I beg to move,
That this House has considered the independent review of HBOS Reading.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. There are some fundamental business principles that underpin any free market economy: we compete on a fair and level playing field; we all have a fair, fighting chance of success; we all play by the same rules; and our regulations and the rule of law ensure, where injustices occur, that justice is done and is seen to be done.
Many people in the Public Gallery today no longer believe in those principles. They have been subject to scandalous, criminal fraud perpetrated by senior bank managers at Lloyds and HBOS. They have had to suffer further scandal at the hands of those at the highest level in the bank who, when made aware of the fraud, instead of holding their hands up to what had gone wrong, denied any wrongdoing for 10 years. Indeed, there is clear and compelling evidence that the most senior management sought to cover up the fraud, suppressed evidence, and used the HBOS review process, which is supposedly there to compensate the victims, to minimise payments and perpetuate the cover-up. Incredibly, our system—our regulators—stood by and allowed the fraud against the victims to continue.
The hon. Gentleman knows my view of him. He does an enormous amount of work on these issues, and I pay tribute to him for all that work. He will be aware of my constituent, Mr Alun Richards, whose business went under through the Lloyds Banking Group. He has mentioned public bodies, including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Serious Fraud Office, turning a blind eye. He and I have been working for a number of years to try to get those organisations to deal with these complaints. Millions and millions of pounds have gone missing. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for a fundamental review, led by the Treasury, of how we can get a better banking system that works for customers and is a lot more ethical about how it conducts its business practices?
I do agree. The sector is so far away from the banking sector that we need that fundamental reform is needed not only in the regulatory process, but in the mechanisms that enable victims to hold the banks to account, which I will come on to soon.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. One of my constituents, Michael Field, has been a victim of the banks as well. He borrowed from Lloyds to finance the building of several houses. He maintained his payments and fulfilled the terms and conditions of the loan agreement, yet Lloyds seized his assets and foreclosed on him. He then discovered that his assets had been sold on to another organisation within the bank. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government need to have parallel and very specific inquiries about the operation of Lloyds in relation to these and similar matters?
The hon. Gentleman makes his case very well. The difficulty goes back to my point about justice being seen to be done. There is no mechanism currently. I cannot judge the guilt or innocence in the business relationship between his constituent and his bank. The key is to allow mechanisms for these people to take their complaints forward, without having to be subject to the one-sided, partial process that they are subject to today. That is what the Griggs review is.
I will now make a little progress, if I may.
I will give way briefly.
I just want to make the point that my constituent fulfilled all the terms and conditions and maintained his payments, yet he has no recourse. I take the point about being able to make a complaint, but what happened should never have been allowed to happen.
I agree, and there are many cases like that. I will talk about the redress processes shortly.
There are three elements to what we are discussing: the fraud itself, the potential cover-up of the fraud, and the review that supposedly provides justice for the victims of the fraud. There were finally convictions for the fraud in January 2017. Six people, including three former HBOS employees, were convicted of defrauding business customers over 10 years earlier. More than £250 million in total was defrauded, and the people who were guilty of the crimes got 47 years in jail.
Many people lost millions of pounds—in some cases, it was tens of millions—yet these issues did not come to light because of the regulators. They came to light because of individuals who were so persistent and determined; I am thinking particularly of Paul and Nikki Turner, journalists such as Ian Fraser, and Sally Masterton, who worked for Lloyds. Had it not been for them, the issues would never have come to light. Of course, their efforts have taken a great toll on them and come at great cost to them.
I am sorry to interrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He has referred to the people who are in jail at the moment. One of my constituents was working for a company called Carringworth. Through its dealings with those people who are in jail now, her company was forced into administration. Now, after 10 years of hell, the administrators are putting huge pressure on her to settle. Is it not wrong that she should be forced to settle before the establishment of an independent set of organisations that can adjudicate and ensure that she gets the justice that she deserves?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he touches on the human cost of these issues as well as the financial cost, which is critical. What we want to see, which I will come on to, is an opening up of all the cases that have been through the Griggs review by means of examination through a completely impartial arbitration process that will fairly adjudicate and arbitrate the claims.
As if the fraud were not bad enough, there was a cover-up. HBOS and Lloyds became aware of the issue from 2006 onwards. The current chief executive, António Horta-Osório, was made aware of the fraud as soon as he took up his post in 2011 by the Turners and many others. Famously, in September 2013, Sally Masterton, a senior risk officer at Lloyds Banking Group, on the instructions of her line manager, produced a report called the Project Lord Turnbull report. Its findings were shocking. There was a corporate strategy within Lloyds and HBOS to conceal the fraud, which caused substantial loss to shareholders and investors.
At that point, there was another opportunity for the bank to hold its hands up and say, “Right, enough is enough. Let’s get all of this out in the open and get to the bottom of these issues.” Did that happen? No, that is not what happened. Sally Masterton was suspended from her job and discredited to the Financial Conduct Authority. Scandalously, she was prevented from working with the police, despite being told that she was vital to the investigation, and then she was fired. The senior management did not make the report available to non-executive directors or the chair of the board for three years. Finally, last month, the bank reversed its position and confirmed that Sally had
“acted with integrity and in good faith at all times”.
There were other elements of cover-up. Thames Valley police said that Lloyds had led them a “merry dance” in their £7-million investigation of these issues. There is evidence of a wider fraud, certainly from victims going through the Griggs review to whom I have spoken. They talk about other senior managers, including Paul Burnett, high risk managing director at HBOS Edinburgh, personally having involvement with HBOS Reading. HBOS compliance officers were embedded in the fraudsters’ operations, and of course gagging orders are used across the board to prevent more disclosures from coming to light.
Let me move on to the review. It was supposed to be an independent review and was headed by Professor Griggs—that is why we call it the Griggs review. It was supposed to provide swift and fair compensation to the victims. However, the SME Alliance, which has done so much work for so many of the victims, instructed Jonathan Laidlaw, QC, who names among his clients the Bank of England, to review the review itself. He determined, in a short report, that the review is “procedurally defective”, and its principles are “flawed and appear partial” to the bank’s interests. That description is consistent with the experiences and stories of the victims. They have described the review to us as corrupt, disgraceful, one-sided and evincing an absence of due diligence, with manipulated documents and lies about evidence. Agreed payments are not met, and the process makes life as difficult and unpleasant as possible. These are victims of fraud.
Will the hon. Gentleman add one more element, namely deliberate over-complication? It seems that this whole saga has been made so opaque that it is difficult to get to the bottom of what really happened. Does he agree?
I totally agree with that. I will come on to the disclosure of evidence shortly, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the bank could have dealt with this summarily many years ago, as soon as it came to light, but it chose not to. Why it chose not to is an open question.
The basic assumption of this review was laid out by Professor Griggs himself, who was quoted as saying that when he deals with these businesses, he is
“invariably dealing with the financial equivalent of a car crash.”
How can that be the basis for any judgment that these businesses were viable? The judge in the case stated that some “were capable of rescue” and that there was
“deliberate mismanagement of these companies”
by the advisers—by the fraudsters. He added that there were “plunderings made from them”, and that
“fees and any useful assets”
were taken from them. Why would the review ignore a High Court judge? Only four of the 76 cases have been dealt with by means of a consequential loss. All the rest have been dealt with through distress and inconvenience—in other words, all those businesses were dud businesses. That is simply not statistically possible.
My hon. Friend is making a very forceful speech. This subject is close to many business people’s hearts. Does he agree that because the bank has refused to pay for forensic accounting, victims are left powerless, even if the bank was willing to look at this? As he has just said, the bank simply labelled most of the businesses as failures. It is deliberately making it impossible for the victims to be heard properly with forensic accounting.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is completely one-sided. It means there is a complete imbalance of power in what is supposed to be an independent review, because the bank itself has phalanxes of advisers, whereas the victims clearly cannot afford to provide for the same number or calibre of advisers.
Offers are not made on an open basis; it is a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Imagine, Sir Christopher, that you have been stripped of all your assets over a period of 10 years. You are desperately trying to seek justice, and finally somebody offers you a cheque. Your only other option is to go to the court. What do you do? It is a take-it-or-leave-it offer. If you say, “Actually, I don’t think that is enough,” you get a secondary meeting, but there is no interrogation of the facts; it is simply take it or leave it. That is the nature of the review.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for calling this debate. In fact, I called a debate on this very subject 10 years ago, when my constituents Justin Riggs and Karl Capp told me how they were being treated by their bank. This is one of the biggest frauds to hit many hard-working small business people in this country. The simple point is that the bank, rather than hiding behind regulations and technicalities, should be giving generous and quick compensation to many people who have lost their businesses, because of a fraud that was covered up and hidden for years by senior members of that bank.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The levels of compensation should be determined by an independent third party, not by the bank itself, because there is no methodology. Nobody can contest the findings of Professor Griggs. There is no way of interrogating how he has arrived at a number. They simply say—I have heard this so many times from Lloyds directors—“Well, we settled most of the claims,” as if that is somehow an endorsement of the process. The fact is that the victims had no other option—no appeal process—other than going to court, which would have cost millions of pounds.
Victims cannot even get access to the evidence. In a normal court process there would be disclosure of evidence, so that they could see the evidence they are being judged against. There was no disclosure of evidence. Lloyds has found a better way, according to a letter it sent me on 20 September. It said it had “created an alternative approach” to disclosure, “to protect customers interests”. That is its approach. It is complete obfuscation.
Eligibility is determined by the bank itself. It decides who is eligible for the review and who is not by invitation only. Only directors get to decide, not shareholders or suppliers, nor Her Majesty’s Treasury, which must have lost a lot of money through this process in respect of tax. It only dealt directly with the individuals who were convicted, not their deputies or other people who may well have been involved in the fraud. This is not an independent review. Professor Griggs is paid by the bank. His remit is determined by the bank. I have seen evidence that determinations he has made have been overruled by the bank.
This is in no way an independent process. Of course, everybody who goes to it is subject to a gagging order. The bank provided us with confirmation that clause 4 in its settlement agreements does not prevent victims talking to it or to the press. However, I have seen another agreement, completely different from the one the bank provided to the Treasury Committee, which contains extra clauses that do prevent these victims speaking to the press or to the authorities. Justice must be seen to be done. Lloyds bank is the judge, jury and executioner. The all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance, of which I am now co-chair, said right from the start that this is the wrong way to deal with the process, but Lloyds pushed on anyway.
Moving on to a solution to these problems, the APPG believes that all cases—anybody who has been subject to the Griggs review—should be re-examined through a completely independent process. The APPG has recommended a financial services tribunal, which would judge cases based on a fair and reasonable test, with one-way cost shifting, so the banks cannot simply keep people out of court by writing huge cheques out to their own lawyer. That would mean that people would get an independent examination of their case. Victims can then get compensation and move on.
We believe that a tribunal is required, with an arbitration process for past claims. There have been four different reviews this year of how we can fill this gap, make this process fairer and get back to a more balanced situation, with restitution and redress. Three of those reviews recommended a financial services tribunal, as we do. The one report that did not was sponsored by the banking industry itself and it simply says that we should increase the powers, remit and jurisdiction of the ombudsman schemes. While that is a good step forward, we do not feel that it is enough.
That addresses compensation, but we need to go further. We need to change the culture in the whole sector, as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said. In terms of the Lloyds management, I do not see how the position of the chief executive, António Horta-Osório, is tenable. Given the way that the effective whistleblower has been treated, the way this has been covered up and the way that the process has been deliberately partial, I do not see how the Lloyds management have been consistent with the behaviour required under the senior managers regime. I think António Horta-Osório should resign. I also think he should face investigation under the senior managers regime.
Finally, the Financial Conduct Authority itself—our regulator—has many questions to answer. Why did it approve the scheme? Did it approve the scheme? We have heard conflicting evidence on that. It is a national disgrace that Lloyds has been allowed to operate this sham of a review process. Andrew Bailey himself has questions to answer. Why did he allow the process to continue? Why was he not aware of the patent defects in the process? Nevertheless, the FCA should take charge and undertake an investigation of the senior management under the senior managers regime.
We in this place are defenders of free markets. For me, this is the most important issue that any of us will ever deal with. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, I cannot rest until the matter is settled. My life has been transformed through the opportunities of free markets. In the main, the bankers I have dealt with over 25 years have done a tremendous job—a fair job—to help my business to thrive through some difficulties. I was one of the lucky ones. Not all bankers are the same. Most people in the industry are decent people trying to do the right thing, so it is even more important to hold those who are not to account. We have to make sure that everyone has the opportunities that I have had—that we have had—including all our children and grandchildren. We must all demand, for the sake of the victims, that justice is done and is seen to be done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing the debate. I echo his concerns about the failure of the Griggs review and whether it really provides an outcome for the victims of this terrible fraud, many of whom have suffered far more losses than just financial ones.
The Griggs review was established to offer fast and fair compensation to the victims, but its reality is very different. The all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance has received many representations, as have I, that have described it as a farce, a cynical whitewash and, above all, not fit for purpose, because it is an internal scheme with complete control held by the bank.
We have seen that tactic time and time again in the financial industry. It establishes an internal compensation scheme and conducts an internal investigation to give an illusion of accountability, when the reality is that it can maintain significant control with minimal independent oversight. That is evident from the Dobbs review, which was intended to establish whether issues relating to the HBOS Reading fraud were properly investigated and appropriately reported to the authorities, and whether individuals in the Lloyds Banking Group deliberately tried to conceal or cover up information relating to the fraud. Although we are not questioning the integrity of Dame Linda and her team, the fact remains that they operate within the scope and parameters set by the bank, and they do not have the statutory powers required for a robust and thorough investigation of the matters.
Worryingly, as has been mentioned, the review will consider events only between 2009 and 2017, thereby ignoring the damning conclusions of the Turnbull report, which states that the cover-up of the fraud commenced as early as 2005. There will also be no interim report and the findings might not even be published. Lloyds bank must ensure that the findings are made public, otherwise the public and Parliament will simply not have confidence in the review.
That still leaves some important questions. Where are the regulators and the investigative agencies in that? The Financial Conduct Authority, the Serious Fraud Office and others seem comfortable to simply outsource their regulatory responsibilities to the organisations being investigated. In a recent letter to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, the director of the SFO, Lisa Osofsky, stated that it would not be appropriate for the SFO to comment on those matters, given the work that is currently being undertaken by the National Crime Agency and the Dobbs review. It cannot be acceptable that the organisations responsible for investigating fraud at the highest level are content to allow the bank that is under investigation to set the parameters and scope of their investigations. That cannot be right.
UK Finance has recently announced that the industry has agreed to establish a new ombudsman scheme for larger small and medium-sized enterprises with a turnover between £6.5 million and £10 million and a balance sheet up to £10 million. The APPG has written to the Minister with several concerns about the proposals. Crucially, there will still be a gap in accessing justice for those businesses with larger claims above £600,000. The FCA’s consultation on SME access to the Financial Ombudsman Service clearly shows that an award limit of £600,000 would exclude 41% of complainants because their claims would be above that level. The activities of the Global Restructuring Group were upwards of £1.7 million, so the limit would mean that a lot of people would not gain access to justice. Other people watching and experiencing that are questioning the responsibility of our banking system.
We require an independent mechanism for resolving such disputes that can decide cases on a fair and reasonable basis, capture unregulated entities, force the disclosure of information and the attendance of witnesses, and make those decisions in the public domain. That is what a financial services tribunal could do. I am afraid that I believe that is the only mechanism that would give businesses the confidence they require to borrow, that would give justice to those people who have come here today and who are watching outside this place, and that would put the banks back where they belong—as cornerstones of our communities.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing the debate. He has been really engaging on the subject and he has been thorough in his investigation. We all appreciate his efforts. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who made a valuable contribution to the debate. The hon. Members who are present are the ones who are usually present when there is a debate to do with banking. It is also good to see the Minister in his place. We have met and discussed these matters on many occasions. We have had copious correspondence—maybe enough to destroy a rainforest in Brazil or something, the letters have been so numerous. It is important that we discuss these matters and bring them forward.
I am conscious of the time, so my comments will be brief. I want to talk about the key point of the debate, which, for me, is in the final substantive paragraphs of the Minister’s letter of 3 December to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. The letter states:
“From conversations, meetings, and debates over the course of my tenure, I have seen that there are a number of businesses who feel that they have not already had access to a process which can address their complaints. This is why I am glad that the banking industry propose to put in place a method of addressing unresolved historic cases. Established independently of the banking industry, and overseen by a former senior judge, the scheme to consider these cases will make decisions on a ‘fair and reasonable’ basis, be adequately resourced to deal with more complex disputes, and operate in a transparent manner. The industry have also committed to producing proposals on the implementation of the voluntary scheme for future complaints from larger businesses, and I look forward to the next steps in this work. I trust that you welcome these developments, and will continue to work constructively with UK Finance on the delivery of these schemes by September 2019.”
I have two observations on that letter, which I hope the Minister will take note of. My first observation was expressed in part of my published statement that went to The Times’ journalist James Hurley last week, on Monday 3 December, following the publication of the UK Finance report. The article states:
“The Democratic Unionist Party”—
which I am privileged to be a member of, and which has been clear about where it stands—
“is among those who still believe a tribunal is needed.”
I was quoted as saying that my concerns about UK Finance’s exclusion of the tribunal were
“compounded by the legitimate concerns of many SMEs about the independence of past bank-led redress processes”.
This debate is founded on exactly that concern about the Griggs review. Many right hon. and hon. Members have already spoken, and probably will speak, here and elsewhere about the substantive evidence on that matter, including legal opinion, as referenced in The Times. I will return to that shortly.
My second observation is that the Minister clearly believes that the APPG on fair business banking and finance is being actively involved in the process of the development of these schemes with UK Finance. Page 4 of the UK Finance report states:
“UK Finance has been working with member firms, the Government and regulatory authorities to consider the proposals set out in the Walker Review and to consider how the industry can address the important issues raised.”
There seems to be an undertaking and a willingness from the Minister to do that. UK Finance refers to working with the Government, but, respectfully, that comment does not seem to underpin any active recognition or involvement of the APPG and parliamentarians in the development of the process. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has put that forward clearly in his correspondence. It is my view and that of the Democratic Unionist party that it is a fundamental error to exclude parliamentarians and that it will not help the development of a sound, independent solution. So we look to the Minister to address that issue. He appears to share my view and that of many others that the APPG and other parliamentarians should be actively engaged with UK Finance in compelling a fair solution. When he responds today in this debate, I urge him to reinforce his position for the public record in Hansard.
Finally, I come to my key point. Let me put it to the Minister today that we need a decision in his response to this debate on independent redress. Will the Government fully support the involvement of a truly independent public body—the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators—as central in these voluntary redress schemes? For the DUP and—I believe—the public interest, that makes considerable sense, and should both allay SME victims’ legitimate concerns and receive public support from UK Finance, as the institute will be truly independent and competent in considering this subject matter.
The institute would be available for all the historical cases and would be an available choice for complainants in the future, where they prefer not to proceed to an ombudsman for cases below the £600,000 limit, inclusive of the maximum claim limit of £100,000 in consequential damages. So a three-person tribunal is what we are seeking. It could hear cases with an upper compensation limit of the £10 million set out in the APPG’s position statement on 14 November. That is what I would like to see and I believe that is what the hon. Members for Thirsk and Malton and for East Lothian want to see. Indeed, I believe that it is what all of us in this Chamber want to see.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s affirmative response in support of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators today, so that we can all—please—move forward with confidence and belief that we can actually get somewhere, and so that this particular subject of truly independent redress is finally behind all of us.
I am very conscious of some of the headlines that we have seen recently, such as “Lloyds’ compensation scheme ‘defective’”. The article continued:
“A compensation scheme set up by Lloyds Banking Group for small business owners ruined by a banking fraud has been labelled ‘defective’, based on a ‘flawed’ methodology and ‘partial’ to the bank’s interests.”
It went on to say:
“Legal advice prepared…says that…the level of compensation being paid out ‘gives rise to a real sense of injustice’.”
I will finish with a last comment. The ombudsman-led approach would ensure that small businesses were able to challenge the banks for their past mistakes, while also protecting them in the future, and without the added costs of a tribunal. That is why I believe that it would be the best approach to rebuild trust between business owners and their bankers.
I support what the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has put forward and I seek a positive response from the Minister; I am sure that it will be forthcoming. However, after all these years of ill-doing—for want of a better word, and I am trying to be very careful with my words—or wrongdoing against people, almost putting them to the wall in banking deals, what I want to see, and what I think our constituents want to see, is a compensation scheme that fully enables people to seek full redress for what they have lost. Those who carried out these despicable acts also deserve to be made accountable for their indiscretions and criminal behaviour.
Thank you very much for chairing this debate, Sir Christopher, and I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing it.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested, this is a debate that we have had a few different times on a few different but related topics. I also thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton for his diligence and for continuing to raise these issues. I hope that he continues to do so until we get a suitable resolution, preferably from the Government taking action in relation to this issue.
I will just say a few things from the point of view of the Scottish National party and explain our position on this issue. However, I will start by saying that it is absolutely necessary for the economy that banks lend to small and medium-sized enterprises, and it is absolutely necessary for the economy that SMEs can have a good relationship with banks, but that is never going to happen if banks are not trustworthy and are not proving themselves to be trustworthy. If there are issues such as the one that we are considering, the best thing that banks can do is to be as transparent as possible about past issues, to make it clear that they cannot possibly happen again in the future. And if banks such as HBOS-Lloyds were to do that, it would be less likely that other banks would do similar things in the future and make the same mistakes. So, the transparency issue is important on many levels, not least for gaining the support of the public and SMEs for banking institutions.
The way that the cover-up has happened, and the lack of transparency, has meant that the pain has been elongated for those people who have gone through this process. Instead of the banks holding their hands up and saying, “Yep, we made a number of mistakes; here they are and here is the redress that you deserve”, they are trying, at almost every opportunity, to hide things. I do not think that is a very sensible way forward for the banks.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned some of the people who had come forward and who had to work incredibly hard, in order to have their voices heard and their problems raised. I will just take this opportunity to thank those people, too, for the hard work that they put in to make sure that these issues saw the light of day, albeit not yet in the way that we would have liked them to see the light of day. Nevertheless, those people have worked incredibly hard to bring that about and I thank them for it.
The SNP has been clear that we want to see as much transparency as possible in the internal review documents that have been produced, which means ensuring that they are published so that we can see the full position. I know that there are issues about the positions taken in the internal review, but the more of those documents that are published, the better the access to justice there can be for those people who are campaigning.
I will also highlight the fact that the decisions that were taken around a lack of transparency have meant that the public purse has had to pay a disproportionately high cost in relation to this issue. It has meant that any investigations that have taken place have cost more money than they should, because the evidence that was requested has not been provided to them. That is a pretty damning indictment.
The other major issue that I will highlight is the pressurising of people to settle and to sign non-disclosure agreements, which is an abhorrent practice; it just should not happen. To ensure transparency in the future, it is really important that people are able to talk about what happened to them, so that it cannot happen again to anybody else and so that people are not allowed to get away with committing fraud such as this again.
The SNP has called for several policies that would help in the future on this issue. We have repeatedly called for the reinstatement of the reverse burden of proof; the SNP has been incredibly strong on that. Our manifesto also talked about strengthening whistleblowing legislation for those people working in banking organisations, and I will continue to make the case to the Minister that the existing legislation needs to be strengthened.
Lastly, we have pushed hard for a permanent commercial financial dispute resolution platform, an argument not dissimilar to the cases that have been made today. It is so important that SMEs and those individuals whose lives have been ruined do not have to go through an immoral and financially unviable court process to get the redress they should receive, and the Government can take action on that today.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for calling me to respond to this debate for the Opposition.
I also thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing the debate and for his work in chairing the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance, as well as for all the APPG’s continued efforts on this matter; its commitment to securing justice for victims of banking fraud is commendable and important.
The hon. Gentleman, along with some other Members—especially my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—outlined clearly the challenges that people face in making sure that the victims of this scandal receive the redress they deserve through the current compensation scheme.
The actions of HBOS Reading and the then head of the impaired assets division and its corrupt partners were absolutely disgusting. I have read the accounts several times, but each time I reread the testimonies of the victims in advance of a debate such as this one it gives me a sense of rage. I find the injustices and the cynical destruction of other people’s lives unconscionable.
At a minimum, we must offer proper redress to those affected. It should not have been down to those victims to force action to be taken, but unfortunately that is not what we have heard today. Instead, we have heard about the difficulty in appealing against compensation decisions; about the lack of clarity and transparency over decisions; about documents that underpin judgments being hidden from victims; and about a fundamental lack of accountability and independence. Lloyds must explain how it plans to address those ongoing and legitimate concerns. I would like that response to be sent to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton and for Members present today to be copied in.
The number of contributions today, as well as their depth and detail, shows how pertinent and urgent the matter continues to be. It is important that it does not fall off the agenda, given the political situation, but I do not think it will, looking at the Members present today. We all have a responsibility to keep up the pressure to ensure that victims’ voices are heard. We are talking about much more than financial losses. Victims lost entire livelihoods, their health and, in some cases, their relationships on the basis of what happened to them.
Ten years on from the financial crisis, it is widely agreed that too many people were able to walk away from the serious damage they caused without any form of personal censure. It is clearly a good thing that the perpetrators of the fraud were brought to justice, and Thames Valley police deserves quite a lot of credit for that, as do Paul and Nikki Turner. Without securing a fair outcome for the victims, however, we have no hope of properly rebuilding trust between businesses and their banks in the long term.
Research shows that frighteningly low numbers of small businesses trust their banks to do the right thing by them, and we have to look at how we can improve that trust. We need to restore confidence that there is a level playing field for businesses when they find themselves in conflict with their banks, especially if those working at the bank have committed fraud, as was true in this case. All that makes it even more important that we agree a comprehensive package to properly address the legacy banking scandals that this country faces.
We can rebuild trust in business banking. We need a full public inquiry into all the scandals. We need an independent tribunal system for SMEs. Lastly, we need a much better and more robust system to protect and enable whistleblowing. I will briefly reiterate the case for each of those.
The first step has to be securing proper redress for SMEs that have been mistreated by their banks. Scandals such as this and RBS GRG, which we have all been present to debate in the past, have seriously dented confidence in our banking sector. That is why we have always called for a full public inquiry so that victims can get proper redress. Many colleagues in this room have argued for the same. It is not just about getting to the bottom of who was responsible for such scandals; it is about examining the wider systemic issues that allowed these events to take place. I was struck by the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) making the point that he raised these issues 10 years ago. It is simply too important for us to sweep them under the carpet without securing the ability to say to people, “This will never happen again.”
In terms of disputes, part of the problem is definitely that the gap is too big between the Financial Ombudsman Service for individuals and the full legal process for very big firms. We have all seen the recent report from Simon Walker, alongside the response from UK Finance, arguing that an expanded Financial Ombudsman Service would be sufficient to meet that need. As the Opposition, we believe that given the severity of the damage done in such cases, we need to go further.
We support the proposals from the all-party group on fair business banking and finance to establish an independent tribunal to help create that level playing field between businesses and their banks. That is also supported by the Treasury Committee, as outlined in its report on SME finance published on 26 October. We share the Committee’s ultimate conclusion that an independent financial services tribunal is needed to handle more complex disputes, complementing the expansion of the ombudsman’s remit. In our experience so far with voluntary redress schemes, they have been beset by issues. We would not be here today if such schemes were sufficient to meet the need. Ultimately, I do not believe we can convince our constituents that the industry is in a position to self-regulate. That is why an independent tribunal system is necessary.
Lastly, a potential answer could lie in exploring our approach to whistleblowing in financial services in this country. We have to look at why the fraud took so long to uncover and how we can improve internal systems and processes to stop such things ever happening again. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton raised a specific example of how a whistleblower was treated in this case. In the US, the Dodd-Frank Act, introduced as a central piece of post-financial crisis legislation in 2010, is a demonstration of how much more robust the whistleblower protection framework could be. Whistleblowers are entitled to awards if their information leads to enforcement action. It is structured in such a way as to disincentivise false reports and to provide protection in the event of dismissal. The UK legislation, on the other hand, is much thinner. While the Financial Conduct Authority can assist whistleblowers under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, that has not been enshrined in financial regulation in the way Dodd-Frank has been used in the US. There is a case for examining whether specific financial services whistleblower protection could be a starting point in seriously improving conduct in banking from the inside out.
In conclusion, if we are to restore trust in UK business banking, two outcomes must be achieved. First, we must ensure that the victims of the HBOS scandal get proper redress for the damage done to their businesses and livelihoods as a result of the appalling conduct by individuals who worked in the bank. The same is obviously true for victims of the RBS GRG scandal. The second responsibility we all share is to ensure that such a flagrant abuse of the bank and business relationship can never happen again on such a scale. The combination of a full, comprehensive public inquiry with a broad enough scope to capture the full breadth of victims, the establishment of an independent financial services tribunal and a radical rethink of how we treat whistleblowers could begin that process. The victims of this scandal were badly let down. I want to be able to stand here and say that they will all get justice and that this can never happen again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I acknowledge the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) in securing this debate and making an excellent speech, as he has done on several occasions this year in this place, and setting out a case that was well reasoned in many elements. I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who made fine contributions to the debate.
As we have heard today and in previous debates this year, incidents of banking misconduct and fraud have had a severe impact on some small and medium-sized enterprises. It has been and remains a top priority of mine in office to face up to the issues that have been generated by the cases that have been raised. I am conscious that many of the eight Back-Bench Members who have taken part in this debate will have heard sad and unfortunate stories from their constituents about how the actions of banks have affected them and their businesses. That includes not only the events at HBOS Reading, but the actions of the RBS Global Restructuring Group and the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products.
I begin by reminding Members that we expect the highest standards of behaviour across the financial sector. That is why the Government have introduced a number of necessary changes to restore public trust in financial services, such as the senior managers and certification regime. Before I address the substance of today’s debate, it is important that we pause for a moment to recognise the contribution that banks make to both the UK economy and our society. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) rightly said, it is necessary for banks to lend to SMEs. Lloyds Banking Group has, for example, increased its net lending to SMEs by £3 billion since 2014 and plans to triple that by 2020. Lloyds is the market leader in providing basic bank accounts, which help vulnerable customers, and its “Helping Britain Prosper” plan sets out a number of commitments on behaviour, diversity and charitable support.
However, I recognise that there has been a great deal of justified anger, within Parliament and beyond, regarding the fraud that was perpetrated against small businesses through the actions of individuals at the HBOS Reading branch. It is important to remember that the events at HBOS Reading constituted criminal activity. As such, it was right that those responsible were brought to justice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton pointed out. The FCA continues to conduct an enforcement investigation into the events surrounding the discovery of misconduct at HBOS Reading, resuming an investigation placed on hold at the request of Thames Valley police. I will be keenly following the progress and outcome of the investigation.
In addition, Lloyds Banking Group has appointed Dame Linda Dobbs, a retired High Court judge, as an independent legal expert to consider whether issues relating to HBOS Reading were investigated and appropriately reported to authorities at the time by Lloyds Banking Group, following its acquisition of HBOS. It will consider issues raised by the Project Lord Turnbull report referred to by my hon. Friend. Dame Linda’s findings will then be shared with the FCA.
It is right that Lloyds set up a compensation scheme for businesses affected by the events at HBOS Reading, overseen by Professor Russel Griggs. That scheme has seen offers made to all customers within its scope, with 90% of customers accepting the offer. However, I acknowledge the concerns that Members have raised about the Griggs scheme. Those concerns have certainly been heard, and I am pleased to announce that Lloyds has agreed with the FCA that Lloyds will commission a post-completion review to quality-assure the methodology and process of the Griggs scheme. [Interruption.]
Overseen by an independent person, that review will go above and beyond a normal lessons-learned exercise. The independence of the person appointed to lead the review is vital. In particular, I would expect that person not to have been employed by Lloyds in any way, and to be able to demonstrate complete operational independence from Lloyds. I am pleased that Lloyds has committed to publishing the review once it has concluded, and I welcome Lloyds’ commitment to implementing any recommendations it produces. I have been consistently clear that it is vital that we get the right processes and procedures in place, to ensure that SMEs can obtain fair redress and resolve disputes with their banks.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) will wind up the debate, so I feel a bit premature intervening on the Minister, who is a good friend. However, he will have heard the reaction in the Gallery to his announcement. It seems to me that it is just a re-wrapping of the current problem. Perhaps he will meet some of the Members in the Chamber, and some of the business owners affected, to hear and see what has actually been going on.
I will happily meet my right hon. Friend—a distinguished former Minister who has been fighting on these matters for many years—and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. Of course I acknowledge the cynicism and concern of those present about the independence of this mechanism, but, as I said, Lloyds has committed to publishing the independent review once it is concluded and implementing any recommendations that it produces. My officials have been working with the FCA to ensure that that comes to pass. I take the concerns about how it progresses very seriously, and will happily meet Members to discuss them.
In the recent Budget, the Chancellor stated the Government’s support for the FCA’s plans to expand eligibility to complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service to small businesses as well as micro-enterprises. Expanding the remit of the FOS will ensure that from 1 April 2019 well over 99% of all UK businesses will have access to fast, free and fair dispute resolution. I am aware that concerns have been raised about the capability of the FOS to adjudicate effectively in such cases, and I discussed those concerns with the Chair of the Treasury Committee just last week.
The FOS has announced its plans to create a ring-fenced, specialist unit to take on the additional cases, and for that unit to be supported by a panel of external SME experts. I welcome those plans, and I will visit the FOS early in the new year to check on how they are progressing. The FCA has also committed to reviewing the expansion of the FOS remit within two years of its coming into force, in addition to its usual oversight processes. I trust that that will reassure some hon. Members who have voiced concerns about the capability of the FOS.
I have also been clear that banks need to work hard to restore businesses’ trust in their institutions. That is why I welcome the banking industry’s recent commitment to establishing two independent voluntary ombudsman schemes, in response to Simon Walker’s review of dispute resolution for SMEs. One of those schemes will address complaints from SMEs with a turnover of £6.5 million to £10 million. The other will address unresolved historical complaints from SMEs that have not already been through a formal process.
I am pleased that the banking industry has set out the key principles for the operation of the scheme to address unresolved historical complaints. Independence, expertise, transparency and the right to an appeal are all hallmarks of a fair and robust process, and it is right that they underpin any approach to dispute resolution. I welcome the banking industry’s commitment to having those schemes up and running by September 2019. I look forward to seeing progress on establishing the implementation steering group very soon, and I am pleased that representatives from the all-party parliamentary group will have a role in that process.
The benefits of an ombudsman-style approach are clear, but I recognise that some hon. Members have advocated again today for the establishment of a tribunal to resolve disputes between banks and SMEs. An ombudsman-style approach can deliver fast, free and fair dispute resolution for SMEs, making decisions based on what is fair and reasonable. I believe that a tribunal, on the other hand, would need the regulation of SME lending, potentially restricting SMEs’ access to credit. It would still require SMEs to pay for expensive legal expertise, and it could make decisions only on a strict legal basis. That is why I believe that an expanded FOS remit, alongside the establishment of further independent ombudsman schemes as announced by UK Finance, will ensure the best outcomes for SMEs.
I highlight again that the Government, financial regulators and industry have done considerable work to tackle bad practice and to ensure that SMEs have access to appropriate dispute resolution and redress mechanisms. The all-party group on fair business banking and finance has been a key part of that work, and I sincerely commend its determination in the work that it has undertaken to ensure that SMEs are fairly treated.
The events at HBOS Reading constituted criminal activity. As such, it was right that those responsible were brought to justice. However, more clearly needs to be done to restore SMEs’ trust in the financial services industry. From the numerous meetings that I have had on this year with a wide range of stakeholders, it is clear that we are all determined to deliver the best outcomes for SMEs.
I will closely follow the review of the Griggs scheme. I understand the concerns, but it is a significant step forward that that review will take place, and I will monitor the implementation of both the expanded FOS remit and the industry’s independent voluntary ombudsman schemes. I am confident that we have the right regulatory regime and dispute resolution mechanisms in place for the future. Events similar to those at HBOS Reading should not occur again, and I will do everything in my power in office to ensure that we learn the lessons from those appalling incidents years ago.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I hope the people watching the debate, either in the Gallery or at home, understand that they have many friends in Parliament who want this issue to be dealt with. I know that he does as well. There is such universality of support for dealing with it properly that we will get there in the end, although we are not yet where we need to be.
I appreciate that the Minister is going further than others have gone in the past. Nevertheless, people will be sceptical about the ability of a bank or an independent reviewer, as he called it, to look at the issues and to provide proper redress and a proper method of investigating the complaints. I tried to illustrate in my speech that it was not just about fraud, but about how the corporation itself sought to suppress evidence and a proper investigation of the issues. People are simply not going to accept that anything done voluntarily is fit for purpose.
The Minister is right that I think that a tribunal is the right way forward, rather than simply expanding the ombudsman scheme. For historical cases, it sets a limit of £350,000 as compensation, but every case we deal with is over that figure, so that does not go anywhere near addressing our concerns. It is not the compensation scheme that we need.
I also do not accept that small business lending will suffer if we have more regulation. We simply need a fair and reasonable test for deciding the claims. Ireland introduced regulation for small business lending a few years ago, and its lending has increased significantly since then, so the Minister’s fears are misplaced. We need to ensure that small and medium-sized business interests, which are the most critical interests to our economy, are protected and supported through the process.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the independent review of HBOS Reading.