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Crowdfunding and the FCA

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013

It came as a slightly early Christmas present to learn that I had managed to secure a debate on crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, and the implications for the Financial Conduct Authority’s current inquiry into the regulation, or the possible need for regulation, of crowdfunding.

I came to crowdfunding in a rather peculiar way. I kept hearing people talking about it, and I am a serial and committed social entrepreneur. In fact, the other day a journalist said that I must be one of the few MPs who own a church, a poet’s house and a pub, all through trusts, foundations or charities that I chair.

As I say, I am a social entrepreneur and social entrepreneurs always want money. I do not mind asking rich people, big corporations, trusts and foundations for money, but sometimes—especially since 2008—it has been harder raising money from those sources than it was before.

Increasingly, I heard about social impact investment and crowdfunding, so I decided that I needed some more information. I got in touch with the House of Commons Library, but the staff there said they had never heard of crowdfunding; it was the first time that the staff of the Library of this great House has ever said that it could not help me. I then tweeted about crowdfunding, and all sorts of interesting people pitched up in the House of Commons and started to educate me about it. We formed the Westminster crowdfunding forum, we have an all-party group on crowdfunding and non-banking finance, and suddenly we have what I think is the first debate on crowdfunding in Parliament; I am grateful that we have it.

What is so exciting about crowdfunding is that it gives power to the crowd—to ordinary people—to say that there is a problem in their community and that they can form a small group to head something up. They can form a community enterprise and they can fund it through the crowd on the internet, on a platform; there are now many platforms out there that enable crowdfunding. Some of them specialise in education, others in financing films and theatre, and others in community enterprises. However, that is only one side of crowdfunding.

For me, crowdfunding is one of the most vibrant, exciting and important industries to appear in the past decade. The possibilities of crowdfunding are endless, first because all of us know that most people who are entering employment in this country today will work for small and medium-sized enterprises. If we can have more and more SME start-ups and they can grow successfully, the country will be so much wealthier and so much more successful.

The fact is that start-ups have the most difficulty in getting money from the conventional banks. Very often, the banks have failed them, because start-ups have no track record and no history; consequently, banks are very cautious about lending money to them.

Crowdfunding enables and empowers people who want to start a business to do it in their own way, and to raise the money to do so. It often starts with friends and family, and then a wider range of people become excited about the enterprise and put a little bit of money in to help it start. The history of the last few years has been that many more businesses have started up successfully using crowdfunding and the new social media to reach out to a broader audience and involve them in a very interesting way.

Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the internet. However, people become confused about what is crowdfunding and what is not. I will talk briefly about four kinds of crowdfunding.

First, there is equity crowdfunding. It is very simple indeed. Someone wants to start a business and they give a share in their business to someone else. It may be worth a fiver, or fifty quid, but it is usually only a small amount—an amount that I am sure you, Mr Chope, and I could afford to put into an enterprise that we believed in and that might make us money in the longer term. It is also possible for someone to invest in the little corner shop that they do not have in their village or community, or in a failing pub that the community wants to take over. There are lots of enterprises that crowdfunding can help.

However, there is the very interesting issue of starting businesses—private sector businesses. There is nothing wrong with starting businesses. As chairman of both the all-party group on manufacturing and the all-party group on management, I am a passionate supporter of well-managed enterprises and start-ups.

Equity is one way that crowdfunding works; someone can invest money in that way. However, it is also possible to borrow and lend money through the internet and crowdfunding; that is the second form of crowdfunding I want to discuss. Some people in the peer-to-peer lending area are a little cautious about being called part of the crowdfunding empire, but—in broader terms—they certainly pitch up to the Westminster crowdfunding forum. Such lending allows people to borrow money at very low rates of interest, and it also allows people to lend money at quite high rates of interest. People might think that is impossible, but the fact is that we have a system that gets rid of the intermediary. It is peer to peer—very direct. There is no big bank, with glass panels and marble halls, to go into, or a network of branches of banks, with all the people that have to be employed in them. There is a very simple relationship, and it means that the facility to lend and borrow money is made quite radically different.

Thirdly, there is rewards crowdfunding. That is the kind of crowdfunding that you, Mr Chope, and I might be most interested in; I realise that I am interpreting your wishes in saying so. Rewards crowdfunding means that someone asks someone else to help them with an enterprise, such as the John Clare Cottage Trust, which I am involved with and which is a national centre for learning outside the classroom. We run a campaign called every child’s right to the countryside. What we do to raise money is to ask people, “Will you adopt a school in less affluent area of the country, whose pupils would benefit from coming to the countryside and learning in the countryside for a day?” We look to crowdfund up to £500 to bring a whole school class to the countryside for a day. We can do that by offering rewards, because we not only give the reward of a day in the country to the pupil but—as we will do in the new year—we will give a limited edition of John Clare’s love poetry to those giving money. It is a collection of poems that were never published in his lifetime, because they were a little steamy for Victorians. We can give the reward of a limited edition, or free entry to the lovely John Clare poet’s house in Helpston, which is right next to Burghley house. So, with rewards crowdfunding, people do not get their money back, but they get the engagement, and the reward might be, at the bottom end, with a small amount of money, a mug or a tea-towel. Further up the scale, there are more substantial crowdfunding rewards.

Fourthly, there are donations. Mr Chope, you will know about the success of, which is estimated to have raised £3 billion for good causes, in direct donations. As I say, there are various types of crowdfunding, and I hope that I have educated those attending this Westminster Hall debate about them.

Crowdfunding gives all of us access to the money to make things happen. According to a recent report—published only this week—by the charity Nesta, Cambridge university and the university of California, Berkeley, the alternative finance sector raised £939 million in the UK in 2013. That is a hell of a lot of money, and it was up by 91% from the £492 million raised in 2012. The UK alternative finance market provided £332 million-worth of early stage growth and working capital to more than 3,700 start-ups and SMEs in the UK in 2013 alone. So this sector is not small beer; it is big and it is going to grow.

If we play it right, the UK is likely to become the centre of crowdfunding in the world, partly because the United States, in its haste to regulate crowdfunding, has, many argue, strangled the baby at birth. That is the truth; the US has overregulated and made it almost impossible, certainly for equity crowdfunding, to carry on.

Those of us who are passionate about crowdfunding want to make this appeal: whatever the Financial Conduct Authority does in regulation—it is currently consulting—it must get it right. We are not against all regulation, but it must be appropriate, and it must be quite soft regulation. It can be effective, but if we go down the US route, we will lose the opportunity to have one of the biggest growth sectors and most interesting phenomena of the modern economy.

The FCA should not present an obstacle to the growth of the sector. The criticism that I am getting is that if the FCA is not careful, it will take the “crowd” out of crowdfunding. I am not against the FCA. I was quoted in The Independent earlier this week or late last week as asking for a halt to the consultation process. I did not say that; I never spoke to the journalist in question, and I do not believe that. The consultation process is good, and we have certainly had a good face-to-face relationship with the FCA over many months; we just want to ensure that we get it right, and that is what this debate is partly about. We want to ensure that we do not make a mistake.

Certain language used by the FCA and people around it would I think horrify your constituents, Mr Chope, as it would mine. The FCA suggests that only “sophisticated” investors should have access to crowdfunding; in other words, those who have a relatively high net worth. The FCA’s consultation paper makes a distinction between retail and sophisticated investors. That kind of language makes me nervous, because it is insulting to ordinary people, suggesting that they do not know how best to invest a little bit of money.

My constituents can go down to a bookie’s, play fixed-odds betting, and lose thousands in a day. Those machines are dreadful things, and I have campaigned against them. My constituents can also go next door and borrow money at ruinous rates of interest from payday lenders. They can go online to gamble and, especially at Christmas, spend a lot of money that they do not really have. Why should ordinary people not be able to put a fiver, £10 or even £50—small amounts—in something that they think will grow?

I will give an example that might interest you, Mr Chope. A plethora of universities are now getting into crowdfunding. If your university is like mine, Mr Chope, the only time you hear from them is when they want some money. That angers a lot of people, because that is the only communication that they have with their alma mater; I am looking at the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on that.

Crowdfunding allows universities such as the university of Huddersfield—university of the year last year and entrepreneurial university of the year the year before—to be able to have a crowdfunding relationship, so that when graduates and postgraduates come through, they can say, “Not only can we help you find the money for your start-up business, our first port of call is our alumni, who might want to invest back in a new generation of entrepreneurs coming out of their university.” There is so much excitement here.

There is a common-sensical way of having regulation that does not cause damage. I want to make it clear today that there has been a good dialogue with the FCA. I hope that it is listening to what we are saying. I also hope that the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and all the other people in government who know about the issue will learn about it and realise the enormous potential for growth in the British economy.

Crowdfunding can bring communities back to life. Political parties have hardly any membership. There are low levels of voting in general and local elections. Here is something through the social media—look at 38 Degrees and its achievements—that will reinvigorate our communities, grow them and make them wealthier, and will be a new way of funding social and economic activity in our country.

Does the hon. Member for Cambridge have the consent of both the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and the Minister?

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Chope. I will try to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Susan Kramer, who did a lot of work in this area before her elevation to a ministerial role, which has somewhat curtailed it.

The sector is huge; we can read about just how big it is in the excellent “The Rise of Future Finance: The UK Alternative Finance Benchmarking Report”. I am delighted that Cambridge was able to play a part in that; £939 million is a large sum of money. The sector is also incredibly varied. In my constituency, for example, SyndicateRoom is doing equity crowdfunding, and the Future Business Centre is using social impact bonds to build an entire building for social enterprises. RealVNC, a software company, was set up though merchandising; it sold products with its logo on to get the money to build a better product. There is also Frontier Developments and its game, “Elite: Dangerous”. Those are all crowdfunded. The area is so varied that there is a huge challenge for regulation.

The sector must be regulated to avoid problems—none of us wants to hear the story of the granny who loses all her savings on something like that—but we must ensure that the regulation is not disproportionate. We must ensure that we have principles regulation, not firm tracks that lock everyone down and kill off the excitement, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said. That is my aim.

The Government are supportive; I will finish with a quote from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in response to the excellent benchmarking report, “The Rise of Future Finance”:

“Alternative finance is playing an increasingly important role in helping businesses access the finance they need to grow and contribute to the economy.”

Let us ensure that that can continue.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr Chope. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate, and on the important work that he does as chair of the Westminster crowdfunding forum. I share his enthusiasm for crowdfunding and the peer-to-peer alternative funding platforms that he mentioned. I cannot think of a single thing he said that I disagree with; it is quite rare for me to say that to him. I say that not in a spirit of good will because it is close to Christmas, but because I thought he talked a lot of common sense. Clearly, he knows a lot about the issue, and I hope that he stays involved in it for a long time to come—it sounds like he will—because I think he can add great value to this area.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are a vital part of the UK economy and contribute significantly to economic growth, as we have just heard. In particular, access to finance is important to ensure that businesses reach their full potential. At times when there are greater constraints on credit, alternative finance markets, including crowdfunding, become even more crucial. That is why crowdfunding, though it may be a relatively new industry, is growing quickly.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a donation-based crowdfunded organisation called Turning Earth in my constituency? It raised more than £13,000 through Crowdfunder and sells work spaces and classes in pottery. It says that, critically, the money levers in other money, because there is confidence in the community that the organisation will work. Does that not do something to tackle the asymmetry of banks, which are frankly letting down small businesses, and the challenge of funding small businesses?

The hon. Lady is right. There are examples of banks letting down small businesses. That shows the power of crowdfunding. I had not heard of Turning Earth before, but I am glad that she has brought it to my attention. I will take more interest in it now. If I heard her correctly, she mentioned that it has already raised £13 million—[Interruption.] Oh, £13,000. Well, that is an excellent start. There is great growth potential in that number.

Over the past two years, in total, more than £700 million has been lent through peer-to-peer platforms. There has been a 600% increase in equity platforms between 2012 and 2013, raising approximately £28 million this year. There has been significant growth in debt-based security platforms of more than 370% in a year, raising almost £26 million over the past three years.

The crowdfunding market has huge potential to expand much further, and the UK has a strong global position in crowdfunding investment. Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I am keen to ensure that we maintain and grow that position. As such, the Government have taken a number of steps to support this burgeoning industry. We have invested £30 million in peer-to-peer platforms through the business finance partnership: £20 million has been provided to Funding Circle, which facilitates loans to small businesses, and £10 million has been provided to Zopa, which has facilitated £432 million of lending since its launch in 2005.

Our generous tax reliefs, granted through the seed enterprise investment scheme, are widely used by equity platforms. Some platforms have reported that 80% of investors are using that scheme, which provides an important incentive for investors to invest in smaller, perhaps riskier businesses, allowing them to grow.

One of the FCA’s considerations is separating the sector into debt crowdfunding and equity crowdfunding. I represent Seedrs, which is based in Shoreditch and does a great deal of good work in this area. The sector is very diverse, so will the Minister comment on whether the Government desire to keep that diversity while ensuring that there is regulation, without making false divides and pigeonholing the diverse crowdfunding industry into the categories of debt, equity or, indeed, donations? Donations are not within the FCA’s remit at the moment.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am just about to address regulation; that might help to answer her question. This is also a good opportunity to pay credit to Shoreditch as an area that is heavily involved in crowdfunding. It is a growing space, and I would like to see it continue to grow.

We listened to the peer-to-peer side of the industry when it asked about regulation. We are working with the FCA to regulate that side of the industry and develop a proportionate framework. The framework has been well received by the peer-to-peer industry. Although the equity and debt security side of the crowdfunding market is already captured by some regulation, it is keen for a more tailored framework. The platforms’ view is that regulation provides them with credibility and helps to attract investors. They actively lobbied the FCA for inclusion in the consultation, and we supported them to achieve that goal.

Although we recognise the importance of regulation for the industry at the request of the platforms, it is essential that regulation be proportionate, as all hon. Members have said, if we are to ensure that it does not stifle the market’s growth. The Government therefore continue to work with the platforms and the FCA to ensure that the optimum framework is implemented—a framework that satisfies the industry, provides increased certainty to investors, and enables the crowdfunding industry to continue on its upward trajectory.

Before I close, I would like to say that having proportionate regulation is also key to ensuring that there are no unnecessary barriers to entering the industry. One of the industry’s successes over the past few years has been the very light barriers to entry. The Government and the regulator are keen to ensure that we have regulation that is proportionate enough to achieve the objective of protecting consumers, both borrowers and lenders, without creating barriers to entry that make the industry grow at a slower pace or stifle growth.

I welcome the Minister’s comments, because some years ago I called for regulation, but not to such an extent that it might put people off. Perhaps he can write to us if he does not have this information. NANA in my constituency is a café run by older women that was funded through donations on Kickstarter. Nana is located in former toilets on Chatsworth road in Homerton, and people fund it by buying a tea towel or donating a cheque. At the moment, the FCA is not considering the regulation of that sector. Does the Minister have any information on whether regulation of the donation sector will at any point be considered by the FCA or the Government?

As the hon. Lady kindly suggests, I will write to her and take a closer look at what plans the FCA does or does not have.

Will the Minister do some missionary work with his colleagues? This is a cross-departmental issue, and one does worry. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is well apprised of the issue, and we have met him. We want a better relationship with the Treasury team, because people are having to think about this business of investing only 10% of their portfolio. Most people who invest, or who will potentially invest, in crowdfunding would have no idea what a portfolio was if it jumped up and bit them. Every time I complain about “sophisticated” investors, the FCA and other people say, “Well, it’s part of the literature.” It is demeaning to say that people can do something only if they have a certain net worth and if they are a “sophisticated” investor. I do not mind “experienced” or another term, but “sophisticated” upsets many people in crowdfunding.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and if there are too many barriers to investment, it could stifle growth. I have relayed my concerns to the FCA. As we have heard, one of the consultations has just closed, and the other is about to close. I believe that we will get a report from the FCA by February. He makes an important point.

Last week, here in Parliament, we hosted the founder of Indiegogo, which is a pioneer. Is it not interesting that bright, talented women are coming into crowdfunding because there are fewer barriers? Many sites are run by people such as Karen Darby. The sites are successfully changing the world, but they are also giving women an opportunity to use their talent, when, in some areas, they do not yet have that opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman again points out one of the successes of this growing industry. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) that more young people are involved in the industry and, in some cases, are perhaps finding it an easier platform than banks for raising money.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield again on securing this debate. I reassure him and all other hon. Members that we would like to encourage the growth of this industry.

Sitting suspended.