain and encourage across Europe within the single market.
That brings me to the issue of the draft fourth capital requirements directive, which will implement the Basel III agreement. The Committee discussed it at length with Mr Enria, chairman of the European Banking Authority, who strongly defended the EU’s decision to set not only a minimum level of reserve that each country must require its banks to hold, but a maximum level that banks can be required to hold. We subsequently wrote asking for clarification of his reasons for setting a maximum, but found his arguments unconvincing. His claim that our setting a higher rate would somehow siphon off funds from other countries, or that it would be unfair if we made our banks safer than those of other countries, were not entirely convincing.
In the light of the Committee’s experience, my interview with Monsieur Barnier and the evidence from Mr Enria, I believe strongly that the Prime Minister was right to seek to reintroduce what Monsieur Barnier called a dose of unanimity in decision making on financial markets. I hope that the Prime Minister will continue to press that with the support of both sides of the House.
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie), I represented the parliamentary Labour party in the Commons on the Joint Committee of both Houses that gave the Bill pre-legislative scrutiny. It was a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), whom I thank for his fair-minded chairmanship. I also thank the impressive array of witnesses who gave up their time—in some cases very valuable time—to help the Committee in its deliberations.
I echo the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden in commending the Joint Committee’s report to the House. The Bill essentially addresses itself to the structure and powers of the financial services regulator. It does so at a time when the whole world is facing up to a debt and liquidity crisis and when the financial services sector is viewed by the public with even more distrust than is normally reserved for politicians and journalists.
I do not want to spend much of my remaining eight minutes dealing with the point on which the Chancellor focused. He certainly decided not to waste a good crisis. He focused on the structural questions involved. I do not think that it is primarily a structural question, and that view was shared by the Committee. Structures and architecture are not the root cause of the problem. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said, other countries with different regulatory structures faced similar problems. It is not a structural question alone; it is also about the power, scope and information available to the regulator.
It is also—dare I say it—about the behaviour of the regulated. Effective regulation flows from getting the culture, focus and philosophy of the regulator right, as we concluded in the pre-legislative scrutiny report. We as a House should be far less tolerant of the evasive and litigious behaviour of some of the regulated. We should expect the regulator to take an interest in gathering market intelligence and anticipating emerging problems. The focus on that is one of the strengths of the proposed new architecture. It will involve co-operating closely with the regulatory authorities in other jurisdictions, particularly the United States.
If we believe that it is necessary in the broader public interest to regulate the financial services sector trans-nationally, why are we so acquiescent in the existence of a flourishing shadow banking marketplace? What defensible public purpose does that marketplace serve? What is the justification for the almost impenetrable complexity of its transaction structures? Surely the only two possible reasons for it are to avoid transparency and therefore evade the regulator or, somewhere in the details of the complex structures, to turn a small additional margin of profit on very large sums of money at the expense of the unwary. I ask again: why is that in the broader interests of society?
The Committee went to some trouble to establish the balance of power between the proposed new European regulatory architecture emerging from the Basel III process and the new United Kingdom structures. The question is important, and I am pleased that the Chairman of our Committee referred to it. The Commission’s intention is that the European Union’s regulatory regime will be mandatory for all European member states, including us, and will be asserted centrally, not legislated for by national legislation.
The Prime Minister has assured the House that it is the Government’s intention that the European Union regulatory regime should apply to the United Kingdom. The European Union regime will act as a constraining factor on UK regulators, a point that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made in his speech and that I hope the Minister will address when he winds up the debate.
As I argued earlier, the forward-looking, judgment-based regulatory regime must be well informed if it is to function adequately. I thought that the Governor of the Bank of England was clear on that point when he argued that the Financial Policy Committee should have the power to request information from regulated firms and determine the time frame in which that information should be sent. The Chancellor, in his address to us, seemed to support the regulator having that power. If that is his view, it is mine as well, but to the Committee, the Government seemed to be arguing for a more tortuous process that would require Treasury consent and even parliamentary approval. That does not capture the sense of urgency and the need for firmness. We should back the regulator.
While I am on the subject of timely intervention, the Bill is said to be admirably clear on who is in charge during a crisis. The Chancellor made much play of that in his address to the House. The trigger will be the potential need to call on public funds. It is essential, though, that the Chancellor be alerted, at the earliest possible moment, to an emerging situation of that kind. If there is any doubt about that, the Chancellor should get the benefit of the doubt. If he is told only at the last minute, the Chancellor will not be left with a wide range of choices, and none of them will be particularly palatable.
The effectiveness of judgment-led regulation will rest on the quality of the individuals working for the regulator. The Governor argued for a dedicated team of public servants working in a public-service culture who are able to look to a dedicated career in regulation. I believe in public service and share the Governor’s point of view. Such a career should be well-paid and the public servants should be beyond corruption and intimidation. They should be protected by transparency, powerful criminal sanctions and a new parliamentary committee acting as Parliament’s interface with the Governor and his deputies as regulators.
The regulatory system should focus on the protection of consumers and the taxpayer.
Everything that my right hon. Friend is saying suggests that we are re-empowering Parliament when it comes to how our economy is run, which is the opposite direction from the one in which we have been moving in recent years. Is that not welcome, and does it not strengthen our democracy?
We need to go further. How Parliament interacts with the Governor in his new role as regulator has not been properly addressed in the Bill, but we need to think about that carefully. Although finding fault with every other structural problem with financial services, the Government propose no change to the arrangements for the accountability of the regulator to Parliament. Accountability, therefore, is through Ministers, primarily Treasury Ministers, or through the work of Select Committees, primarily the Treasury Committee, which is one of the hardest-working Select Committees in the House of Commons. We should consider whether that is adequate. As the new arrangements come into effect and settle down, alongside the recommendations from the Independent Commission on Banking, surely there is a need for an authoritative forum in which emerging issues can be examined, ideas explored and recommendations made. Public discussion and transparency are important safeguards.
The other place, too, has a legitimate role in these arrangements. Acting as a check and balance on elected representatives, and public life more generally, is what the other place, as currently constituted, does well. In any event, we should consider very carefully whether we are satisfied with the present arrangements alone. Perhaps this is a suitable subject for a separate debate.
Private sector financial services in the United Kingdom are underpinned by the public sector in a number of important ways. The most significant are the £85,000 deposit compensation limit guarantee; even more importantly, the Bank of England’s role as lender of last resort; and the need to intervene when private sector misjudgments threaten a collapse of the banking system. We, as the people’s representatives, should take an interest in this democratic deficit.
There is a third point to consider. Each of us is elected to represent our fellow citizens. There is nothing more frustrating and upsetting for a constituency MP than to know that individual constituents are faced with an injustice and that there is no effective remedy. Such situations occur far too frequently in the financial services sector. One thinks of the present Arch Cru scandal as the latest of a depressingly large number of similar scams.
I welcome the fact that the Bill gives the FCA powers to intervene in the case of individual products and their promotion. The Bill allows consumer bodies to make super-complaints to the FCA and facilitates a reform of consumer credit with a view to better protecting consumers. That is welcome too. It is important to ensure, however, that the FCA’s strategic objective is clearly stated. I was taken by the suggestion from Which? of
“ensuring a fair and transparent market in financial services”,
which is reflected in the Joint Committee’s recommendation that the FCA’s strategic objective
“should be amended to focus on promoting fair, transparent and efficient financial services markets that work well for users.”
That is more specific than the Bill, as drafted, which refers to
“ensuring that the relevant markets function well.”
The phrase is too general—how else would one want markets to function? There are still concerns that section 348 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 is too restrictive and discourages the publication of information. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that, because I know that the Government propose to address the matter in Committee.
We are expecting a lot of the new structure and are placing yet more responsibility on the shoulders of the Governor of the Bank of England. The new role has been described as similar to that of a sun-king presiding over an empire. There is clearly a democratic deficit in the new structure that ought to be addressed—
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), most of whose comments I endorse. The regulators failed to see the crisis coming and were asleep at the wheel, so it is entirely right that the Bill abolishes the Financial Services Authority. In so doing, however, it gives new extensive powers to the Bank of England, and that poses a problem: will the newly created bodies—the Financial Policy Committee and the Prudential Regulation Authority—be as accountable as possible? In that respect, the right hon. Gentleman was right to touch on the democratic deficit.
I had the privilege of sitting under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) on the Joint Committee, and I also sit on the Treasury Committee. Those two bodies have one thing in common: in respect of the Bill, both are concerned more than anything with the accountability of the Bank in its new form and with its new powers.
I want to raise three points that the Government have not yet taken on board—they have taken on board some good points raised by the two Committees, but some are outstanding. First, to whom exactly will the PRA and the FPC be accountable? Let us remember how important and powerful these two bodies will be. The FPC will have an overarching responsibility to maintain financial stability, and it will be chaired by the Governor of the Bank of England. The PRA, also chaired by the Governor, will have macro-prudential responsibility for supervising significant financial institutions, particularly the banks. They will also have all sorts of macro-prudential tools, the details of which are yet to be designed—but they will include things such as loan-to-value ratios for mortgage lending, leverage ratios and so on. Those are hugely important tools that will affect the livelihoods and household finances of all our constituents.
We are vesting that great power in two bodies, both of which will be sub-committees of the court of the Bank of England. The Treasury Committee was concerned about that and suggested that the court was not fit for purpose when it came to scrutinising the work of the FPC and the decisions of the FPC and the PRA, and it suggested abolishing the court and replacing it with a supervisory board with a greater spread of technical expertise on monetary and fiscal policy. At the moment, the court—I do not wish to be rude or impolite—is a rag-bag of industrialists, trade unionists and consumer champions, most of whom, frankly, do not have the skill, expertise or background knowledge to judge whether the FPC and the PRA are making sensible decisions. That is why we need a supervisory board to replace the court.
As the Chancellor said in his opening speech, there will be a new oversight committee for the FPC and the PRA. However, that does not meet the concerns of the Treasury Committee, for one simple and stark reason. The terms of the oversight committee to which the Chancellor referred make it quite clear that it cannot pass judgment on, or conduct ex-post reviews of, the decisions that the FPC and PRA have made. All that the members of the oversight committee can do under the Bill is see that the FPC and PRA arrived at their decisions in a proper fashion. They cannot make a judgment on their merits. That point was returned to again and again in the evidence taken by the Joint Committee on the Bill and the Treasury Committee, and the Bill does not answer it.
The second point that I wish to raise is about the role of the premier Committee in Parliament, the Treasury Committee, which is charged on behalf of Parliament with scrutinising the new bodies, the FPC and the PRA. The Treasury Committee has made it quite clear that there should be a statutory responsibility for either the court, if it remains, or, as we would prefer, a new supervisory board, to respond to any request for information made by the Treasury Committee, on behalf of Parliament. The Bank’s record on responding to requests from the Treasury Committee is not bad, but it is not perfect. I adduce as evidence for my proposition the fact that at the end of last year the Governor—quite wrongly in our view—did not think it appropriate to produce the minutes of the court of the Bank of England for the Treasury Committee, to show us what it was saying and doing at the time of the RBS meltdown.
My third and final point relates to the composition of that terribly important body, the Financial Policy Committee. The Treasury Committee strongly recommended—and still recommends—that a better balance must be found between the internal and external members of the nine-person Financial Policy Committee. My Committee proposed that the ratio of internal to external members should change from 5:4, which is what the Bill says it should remain, to 4:5—in other words, that a majority on the Financial Policy Committee should be external members. Why? For one simple reason. One of the besetting sins of the regulatory regime and the regulators who worked in it up to and during the crisis was that they were subject to group-think. They were all reinforcing each other’s prejudices and established views. It was disastrous for UK regulatory management. My Committee believes that one way of countering that propensity towards group-think is to have externals who are not full-time executive members of the Bank of England, such as we have at the moment. Of the six professionals—so to speak—all of them except the chairman of the FCA are Bank of England officials. Many of us think that that is simply not a sustainable proposition.
The Government have made concessions and done some thinking since the first publication of the Bill, as well as listening to the two Committees, which have made some powerful suggestions about the better accountability that the two powerful new bodies in the Bank of England must demonstrate to Parliament and the British people. Progress has been made, but there are three issues, which I have highlighted, that are still on the table. The Government have not taken them up, and the Treasury Committee insists that they need to be recognised in the new regime and new settlement. It is in that spirit that I make those points—speaking, I might add, for my Treasury Committee colleagues who are in the far east on an important fact-finding mission and who would make these points if they were here. Those points need addressing, and I am sure that in the Public Bill Committee they will be, but it is important that the record should show that the Treasury Committee is still not satisfied.
May I first align myself with the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) made about the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Bill, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley)? The fact that I was still on the Committee at the end of its sittings shows that he was indeed tolerant and patient. I would like also to put on record my admiration for, and thanks to, the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, who is in China at the moment. We have had an arduous 18 months on the Committee going through the regulations. The fact that there are three members of the Committee here today is nothing to do with our being unable to get on the plane to China; it is more that we are so dedicated to regulation that we chose to be here.
I want quickly to raise three matters. I welcome the Chancellor’s open-mindedness—it was not a U-turn; that was an unfair description—in accepting the point about secondary legislation being inappropriate for the macro-economic tools. I hope that he will show the same open-mindedness on the three matters that I will raise, because so far the Government have not accepted the Joint Committee’s or the Treasury Committee’s views on them.
The first issue is the objective of the Financial Policy Committee, which is to ensure the financial stability of the financial sector. One difficulty raised by many of the witnesses before the Treasury Committee and the Joint Committee was that no one can come up with a definition of “financial stability”. That clearly presents those responsible for oversight of the FPC with obvious difficulties. On what basis do they judge the committee’s activities and performance? Is the issue stability alone? As the Chancellor himself stated in evidence, we should not be seeking the “stability of the graveyard”. I think of the unfortunate individual in hospital who is seriously ill in the high-dependency unit, but whose relatives are assured that he is in a stable condition. Just as in that example, stability in economic terms does not equal a healthy economy.
Arising from that—and equally important—the relevant question for all sectors to emerge from our witnesses was: in exercising its power to seek financial stability in the financial sector, will the Financial Policy Committee ignore the effect that that might have on the other sectors, in the real economy? To be fair, the original suggestion that the Government advanced was that the Financial Policy Committee could not take decisions to achieve financial stability if it believed that those decisions risked medium to long-term economic growth. An interesting and important point is that it was originally left to the FPC to make that judgement itself, with no mechanism for the Chancellor to have his say. The negativity of that formulation led HSBC, the British Bankers Association and several other witnesses to the Joint Committee to suggest that the relevant clause be redrafted, to give the FPC a positive duty to support economic growth.
I would like to put on record what was said by Stuart Gulliver of HSBC and Bob Diamond, neither of whom would immediately be recognised as friends of mine, or otherwise. Stuart Gulliver said:
“the…Treasury should be setting out what the Government’s goals are for growth, employment and job creation and saying to the FPC, ‘Use your macro-prudential tools to ensure that you achieve the Treasury’s goals.’”
Just as interestingly, both he and Bob Diamond cited the experience of the Pacific economies that actively manage the flow of credit and even its sectoral allocation, using a variety of macro-prudential tools. The people in small businesses and medium-sized enterprises would be very interested in that. The Joint Committee agreed a recommendation that the Bill be redrafted so that, like the MPC, the FPC must have regard to the Government’s growth objectives and other economic objectives. The Government have responded to the Joint Committee’s points on other related items in this area, but have not responded in favour of the more positive and widely supported suggestion that the FPC should be given a brief to have regard to the Government’s growth and economic policies. That is a real worry, and I hope that the Government will approach it with an open mind in Committee.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument closely. Does he agree that it is imperative for the Governor of the Bank of England to return to Parliament to explain in detail the indicators that he thinks should be used in the attempt to get a handle on the definition of financial stability, and that we need a full and frank debate on what those indicators should be?
That is an important point. I think that it was Charles Goodhart who raised the question of indicators. They are certainly interesting, but on a wider scale, I think it more important to establish that, given that the Monetary Policy Committee is linked to a target of 2% inflation, the Financial Policy Committee should be linked to growth employment measures that ensure that there is no “safety low level” of stability, and be forced to have a look at the problems of the real world out there.
The hon. Gentleman’s speech seems to allude to a search for an equilibrium that never exists in the real world. Does he think that that disconnection between the reality of life as a dynamic process and the search for stability is at the heart of the inability to define financial sustainability?
I think that it is more an indication of the way in which the banks have moved away from the real world into the investment world, computer schemes, and making money by using money, rather than funding the small and medium-sized enterprises on which we depend for a rebalanced economy.
This is a very similar—Madam Deputy Speaker, I think that I have thrown away my speech. However, the second issue that I want to raise is that of accountability. I want to draw the Chancellor’s attention to the danger of giving great powers to unelected officials, which can have a significant effect. One of the witnesses drew a parallel with the responsibility given in the sphere of health to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. NICE determines the availability of drugs and treatment, and when a particular decision is made, elected politicians are under great pressure to reverse it. It does not wash with most constituents to tell them that the decision is one for the regulator. They may understand that politicians have given up the power, but they rarely accept that we do not retain the ability to alter a decision that is painful to them—and why should they?
That is very similar to what will happen when powers are given to the Bank of England and the Financial Policy Committee. The Chancellor is handing power to the Bank on matters that will inevitably extend beyond the financial sector to the real economy. One example is interpretation of the financial stability objective. The Chancellor is given the opportunity to set an annual remit for the FPC, but to ensure the Bank’s independence, the Bill accepts that the FPC may refuse to accept the Chancellor’s remit. The Joint Committee recommended that the Treasury, not the Financial Policy Committee, should have the final say on the interpretation of the remit. It did suggest, however, that the FPC should make public its objections to the annual remit, and should alert the Treasury Committee. Giving evidence to the Joint Committee, Lord Burns said:
“if there is any part of this set of proposals that concerns me, it is probably to do with the governance of the FPC in relation both to its accountability to Parliament through the Treasury and the extent to which it can be defined as ‘independent’.”
That is a stark reminder of how much is being conceded by the Chancellor. His annual remit on how the Financial Policy Committee should interpret and pursue the financial stability objective can be disregarded by the committee. To illustrate the importance of that, I cannot do better than to read out the words of the Joint Committee:
“The tools available to the FPC could allow a reversion to a level of central intervention in credit flows that has not been practised in the UK since the period of ‘Competition and Credit Control’ in the early 1970s. Such interventions would, for example, often affect mortgage availability and loans to households and companies. Given the wide range of possible interventions, and absence of any quantifiable target for financial stability corresponding to the inflation target for monetary stability, the FPC’s decisions will be more politically controversial than those of the MPC.”
Bizarrely, the Government have not accepted that when there is a difference, the FPC must accept the will of the elected Government, but have accepted that the FPC may make its defiance public. The Chancellor is not only allowing the FPC to defy him, but encouraging those unelected officials to tell the world that they have done so. That strikes me as a very strange working method.
The third issue that I wish to raise concerns a different aspect of a matter that has been discussed by those on the Front Benches. Who is in charge in a crisis? That is the question that was asked by Lord McFall at the time of the Northern Rock crisis. It shook the regulators, and it voiced the thoughts of the general public. There is a genuine wish to prevent such a situation from arising again. The accepted answer is that the Chancellor is responsible, and that therefore he should be in charge when there is a crisis. That seems sensible and straightforward to most people, but not to the territorially sensitive Bank of England. Nigel Lawson heard about the Johnson Matthey crisis, and the need for him to commit Government money, on the morning when it broke. He was understandably upset. Before the resort of using public money is accepted, the Chancellor should be made aware of the difficulties.
I shall now depart from my script, because I have only a minute left. We in the Joint Committee and in the Treasury Committee were trying to be helpful to the Chancellor. We made a recommendation, which the Chancellor accepted, that when a crisis arose or he was warned of one, he should take direct command. The memorandum of understanding—this is a different point from the one raised by the shadow Chancellor—has been nicely arranged, by the Bank, I presume, to ensure that even in those circumstances he does not have direct control. The Bank remains operationally in control, and the Chancellor can speak only about matters relating to the public funds to be used to deal with the crisis. We wanted to give him the opportunity to make a full range of decisions to avoid the use of public funds, and I hope that the Minister will consider that.
It is a pleasure to follow the eloquent contribution of the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie). He declared to the House that he had dropped his speech, but I do not think that anyone noticed. I intend, for all our sakes, to hold on to my own speech.
I want to raise three issues. First, I want to speak about the enhancement of consumer protection that the Bill provides, and I hope that my comments about that will be echoed by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). Secondly, I want to discuss the relationship between the FCA and the PRA. Thirdly, I want to develop a theme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley): the representation of British interests overseas.
Let me say in passing, however, that I share the concerns of other hon. Members about the oversight of the new macro-prudential powers which may need to be handed to the Bank of England, and which I believe could fundamentally alter vast swathes of the UK economy. It has already been mentioned that the ratio of mortgage lending may be one of the macro-prudential powers that the Bank of England wants to take on. It may be necessary to regulate an individual’s debt levels, and to regulate the debt exposure of small and medium-sized enterprises. All that needs proper parliamentary scrutiny, and I was pleased with the Chancellor’s response to my intervention on that point.
Let me begin with consumer protection. As we know, the Bill will establish a new code of conduct business regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, which aims to protect consumers, promote, competition, and ensure that there is integrity in markets. Many consumer groups, including Citizens Advice and Shelter, have welcomed the FCA’s proposed objective of promoting competition in the interests of consumers. It is welcome that the FCA will have additional tools to deal with business conduct that is causing, or is likely to cause, consumer harm, to take action on products, to promote greater regulatory transparency, to tackle misleading financial promotions and to enforce the requirement to satisfy the regulator that a business model is suitable.
My hon. Friend is quite right; that is a welcome step forward, although there are some bits that still need to be tidied up. I shall come to those later.
It is particularly welcome that the FCA will have a super-complaint power. This will allow Citizens Advice and other consumer bodies to use their evidence of widespread consumer harm to make complaints on behalf of all consumers, including those who might not know how to complain, and those who do not understand that their rights have been infringed. To make this new era of consumer protection effective, however, the Bill should require the FCA to respond quickly and effectively to super-complaints concerning widespread consumer harm, and I ask the Minister to consider what improvements could be made to the Bill in that regard when it goes into Committee.
As we know, the Bill sets out a framework for moving the regulation of consumer credit lending to the FCA. That, too, is welcome. But it is vital that not only lenders but debt collectors, brokers, debt managers and retail lenders that sell insurance products are regulated by a single, strong regulator. I believe that the responsibility for all that regulation should go to the FCA. In recent years, we have seen a succession of widespread consumer problems with financial products and services, including the mis-selling of payment protection insurance, poor lending and arrears collection practices in sub-prime mortgage markets, unacceptable debt collection practices by major credit providers, irresponsible lending of unsecured credit, and the ongoing saga of bank charges. It is clear that a change in the way in which consumer credit is regulated is necessary to protect consumers better in the future. I am looking at the hon. Member for Walthamstow as I say that.
Under the Consumer Credit Act 2006, the Office of Fair Trading has too little power or policy autonomy to respond quickly to emerging consumer harm, particularly when it concerns new products, services and business practices. That makes it easy for firms engaged in bad practices to target vulnerable consumers. It also undermines attempts by the sector to police itself, and makes the task of regulatory enforcement much harder. The level of financial penalties is also too low to act as a deterrent.
The OFT does not have the power or resources proactively to supervise regulated firms, or to identify and stop bad practice at an early stage. OFT guidance does not have the quality of rules, the breach of which could lead to a sanction, so enforcement is also slow. In respect of payday lending problems, for example, the OFT appears unable to make a specific rule limiting the number of times a loan is rolled over, or binding provisions on how a payday loan firm should ensure that it is lending responsibly, or to require a firm to deal with borrowers in financial difficulty in a specific way.
The Consumer Credit Act conduct regime is highly enforcement focused. There are few powers to pre-empt causes of consumer harm, or even to require firms to compensate consumers who have suffered harm. I think that all Members would agree that the consumer credit market needs a regulator that can regulate products and prevent consumer harm before it becomes widespread.
I strongly agree with the direction of travel that my hon. Friend is taking, but does he acknowledge that there is a slightly slanted argument on this matter, because the APR on bank overdrafts that have not been arranged is often far higher than that charged by the better known and perhaps more reputable payday loan companies?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I believe that all financial services should be underpinned by two principles: one is transparency, in that the consumer needs to know what they are getting; the other is that interest needs to be proportional to the length of time and the amount borrowed. I am sure that the record will reflect what my hon. Friend has added to the debate.
Transferring responsibility for consumer credit regulation to the FCA will also have the advantage of providing one umbrella regulator for credit, insurance, broking and debt management. It is vital that we do not allow a two-tier system to develop, with mainstream credit being regulated through the FCA and a reduced number of licensable firms being regulated under the CCA by a small successor to the OFT with lesser powers and diminishing resources. I am therefore pleased to see the direction of travel that the Government are taking on this matter.
My second point relates to the Prudential Regulatory Authority and the FCA. It seems anomalous to give the PRA a veto over the FCA. This could have the effect of putting the prudential strength of banks above consumer protection. The Bill might allow the PRA to veto the FCA taking action against a party for market abuse. If the PRA were to veto the FCA’s taking action to protect consumers, it would have to tell the Treasury that it had done so, but it could also prevent the Treasury from informing Parliament. In my view, that provision needs to be reversed.
Turning to the need for the United Kingdom to maintain effective representation abroad, it is clear that the proposed new supervisory bodies will need to co-ordinate in order effectively to represent our national interests at European and international levels, including with the new European supervisory authorities. The financial services industry, the Government and the UK regulatory authorities all have an important role to play in representing the UK in international discussions on financial regulation.
The Financial Services Authority and other UK regulatory bodies have a strong record of constructive engagement with, and influence in, European and other international bodies. Indeed, to give the House just two examples, the former head of the FSA’s international division now leads the European Securities and Markets Authority, and the Governor of the Bank of England has a leading role on the European Systemic Risk Board and on the governing committees of the Bank for International Settlements. The International Monetary Fund’s recent report on the future of regulation in the UK has also said that the effective international co-ordination of the UK’s position is important.
I therefore welcome the Government’s recent statement that they accept the case for a committee on international co-ordination, and I want to underline to the Minister the need to get that right. There will not be a perfect match between the scope of the responsibilities of the new UK bodies and those of European and other international groups, so there is a requirement for co-ordination between different UK bodies to represent the British interest effectively. The proposed measures in the Bill will oblige the new UK regulatory bodies—Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Bank of England, the PRA and the FCA—to sign a statutory memorandum of understanding and to work together.
I believe that TheCityUK was right to say that effective international co-ordination is so important to the broader UK economy, as well as to the financial sector, that a dedicated group or committee should be appointed to give sufficient priority, resources and responsibility to mobilising the UK’s European and international representation. It proposes the formation of an international co-ordination committee with specific responsibility for leading the UK’s representation on European and international committees. I commend that approach to the House.
I welcome the Bill, but I ask Ministers to look again at the balance of power between the FCA and the PRA, at the inclusion of all CCA activities within the remit of the FCA, and, above all, at the need to ensure that the United Kingdom retains a strong and coherent voice externally.
This is the third time that we on this side of the House have proposed legislative action on the high-cost credit market in the UK. As Mae West said:
“I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.”
I can tell the House that we are absolutely committed to the argument that something needs to change drastically in our consumer credit markets. This Bill offers the potential to address some of those concerns. We have had a positive debate today about some of the large-scale problems in our financial markets, but I want to set out the other picture. I shall talk about those people at the other end of our financial markets, the people who are called the “under-banked”. There is now irrefutable evidence that millions of people in this country are unable to access credit in a manner that is positive and constructive to their financial health. We should consider that one in six of us is now what are called “zombie debtors”—paying off the interest on our debts, not the capital.
A perfect storm has hit UK consumers in the last couple of years as pay freezes, rises in unemployment, rises in the cost of living and a lack of regulation of the consumer credit market has made us a fertile territory for the high-cost credit industry. It is not by coincidence that these companies have flourished in Britain in the last couple of years, as there has been a 200% increase in the numbers of people borrowing from payday loan companies and a similar increase in the amount of money they are making from British consumers in the last 18 months alone.
With a mind to what we could do to the Financial Services Bill, let me set out what the prices are and what they mean to British consumers. Many Members will be familiar with my own personal travails with a company called Wonga whose rates are 4,214% representative APR in a year. Some may be familiar with QuickQuid whose rates are 1,734% representative APR, while some may have come across the Money Shop in their constituencies, with a mere 219% representative APR. Some may be familiar with some of the newer players in the market—for example, Ferratum, a major European payday loan company, which has a mere 3,113% APR. Then there is Peachy Loans, which will lend people £100 at a time, with £15 interest every 10 days. That works out at a representative APR of 16,381% every year. This is not to mention companies like Borrow, recently advertising themselves on the radio and TV, which encourages people to borrow £10,000 a year at an APR of 68%.
Before we discuss any legislation, it is worth thinking about this industry and how it operates. It wants to paint itself as the new industry, the new form of financial credit that Britons are crying out for, that the Facebook generation wants, that is online, quick, easy and consumable. There is another side to this story, however, as many will have seen the people who are struggling because of the toxicities in this market. When we know that 30% of payday loans are taken out to pay off other payday loans, that should tell us that something is going drastically wrong that needs addressing.
Payplan, a debt charity company, says that 46% of its clients had six or more payday loans in the last year alone. This is not a short-term temporary measure; this is a way of life for millions of people in our country nowadays. More than half the people going to Payplan for debt advice owed more than £500 to these companies, and 61% had more than one at a time. Most crucially, 86% of its clients were using the loans for basics—food, transport and the basic costs of everyday living, not luxuries. This is not a market that is working for British consumers; it is not an industry that wants to lend people money and have them pay it off within a reasonable length of time. It is an industry that wants to lend to people, to keep lending to them and to keep taking money from them, drips at a time, raising the interest rate as it goes along, and adding money to the bill every single month.
The rates in themselves mean that debt is more likely. That is the challenge we have to address with our consumer credit regulations. We are talking about people who are short of cash now. They are not using it as a temporary stop-gap; they are struggling in Britain today. We need to be aware that 7 million Britons last year put their mortgages on their credit cards and 1 million people used payday loans to pay their mortgages. That is the sort of challenge we have to address. It is also the opportunity we have with the new Financial Conduct Authority.
I welcome the fact that Ministers have listened to the advice I gave them on 16 June last year when I suggested that the FCA could indeed take over this role and look at this industry. I welcome that, as I say, but I know there are issues over how the FCA should deal with the promotion of competition and over the real powers that the FCA needs to address these companies and to regulate this market. Indeed, I note that other consumer organisations such as Consumer Focus, Citizens Advice and the Financial Services Consumer Panel have written to the Minister asking for the FCA to have specific powers for product intervention. This must go beyond the point, which I recognise the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) mentioned, about the paucity of the response that the Office of Fair Trading has been able to make to these companies. I know all too well myself from when I tried to get the OFT to act on companies that did not display their APR how difficult it is to make progress. This goes beyond advertising and people knowing what the price is. It is about the fact that the prices reflected in the APRs I mentioned show that this is not a free market and that competition in itself is unable in this market to ensure that consumers are not put in detriment.
I know that many Members agree that things could be done, so let us give the FCA the power to intervene to make sure that there is competition and to use price as an indicator of competition. Let us give the FCA the real power it needs finally to address this country’s legal loan sharking. I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) that there is a challenge with unauthorised overdrafts and credit cards, so let us use the FCA finally to make good on this Government’s broken promise to tackle the exorbitant rates on credit cards and unauthorised overdraft charges and cap those prices.
Yes, I agree, and I hope that Government Members will join me in condemning those banks and credit card companies that, at the very time when millions of British consumers are struggling, are ratcheting up their interest rates, following the lack of regulation on excessive interest rates on our credit cards.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use the fact that he has shares to make representations to his bank about the consumer credit market in the UK.
The consequence of doing nothing about this industry and doing nothing about how British families are being made to struggle because of the cost of credit are far too great to see. Frankly, it is not good enough for the Chancellor and the Minister to say, “Well, we have to wait until we see the research from BIS.” We have been waiting years—yes, years—for action on this issue since it was first put to Ministers.
I have answered this question in previous debates. I do not think that we should set a single rate of APR and I do not think we should have an interest rate cap: I believe we should have a total cost cap. In the absence of the Government making progress on such a cap, however, I view the FCA as offering an opportunity to start the more effective regulation of this industry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the opportunity to have the industry and consumers setting rates and clarifying what is excessive and what counts as consumer detriment in the listing of these products represents a way forward. That is the argument of Labour Members, and we shall seek to table amendments on that basis. It is no wonder that the number of complaints about these companies and these loans is sky-rocketing in the UK.
I am sorry, but I will not, as I do not have much time left and I have already taken some interventions.
Between October and December last year, there was a 25% increase in the number of people complaining about these companies, and three quarters of those complaints were upheld by the financial services ombudsman. Demand for these products will only get stronger. Two in five people are expecting a pay freeze this year, and one in five expect to lose their job. Inflation rates might slow, but that will only slow the pace of the cost of living, especially in the capital city. Six million people are already considered financially fragile; if one more bill goes up—their mortgage, transport costs or even their food bills—they will be pushed further and further into debt. With banks not lending to these people, it is these legal loan sharks who will pick up the pieces.
We should reflect on the fact that the one industry growing in this country is these legal loan sharks. Cash Converters proudly says it is going to open another 40 new shops—at 1,413% APR; while Albemarle is opening 300 new shops, charging 853% APR. This is also a serious issue for our economy. If millions of families have thousands of pounds worth of debt that they cannot escape, it is clearly going to impact on consumer confidence. This will be the new economic crisis that will come to Britain in the years to come if we do not deal with this problem, as we have concentrations of communities with thousands of pounds of debt hanging around their necks, limiting the choices they can make for their futures and limiting the kind of lives they can lead. The failure to tackle these issues will leave millions of people with unmanageable debt, yet we have an opportunity to make progress through this Bill.
This problem is not going to go away. It is right to look at the industry and for consumers to be involved in setting the rates and determining what is consumer detriment. Let me tell the Minister that the public clearly want action on legal loan sharks. His own Back Benchers want action on them. I welcome the conversion of Government Members to this cause. I just hope that it is a conversion that will continue all the way through to voting in favour of our amendments. Even the industry wants action. It does not want the current uncertainty.
My simple question to Ministers, if they will not accept our amendments, will not send out the message and will not finally tackle legal loan sharking is this: how much worse does it have to get for the people affected in our communities? We know that 4 million people in Britain are already borrowing from these companies, and there could be as many as 10 million if we do not deal with these problems within the next year. That will be 10 million people stuck in a cycle of toxic debt that will damage them and their families for years to come.
I therefore ask the Minister to take on board the suggested amendments and to take account of the desire of Members on both sides of the House for action on legal loan sharking. Let us finally make the third time a charm.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, we moved rather swiftly on from a recent intervention and I wonder whether, for the sake of clarity and accuracy of the record, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) might like to make his final point again.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). She speaks with passion and determination about consumer credit issues.
We have heard much about consumer credit and accountability, and, indeed, about culpability for what went wrong. Those are important questions, but I want to concentrate on the substance of the Bill and its impact on financial and economic stability. We did not hear much from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson about the question of substance, but I think this Bill is one of the Government’s most important pieces of legislation so far. It is an attempt to draw the right lessons from the economic crisis, and to set out a regulatory structure that will last for years to come. I am therefore very pleased that the debate has taken place almost entirely—almost, I repeat—in a spirit of constructive criticism.
It is said that the next financial crisis occurs when the last person to witness the previous crash retires. I hope that that will be a long time from now—and I also hope that that last person may be sitting here in the Chamber today. It is important that there is a long time frame, because the Bill must be right not only when memory of the recent crash is vivid, but when the boom is booming again and once more people are saying, “This time it’s different.” Our aim must be to embed a culture of responsibility into the big balance-sheet banks, while also encouraging and supporting the broad multitude of smaller, energetic, innovating, enterprising, exporting, wealth-producing, vitality-bringing, tax-paying City firms and companies that are not underwritten by the taxpayer and that make up the vast majority of firms in the City—and that ensure that our financial services industry leads the world.
Before turning to the substance of the Bill, however, I want to deal with the two questions that have dominated the media debate: accountability and culpability. To those concerned about accountability, I add only the following few comments to the long exchanges that have already taken place. The Bill represents an important step forward. At present, the Governor of the Bank of England reigns imperial on questions of financial stability. Executive action is vested in him and him alone. By creating the Financial Policy Committee, the Bill ensures that the Governor will be the chairman of a powerful committee, but instead of his being imperial, a committee decision will carry the day.
On the question of culpability, I do not know whether the Opposition admitted that they got things wrong, but it falls to us to learn the lessons from the failures, as well as the successes, of the past. My central argument on this question is as follows. Our financial system is complex, ever-changing and interconnected. We must therefore treat it as a system and understand the human behaviour of the people in it, rather than treat it like a textbook.
First, instead of segregating the regulation of the banks from the management of the economy as a whole, as the tripartite system tried to do, we must treat them as one part of the whole system. The attempt to turn the Bank of England into a monetary authority and to leave the FSA as a micro-regulator was bound to fail because no one was in charge of the size of bank balance sheets not only in the bust—as we well know—but in the boom, too. Monetary policy works through the banking system. Banks create money and transmit interest rates to the wider economy. As finance and money are deeply intertwined, their regulation must also be intertwined. That is the first lesson to be learned from the crisis, and this Bill addresses that point.
The second lesson is not about who regulates; it is about how they regulate. The debate about whether there was too much or too little regulation is sterile and defies the facts. Instead, we should be seeking the right regulation. Between 2001 and 2008 the number of pages in the Financial Services Authority rulebook increased from 2,700 to 9,300, yet, as we know from the report into the failure of RBS, not a single FSA rule was broken at RBS. There are some vivid examples of the FSA’s box-ticking mentality. In 2006 the FSA noticed that certain financial institutions were conducting biased stress tests on their balance sheet strength. In 2004 the FSA identified Fred Goodwin’s management style as a risk for RBS, yet nothing was done. No one was held to account. The FSA also failed to regulate balance sheets or check that business models were sustainable. There were 9,000 pages of rules, therefore, but there was no view on the sustainability of the business models of banks. In fact, FSA chiefs hardly ever met senior management. The FSA had meetings with Northern Rock’s senior management eight times in the two years before the crash. Two of those interviews were conducted by phone, while five of them took place on the same day. In 2007 when Northern Rock went bust, it was on the at-risk register but the next set of meetings between its senior management and the FSA was scheduled for two years later, in 2009. The pendulum between sticking to the rulebook and allowing the authorities to exercise discretion had swung to the extreme end of using the rulebook and leaving no room for judgment.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that a key point is that flexibility is required for effective regulation of the financial services sector, and that one of the problems with the previous regulatory system was that the monolith that was the FSA simply imposed more and more rules without there being the flexibility to be able to tailor the rules to the circumstances?
That is absolutely right, and I should also pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend’s profession outside this House, because, as in the common law, every successful system of oversight that has stood the test of time allows room for both rules and judgment. The common law is an example of a system that has built up over time and that understands the complexities of human behaviour. It has strict rules in some regards, but it also allows the exercise of judgment in order to be able to adapt to modernity and circumstances. If we move entirely towards rules and away from the exercise of any judgment, we take away that ability to adapt.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point in comparing the approach under discussion to the common law. Does he agree that a key difference is that whereas in the common law anybody can look at previous judgments and know how the law will respond to their behaviour today, under this proposal to have flexible forward-looking, judgment-based regulation we cannot necessarily be sure today how the state will treat our current actions at some point in the future?
It would be better if we had an embedded and long-standing system in which there were those precedents, but as we do not have about 800 years to put it in place it is better to have a forward-looking system. If my hon. Friend has a suggestion as to how we can use precedent built up over time, given that we are starting from a system that catastrophically failed, I would be very interested to hear it.
As I said, this pendulum swung too far, but why do we need to allow the authorities to exercise discretion? It is because the world we face is as we find it, not as it is written in the rulebook. Indeed, the very complexity of the system calls for simple rules, because the more complex the rules applied to a complex system, the more likely somebody is to try to game it and, therefore, the more complex the set of rules that will need to be imposed again on the system to try to account for that behaviour. We see the same thing in respect of other areas of Government policy, not least the tax system, where complexity has led to avoidance activity, which has led in turn to complexity, and so we now have the longest tax code in the world. This attitude towards regulation and oversight makes no sense in the modern world of complexity. Complex systems need simple rules.
Complexity also adds cost to businesses not targeted initially. Worse still, the complexity leads to a moral abdication, because the rules become a substitute for personal responsibility. Just as we need to allow for the exercise of discretion by regulators, we also need, within a system that promotes responsibility, to allow for the discretion of management. That is why I have concluded that we need to ensure, especially in such a high-paying business, that the sanctions for failure and for irresponsibility are strong. It is not a good enough sanction for someone simply to lose their job in an industry where it is easy to move into another one.
In the first instance, we need to move to a system where the debarring of directors is made easier, not least because when a bank is rescued it technically does not go through the current debarring rules. The FSA is right to regulate pay and introduce claw-back, but we also need, in extremis, to introduce a measure to ensure that for recklessness at the helm of a systemically important bank there is a stronger and, if necessary, criminal sanction. I hope that such a measure would never be used but, as with other areas of life where these measures are hardly ever used, it greatly concentrates the mind to know that a deep sanction exists for reckless and deeply irresponsible negligence. I hope that such a measure would be a check on hubris and would last the test of time so that it would be in existence next time there is a boom and the associated hubris.
I hope that that change, the changes in this Bill and other changes will allow those of us who support the free market, enterprise and innovation to support, unabashedly and with enthusiasm, the wealth creators, who make our prosperity possible.
I wish to make a relatively brief contribution. I do so without the degree of expertise that has been exhibited by a number of right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken, particularly those who have served on the Joint Committee and on the Treasury Committee. I know that they have examined the detail of this Bill and have taken evidence on it over a period of time. My expertise on and knowledge of financial services has largely come about as a result of issues raised by constituents since my election to this House. That is why I wish to spend a little time discussing part 2 of the Bill, which creates the Financial Conduct Authority, which we have heard referred to as one of the successor bodies to the Financial Services Authority, and part 5, which deals with independent inquiries into investment schemes, among other things.
I come to those parts of the Bill as a result of what I suspect will become known soon enough as the latest in a long line of mis-selling episodes, to which the Chancellor and shadow Chancellor referred. My right hon. Friend reminded the House that there have been a number of these episodes over the course of 30 years and under various different regulatory regimes and set-ups. The issue that I refer to is the collapse of the Arch Cru investment vehicle in 2009 and the interests of the 20,000 individuals who have, almost certainly, been adversely affected by it. As many hon. Members will be aware, Arch Cru was established in 2006 and was sold as a vehicle to provide low-risk, cautiously managed funds that were sold through independent financial advisers and, like all investment funds in the UK, were regulated by the FSA. The authorised corporate director was Capita Financial Managers, part of the Capita group, and the two depositories of the fund were the Bank of New York Mellon and HSBC, whose activities were, again, regulated by the FSA. Many of those who invested in Arch Cru did so on the basis that it was managed cautiously, and the use of those household names gave people comfort that the regulator was overseeing those bodies and that people’s money was indeed being invested cautiously and wisely.
As many hon. Members will know, the fund was suspended in March 2009. At the time, it was worth £363 million but by March 2011 its value was estimated at £148.8 million, which means that many people have suffered losses as a result. Far from being cautiously managed, funds were invested in cells registered in Guernsey in a cavalier manner. Investments were made in off-plan property, in real estate in Dubai, and in Greek shipping and ferries. It remains highly dubious as to what level of recompense investors are likely to receive.
The collapse of a supposedly low-risk collective investment scheme such as Arch Cru has caused a high degree of anxiety. Although we accept that no regulatory system can provide absolute protection, the failures of the FSA, in many respects, in this case mean that it is important that the measures being put in place give consumers the right amount of protection. That is why I particularly welcome clauses 64 to 68, which deal with independent inquiries into regulatory failures in respect of collective investment schemes. However, clause 64(5) has the effect of meaning that events occurring before 1 December 2011 will not be subject to the power of inquiry, and Arch Cru’s collapse occurred well before that cut-off date. The Government have the power under section 14 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to institute an inquiry, and I hope that they will still make use of that power.
Clause 67 deals with the conclusion of an inquiry, noting that the person holding that inquiry must
“make a written report to the Treasury”.
The existing legislation contains a provision stating that the Treasury may publish the whole or any part of a report and, should it decide to do so, the report should be laid before Parliament. However, a similar provision appears to be missing from the Bill, so perhaps the Financial Secretary will enlighten the House on whether I have missed it or whether we will need to make an amendment in Committee to ensure that that degree of transparency is in place for such inquiries.
If we are to minimise the chances of another episode such as the Arch Cru collapse happening again, the people who invest their retirement nest eggs on the basis of being told that a fund is cautiously invested need to be adequately protected by the regulatory regime. There should be some governance over the terms used to describe investment vehicles, especially where, as in this case, the reality turns out to be very different from the description.
I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on Arch Cru. Does he share my concern that the risk category of any financial product is assessed by the Investment Managers Association and that there is no regulatory framework or matrix by which such an organisation conducts its work on assessing the risk of a product?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not wish it to appear as if we are just congratulating each other, but I want to place on the record my appreciation of all the work that he has done on Arch Cru as co-chair of the all-party group on Arch Cru. It is my pleasure to co-chair that group with him and he makes an important and significant point.
As the Bill goes through Committee, we need to consider that issue in detail as it relates to the set-up of the FCA, to ensure that we are never again in a position in which descriptors with no value are attached to investment opportunities, almost as a marketing exercise, with nothing behind them. I hope that the Financial Secretary hears the hon. Gentleman’s important point, and that we can return to it in more detail.
One way in which to prevent a repeat of the experience is fully to learn the lessons of the Arch Cru collapse, and to ensure that, as a result, the consumer is protected by a more robust regime. The Financial Secretary will no doubt recall that in a Westminster Hall debate on Arch Cru last October, many Members on both sides of the House asked the Government to instigate a section 14 inquiry. The Financial Secretary replied that he did not think such an inquiry appropriate at that point and he continued:
“The powers are available where it appears that significant damage has been done to the interests of consumers that might not have occurred but for a serious failure of regulation. It is worth pointing out that the power has never been used.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 285WH.]
First, I am not quite as convinced as the Financial Secretary is that the fact that the power has never been used means that it should not be used. Secondly, to my mind, Arch Cru is an example of regulatory failure. The FSA failed properly to regulate the fund, and let down my constituents and thousands of others across the country by not stepping in earlier. The FSA was statutorily responsible for regulating Capita Financial Managers, which was the authorised corporate director for Arch Cru, yet Capita failed to see what was going on until it was far too late.
As the intervention by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) illustrated, there is cross-party consensus on the issue, and the all-party group extends across the whole House, with members from every party other than the Scottish National party—that might be pertinent. When answering questions in December, the Prime Minister was receptive to the idea of considering what more the Government could do to address this important issue. One course of action could, and I would argue should, be to establish a section 14 inquiry, the findings of which could be used to inform a detailed discussion of the proposed FCA, and to ensure that the body is established with the resources, expertise and powers necessary to minimise the opportunity of anything like the Arch Cru failure happening again.
Even at this late stage, I ask Ministers—the Economic Secretary is now on the Front Bench and might be less familiar with the issue than the Financial Secretary, who was there when I started speaking—to reconsider the position on a section 14 inquiry, so that this part of the Bill can be as robust as possible. When the current regulator admits that it did not know what was happening, because of the structure of an investment vehicle and the nature of some of the investments in Guernsey and elsewhere, in my mind it becomes the responsibility of the Government to minimise the risks of the same thing happening again. The Government have an opportunity, as do we, through the Bill, to ensure that the successor body is better placed to ensure such a result.
It is sometimes easy, when getting into the weeds of an issue such as Arch Cru—as I and others have done over recent months—to forget that ultimately this is about people. It is about my constituents and others who deserve the right consumer protection, and we must be confident that in dealing with the consumer aspects of regulation, the successor body does not fail in the way its predecessor did. To ensure that, we need to know what did not work under that predecessor regime, so that there is confidence in the successor body and people are protected in the right way. That is why it is still relevant and important that the Government consider a section 14 inquiry into Arch Cru under the current legislation, and I hope that Treasury Ministers understand that this point is being made in the best interests of scrutiny, of effective regulation and of the consumers who expect, and deserve, to be protected when purchasing financial services products.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, partly because in a previous existence I spent a number of years on two occasions as a compliance officer under three different regulatory regimes, and also because I am the third of the three Treasury Committee musketeers who did not go on the trip to Shanghai and who were left behind to hold the fort.
What is abundantly clear—I do not need to repeat it—is the utter uselessness of the current regulatory regime and how the FSA operates. That can be illustrated by the exchange of words between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the shadow Chancellor about the operation of the day-to-day running of the tripartite regime. Only last week we heard from Hector Sants, the chief executive officer of the FSA, that while he was a managing director of wholesale and institutional markets at the FSA, he had no discussions whatever about the Royal Bank of Scotland’s investment bank. Lord Turner went on to add that the FSA was singularly incapable of meeting the expectations placed on it given the breadth of its regulatory responsibility. Given that, the need for a new regime is unquestionable. I am certainly satisfied, in the broadest sense, that the Bill makes great progress, not least in response to Lord Turner’s comments. We are dividing up regulation between the Financial Conduct Authority, which will be charged with protecting the consumer, the Prudential Regulation Authority, which will look after the nuts and bolts of the system, and the Financial Policy Committee, which has been set up to look at systemic risks.
As the third member of the Treasury Committee to speak in this debate, I fear I might repeat some of the points that have been made. If I do so, it will be to reinforce those points. One thing that has not been talked about, however, is the speed and complexity of the Bill. It is complex and has very far-reaching implications for the long-term security of our financial system as well as for the competitiveness of this country. It is worth remembering that financial services employ more than 1 million people in the UK and raise more than £50 billion a year in tax revenue.
The Bill seeks to amend three previous Acts. The Treasury Committee recommended that the Government start afresh with a new Bill dedicated to addressing all the myriad points discussed since the financial crisis and, indeed, before. The Governor of the Bank of England agrees; he said to a meeting of the Committee last year that
“our first preference had been to have a clean, new Bill, spelling out the new system rather than just amend FSMA.”
He continued, and on this point I wholeheartedly agree:
“We are losing the simplicity and the ability to have a cleaner debate about the…framework.”
The more complex a system, the easier it is for it to go wrong and the more difficult it is to find out why it went wrong in the first place and to repair it.
One of the most profound elements of the Bill is the creation of the FPC, and we have heard a lot about that this afternoon. The FPC is charged with making sure that systemic risks do not emerge and that bubbles, such as credit bubbles, are not allowed to develop. That is unprecedented in our financial system and will have far-reaching implications. The interim FPC, as we have heard, has been in place for some time and the Treasury Committee has spoken with its members about how it is moving along, but its final format is yet to be set in stone.
At the FPC’s disposal will be a range of macro-prudential tools that it can use to control the financial system and markets, and I was pleased to hear the Chancellor say that we would be able to debate the matter on the Floor of the House and decide which tools will be available. The tools will fall into two categories, however. Those in the first category, which will be debated in the House, will be the tools of direction and might include such things as loan-to-value ratios for mortgages, liquidity requirements and capital ratios for banks, which could be directed on to the system via the PRA or the FCA. The measures in the second category, which have not really been talked about this afternoon, will be powers of recommendation and they can be absolutely anything. The actions of the FPC, however, will have the most effect not just on our economy but on our society.
Let me take one of the simplest cases by way of an example. The FPC, in its wisdom, might decide that a credit-fuelled asset bubble is emerging so it wants to tighten up loan-to-value ratios on mortgages. Instead of a 10% or 15% deposit on a house purchase, it will direct that lenders move to a 30% deposit. That is all very simple and fair enough. However, those who are affected first and most deeply will almost certainly be first-time buyers who will suddenly find they do not have the deposits to make a house purchase. People who have only recently bought a property and who therefore probably have relatively low equity might find that they are now not in a position to move house, which will have implications for the mobility of our work force. For a property developer, the tightening of the loan-to-value ratio alone might influence a decision not to develop their land bank. The tightening of that potential supply could lead to exactly the opposite effect on house prices to that which is desired. I hope that illustrates that the implications of such a simple move are widespread and can, indeed, be unpredictable.
As we have heard, the FPC will have a financial stability objective, which will develop from recommendations by the Treasury. The FPC will need to monitor indicators of financial stability, but we do not yet know what those will be. Nor do we know at what levels they will start triggering intervention. The interim FPC has given us a guide, but it gives little indication as to what will actually happen. Were it to publish its dashboard of limits in relation to where it does intervene, the markets would, to a certain extent, be self-correcting. However, there will be occasions on which it will not want to publish because it wants to be discreet or even secretive about its interventions. Under those circumstances, the Treasury Committee will find it difficult to scrutinise such secret interventions.
That brings me to my next point, which is incredibly important, on the governance of the Bank of England. Let me address the good news first: the Treasury Committee very much welcomes the move to a single eight-year term for the Governor of the Bank of England, as opposed to two five-year terms. However, that raises the possibility of a Governor crossing Governments of two flavours, and we on the Treasury Committee think it would make sense if Parliament, through the Treasury Committee, had a power of veto over the Governor’s appointment. The Chancellor took the unprecedented and extremely welcome move, after the election, of giving the Treasury Committee a power of veto over the appointment of the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Now we have seen how well that works in practice, we think the Governor’s appointment is another occasion for which such a power of veto would be appropriate.
More widely, the Treasury Committee is concerned about the governance of the Bank of England. I welcome the Chancellor’s comment about the new oversight committee, but currently the court is responsible for essentially administrative matters—pay and rations. We want the Bank to have a proper board with a new name that reflects its updated role. We recommend that the board should have a majority of external members, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley), who must have more relevant skills and experience. The Treasury Committee wants the board to be able to conduct retrospective internal reviews of the Bank’s policy decisions. In its response to these calls, the Bank envisages limiting that power to commissioning external reviews or conducting internal reviews only of the decision-making processes of the Bank.
The creation of the FPC makes this governance issue particularly important. As we know, the MPC uses just two tools—quantitative easing and interest rates—and the minutes of its meetings are published so we know exactly what is going on, which is a very good thing. The FPC, however, has many measures at its disposal, both directive and recommendational—potentially an infinite range. By their nature, those measures might on occasion be implemented in a secret way, which means that the FPC might not be able to give a full and open account to the Treasury Committee or to publish entirely transparent minutes. Moreover, it might be years or even decades before we know that an intervention has taken place or even that an intervention has become necessary. That is why the governing body of the Bank needs to be able to look at the merits of the FPC’s policies and not just at the methods. The Bank’s board must not be restricted to finding out whether the wrong decision was made, but in the right way.
Crisis management is a crucial area about which much has been said this afternoon. I certainly welcome the creation of a new power of direction for the Chancellor over the Bank in a crisis, which was recommended by the Treasury Committee. The Bill requires that the Governor must formally notify the Chancellor in the event of public funds being at a material risk. The Chancellor cannot direct the Bank unless there is a threat to financial stability as well as a threat to public funds, and the scope of the power of direction is narrowly defined. The arrangements for crisis management are something that could be discussed in Committee, but clarity is vital. For me, the answer to this simple question is crucial. If I see an unhappy bunch of customers outside a bank in Kidderminster high street, who should I telephone? I think the Bill answers that question.
I have voiced a number of concerns from the Treasury Committee and they include my personal feelings. However, I welcome the aims and thrusts of the Bill and the fact that the Government have moved some way towards the Treasury Committee’s recommendations. Let me finish on this point: the financial services industry is incredibly important to this country in terms both of employment and of economic and fiscal contribution. It represents around 11% of gross domestic product, but it is already under widespread attack, including from the press and politicians. Over the next few months there will be a change to the regulatory regime, which we are debating today, followed by a change in the banking regulations, all mixed in with a plethora of new rules from Europe. It is vital that we sort out the current regulatory framework to ensure that we can spot and resolve the crises of the future, but it is just as important that we provide a stable regulatory platform to allow all the firms and individuals involved in this industry to continue to be profitable, to plan for the future with confidence and to be sure of regulatory stability.
This Bill will amend a series of pieces of legislation. When we talk about reforming financial services, we have to think about innovation and how fast society and markets move on. When I think about the reform of financial services, I always think we should tread with caution. This Bill is very important in that it has to reform a system that has clearly failed. I worked in the financial services industry myself, many years ago, and when I want to judge a Bill such as this one, I think of three tests on financial education, financial inclusion and disclosure.
On the first test, it is highly important that we bring about not only statutory financial education in schools but a duty on banks to provide some sort of financial education. I use an example from my own life. Many years ago, when I first had my student grant, in the days when we had student grants, long before student loans, I remember jumping off the train with a cheque for £500 in my hands, almost shaking with nerves about what to do with it. I went straight into the first bank I saw, the name of which I shall not mention—I do not want to embarrass it, as I have not been a great customer. The bank opened a student account for me, gave me a £50 voucher to spend in Burton, with which I bought a pair of jeans, and gave me a magic bank card, which meant I could go anywhere I wanted and buy anything. I could go to the bar or a clothes shop and have all these wonderful goods. By about December of that year, I had a letter through the post saying, “Mr Evans, we’d like to talk to you about your unauthorised overdraft charges”.
When I worked, the same things seemed to be going on. There were people even in their 40s and 50s who did not understand that when they wrote a cheque it would come out of their bank account. They would ask me, “Mr Evans, how am I spending this money when I’m using my card?” I think that banks ought to have some fiduciary care for their customers and ensure that people understand what they are taking out. Things should be simple and understandable.
I want to make a second point about financial education. When people talk about financial education they mention consumers and people at the bottom end of the scale who get services from the bank, but when I was working in banks I often found that people who called themselves bankers did not understand the banking system. They did not understand what a clearing house was, what a CHAPS, or clearing house automated payment system, payment was or what a BACS, or a banker’s automated clearing services, payment was. I was very nervous about the fact that those people were serving people and selling them products but did not seem to understand how the banking system worked. When I spoke to management about that, they said, “Years ago, we had banking exams and this was a profession, but they have fallen by the wayside now as we have moved towards a sales model.” I have some sympathy with the banks, because they are not benevolent institutions—they have to make profits and sell their products—but consumers need to have confidence that the person selling to them understands what they are talking about.
That leads me to another point about consumer protection. Consumers need to understand the products they are being sold. I can think of many occasions on which people were sold products that they did not understand. For example, banks’ financial advisers said to people about bonds, “Oh, it’s okay—a bond is just a savings account, but you do not have a bank card to draw out on it and you have to keep it there for five years.” When people found out that bonds were being invested in risky ventures such as the dotcom boom, which eventually went pop, the banks had a number of complaints about that. It is very important that people understand what they are being sold and that everything is clear.
I also think there should be some framework for the sellers. I remember when the financial planning certificate came about. The very first paper asked, “If somebody came into the bank and wanted to protect their family if they died, what would you sell them—A: life insurance, B: general insurance, or C: send them home?” That is quite simple and there is no knowledge in knowing that they must be sold life insurance. It is important that we have some sort of framework.
The most important part of the Bill, which does not go far enough, concerns disclosure. In America there is the Dodd-Frank Act, which says that every financial transaction made in the US has to be documented through an office of financial research. I would like to see that added to the Bill at some point. It comes to this: the financial crisis happened as a result of myriad problems—we cannot pinpoint one—but one weakness in the system was that we did not know about financial transactions.
I will give two examples. First, Barclays wanted to buy Lehman Brothers. The board said yes, but the regulator, which had so much on its plate, said no. Then Lehman Brothers went bust and was no more. Four years later, the bank and the regulator still do not have access to that information. Secondly, RBS, which has been mentioned a lot today, said to the regulator and to its board in March 2007, “We do not have any toxic debt or bad-book mortgages.” Yet it was later found to have £1.7 billion of bad-book lending. It, too, went bust. It is therefore important that we have some sort of financial audit, which would have an advantage for the consumer, as we would know how many bad basic bank accounts we have and who the banks are lending to. It would also help with community lending.
I will digress a little, if you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have a personal bugbear with the basic bank account. It was brought about for financial inclusion, and it is important that everyone has access to financial products, but my experience of the basic bank account when I worked in the bank was that often the people with that account were on benefits or moving jobs. When it came to lending, they found that they did not credit score and often sellers were not interested, because those people did not credit score for credit cards, bank loans or any other financial products. They were then simply left to their own devices and often fell into the hands of payday lenders and legal loan sharks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has mentioned.
I believe that through the FCA we have a chance to bring about financial inclusion audits and to map where each financial transaction takes place. It would be very dangerous to say that a financial crisis will never happen again, but I hope that we can put things in place to ensure that, if it does happen again, it might not be as bad as it was this time. The US has the tool, so why can we not have it?
To be frank, I still regard too much of this legislation as deficient, and I shall touch on some specific concerns, but it would be remiss not to give the Treasury significant credit for some of the work it has done. The extensive and broadly constructive pre-legislative consultation by the Joint Committee is a positive step. The outstanding and ongoing contribution of the Treasury Committee will help to focus the Government’s mind on some of the key institutional pitfalls. There is also an increasing recognition by the Treasury that this is an area of public policy where political judgments will need to be made, and that ultimately the buck must stop with it, not with the Bank of England, however good a Governor we may have.
My general dissatisfaction relates first and foremost to the inevitable guillotine in this House, which means that the high-level sophisticated scrutiny will have to come from the other place, and I fear that that shows our House in a poor light. It is not that we lack collective experience in this crucial field, but the wish of Governments, throughout my 11 years in the House, to get legislation through by whipped votes means that we continue to fail to hold the Executive to account, particularly on such important pieces of legislation.
This is probably the only area where I have some sympathy with the shadow Chancellor. The genesis of the Bill was perhaps a rather simplistic political analysis surrounding the financial collapse of 2007-08. It was not really the tripartite system of regulation that was at the heart of those concerns, but an old-fashioned debt and credit bubble and the global imbalance between the east and the west. It is important that we recognise that, because the result was not simply the failing of banks, bankers and Labour politicians; the simplistic analysis also fails to answer the core question that has dogged regulators ever since the financial crisis began: “When the crash came, who was in charge?” The risk is that we will replace an unsatisfactory tripartite system with a potentially even more complex four-way system. I think that there is a risk that that will come to pass, although I do not buy into the shadow Chancellor’s entire analysis. In truth, the new FCA will have too few people of the requisite expertise and sound judgment. Unsurprisingly, it remains very unloved and unrespected by too many professionals in the City, and I am afraid that that matters, given the important role that it will have.
Let me touch on some of the more substantial political issues that the press have not focused very much on. There is an overall concern about how prescriptive the new regime will be, and to what extent the Bill will recalibrate things in a way that will have unintended and potentially damaging consequences for the industry, the UK and the consumer. I will give a few examples. On the warning notice publicity, the Bill will change the current position whereby enforcement action becomes public only at the end of the process, after the firm has decided whether to go to tribunal, and before that stage has had two opportunities to make representations. The new approach means that there will be negative publicity at the stage of the warning notice—the first notice—and the firm will have no right to make representations before that. The reality is that, essentially, the Daily Mail test means that all the damage to the firm’s reputation will be done before any due process has been gone through. The argument in favour of the change is that this is similar to a criminal case, but that misses the important difference between the cases, and represents a worrying trend in the thinking, to the effect that everyone in the industry is somehow a would-be criminal.
I am afraid that I will not.
Product regulation and financial promotion powers are another issue. There are powers to intervene earlier in the product life cycle and ban financial promotions. There is an argument that the FSA already has the power to do this. The big political point is the balance between market and regulatory failure. All the debate has been about how the powers are needed to prevent market failure and how the regulator will be far more involved in product design and in the business. It is difficult to argue with the concept, but the position that there is no moral hazard in going down this route is arguably naive, and fails to recognise that the regulators never have perfect vision.
The cost of regulation is in many ways the dog that has not barked. There is nothing in the Bill to apply more financial discipline to either the PRA or the FCA, so the cost-benefit analysis does not apply to the rules that they have in place. We must also ask how the new regulators will work together. The Bill sets out certain principles for the memorandum of understanding between the PRA and the FCA, which is perhaps all that can be expected. However, that leaves on trust a lot of the detail of how the new organisations will work together. That is a key practical issue for firms if this is not to lead to new and inconsistent regulation.
One good example relates to threshold conditions. The Bill provides the PRA and the FCA with the power to make threshold condition codes, which will elaborate on the conditions and how they will apply to different classes of firm. Those codes will be binding. What will happen if the two regulators take inconsistent approaches on, for example, explaining what they mean by the suitability condition? The last thing anyone wants is the development of an industry engaged in arbitrage between the two inconsistent approaches to regulation for different parts of the industry. That is a particular worry for dual- regulated firms, and firms left under the FCA, such as fund managers, are concerned that they could suffer from more heavy-handed regulation, rather than the more senatorial style that it is assumed the PRA will adopt.
Will there be enough of the secondary framework to be able to consider the new structure properly? That is a general question, and one example is whether investment firms are within the PRA’s scope. Firms do not yet know, and things keep changing. For example, the Government agree that the risks posed by investment firms and the concerns arising from last autumn’s MF Global failure should continue to be subject to scrutiny by the authorities, which might change the boundary. The point about MF Global is that it did not take proprietary positions, and so would have fallen on the FCA side. The argument is that the organisation has caused great systemic problems, and so surely should have been regulated by the PRA.
That question has now been partly—but only partly— addressed, through the draft designation order published on the Treasury’s website, setting out the criteria that the PRA will apply when considering whether it should designate individual firms as “dealing in investments as principal” for PRA regulation. Has enough thought been given to that issue, however? There is a parallel debate about large hedge fund managers, who deal only as agents, and therefore stay on the FCA side, yet arguably pose a systemic risk themselves. It is hard to look at the new framework in the round until all such details are sorted out.
I shall conclude soon, because I appreciate that other Members have more to say. Indeed, there is so much more that I could say myself. One issue that has been widely discussed is the competition objective, which was especially well dealt with in the Joint Committee’s report. The point often missed is that the whole discussion is about competition within the market, and whether that itself should be an objective or principle to which the FCA ought to be compelled to have regard. It is not about the more fundamental issue of the competitiveness of the UK as a financial services centre, important though that is. That says something about the new approach to the industry.
I fear that we risk throwing the out baby with the bathwater. Why should the UK not have regard to the competitiveness of one of its most important industries, subject to the other important goals of market stability and consumer protection? Rebalancing the economy is all well and good, but it should not mean undermining the vital importance of the City and of financial services to the UK as a whole.
This Bill makes certain changes to the supervision of the banking and wider financial services sector, and Opposition Members can give guarded support to them, but it falls far short of taking the much-needed action to regulate payday lenders and the total cost of credit, to secure growth and jobs as goals of the new regulatory bodies, and to make the necessary reforms in the banking sector’s excessive pay and remuneration, which was one of the key factors driving the financial crisis in the first place.
A growing body of research, from the OECD to White House economists, shows that societies with a smaller gap between the richest and the poorest achieve higher long-term growth. This Bill could have taken real steps to tackle inequality and the culture of high bonuses and pay in the financial services sector by implementing in full the recommendations of the High Pay Commission to put an employee representative on the remuneration committee of firms in the banking sector, to require the publication of the pay ratios between highly paid financial services staff and those on average wages, to ensure that all publicly listed companies in the sector produce fair pay reports, and to establish a permanent body to monitor high pay.
The High Pay Commission recently discovered that in Barclays, between 2009 and last year its top executives’ pay was 75 times that of its staff on average pay, and the ratio in Lloyds Banking Group was precisely the same. Since 1979 the pay of the top Barclays executive has gone up by 4,899%, to £4.365 million last year.
There appears to be a growing mood on the political right, particularly in the United States, to take the view that those issues do not matter, but in Britain they do, and the Government could have done far more in the Bill to show that they stand with the 99%, rather than with the top 1%.
The Bill could also have secured more justice for the young and poor in our society by introducing a tax on bank bonuses for the next two years—the first step in tackling the youth unemployment crisis, the scale of which the excellent report by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations exposed this morning. Youth unemployment costs the economy £10.7 billion, and the loss in tax revenues amounts to £2.2 billion per year. How disappointing that the Bill has not taken the first step to end that injustice today.
The Bill also wastes a golden opportunity to introduce controls on payday lenders and to impose caps on the total costs of credit. Shelter published research last month which found that almost 1 million people have taken out a payday loan to help pay their rent or mortgage in the past year, and that almost 7 million people rely on credit to meet their housing costs. The Bill could have limited the number of loans that a borrower might take out at any one time or on a repeat basis, as Consumer Focus recommended two years ago. Campbell Robb, the chief executive of Shelter, said on 4 January:
“Turning to short-term payday loans to help pay for the cost of housing is totally unsustainable. It can quickly lead to debts snowballing out of control and can lead to eviction or repossession and ultimately homelessness.”
On the structural changes to the supervisory framework for financial services, the Bill provides greater clarity through clause 57, so, in the event of a major crisis affecting the financial system, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have the power to issue to the Bank of England directions on support for the financial system, including the use of Government funds. That is important in emphasising political accountability to this House.
The Bill is important to the people of Scotland. The financial services sector amounts to 7% of Scottish GDP, employs 150,000 people in Scotland and contributes £7 billion to the Scottish economy. Scotland has the headquarters of RBS, Clydesdale bank and Tesco bank, and it remains a key location for Lloyds Banking Group and other financial institutions. The future regulation of the sector is therefore critical in the momentous decision that the people of Scotland will soon make on their constitutional future.
The benefits of Scotland’s full participation in the UK financial system were keenly felt in 2008. The report of the Independent Commission on Banking made it clear that the total financial support, including loans and guarantees, provided to the banking sector throughout the United Kingdom during the crisis was of the order of £1.2 trillion. Two of the major beneficiaries of that support were banks based in Edinburgh.
There is a noticeable lack of clarity in the Scottish Government’s views on the Bill. It is unclear what their proposals for separation would mean for the protection of savings deposits in Scotland. There is a complete absence of detail on who the prudential regulator of banks based in Scotland would be if Scotland voted for separation and on the ability of the banking sector to sustain the levels of lending to Scottish businesses. The Scottish National party has said that it would still wish to receive the benefits of the Bank of England’s support for a separate Scottish financial system, but it has not been forthcoming on whether it would accept a continuing remit for the new Financial Policy Committee in the regulation of the banking sector.
Cross-border financial regulation is good for Scotland and for the UK as a whole. Our system would be weaker on all sides if RBS was split and regulated under one set of rules and institutions in Scotland and under another set of institutions here, along with the other major banks in the UK. Under its preferred post-separation model of establishing a currency union with the United Kingdom, with the Bank of England as lender of last resort, the SNP has not come clean on whether there would be a Scottish central bank, what its functions would be, what its relations with the Bank of England would be, or how banks in Scotland would be regulated in future. Would the SNP seek to regulate the banks and the financial services sector within Scotland, or would it leave that with the Bank of England? If it does plan to have a separate regulatory structure, what form would it take? There is a plethora of unanswered questions, and it is time that the people of Scotland had the answers from the Scottish Government.
The Bill has some satisfactory elements, but overall it does not meet the scale of the challenge of establishing a more socially responsible financial services sector. If it is to command support in the country, the Government will have to be open to amendments in Committee to restore confidence to the banks and credibility to the regulatory structure across the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for what is a very good Bill. It displays the diligence and expertise that he brings to his ministerial duties.
I am sure that the Financial Secretary would be quick to recognise—and here I have some sympathy with the line pursued by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)—that no regulatory structure is a panacea for regulatory risk. We saw that with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and the Bank of England. The Bill does not address the core lesson from the recent regulatory failure, which is the failure of capital and liquidity rules. In essence, what we are debating is the supervisory arm of an EU regulatory policy agenda. Fortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is not in his place or he would be intervening at this point.
For all the strengths of the Bill, I will touch on three areas where I fear the expectations of our constituents may be raised, but where the regulator may not have the power to meet them. The first is the extent to which the Financial Conduct Authority will have an interventionist approach and its objective of promoting competition. The second is its ability to achieve speedy resolution, which was addressed briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). The third is whether it will achieve effective enforcement against individuals and whether there should be strict liability. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) touched on whether there should be criminal sanctions, a point that was floated in Lord Turner’s RBS report but not answered. If time allows, I also wish to put forward a proposal on which there may cross-party consensus about how fines imposed when there is a regulatory breach are redressed and what is done with the funds.
I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary addressed the risk-tolerance of the new consumer regulator. There has often been a misconception that regulators are about ensuring zero failure, and I would welcome some sense of the point at which the new regulator will be judged as having failed to intervene, and what size and scale of failure in the regime is tolerable.
On the competition objective, some Members have referred to the lack of a power for matters to be referred directly to the Competition Commission. They have to be referred via the Office of Fair Trading. There is potential for two regulators to have different interpretations, and therefore for duplication of costs and confusion about where the power of one regulator ends and that of another starts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster touched on the need for speedy resolution. To take the example of payment protection insurance, a firm can appeal to the regulator and seek a 90-day review, and then it can have the decision judicially reviewed, which can stretch things out for about a further 18 months. A firm can stretch out proceedings in a mis-selling case for tactical reasons, so that it can use the funds in question in the short term. The thoughts of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary on that would be welcome.
The key issue, which always arises in my constituency, is the sense of grievance that there has not been enforcement action against individuals. That was at the heart of the Treasury Committee’s reason for requiring a report from Lord Turner, but nothing in the Bill really addresses the issue. It does not say whether there will be strict liability, and there are no proposals to frame criminal sanctions. For what it is worth, I believe they would be very difficult to frame.
Within banks, the real problem is that senior executives protect themselves through complex management structures, such as by devolving control functions lower down the organisation so that there is a buffer between them and the decision making and they are knowingly blind. Risk functions often report into finance directors, meaning that there is a potential conflict of interest, and compliance officers often get to shape meetings with supervisors, notwithstanding the more intensive regime that the regulator is currently following.
A key issue that we need to address either in this Bill or in future legislation is how individuals at the top of banks are held accountable when there are mistakes. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary might need to have discussions with the Lord Chancellor about that, because judicial review and the risk appetite of the tribunal need to be addressed. Given their judicial nature, those points fall within the Lord Chancellor’s responsibility. They go to the heart of whether people get a sense of justice being done when there are serious failures.
I move on to a matter on which I would welcome comments from both Front Benchers in the winding-up speeches, and on which there could be scope for positive reform. That is what happens when a firm pays a regulatory fine. It may surprise Members that currently, under paragraph 16 of schedule 1 to the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, when there is a fine for a regulatory breach the money does not go to good causes, or even to the Treasury—my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary might think that the Treasury is a good cause in itself. It goes towards reducing the levy paid by other financial firms. When a bank breaks the rules, it reduces the levy for other banks. Over the past two years, such money has amounted to £166 million. I know that a number of Members are keen on financial education—the all-party group on the subject is the biggest in the House. Perhaps such a fund could be hypothecated for use in a more constructive way, and I would welcome comments on that in the winding-up speeches. I recognise that firms are contributing more to financial education now, but it is odd that they benefit from the regulatory breaches of other firms.
I shall conclude, because I am aware of the time limit and want to allow time for others to contribute. The Bill is a good one, but as I said at the beginning of my speech, there will be failure. When there is, an independent report is the most reasonable of expectations. It is instructive that Lord Turner is not a neutral player. Will the Minister clarify how much his report cost to compile? I would like scope in the Bill for an independent report in future if we are in the unfortunate position of having a further regulatory failure. That the Treasury Committee had to seek private experts so that it could comment on Lord Turner’s report speaks volumes. That small matter could be tightened up in Committee.
Overall, this is an excellent set of measures, and I will have great pleasure in supporting my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Lobby this evening.
Like the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), I shall address areas in which we need to proof and improve the Bill before it goes to another place.
I first want to express support for the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) in respect of consumer credit protection. Not only lenders of consumer credit should be under the FCA, but debt collectors, brokers, retail services that sell insurance products and those offering debt management services.
Similarly, I support the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex). Contrary to suggestions made earlier in the debate that the Bill is about putting Parliament back in charge, it is notable that inquiries and investigations under part 5 go to the Treasury. There is no reference whatever to Parliament in that measure, unlike in section 14 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which clearly states that any such report will be laid before Parliament.
The Financial Secretary no doubt anticipated that I would mention credit unions in Northern Ireland, because their regulatory status will change in the wider context of the changes heralded by the Bill. He was good enough to receive a pick-up band of Northern Ireland MPs last week to discuss our outstanding concerns on the detail. I can assure him that we are pursuing those. We have not yet eliminated him from our inquiries, but we are making the necessary representations to the FSA and will make them to its successor, the FCA.
I wanted to talk not just about the implications of the Bill in terms of the lessons of the banking collapse, but about other provisions. The launch of auto-enrolment means that millions more people will save for a pension through the capital markets, including many low-paid workers. In recent months, we have seen that pension savers’ interests are not always put first by the industry. The spotlight has been turned on to excessive and untransparent charges, and conflicts of interests.
The fund management industry’s duties to savers are poorly understood and observed. The Law Commission has confirmed that when firms manage other people’s money or give financial advice, they have strict fiduciary duties to act in their clients’ interests—both individuals and institutions, such as pension funds, that represent large numbers of underlying savers. That fact is, of course, not generally accepted or reflected within the industry. In addition, as we have heard, because those are common law duties, they do not form part of the FSA’s regulatory approach. An explicit reference to fiduciary duty in the Bill would give the FSA a powerful tool to ensure that consumers’ interests are protected.
Examples of where consumers have suffered from those duties not being observed include unauthorised profits, and recent research shows that some fund managers made significant profits from lending out clients’ shares with only two thirds of the income from those activities returned to the fund. Of course, under fiduciary duties, any such profit should go back to the underlying investor. Another example is in relation to the exercise of shareholder rights. Asset managers, acting on behalf of pension savers, should exercise their voting rights at major companies in the best interests of the savers, without regard to the interests of the firm, but we have anecdotal evidence of fund managers being told by superiors to wave through excessive executive pay to avoid upsetting potential clients. So the interests of the business are placed ahead of the savers whose money is at stake.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the market failure that we have seen in the pension and fund industry in the last decade or so, which is close to being a scandal. He is right that the Bill does not include a fiduciary duty, but it would give the FCA a competition requirement that, if applied properly, would prevent the market failure and the non-transparent charges that are the core of the issue.
The hon. Gentleman has more confidence in the extensive effect that he expects from the competition requirement. I believe that that should be complemented by this other insertion in the Bill.
During pre-legislative scrutiny—about which we heard earlier—the Joint Committee heard that the Bill was unbalanced. On the one hand, it enshrines the principle that consumers are responsible for their decisions, but on the other it does not place any equivalent responsibility on firms. The Joint Committee recommended that the Bill should
“place a clear responsibility on firms to act honestly, fairly and professionally in the best interests of their customers.”
Meanwhile, the Financial Services Consumer Panel recommended that this should take the form of an explicit fiduciary duty to clients.
In response, the Government have inserted a new principle to which the FCA must have regard, which is that
“those providing regulated financial services should be expected to provide consumers with a level of care that is appropriate”,
having regard to the risks involved and consumer capabilities. But that new wording does not provide a high enough level of protection for customers. It clearly lacks clarity on what might constitute an appropriate level of care and stops short of confirming that those managing other people’s money owe fiduciary duties. We need an explicit clarification in the Bill.
Another area in which the Bill is remiss is the whole principle of stewardship. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was widely recognised that major institutional investors had behaved as absentee landlords, not doing enough to challenge risky behaviour at the banks that they owned. This had direct consequences for many of the pension savers whose money those shareholders invested. According to the OECD, in the year after the crisis pension funds lost an estimated 17% of their value.
After the crisis, we had the Walker review, and the Financial Reporting Council established the UK stewardship code, designed to encourage investors to behave as active owners of the companies in which they invest. This agenda is increasingly recognised by both the Government and the Opposition in all the recent, highly publicised arguments about executive pay and what can be done to curb it. Both leading parties in this House have placed great emphasis on more shareholder responsibility. But to date the FSA has treated this as a fairly marginal issue, appearing not to regard it as a consumer issue. It is not clear that it will be regarded any differently by the FCA.
There is no mention of stewardship in the Bill, although it is clearly relevant to the objectives of the PRA and the FCA. In particular, there is a danger that stewardship will continue to fall through the cracks in the new regulatory architecture. The PRA is likely to take little interest, because the ordinary asset managers of the firms in question are FCA-regulated, yet there is little reason to assume that the FCA will accord the issue any higher priority than the FSA does at present.
The proposed duty of co-ordination mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) will do little to resolve that issue, because it will focus purely on reducing the burden of regulation on dual-regulated firms, rather than on preventing gaps in regulation between the new authorities. That measure will deal with an overlap as it affects the business; it will not deal with the gaps affecting consumers. Again, there is a hole in the legislation as far as consumer protection is concerned.
I will endeavour to say as much of what I planned to say as I can in the existing time frame.
There is no doubt that the Bill should be welcomed and that it will help right the wrongs of the former tripartite structure that contributed to the banking collapse. The tone of this debate is important. It would be easy to labour the failures of the previous Administration and highlight why Opposition Members, particularly those on the Front Bench, must accept their part in the financial crisis of 2007 onwards and the subsequent fallout. It is all too easy to use the banks as whipping boys, but in reality it was politicians and Governments who allowed many questionable practices to go on.
I regret the tone of some recent news stories about bankers, whether they relate to bonuses or to other controversial issues. We must consider how such matters destabilise an extremely valuable sector that employs more than 1 million people across the United Kingdom, amounts to 10% of our GDP and contributes between £35 billion and £63 billion to the Treasury every year.
I do not seek to defend the indefensible, but let us at least consider the longer-term consequences of what is said and done, and the tone in which it is said. In considering last week’s debate on bonuses, for example, I hope that Stephen Hester does not choose to leave RBS any time soon, as it could cost a significantly greater sum to attract someone to fill the post, particularly in this difficult public climate. A mature debate is needed on remuneration, which many in this debate have mentioned, but we should be level-headed and remember that how we conduct the debate, as well as its outcome, will affect our economy and growth prospects.
To the Minister’s credit, a huge amount of work has been done on the Bill. Not only have there been several opportunities to pursue the matter here in the Chamber, but the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) developed the Bill further, as did the Vickers report and the scrutiny of the Treasury Committee.
My first substantive point relates to structure and culture. The tripartite structure had to end; we are all aware of its deficiencies. The twin-peaks approach and the establishment of the FPC, the PRA and the FCA also make sense, but it is important to recognise the need for the legislation to be forward-looking rather than focused on the mistakes of the past.
It was interesting to read evidence from a number of witnesses who supported the proposals but still refused to commit to saying that if the new structure had been in place in 2007-08 or before, the banking collapse would not have happened. It is important that we seek to develop a regulatory framework that can adapt. A simple tick-box approach—we have heard much about that—or an isolated approach set up to prevent the recurrence of the last crisis will do nothing for a dynamic industry always seeking to evolve, to be innovative and to generate income for the country and its shareholders.
The Minister is taking the right decision to set up those bodies, but much will depend on the leadership that their members will offer. Several times in the past the House has been involved in the establishment of new agencies only to have to return to their shortcomings within a year or two.
The culture that each chairman or chief executive develops with the Governor will be crucial to the success of this legislation. The relationship between each organisation is also important and, as ever, will inevitably depend on the Governor, chairmen and chief executives. Such relationships need to be open, and there needs to be a clear understanding of the part that each person plays. They should not operate in isolation, and there needs to be clear accountability, with the ultimate test of knowing who should get fired.
I want to highlight the issue of concentration risk or groupthink, given the huge emphasis that is placed on the Governor. In that respect, amendments suggested by the Joint Committee to strengthen ties with the Treasury and Parliament are welcome. I am grateful that the Minister has accepted some of them.
It is clear that, within the proposed structures, the judgments of individuals will ultimately make the difference. The Bill provides the FPC with considerable powers of direction, but the levers generally used by the PRA or FCA will also determine the fate and future of the industry. That is the area of greatest concern across all three bodies, yet there is no alternative if we are opposed to the inflexible tick-box approach criticised tonight. Regular parliamentary scrutiny will be essential, and the role of Treasury officials on many of these bodies will be crucial for feedback to the Treasury and parliamentary scrutiny.
In making their judgments, the PRA and the FPC will need to respond to the evidence. A one-size-fits-all approach will not serve the economy or the financial services sector well. Their engagement with the organisations that they regulate will need to be risk-based, but that flexibility, which is needed, must not lead to inconsistent actions. Sir Mervyn King stated that judgments are undermined when we end up with a game in which regulators are continuously rewriting the rules as firms devise new products to get around the detailed legal rules in place before. A tiered approach is needed, therefore, to allow certainty and due process that also reflects the risk and culture of the organisation.
The FPC and regulators do not operate in isolation, and international factors need to be considered. It is fair to be concerned, therefore, that UK authorities could seek to raise the bar, and the risk of super-equivalence is real and always worries the leaders of many of these organisation.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sorry that time does not allow me to complete my remarks about the FPC.
The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) referred to what he thought was the regrettable negative public opinion towards bankers, but we have to accept that over a considerable period the banking industry has changed so dramatically that perhaps it needs greater regulation.
My mother-in-law remembered that when as a student she went overdrawn, the bank would write to her father, and that when she got home for her summer holidays, she would be in big trouble. In contrast, my children were automatically given a £1,000 overdraft as soon as they presented their new student cards at the bank. Before I could say, “Hang on a minute, perhaps that isn’t terribly wise,” they found themselves unable to refuse this largesse. That demonstrates the change that has taken place over a couple of generations. To that extent, the banking industry has to look to itself, not just to external regulation, and ask where things have gone wrong.
At the beginning of this debate, when things were a bit livelier—they are often livelier at the beginning than near the end—much was made of whose fault it was, who did not regulate, and whether the Opposition would apologise for failing to regulate and for the financial collapse. That is rich coming from a party that, even when the financial crisis was beginning to crash around us, spent so much time saying that there was too much regulation. There are clear quotations to that effect, with the current Prime Minister saying in 2008:
“As a free-marketeer by conviction, it will not surprise you to hear me say that a significant part of Labour’s economic failure has been the excessive bureaucratic interventionism of the past decade…too much tax, too much regulation, too little understanding of what our businesses need to compete in the modern world.”
There are many other quotations like that. It is not just that the then Opposition were not standing up and saying that we needed more regulation; it is that they were going beyond that and saying that there was too much regulation.
We all have to reflect on that. I have no hesitation in saying that I believe the last Government did not sufficiently regulate the financial services industry and should have done more. We have seen many of the difficulties caused by that. The FSA has been roundly criticised by many of the victims of financial collapses. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) talked a lot about Arch Cru and how it worked. Many of us in have had people come to us affected by the Equitable Life collapse, which was due to the failings of both the FSA and its predecessors. We know how people’s lives can be affected. It is extremely important that the new regulatory architecture, as it seems to be called, should grapple with the kind of situations that have arisen and how they affect people.
We also need regulation that looks at the most vulnerable, which is particularly important. Citizens Advice, which deals with a lot of people’s problems, has suggested that the FCA be placed under an explicit duty to be proactive in preventing and responding to consumer detriment, and to have particular regard to the needs of low-income and otherwise vulnerable consumers. Earlier we heard about high-cost credit and what it does to people, but Citizens Advice has suggested that the problem goes much further. It includes, for example, the way that cheques have been phased out of the banking system, with little regard for the needs of those with little choice but to use them, and the way that people have perhaps been encouraged to bank online and not otherwise, which could be to the detriment of those who cannot do so. Indeed, it might even include the way that banking itself works. Many of us think it is wonderful to have free credit for having a current account and not to have to pay fees. However, there is a downside to that, in that it is often funded by what those who become overdrawn—not necessarily because they are wholly irresponsible; rather they may simply be hard up and experiencing difficulties—have to pay for that. Those are all things that we should be considering, but if the new body does not have an explicit duty to consider such matters, they might simply not be dealt with properly.
We have heard, too, that some of the things that the Office of Fair Trading does on consumer credit—things that most of us probably feel it has not done very well over the years—will be transferred to the new organisation. Again, we need to know as much about that as possible, and as soon as possible. It is not good enough to say, “That will all come along in due course.” There have been clear failures in the system to look at the issue in enough depth, to act quickly enough and to ensure that people are not faced with poor banking and credit practices. Basic bank accounts is another area. The current Government appear not to want to place an obligation on banks to provide a right to a bank account, for which the previous Government had proposed to legislate. I hope that the Minister might take this opportunity to reconsider the position that he expressed when I had a Westminster Hall debate on this very subject some months ago, and to decide that he will go ahead with such a proposal, because the position on basic bank accounts has deteriorated since that debate.