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Financial Conduct Authority and Blackmore Bond plc

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Rutley.)

This is when the Dispatch Box on the Government side will be sanitised. I ask the Minister not to touch it until it has been sanitised.

Before we adjourn, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the collapse last year of Blackmore Bond plc and in particular to look at what the Financial Conduct Authority did, what it could have done, and what it failed to do to prevent this.

Blackmore Bond plc was incorporated in July 2016, went into administration in May 2020, and has since gone into liquidation. Between October 2016 and November 2018, it raised £46 million in loans, known as mini-bonds, almost all of it from small-scale individual investors. They were repeatedly told that their investment was guaranteed to be paid back on time with regular interest payments. By the time the joint administrators had disentangled the company’s financial affairs, it was obvious that none of that £46 million was left to repay the bond holders. Their “guaranteed” investment of £46 million had been reduced to nothing.

Obviously, primary responsibility for that must lie with the company’s directors, Phillip Nunn and Patrick McCreesh, who were also the joint owners not only of Blackmore Bond but of about two dozen related companies. I will disclose some information later that may help Members to understand just how culpable I believe those two are. However, whether their conduct is found, in due course, to be criminal, civilly unlawful or just downright despicable, the scandal yet again raises serious questions about the regulatory framework that allowed Nunn and McCreesh to persuade people to put money they could not afford to lose into high-risk investments where losing everything was always a possibility.

In fact, an experienced investment adviser, looking at the promotional material the company sent out, could only conclude that losing everything was not only a possibility but almost inevitable. That is probably why the directors of Blackmore Bond did not approach investment houses or experienced investors; they deliberately targeted people they thought would be an easy touch.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the regulatory framework, and I am sure that he will go on to say whether he feels there were also shortcomings from the regulator itself in this case. The FCA’s attention was drawn to the boiler-room tactics of Blackmore Bond and the fact that it was pretty much a Ponzi scheme back in March 2017, yet three years later the company was still operating. It is simply unacceptable that the FCA should have taken that approach and not been more proactive.

For the second time in a few days, the hon. Gentleman has managed to read my notes a couple of paragraphs ahead of me. I am going to come on to that.

My concerns cover not just the Financial Conduct Authority but other regulators, such as Companies House, the Insolvency Service, the Financial Reporting Council and the professional bodies that regulate the audit of limited companies. Of those, only the FCA falls directly under the remit of the Treasury, so that is what I will focus on tonight, but I will continue to apply for debates so that the part played by other regulators can be examined.

I am sure the sky will not fall down, but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s giving way.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that financial devastations such as the Blackmore Bond scandal have the potential to be avoided if there is proper scrutiny by regulatory authorities, which the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) referred to? Does he also acknowledge that, often, that work starts with us in this House making legislative change?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Ultimately, the regulator is us. If we highlight deficiencies in the system, we must try to get them put right. That is partly why I was so keen to secure this debate.

As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned, in March 2017, the Financial Conduct Authority received information from a very reliable, experienced financial services professional that a company called Amyma Ltd was using high-pressure sales techniques to target individuals to persuade them to invest in Blackmore Bond. The source, a Mr Paul Carlier, described in detail what he had seen and heard, and explained exactly why he was convinced that it was illegal. He made a point of sending his concerns directly to the then chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, among others. As a mark of gratitude, the FCA wrote back and said that it was aware of the situation and it was being passed on to the appropriate department.

It was the end of 2019 before there was any obvious sign that the FCA had done anything. To be fair to it, when it acted, it did not hold back. It banned outright the sale of mini-bonds to the kinds of investors whom Blackmore Bond had been deliberately targeting. If the FCA had done that earlier, it could have prevented up to £26 million of the losses eventually suffered by Blackmore’s victims.

The FCA has said that the sale of these kinds of investments was an unregulated activity, that Blackmore Bond plc was not registered or approved by the FCA for any regulated activity, and therefore that the whole thing was beyond its scope. That is just not good enough. What the FCA is effectively saying is that it had the legal power to ban the sale of these mini-bonds absolutely but could do nothing to stop one rogue company selling them to one particularly targeted group of vulnerable investors. I simply do not buy that.

While the sale of these high-risk bonds to investors who wanted low-risk investments was allowed to carry on in an unregulated free-for-all, the promotion of those same bonds is a regulated activity. The FCA’s website says that all adverts and promotions for financial services or products

“must be fair, clear and not misleading”.

Blackmore Bond’s promotional materials failed all those tests—something I will return to soon. Again, it took the FCA far too long to do anything, and when it did something, it did not do enough.

The FCA will claim that at some point during 2019, it was able to get Amyma’s website taken down. It seemed less keen to be reminded that in August 2019 Paul Carlier had to tell the FCA that the website was back up again. It may be just coincidental that a few weeks after Blackmore Bond went into administration, the director and sole shareholder of Amyma placed that company into voluntary liquidation, having first reduced the company’s assets from £316,000 to nil in the space of 18 months, meaning that the creditors of Amyma, including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, would not see a penny of the £188,000 they were owed. It appears that Blackmore Bond really can pick its professional and business advisers very carefully.

Coming back to the promotional materials, though, under section 21 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, any financial promotion must either be issued by an FCA-authorised company or have its contents approved by such a company. There are exemptions, but I have no indication whatever that any of those exemptions comes close to applying to Blackmore Bond. So if Blackmore Bond issued financial promotions that had not been approved by an FCA-registered firm, that was an offence under the Financial Services and Markets Act and the FCA should have been dealing with it.

The company issued its mini-bonds in six ways. For each one it issued an “information memorandum”, which appears, as far as I can tell, to have been approved by an FCA-registered firm. But that was not the only marketing it did. My constituent, who has probably lost £40,000, provided me with a copy of a separate document that he received. It is dated 3 October 2016—the same date as the information memorandum for the first series of mini-bonds. The FCA has confirmed to me that it meets its definition of a financial promotion. It was therefore an offence that it was circulated without being approved by an authorised firm, and there is nothing in this document to suggest that it was ever approved by an authorised firm. The FCA is not convinced about that. Its view is that it “cannot categorically say” whether the document was or was not lawful when it was circulated. But if that is the case, surely, knowing what it knows now about the operation of Blackmore Bond, if it “cannot categorically say” that it was not a criminal offence to send it out to potential investors, it should be investigating it.

Then we come on to the requirement for this and any other financial promotion to be fair, clear and not misleading. I am aware of the time, so I can only give a few examples of statements in the document that are either blatantly false or extremely misleading. On page 5 it tells bondholders that their money will be backed by “100% asset-backed security”. Not true; it was never the intention that the bondholders would even be guaranteed first call on all the assets, never mind that there was never a time, after the first series of bonds was issued, when Blackmore Bond plc ever held enough assets to repay the value of the bonds it had sold.

On page 4 it says:

“Blackmore Bond is part of The Blackmore Group”—

that bit is correct—

“a multi-channel investment group with a proven track record.”

The Blackmore Group was only incorporated in February 2016; it cannot possibly have had a proven track record by October 2016. It certainly could not have realised the £22 million in profits and property development that is claimed in the same document.

On page 4 we are told that

“The Blackmore Group”

has

“assets under management of £25 million”.

So how come The Blackmore Group’s accounts for 2016, signed by the directors, tell us that the total value of their assets was £390,000, and that after allowing for creditors and other liabilities, the total value of the Blackmore Group at 2016 was £2,281? How can that have created assets under management of £25 million?

Finally, on page 18, the directors promised:

“There are no fees or charges”—

completely untrue. Page 24 of the information memorandum devotes over half a page to explaining why the company will have to pay fees. They say that they will pay fees essentially for the marketing of bonds and for investor relations, and that those fees will not exceed 20% of total bond value. They then entered into an agreement with Surge Financial Services Ltd—a company well known to those who have an interest in financial misdealings—that they would pay it exactly 20% of the total bond value.

What the directors forgot to mention in any promotional literature was that they were also going to pay themselves a management fee. During 2017, the directors of Blackmore Bond plc chose to pay £1.4 million of management fees to the Blackmore Group Ltd, of which they again were the sole shareholders, the sole directors and the sole beneficiaries. Why did they choose to conceal that information from this document, and from the information memorandum that was sent out to persuade people to buy their bonds? Effectively, the directors were making sure that their cut was cleaned out of Blackmore Bond plc’s accounts as soon as—sometimes before—it hit the bank account, so that whatever happened to that company, their money would be saved and the poor investors would be left with nothing.

Blackmore Group does not of course have to publish a profit and loss account, and even the very sketchy financial statements it does publish are not audited, so it is anyone’s guess what Mr McCreesh and Mr Nunn did with that £1.4 million, and that, as I say, was only up to December 2017.

During my investigations into this affair, I received a copy of a chain of emails between one bondholder and Patrick McCreesh, who, as I say, with Phillip Nunn, owns and runs the entire operation. The bondholder is not a constituent of mine. He was happy for me to quote at length from his emails. He is happy for me to give his full name, but I have chosen not to identify him entirely, but his name is John—and it genuinely is John.

John’s investment was with another Blackmore company, Blackmore Estates Ltd. The bond was due to be repaid in January 2020, but by March 2019 John had got worried, because he had not heard anything from Blackmore Estates for a while, and he wanted to know what had happened to his money. Patrick McCreesh advised him that Blackmore Estates was now part of Blackmore Bond plc, and set out to persuade him not to claim back the investment he was legally entitled to in January 2020, but to reinvest it in Blackmore Bond plc.

There were numerous email exchanges, but by 16 August John was really getting worried because his online account with Blackmore did not seem to show anything. There was no indication whether he had any money left at all. He then wrote:

“Patrick, I have entrusted you with my military retirement fund, my only savings. Unlike others I cannot afford to live without this money. You have had my investment since 2015 and I am yet to receive a single penny back. If things are going downhill why would you call me personally and persuade me to re-invest only a few months ago?”

That referred to a telephone conversation they had in about April 2019.

Three times further to that between August 2019 and January 2020 John reminded Patrick McCreesh in the most poignant terms that this was all he had. It was a pension he had got by serving with distinction in Her Majesty’s forces. Patrick McCreesh knew that John could not afford to lose the money, yet he deliberately set out to entice him to leave the money with McCreesh, and not to take back the money he was entitled to, but to put it into a company that by the summer of 2019 Patrick McCreesh and Phillip Nunn knew had no future. They had not published audited accounts for some time, but they had prepared draft accounts that showed that, in the first two years of its existence, one third of the bondholders’ entire money had disappeared. By July 2019, Nunn and McCreesh knew the business was dying. McCreesh still went out and deliberately targeted this poor gentleman to fleece him of what McCreesh knew was all he had.

As I say, I have pages and pages from the email exchanges between John and Patrick McCreesh in relation to, as I said earlier, whether the conduct was criminal, civilly unlawful or simply despicable. I am happy to share the remnants of my speech with anyone who wants to look at it. It makes it perfectly clear of the behaviour certainly of one of those two directors that to describe it as despicable would be excessively charitable to Mr McCreesh, and I have no indication that Mr Nunn would have been any better.

John will not ever get his military pension back, and there are 3,000 other Johns out there. They were all taken in by two individuals with a track record of dodgy financial dealing, but who are still free to go and set themselves up as directors of a different company and start all over again. That will not be by selling or mis-selling mini-bonds to people like John, because that is now illegal, but they will find another way. Until the Financial Conduct Authority and other regulators scare them out of the way, there will be another generation of Johns, and in 50 years from now or 100 years from now, our successors will be in the successor to this Parliament bemoaning the fact that billions of pounds have been taken out of the pockets of hard-working people and used to fund a luxury lifestyle for charlatans, crooks and conmen.

The Financial Conduct Authority was not the most culpable party in this. Nunn and McCreesh were, and they have to be called to account somehow. The Financial Conduct Authority was not the only regulator that failed because it did not have the powers, failed because it did not use the powers or possibly failed because it did not have the resources to deal with the amount of financial misdealing that is going on just now. But one way or another, for the sake of the next generation of Johns, the Financial Conduct Authority and the other regulators have to get their act together, and they have to do it quickly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for their contributions. I extend my sympathies to the Blackmore Bond investors. The hon. Member for Glenrothes set out the distress that has been caused to those many individuals, some of whom are his constituents. I am painfully aware of their very challenging situation through my own conversations and correspondence, and this evening we have heard more of those troubling accounts. Given these difficult circumstances, it is only right that I explain the reasoning behind the Government’s course of action and some of the decisions that we have made so far. I will also touch on the conduct of the FCA, the independent regulator.

Let me first remind the House of the background to this situation. As Members will be aware, Blackmore Bond was an unregulated firm established in 2016. Between 2016 and 2018, it issued non-transferable debt securities, otherwise known as mini-bonds, to retail investors. It raised £46 million, involving approximately 2,800 UK investors, to be used in property development projects. Blackmore stopped making coupon payments in 2019 and administrators were appointed on 22 April last year.

The orientation of most of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks was about the failures of the FCA, but I want to try to address some of his other specific points. He asked about the way that Blackmore hid behind other regulated firms such as Amyma. It is true that although several other firms were involved in the distribution of Blackmore bonds, some of which were authorised by the FCA, the Blackmore bond itself was not regulated. Amyma was not directly authorised by the FCA. It was an appointed representative of another authorised firm, Equity For Growth (Securities) Ltd, between July 2018 and September 2019, when its status was terminated. The FCA intervened to take down Amyma’s website following further investigation. Similarly, as a result of steps taken by the FCA, Northern Provident Investments, an FCA-authorised firm, withdrew its approval of Blackmore’s promotional materials, meaning that its bonds could no longer be marketed. This is clearly a very complex area, but ultimately the FCA cannot be said to have the same set of responsibilities towards unauthorised firms engaged in unregulated activities.

The Minister gave the same dates on Amyma as me—between 2018 and 2019. Did it not strike him, as it struck me, that Amyma was an appointed representative of another company, but the concerns about it arose in 2017, before it appeared to be an appointed representative of anybody? Does he not agree that there is something to be looked at there and that the Financial Conduct Authority should be asking questions about it?

I have set out the record as the FCA has presented it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to continue correspondence with the FCA on some of those unresolved matters. However, I do make the distinction between the different responsibilities that the FCA has with regard to the different actors in this case.

It is only right that we do our utmost to minimise the chance of episodes like Blackmore Bond taking place in future, so I want to turn to the regulation of mini-bonds and the steps we are taking to safeguard consumers, which was a key focus of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I want to be clear to the House that the Government are committed to ensuring that the financial services sector is well regulated and consumers are adequately protected. That is why in April we launched a consultation that includes proposals to bring the issuance of mini-bonds into regulation. This follows the action taken by the FCA to ban the promotion of high-risk mini-bonds. This work is the culmination of a review into the regulation of mini-bonds that I announced in May 2019, and it delivers on one of the recommendations of Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s recent report. The consultation closes next month, in July, after which the Government hope to bring forward plans to legislate in the autumn.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes also referred to the financial promotions regime, and I think that underlying that was a concern about what the Government are doing to improve the efficacy of the regime. We continue to keep the legislative framework underpinning the regulation of financial promotions under review, including whether it is suitable for the digital age. The Government have set out our intention to bring forward legislation to create a regulatory gateway for authorised firms approving the promotion of unauthorised firms. That change is designed to strengthen the regime by ensuring that the firms able to approve financial promotions are limited to those with the relevant expertise to do so. The FCA will be able to better identify when a financial promotion has breached the restriction and take action accordingly.

The Minister is doing a lot to close down opportunities for these scams, but there is a further way that we could take this forward, which we have discussed. Google has today said that it will ensure that all firms advertising on its platform are regulated firms. We could require that of all platforms and all firms that provide an internet channel, for example through the online harms Bill, so that all internet advertising in this area is regulated.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He speaks with some authority on these matters. There is a process that will continue, as he knows, through the scrutiny of that legislative vehicle. We do need to make sure that, overall, including through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s online advertising review, we come out at the right place in dealing with these significant challenges for consumers.

As well as introducing new legislation to protect savers, it is right that our regulator also closely examines its own operations, to ensure that it can protect consumers as effectively as possible. As a result, the Government welcome the FCA’s ongoing transformation programme, which is introducing reforms that will fundamentally change the way it works. The programme will help the regulator become more efficient and effective by, among other things, enhancing its use of technology in order to make interventions earlier, which clearly is desirable.

It is heartening to see that significant steps have already been taken. Those include important structural changes within the organisation, as well as the appointment of the FCA’s first chief data information and intelligence officer. I particularly welcome this focus on improving the FCA’s use of data and analytics, which will improve the efficiency and speed with which the regulator can act.

These are serious matters, and we have spoken about the number of our constituents who have been adversely affected. I regularly meet the FCA’s chief executive, Nikhil Rathi, to discuss the transformation programme and monitor progress. There can be no complacency. This is a complex area where financial services are evolving all the time, as are fraudulent activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned the innovation announced today by Google, which is a welcome step, but we will need to look at these matters and at the experience through different cases, such as the Blackmore Bond, in order to get this right.

I close by reiterating my deep sympathies to all those who have suffered as a result of the Blackmore scheme. As a Government, we recognise that financial services are constantly evolving and the regulatory system must, therefore, be ready to respond. As I have highlighted this evening, we are committed to a process of continuous improvement in all dimensions to ensure our regulations benefit both UK consumers and the wider economy.

The Speaker started the day with some wonderful warm words in tribute to Ian Davis on his retirement after long and dedicated service here in Parliament. On behalf of the Chairman of Ways and Means, the First Deputy Chairman and myself, I wish Ian well on his well-deserved retirement and thank him. Because of the skill he demonstrated on a daily basis in Parliament, he made the work we do from this Chair so much easier. We wish you well, Ian. Thank you for everything you have done.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.