I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Serious Fraud Office, and the cases of Alun Richards and Kash Shabir.
This debate concerns allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation and collusion involving Lloyds bank and receivers used by that bank. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I both have constituents who, as customers of Lloyds bank, underwent the same ordeal: having their hitherto successful businesses revalued downwards, forced into receivership and then sold. The allegations concentrate on but are not confined to Lloyds’ operations in Wales. The facts of the cases resemble the malpractice at Royal Bank of Scotland identified by the Tomlinson report, which was published on 25 November 2013.
I bring this matter to the House today so that Mr Kash Shabir, my Cardiff Central constituent, may have his account of events put on the parliamentary record. I anticipate that my hon. Friend will do the same in respect of his constituent, Mr Alun Richards.
I would like to put on the record the case of one of my constituents, which relates to this matter. Michael Field bought some land and borrowed from Lloyds bank to finance a project to build several houses. He maintained his payments without fail, was a good customer and fulfilled all the terms and conditions of the loan agreement, but Lloyds seized his assets and foreclosed on him. He then discovered that his assets were actually traded inside the bank, which was a great concern. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to intervene and change things to protect customers such as Michael Field?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting and valuable point about the fact that this bank is part-owned by the taxpayer. The Government should look into its internal practices.
Both Mr Shabir and Mr Richards say that they have suffered significant financial and emotional harm as a result of the actions that are alleged. Mr Shabir built his business from scratch. He was a successful entrepreneur and property developer, with a portfolio valued at around £10 million. He enjoyed an excellent credit rating and reputation among banks and building societies. In 2006, Lloyds bank competed against Barclays bank to win a large portion of his business lending. Lending was secured by Mr Shabir with Lloyds at 1% above the base rate, because of his excellent track record. So far, so good, people might say.
As the House knows, however, the 2007-08 financial crash brought Lloyds to the brink of collapse. At the peak of the financial crisis, Lloyds requested emergency funding from the UK taxpayer. The Government set up a division within the Treasury—UK Financial Investments —to manage the bail-out of Lloyds, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock.
For Lloyds to secure and receive that bail-out, it was essential for it to quantify and declare to the Government the amount of money required to save it from collapse. So it conducted an overall assessment of its investments and assets. This appears to have prompted Lloyds to take the opportunity to reassess its relationships with customers who were borrowing large sums on what are called fine margins. Customers on fine margins are good customers allowed to borrow at low rates. Due to the lack of liquidity, however, the cost of money in the money markets had risen significantly—more importantly, it had risen to a point above the contractual levels at which it was being borrowed.
Almost overnight, those businesses on fine margins, which Lloyds had regarded as its best customers, became highly vulnerable since the bank could no longer make profits from those arrangements. As Lloyds sought to improve its own position, the fine margin customers were targeted first, to eliminate them from the bank’s portfolio. That was particularly true of small and medium-sized enterprises, which did not have the resources to defend themselves.
Banks almost always lend money that is secured against assets, by way of a loan agreement. The parameters of that agreement, such as the loan to value ratio, are set out in writing at the outset. Provided that a customer’s assets do not fall below the agreed level, the customer is, in broad terms, described as safe.
During the financial crisis, it is alleged that Lloyds and other banks adopted a mechanism known as down-valuation, to engineer a shortfall. Again, that practice has been recognised in the Tomlinson report, and it has two consequences in this case. First, Lloyds was able to secure a larger bail-out from the taxpayer. Secondly, individual customers were held to be in breach of their loan conditions. That enabled Lloyds either to renegotiate more favourable terms for itself or to eliminate its customers altogether, by triggering receivership proceedings and then the sale of those businesses. It was that second engineered consequence—of being in breach of loan conditions—that brought about the unjustified failure of many successful companies and individuals, including Mr Shabir.
I will explain to the House in a little more detail the mechanism of the alleged collusion applied to engineer a down-valuation in respect of Mr Shabir’s portfolio. Lloyds bank utilised Alder King LLP, commercial property consultants and Law of Property Act receivers, for the majority of the valuations that it carried out in Wales. Alder King was the approved professional company for all receiverships in south Wales. What is of particular concern is that Lloyds engaged as a manager for its Wales operations an equity partner of Alder King, Mr Jonathan Miles, who worked within the bank’s recoveries department—the very department responsible for making receivership appointments. In this position, it is alleged that Mr Miles worked with the valuers and receivers from his own firm of Alder King, and was able to manipulate Mr Shabir’s business into failure.
I am told that Mr Miles never disclosed his own identity as an Alder King partner and misrepresented his position to Mr Shabir as being an employee of Lloyds bank and a long-time Lloyds bank manager. Mr Miles had a Lloyds email address, Lloyds-headed stationery and a Lloyds business card, all of which he used daily. I am also told by Mr Shabir that Mr Miles appointed another Alder King receiver, his Alder King partner Mr Julian Smith, as the receiver in Mr Shabir’s case. Mr Smith wrote to Mr Miles thanking him for making the appointment. Mr Smith was also given a Lloyds email address, together with Lloyds stationery. He had full access to confidential customer data and communicated directly with Lloyds customers, misrepresenting himself as a Lloyds employee, it is alleged.
During Mr Miles’s secondment to Lloyds, he had 2,400 live cases, each worth in excess of £1 million, within his recoveries department. Those were 2,400 live cases in respect of which, if he wished to, he could appoint receivers from his own firm, Alder King. Alder King received substantial professional fees for its services as appointed receivers. These figures illustrate the size and scale of the obvious conflict of interest and the potential for financial abuse. The role played by Mr Miles within Lloyds, with the bank’s knowledge and consent, created an immediate and significant conflict of interest.
Mr Shabir accepts that banks will utilise the services of third-party specialists, such as surveyors, in their day-to-day business, but in engaging such third parties it is the bank’s responsibility to ensure that conflicts of interest do not arise. In Mr Shabir’s case, his Lloyds portfolio was down-valued by Alder King by more than 50% from its original valuation, placed into receivership and sold. Mr Shabir has four valuations from the same period by other Lloyds panel valuers, all reflecting nearly double the valuation of Alder King at the point of placement into receivership.
Once the portfolio of properties was placed into receivership, the receivers failed to transfer all associated bills to themselves, and Mr Shabir has since become the recipient of approximately 30 county court judgments for claims against properties that had been removed by the receiverships from his control. His credit rating is now completely destroyed. This young, successful entrepreneur, who grew up in a small terraced house in Cardiff and built a business worth £10 million, has been financially destroyed. With a young family who are dependent on him, he has lost his entire investment portfolio, with only his family home remaining—on which Lloyds has a second charge.
Mr Shabir alleges that he was forced by Lloyds to take out an interest rate hedging product as a condition of his lending facility with Lloyds in November 2006. When his portfolio was transferred to the recoveries department of Lloyds, it unilaterally cancelled the hedge and levied termination fees of almost half a million pounds against Mr Shabir. It is alleged, and now confirmed by Lloyds, that the hedge was mis-sold. The sales process was non-compliant in seven respects that the Financial Conduct Authority suggests are mandatory for a compliance sale.
I turn to the regulatory framework. In March 2015, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), conducted an inquiry into the insolvency regime. At the inquiry on 4 March 2015, evidence was heard about the practice of seconding insolvency practitioners and surveyors within lenders’ restructuring divisions. Mr Graham Horne, deputy chief executive of the Government’s Insolvency Service, said that receivers should never work as active insolvency practitioners within a bank. Mr Julian Healey, head of the Association of Property and Fixed Charge Receivers, expressed concern about the impression the practice gave and concluded that if receivers on secondment also worked on the same bank’s administration, there was “clearly” a conflict of interest.
Mr Shabir made a formal complaint to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors about Alder King’s conduct. In its response, RICS specifically confirmed that Mr Julian Smith of Alder King was on secondment to Lloyds at the time of the valuation of Mr Shabir’s portfolio, when he personally acted as the valuer, but also when he was appointed by Mr Jonathan Miles as the receiver. During the same period, Mr Jonathan Miles, as head of receiverships for Alder King, was embedded in Lloyds bank as Mr Shabir’s allocated bank manager.
Despite the evidence that Mr Horne and Mr Healey gave to the Select Committee, RICS somewhat astonishingly claimed to see nothing wrong with Alder King’s practice. It responded as such to Mr Shabir shortly after the Select Committee hearing at which the chair of the RICS regulatory board, Eve Salomon, gave evidence. Although the alleged collusion and fraudulent misrepresentation were first identified and raised with Lloyds by Mr Shabir in 2010, responses have amounted to no more than stonewalling by successive levels of Lloyds management.
As Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee at that time, and following personal representations from Mr Shabir, we did research into this matter. It indicated that there was a consensus across the professional bodies involved, apart from RICS, that the process demonstrated a clear conflict of interest. The bodies took it to the Minister, and I know the Minister made representations, but still absolutely nothing was done. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that reflects a serious deficiency in the monitoring process within the industry—one that results in the most devastating consequences to individuals and the economy?
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Mr Shabir told me that he is aware that not only have the issues been discussed with the chief executive of the bank, Mr António Horta-Osório, and the past chairman, Sir Win Bischoff, but the bank has dedicated senior managers, including two managing directors, to consider the case. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to address Mr Shabir’s complaint, Lloyds has applied those resources to devising a strategy to deflect him.
There has been no substantive response to Mr Shabir from Lloyds bank since October 2011. Such limited correspondence as has taken place has been issued by Lloyds’ solicitors, who have been unhelpful and dismissive, and has included a proposal to forgive the indebtedness created by Lloyds’ own actions, along with Alder King, in return for Mr Shabir’s signing a confidentiality agreement—effectively a gagging order to prevent any further discussion of any aspect of the case. Mr Shabir told me, unsurprisingly, that that was unacceptable to him, as he would have had to relinquish the £2 million of equity he originally took to Lloyds bank and have been prevented from speaking out about his experience. Because commercial lending by banks is not regulated by the FCA, it cannot intervene and investigate.
Mr Shabir’s case was referred to the Serious Fraud Office in September 2013. I am told by Mr Shabir that a substantial amount of evidence was provided to corroborate the allegations. I have seen correspondence between the former shadow Attorney General, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and Mr David Green, director of the SFO. The correspondence took place between the end of October 2014 and the beginning of November 2014. In his letter to my hon. Friend, dated 7 November 2014, Mr Green confirmed that the SFO was
“working with partners to identify the extent of information and evidence that relates to the practices described and to ascertain if there is a systemic or institutionalised problem that warrants the application of the criminal law.”
Mr Green also confirmed that the SFO had met with a number of other parties concerning Lloyds and Alder King, but, since 7 November 2014, nothing further has been forthcoming from the SFO.
Mr Shabir tells me that the number of people affected by Lloyds’ actions is in the thousands, and the Tomlinson report highlighted the extensive practice of down-valuation. Following the publication of the Tomlinson report, the Federation of Small Businesses, recognised as a super complainant, met the Welsh Affairs Committee on 20 February 2014, along with representatives of RICS. Action groups have been formed. They are multifaceted and multidirectional groups because of the specific circumstances of individual group members. There has been press coverage in the financial sections of national newspapers, including in The Times today. The BBC produced a “Panorama” programme featuring the issue.
In conclusion, we are left with a situation in which it is alleged that a partly nationalised bank, having found itself in unfavourable business arrangements, has been able to manipulate matters to its advantage, steering successful companies into receivership while depressing the valuation of those companies and individuals’ assets to augment the emergency funding it would receive from the taxpayer.
The bank has been assisted by supposedly independent professional advisers who are embedded in the bank and financially benefit from receivership appointments engineered in conjunction with the bank. An obvious and significant conflict of interest has been allowed to operate, unfettered by any regulator. RICS has declined to criticise, never mind condemn, the actions of Alder King, and the SFO has, it appears, sat on its hands, all at extreme financial and emotional cost to Mr Shabir.
There is a public interest in an investigation into potentially criminal misconduct by taxpayer-supported banks, whether it is conducted by the SFO or another agency in a position to do so. Mr Shabir has waited long and patiently enough for some action, so will the Solicitor General tell us whether the Government will undertake to investigate fully the following issues by making specific enquiries of Lloyds, Alder King and RICS?
The first issue is the extent of the practice of down-valuation and the number of seconded personnel embedded in the bank who have received receivership appointments; the second, the monetary value involved; and the third, the number of customers affected. Will the Solicitor General raise these serious issues with the Secretary of State, so that an urgent inquiry might be considered? Finally, will the Government undertake to ensure that Lloyds, as a partly public-owned bank, is proactively contacting and meeting customers to discuss redress for the affected businesses?
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for securing this debate and for laying on the record a comprehensive and detailed view of how her constituent has been affected. That is what I intend to do for my constituent, Mr Alun Richards, regarding a related issue. The story, the allegations it contains and the impact that it has had on him and his family are shocking. At best, there is a conflict of interest, with evidence of duplicity; at worst, there is evidence of collusion and real criminality that could go beyond these two cases. The points that my hon. Friend has put to the Solicitor General will help to establish the scale of the problem.
Alun Richards comes from a well-established and successful farming family of long pedigree in the Amman valley in west Wales. He is an award-winning farmer and former Wales young farmer of the year, representing the UK at European levels. His farming business expanded over years, but he knew, as many farmers do, that he had to diversify to grow further. Milk quota changes, mad cow disease, foot and mouth, milk prices and global dairy competition forced Alun to move out of milk production. Farmland was turned to crop production and farm buildings freed for other uses, initially largely funded by family money. It was successful, and the business grew and prospered. While the family had been long-term customers of NatWest RBS, other banks were keen to secure Alun’s growing business, among them Lloyds TSB.
To secure Alun’s custom, Lloyds gave him an attractive offer of the type reserved for the very best businesses: 1% over base rate. That, combined with further family money, allowed Alun to convert farm buildings and the original farmhouse into offices and meeting rooms to be let out. Further expansion included a conference centre. The original farmyard became the Tycroes business park, a beacon for employment in the area that was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Charles. Over time, the business expanded into other property, including an office block in Swansea. It was based on solid foundations and steady growth. It was successful, solvent and profitable every step of the way. The office block was financed through Lloyds, a link that originally came through Alun’s successful business being identified and snapped up by local and regional agricultural managers at Lloyds. Alun’s accounts had now been transferred to Lloyds and all was going well. Tenants were queuing up for the business park and Alun was being introduced as Lloyd’s best customer at the Royal Welsh show.
At the same time, however, the regional manager had identified a failure by the local manager, who should, the regional manager said, have consolidated seven existing loan accounts into one and should have created an overdraft as part of those consolidated loans. Despite the issue being identified, the consolidation and overdraft rearrangement never happened. That failure became the reason that Lloyds used as the justification for Alun’s booming business—to which Lloyds was lending at premium rates for trusted and successful customers--being transferred into recoveries. To be clear, the lender, Lloyds, had identified that a consolidated loan was needed, but it was not arranged, which subsequently became the reason for the business being transferred to recoveries. That itself seems remarkable, but it was in recoveries that my constituent alleges that the real abuses took place. Let us look in detail at how the transfer to recoveries of a successful business happened.
In 2008, Alun was telephoned and told that his account was being taken over by a new manager. Alun believed that his Lloyds account was progressing to a higher level of management—it was a successful business. After two weeks, Alun had heard nothing from his new manager, so he decided to telephone his original manager to ask who his new manager was. The manager informed Alun that he had been transferred to the recoveries department at Bristol. That was a complete shock. Alun then made contact with recoveries, which asked Alun if he could enlighten them as to why his account had been sent there. Alun was told that recoveries only dealt with dead and dying accounts, not accounts that were alive and kicking like Alun’s. Recoveries duly sent Alun’s files back to Alun’s manager and his regional agricultural manager. Recoveries were amazed when Alun’s manager and regional agricultural manager quickly returned Alun’s files. Recoveries told Alun that his files could be parked on a desk for three months and that he would be able to find a new bank or a new Lloyds manager. However, Alun quickly found that, behind the scenes, the banking sector was in meltdown and that that was affecting decisions.
As this was happening, Alun’s business was slowly grinding to a halt, so he engaged his then MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who wrote to the chairman of Lloyds bank. Alun then had a visit from a Mr Holliday and Mr Miles, who introduced themselves and presented business cards showing that they were managers in the Bristol recoveries department of Lloyds bank. Mr Miles assured Alun that everything would be resolved. In the presence of two qualified accountants, Mr Miles was asked about his background at Lloyds, because they had not met before. He went to great lengths to provide a history of his employment at Lloyds. He stated that his career had been in the branch network and that he had only recently transferred to recoveries. He produced business cards stating he was a Lloyds manager and carried on stating that he was Alun’s manager on Lloyds-headed notepaper and in emails from his Lloyds address for the next two and a half years.
It was only by pure chance that Alun later discovered that Mr Miles was in fact a qualified chartered surveyor and member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors —RICS—and also an equity partner in Alder King, which was never officially disclosed to Alun at the time. All correspondence to Alun from Mr Miles was signed in his capacity as a Lloyds manager. It was not stated that Mr Miles was on secondment from Alder King to Lloyds, and Alun has an internal emails, obtained by a subject access request to Lloyds, confirming that no secondment agreement exists between Alder King and Lloyds. Mr Holliday then insisted that Alun’s debt to Lloyds had to be repaid within 10 years, not the 20 years that was in the original loan agreement. Soon after, Alder King was appointed as LPA receivers over Alun’s business.
Alun was shocked to find out that Alder King was previously owned by Lloyds and contacted the receiver, a Mr Hughes. Mr Hughes had previously been a managing director at Alder King and past chairman of the Association of Property and Fixed Charge Receivers, or Nara. He was also a chartered surveyor and member of RICS, so he was well-qualified to understand the Law and Property Act 1925. Alun attended a meeting at Alder King’s offices in Bristol with Mr Hughes and Mr Holliday and Mr Miles from Lloyds. Alun was supported by his accountant, who took minutes. At no point was it made clear that Mr Miles was a chartered surveyor, a RICS member or an equity partner at Alder King. He was always introduced as a Lloyds bank manager. Mr Hughes should have made Mr Miles’ position and the potential conflict of interest quite clear.
On hearing Alun’s story, Mr Hughes immediately resigned his position as receiver, despite discussions with Mr Holliday, who insisted that Mr Hughes remain appointed. It was clear that Mr Hughes was aware of not only the conflict of interest, but potential criminal fraud and the misrepresentation of his business partner Mr Miles. There was financial profit in this situation. Another three months passed with little activity from Lloyds recoveries. Mr Smith from Alder King was appointed as LPA receiver, along with the reappointment of Mr Hughes.
By March 2011, two years on from the shock meeting with Mr Holliday and Mr Miles from Lloyds recoveries, Alun’s life and business were grinding to a halt. As a result, Alun, along with his MP, went to the main Lloyds offices in Gresham Street, London. Alun’s then MP presented a letter to request a meeting with António Horta Osório, Lloyds’ new chief executive officer. A Mr Young met them and listened to the story and stated that there
“had to be a resolution”.
By now, Alun was dealing daily with Mr Young, who had given him direct access via landline, email and mobile. Mr Young gave an ultimatum to recoveries to resolve matters with Alun or the case would be taken over by Mr Cumming, the global managing director, with overall responsibility of Bristol recoveries. After that, however, Alun was locked out of his business park, with Lloyds having sold the property as mortgagee not in possession.
Two of the tenants of the Tycroes business park bought the property for £70,000. Although Alun Richards had in his possession a valuation for the same business park of more than £2 million, carried out by surveyors Lambert Smith Hampton only two years previously, LSH had reportedly provided Lloyds with a zero valuation of the same premises. The business park had 12 units, two office blocks, a large conference centre and 5 acres of future development land—but a zero valuation.
Notification to Alun of the sale came via solicitors TLT. It transpired that TLT was acting for Lloyds bank, Alder King, Mr Smith and Mr Hughes. Is that not a conflict of interest? Alun’s then MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, arranged a meeting with Mr Young and Mr Cumming at Lloyds headquarters in London. Subsequently, Mr Cumming took sole responsibility for Lloyds’ actions and agreed to visit the farm to see at first hand the damage that had been caused to Alun and his family.
An auction of the remaining farmland had been planned for that evening, but was cancelled by Mr Cumming. That was strange, as Lloyds had appointed an LPA receiver to take charge of all the properties. A further property, Mansel house in Swansea, which Alun had purchased as his pension fund, had a valuation of £600,000 and a loan of £480,000 secured with Lloyds. The LPA receiver sold it at auction in London for £125,000, two years after it had been bought by Alun. Of the £125,000 realised for the property, Alder King took a commission of £50,000, realising a loss of £405,000 to taxpayer-owned Lloyds bank.
Mr Cumming kept his word and visited Alun’s farm to see the damage. Again he took full responsibility, and he declared that he would be back within a week to return Alun’s business to the position it was in before this fraud began. Alun had now had a high-profile managing director in Lloyds bank travel to his farm in rural west Wales and state that he would return Alun’s business to its original position, but the next week came and went. After three weeks, Mr Cumming wrote to state that he had decided on an independent investigation into his department’s action.
Mr Cumming appointed solicitors Hogan Lovells to lead the investigation, but over the next year Hogan Lovells parked it in the long grass. Lloyds then decided to sell the rest of Alun’s portfolio by auction—the fourth attempt to sell the properties, as the previous three had been cancelled. Alun’s father bought all the lots, but Bristol recoveries, Alder King and the other RICS auctioneers who were now involved were furious and used an opt-out clause in the small print to cancel the sale. They then sold the farmland on a first come, first served basis at a knockdown price. Shortly afterwards, Alder King resigned as receivers. Alun had started out with a portfolio valued at £5 million and a successful business, with borrowings of £1.3 million; he has ended up bankrupt and with nothing.
Where is Alun’s case now? Alun Richards and Kashif Shabir had their first meeting with the Serious Fraud Office on 11 November 2013, when they presented what they believe to be overwhelming evidence of criminal fraud. Another meeting was held one year later. I understand the file to be open and awaiting progress—that is what we are seeking. Alun made separate but identical complaints to RICS—as did Kashif Shabir—regarding his personal circumstances, which involved an additional set of regulated members. RICS refused to take the bundles of evidence from Mr Richards, but then somehow concluded that there were no breaches of its code. RICS relied solely upon the representations of its members. It would therefore not be unfair to assume that it is offering a degree of protection to its fee-paying members. Where is the professed protection for the customer?
The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills looked at the case on 4 March 2015, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey). In attendance were principals from five independent industry regulators, including Eve Salomon, chair of the regulatory board of RICS, Graham Stockey, principal surveyor for RICS, Julian Healey, chief executive officer of Nara, and Daniel Hardy, chairman of Nara.
I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central, who referred to the evidence given at the hearing being entirely in opposition to the practices adopted by Lloyds and Alder King working in unison, giving the appearance of collusion. Furthermore, when parties with a mutual financial interest are working in conjunction with each other, there are obvious opportunities for abuse. It is just such an abuse that I wish to highlight and that I believe my constituent Mr Richards is the victim of. In addition, it is known that Alder King, as I touched on, was the recipient of substantial fees, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds in this case. The incentive is obvious. In Alun’s case alone, Alder King was able to charge more than £400,000 in total fees for acting as receiver.
What about the Solicitors Regulation Authority? The general case is further exemplified by the fact that both Alder King and the bank were utilising the services of not only one law firm, but specifically Mr Hayllar of TLT solicitors, who was representing both the bank and the receiver simultaneously. What chance does the customer have when facing a united front from a tripartite relationship and he is not even invited to the party? In fact, his exclusion is what makes the party happen. The consequences of the alleged criminal fraud of Lloyds recoveries in Bristol, along with Alder King, are far reaching, because more than 3,000 customers were with the Bristol recoveries at one time. Such fraud could have cost the British taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds of the bail-out money that was available to Lloyds bank.
In conclusion, there is more to these cases than my hon. Friend and I have said today. Allegations have been made against individuals and organisations such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, which appears complicit because of its failure to step in and act when concerns and allegations against its members were raised. ACCA will now only communicate with my constituent via a solicitor.
Surely now is the time for the Serious Fraud Office to take action. Now is the time to shine a spotlight on the allegations of criminality, collusion and corruption. What the two cases illustrate might be the tip of the iceberg. The SFO surely has a duty to pursue the matter, to see whether the allegations are substantiated and, crucially, whether there are more cases like this out there—we have heard that there are, with more victims suffering in silence and believing themselves helpless after their profitable businesses have been destroyed. The SFO has the power, authority and remit to do something—to make inquiries of the regulator, Alder King and the bank, and to quantify the extent of the situation. We could be talking about millions of pounds, but only the SFO can uncover this. Far from being responsible banking practice, this looks like daylight robbery. A thorough investigation is needed and it is needed now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this afternoon’s extremely important debate on behalf of her constituent, Mr Kashif Shabir, and the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), Mr Alun Richards. This is my first outing in the role of shadow Attorney General, which I am pleased to be taking on, in particular in a shadow Cabinet that for the first time has a majority of women. I am thoroughly looking forward to holding the Attorney General and the Solicitor General’s feet to the fire, but also working constructively with them when appropriate.
As with all Serious Fraud Office cases, those of Mr Richards and Mr Shabir are complex, but they have been carefully and passionately set out by my hon. Friends. There is much to be passionate about. As many of us know from our constituency postbags and surgeries, there are many more cases such as those we have heard about today throughout the country. Since the financial crisis, small, medium and even large firms have been brought to their knees by the banking system, with serious allegations of malpractice being made. Good and credible businesspeople such as Mr Richards and Mr Shabir have seen their credit ratings destroyed, after having worked hard for years and decades to build up their businesses. We only need to look at the Bully Banks campaign to see just how many firms and individuals have been affected by allegations of malpractice over the past few years.
Indeed, I have a constituency case involving the now acknowledged mis-selling of interest rate hedging products, or swaps; my constituent’s family, and the many who rely on them for good, skilled employment, have been reeling from the consequences of that ever since. We are not discussing the swap mis-selling scandal today, but the activities alleged by Mr Richards and Mr Shabir, and the consequences of those activities, bear a striking resemblance to the situation suffered by my constituent. I have a real fear that that indicates a systemic failure in our banking system across the country.
As my hon. Friends for Cardiff Central and for Ogmore have explained, the cases of Mr Richards and Mr Shabir involve allegations of the deliberate under- valuing by Lloyds of their properties—known as down valuation—in order to put them in breach of their loan-to-value ratios on secured debts, and thereby engineer defaults on their loans. That in itself is an extremely serious allegation. I believe it has been rejected by Lloyds, but was covered in some detail by the 2013 Tomlinson report commissioned by the Business Secretary in the coalition Government, Dr Vince Cable. In his report into banks’ lending practices and treatment of businesses in distress, Lawrence Tomlinson commented:
“This has been one of the most common complaints in the evidence received for this report. Revaluation of assets appears to be used on frequent occasions to put businesses into default of their loan agreements.”
He went on:
“Many businesses have submitted evidence demonstrating what appear to be unquestionable under-valuations of properties. They are so stark compared to original and current values of the property that their accuracy has to be called into question as well as the reason behind such an inaccuracy.”
The report concluded—and this is the crux of the matter, particularly in the cases we are considering:
“Not only is the undervaluation itself a concern, so is the relationship between the bank and the valuers. Often, much of a valuer’s work will come from the banks and there is therefore an inherent conflict of interest as there is a natural incentive for the valuer to act in the interest of the bank.”
In March, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee took evidence as part of its inquiry into the insolvency industry. Witnesses conceded that it is becoming more common for property receivers to be seconded to banks. Sometimes even surveyors and receivers have been known to be seconded within lenders’ restructuring divisions, therefore working on lenders’ distressed loans books. As even the industry witnesses to that inquiry conceded, in such a situation there is potential for a serious conflict of interest.
In both the cases we have heard about this afternoon, Lloyds bank utilised Alder King LLP for its property valuations. Yet Alder King also had staff seconded to Lloyds, working within the bank’s recoveries department—the very department that was responsible for receivership appointments. As reported by both the Financial Times and The Times, such staff were engaged directly in work on the cases of Mr Shabir and Mr Richards, but allegedly gave the impression that they worked directly for the bank, not Alder King LLP, the firm that was to benefit financially from the businesses going into receivership. It is that alleged conflict of interest, and its very significant consequences, about which Mr Shabir and Mr Richards have lodged their complaints to the Serious Fraud Office.
As we have heard, as no response had been received from Lloyds to the complaints since September 2011, Mr Shabir’s and Mr Richards’s cases were referred to the SFO in September 2013. Two meetings were held with the SFO, during which a substantial amount of evidence was provided to corroborate the allegations, but it was not until 7 November 2014 that the SFO’s director, David Green QC, responded and acknowledged the gravity of the issues raised. I understand that nothing has been heard from the SFO since, some 10 months on from that communication.
Of course, Mr Shabir and Mr Richards are not the only ones making such allegations about the activities of Lloyds bank and Alder King. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central mentioned earlier, when my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was shadow Attorney General, she wrote to the SFO director about this issue on behalf of two other Labour Members of Parliament and their constituents. In his response, also dated 7 November 2014, David Green stated:
“I can assure you that we are taking appropriate steps to pursue this serious issue.”
Like my hon. Friends the Member for Cardiff Central and for Ogmore, I look forward to receiving an update from the Solicitor General—or, subsequent to the debate, in writing from the Attorney General—on the actual progress that has been made in investigating these serious allegations. We all appreciate their complexity, but it is now two years since the matter was first referred to the SFO.
There is also clearly a significant public interest in the matter, not least because we are, after all, discussing a bank that was bailed out by the British taxpayer and remains part-owned by the public purse. In addition, since 2010, the Serious Fraud Office’s funding has been cut by just over 12%, with potential serious implications for its ability to prosecute serious and complex cases of fraud and bribery effectively and in a timely manner.
In the light of what we have heard this afternoon, hon. Members need urgent reassurances from the Government Law Officers that the SFO does in fact have the resources it needs to investigate such cases. That question is even more pressing given the further £20 billion of cuts to public spending anticipated at the forthcoming spending review, with the Chancellor reportedly requiring Departments to model budget cuts of up to 40% by 2019-20.
Although allegations such as those made by Mr Richards and Mr Shabir may make for uncomfortable listening for the Government, it is deeply concerning that every time the Serious Fraud Office wants to take on a major case—LIBOR rigging being a prime example—it now has to effectively go cap in hand to the Treasury to apply for additional funding, sometimes referred to as blockbuster funding, in order to do the job. That clearly has implications for the vital independence of the SFO, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer potentially has a veto on what is investigated. Indeed, Transparency International has stated its concern about that situation:
“The process for additional budget approval may present a substantial risk of political influence.”
Again, I would appreciate an assurance from the Solicitor General that there is no need for such concerns, in particular with regard to the case we are discussing.
During questions to the Attorney General in July, the Solicitor General stated:
“It is important that we give our full-throated support to the work of the SFO because, as the hon. Gentleman says, if there are doubts about the integrity and efficacy of that important arm of the prosecutorial authorities, we are in serious trouble indeed.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1611.]
I could not agree more, but when we hear of cases like those of Mr Shabir and Mr Richards, who—like many thousands of businesses across the country—appear to have been badly let down by the system, such statements are understandably thrown into doubt. We need to know that the Serious Fraud Office does not just take such matters seriously but has the will, capacity and resources to investigate and then prosecute where appropriate. I look forward to hearing the Solicitor General’s reassurances in that regard.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I pay warm tribute to the hon. Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber and for having not only the courtesy but the sense of co-operation to approach me before it so that I could clearly understand the cases that would be raised. I hope, in the light of that, to offer an appropriate response. My response has to be calibrated bearing in mind the nature of the office I hold and the importance of having an independent prosecutorial service, and I know that Members on both sides of the House understand that.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and welcome her to her post as shadow Attorney General. I was delighted to hear her remarks. Although no doubt we will disagree about some issues, I am sure we will be able to work constructively together in the finest traditions of the Law Officers and shadow Law Officers, and their unique role within Government.
The issues that have been raised—it is almost axiomatic, but it is important to say it—are important. They are wide-ranging and the presence of the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) has been helpful, because, as he reminded us, he was the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that took oral evidence in March. I am grateful to him for coming to the debate. He will appreciate that issues of regulation are for other arms of Government, but one function of debates such as this is for the House to hear the bigger picture, so that all arms of Government are fully aware of Members’ concerns.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central asked for a general review. As she will know, there have been a number of reports and reviews on specific aspects of this type of alleged misconduct. We heard reference to the Tomlinson report, which, in itself, gave rise to what is termed the skilled persons report under section 166 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. That report is due to be produced at the end of the year. It relates to another bank, but the type of alleged activity is highly germane to the issues that we have been discussing.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for confining myself to the debate’s terms of reference. What I aim to do, first, is to offer strong reassurance to hon. Members about the importance with which the SFO regards all allegations and the threshold test that it must apply.
I listened to the shadow Attorney General’s remarks with great interest. I disagree with her about the very nature of what is a demand-led service and the importance of having blockbuster funding to allow for the flexibility that the SFO needs, in terms of hiring or engaging staff, and larger numbers of staff at different times, particularly to deal with finite inquiries. There is also the impracticability of maintaining very large staffing numbers at all times because of the inevitable pressures that will exist upon its budgets, whatever the economic weather. With respect, the point that the hon. Lady was missing was the terms of reference within which the SFO was set up, and it is important to remind the House about those, because they are highly germane to the test that has to be applied to all allegations of fraud.
Those of us with a long memory will remember the Roskill report of 1986. It was groundbreaking because it made important recommendations about the investigation of serious fraud that gave rise to the Criminal Justice Act 1987. The Roskill model, which was the embedding of investigators and prosecutors together in one group, gave rise to the Act and setting up the Serious Fraud Office.
The sort of cases that the SFO deals with are what I, and I think all of us, would regard as the very high-profile, big-risk cases involving huge sums of money, large numbers of victims or new types of fraud, whether the manipulation of LIBOR rates, or allegations involving major companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Barclays, Tesco and Rolls-Royce. This is a particular type of serious fraud for which the threshold has to be high and, in fact, it is set out in the Act. We therefore have to recognise that, sadly, not all cases of alleged fraud are going to fall to the SFO to investigate. As I said, it can only formally commence investigation if the criteria and circumstances set out in legislation are met.
The police have the primary responsibility for investigating crime here, and Action Fraud has been established as the national reporting centre to which reports of alleged fraud should be referred in the first instance. The SFO’s role is limited to the investigation and prosecution of cases of serious and complex fraud. However, I can assure the House that when referrals are made to it, a member of the SFO assesses every single one. That task is not to be underestimated. The vast majority of referrals to the SFO are not about matters that it can properly investigate, but it takes every single referral seriously, and it will give each one due consideration and pass on details to other agencies that may be more suited to dealing with it or placing particular cases. It also retains the material that it has been given, using that for intelligence purposes to help inform other agencies and, indeed, sometimes in its own work to identify those top-tier cases that are appropriate for it to investigate.
I thank the Minister for the helpful way in which he is laying out his points. He mentioned the threshold test. If evidence was to be gained that this went beyond two individual cases and that there were far more, would it pass the threshold test? If that is the case, rather than relying on the CPS or on individual prosecutions, would it be, in the light of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central, appropriate—or, in fact, necessary—for the SFO to make inquiries of Lloyds, RICS, and Alder King in relation to how many examples of conflict of interest and potential financial gains along the way this could affect? If we are talking about thousands of people—my apologies for the length of this intervention, Mrs Main—I suspect we are in SFO territory.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman can be forgiven for the length of his intervention, because he asked a very pertinent question. Although I cannot prejudge the precise parameters of what might happen in the future, circumstances may well change, and the SFO, keeping matters under review as it does, would then have to be guided by that change in circumstances. In other words, we cannot rule that possibility out. It would be wrong of me to do that.
Dealing, then, with the specific allegations, I have to acknowledge that it would be unusual for me to comment in detail about allegations either leading towards an individual or made by an individual or a company, but I am aware of course that Mr Shabir and Mr Richards have raised their allegations with a wide range of people and organisations, and I do not underestimate their importance. The two gentlemen clearly have had a very difficult time. The consequences of what has happened are extremely serious for them. That said, I have to stress that these remain allegations. It is not for me to comment on their merits or whether they are well founded. I have to acknowledge the effect of allegations that are made, and that is an important point when discussing them in a public forum such as this. Those are the constraints within which I think I should operate.
Although Mr Shabir and Mr Richards have presented their cases together, they are making slightly different allegations. It is right to say, as has been said in the debate, that the SFO has met the gentlemen on more than one occasion; the allegations have been considered in great detail; and there has been close liaison with other law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies to gather any relevant material that they may hold. However, the SFO has explained to both gentlemen that their cases, individually, would not meet the threshold and would not be investigated, because as stand-alone allegations, they do not come into that top tier. That has been made clear. We have already—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore—started to outline and discuss what might or could happen to change that position, but that is the status quo.
I have said that it is important to recognise that the SFO does not investigate every case of alleged fraud—that is not its purpose—and I know that despite referrals to other organisations, no proceedings have yet been brought. However, the material provided by Mr Richards and Mr Shabir is being kept or has been kept under active consideration by the Serious Fraud Office, and this matter is kept under review as new information may arise. It is not a closed file, but obviously at this stage the threshold has not been reached.
This is exactly what the SFO should be doing. It is seeking to make intelligent and intelligence links to identify cases of serious or complex fraud. To seek to investigate every case would defeat its purpose and overwhelm its resource, and frankly it would have no statutory footing on which to do so. I argue strongly that the current director has demonstrated that he is prepared to take on difficult and high-profile cases. The seriousness of the investigations to which I have referred will, I hope, demonstrate to hon. Members the sort of case that the SFO should be taking on. In other words, the office has a specific role that Parliament has given it. If the SFO can put all these allegations together with other intelligence to establish a case of serious or complex fraud, it will do so, and that is why it has decided to keep this significant matter under review.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank everyone who participated in the debate, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who is the new shadow Attorney General, and the Solicitor General. I am very grateful to you all and for having had the opportunity to put the case for my constituent.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Serious Fraud Office and the complaints of Alun Richards and Kash Shabir.