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FSA Investigation into LIBOR

Volume 738: debated on Monday 2 July 2012


My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, on Thursday I updated the House on the Financial Services Authority’s investigation into Barclays and the attempted manipulation of the LIBOR market in the years running up to and during the crisis. The House has just heard from the Prime Minister, and I would like to give more details of the steps we are taking.

This morning, I spoke to Marcus Agius, who confirmed that he was resigning as chairman of Barclays because of the unacceptable standards of behaviour within the bank. The Treasury Select Committee is calling the chief executive of Barclays to account for himself and for his bank on Wednesday. I look forward to hearing his answers.

As I also said last week, every avenue of possible criminal investigations for individuals involved in attempted manipulation of LIBOR is being explored. However, in the view of its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, the powers that were given to the authority do not allow it to pursue criminal sanctions. People in the country ask why it did not have the necessary powers. Those who set up the tripartite system must answer for that. People ask whether these gaping holes in the existing law mean that no action at all is possible. After all, fraud is a crime in ordinary business; why should it not be so in banking? I agree with that sentiment, and I welcome the Serious Fraud Office’s confirmation that it is actively and urgently considering the evidence to see whether criminal charges can be brought, particularly in relation to the current Fraud Act and in relation to false accounting. It expects to come to a conclusion by the end of this month. We would encourage it to use every legal option available to it.

I would like to address three further issues today. First, what happens to the money we get from the fines; secondly, urgent changes to the regulation of LIBOR and other markets to prevent such abuse occurring again and to ensure the UK authorities have the powers they need to hold those responsible to account; and thirdly, the wider issue of what went so badly wrong in the culture of our banking system and the way it was regulated which allowed such fundamental failures of basic standards of conduct to go unchecked and unchallenged.

Last week, I said that we wanted to ensure that fines paid by the financial services industry in future go to the Exchequer. Today, I can confirm we will propose amendments to the Financial Services Bill in the autumn to make this happen. This will remove a long-standing anomaly and bring the regulator into line with regulators in other sectors of the economy. The new arrangement will apply to fines received from 1 April 2012 so that it includes the Barclays penalty. From now on, the multimillion pound fines paid by banks and others who break the rules will go to the benefit of the public, not to other banks.

That brings me to the second question of the urgent changes we need to make to the regulation of LIBOR to prevent this ever happening again and to ensure that in future authorities have the appropriate powers to prosecute those who engage in market abuse and manipulation. I have today asked Martin Wheatley, the chief executive designate of the Financial Conduct Authority, to review what reforms are required to the current framework for setting and governing LIBOR. This will include looking at whether participation in the setting of LIBOR should become a regulated activity, the feasibility of using of actual trade data to set the benchmark, and the transparency of the processes surrounding the setting and governance of LIBOR.

The review will also look at the adequacy of the UK’s current civil and criminal sanctioning powers with respect to financial misconduct and market abuse with regard to LIBOR. It will assess whether these considerations apply to other price-setting mechanisms in financial markets to ensure that these kinds of abuses cannot occur elsewhere in our financial system.

We need to get on with this and not spend years on navel-gazing when we know what has gone wrong. I am pleased to tell the House that Mr Wheatley has agreed to report this summer so that the Financial Services Bill currently before Parliament or the future legislation on banking reform can be amended to give our regulators the powers they clearly need.

The review is essential to ensuring that we mend the broken regulatory system introduced by the previous Government, which allowed these abuses to happen. But the manipulation of the most-used benchmark interest rate reveals that there is a broader issue of the professional standards and culture in some parts of the financial services industry that was allowed to grow up in the years before the crisis and which may still need change.

I do not think a long, costly public inquiry is the right answer. It would take months to set up and years to report. We know what went wrong. We cannot wait until 2015 or 2016 to fix it. In just six months’ time we will be bringing forward the banking reform Bill that will implement the recommendations of Sir John Vickers’s Independent Commission on Banking. This will bring far-reaching, lasting change to the structure of British banks, ring-fencing retail banks from their investment banking arms. Let us see whether we can use this banking Bill to make any further changes needed to the standards of the banking industry, and the criminal and civil powers needed to regulate it and hold people to account for their behaviour.

As the Prime Minister said, we propose that Parliament establishes an inquiry into professional standards in the banking industry. The Government will, in the coming days, lay before both Houses a Motion to establish a Joint Committee drawn from the Commons and the Lords. It should be chaired by the chair of the Treasury Select Committee, the honourable Member for Chichester. He and his committee have already been quick off the mark in investigating the issue, and we certainly await their hearings this week to proceed.

I propose that the terms of reference should be these: building on the Treasury Select Committee’s work and drawing on the conclusions of UK and international regulatory and competition investigations into the LIBOR rate-setting process, consider what lessons are to be learnt from them in relation to transparency, conflicts of interest, culture and the professional standards of the banking industry. I propose that it should be able to call witnesses under oath, including current Members of Parliament and Lords. I can confirm that we will provide the committee with the resources it needs to do the job. I would suggest to the House that we ask the Joint Committee to report by the end of this year, 2012. That is enough time to do the job—and to do it well—but not so long that this issue drags on for years, and it means, in very practical terms, that we can amend our banking Bill to take on board its recommendations.

I hope that all parties will support the Motion we put forward. The failure to regulate the banks in the boom years cost this country billions. The behaviour of some in the financial services has damaged the reputation of an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people and is vital to the economic prosperity of the country.

We are changing the failure of regulation; reforming the banks. Now it is time to deal with the culture that flourished in the age of irresponsibility and hold those who allowed it to do so to account.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, for repeating the Statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the other place. I welcome the content of the Statement as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

It is difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of the LIBOR scandal for three reasons. First, because of the manipulation of this key benchmark rate, a London standard recognised throughout the world has accordingly affected financial transactions worldwide, directly impacting on the financial well-being of millions of families and firms.

The Serious Fraud Office has powers to investigate and to bring prosecutions in cases of fraud defined as,

“an act of deception intended for personal gain”.

This includes publishing false information to mislead investors as well as fraudulent trading. I am no lawyer, but common-sense interpretation of those words would suggest that the people with whom we are dealing have indeed been practising deception for personal gain. But they are not simply persons with some sort of criminal bent; they have been moulded by the environment in which they work and by what is regarded as acceptable practice on a day-to-day basis—fine for the firms for which they work, just so long as they make money for them.

Secondly, their actions have done enormous damage to our financial services industry in general and to the City of London in particular. They have not merely undermined but blown up the City’s hard-earned reputation for integrity and fair dealing and, most of all, destroyed the trust without which no honest financial system can operate. Every honest firm should welcome effective regulation. I am sick of hearing that regulation limits the operations of free markets and that if legislation results in more effective regulation banks will leave the country. Now we know just how free those markets actually are. We should not be held to ransom.

Thirdly, the financial services industry is, I am afraid, an industry with form. In the same week as we learnt of the manipulation of LIBOR, we learnt of the mis-selling of interest rate swaps, following on from the PPI mis-selling scandal. As the Chancellor commented, all of this is on top of the irresponsible lending practices at home and abroad that brought about the international financial crisis—practices in which British banks played a leading role, inflicting huge economic costs on the British people.

In the light of those three factors, an inquiry should meet the following criteria. First, it must address the culture of banking and the financial services industry as a whole in relation to the internal organisation of industries and the regulatory framework in which they operate. Secondly, it must address the key question of the boundaries of civil and criminal culpability. Thirdly, it must fundamentally reassess the scope of regulated activities. The inquiries that have been announced today meet only one of those criteria—the second, on the boundaries of civil and criminal culpability. I am delighted to hear that Martin Wheatley will conduct a speedy investigation into the narrow issue of the setting of LIBOR and the related issues of criminal sanctions.

The proposal for the parliamentary inquiry fails on the following grounds. First, the scope of the terms of reference, although it sound quite broad, is in fact limited to the lessons learnt from,

“regulatory and competition investigations into the LIBOR”.

So it is just about the lessons learnt from that particular problem, not the broader issues of professional standards in the industry as a whole and the structure of the industry. Secondly, it fails to address the overall question of the scope of regulated activities. Thirdly, a parliamentary inquiry will fail to restore public trust by creating a national consensus about what has got to be done. I have great respect for the chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, not least because of the excellent critique of the Financial Services Bill by his Select Committee. Let us note that the most important elements of that critique have been pointedly ignored by the Government. A parliamentary inquiry is bound to appear to the public to be too introverted—a closed, establishment shop to which they have limited access, working within terms of reference that are far too restrictive. That is why there must be a full public inquiry that addresses all the issues at stake. As the Chancellor said, we know what has gone wrong. Yes, indeed, we do—but, at the most fundamental level, we do not know why or how.

I quite understand the argument that a proper inquiry might take too much time, but that can be easily dealt with by instructing the public inquiry to deal with issues sequentially. After Mr Wheatley’s report there could be an interim report on the immediate LIBOR issue, described in the terms of reference for the parliamentary committee. Following on from that, a much more considered report on corporate failings in compliance, culture, governance and organisation throughout financial services is the only full answer to the question: why did this happen? We owe the honest, committed people in the financial services industry that inquiry to lift the cloud that will otherwise hang over them.

The development of the financial services industry in this country has been guided by great public inquiries: the Macmillan Committee in the 1930s and the Radcliffe Committee in 1958 produced landmark reports. Now is the time for another. The reforms of the 1980s, while bringing many benefits, have had potentially disastrous, unintended consequences. There is a need for fundamental reform to the structure, style and content of the financial services industry to provide a framework for successful development in the future.

The Government have been bold in establishing the Vickers inquiry and bringing forward the current proposals and they deserve credit for that. However, the current proposal for a parliamentary inquiry, I regretfully say, by its very limitations—and especially the limitations of the terms of reference—can only do harm.

I should like to ask the Minister a couple of brief questions. First, why have the Government limited the scope to lessons drawn from international regulatory and competition investigations into the LIBOR rate-setting process? Why does it not go wider? Secondly, when did the Treasury first know of the substance of the FSA inquiry into LIBOR-fixing at Barclays?

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, gave to the Statement. However, I am sorry that he thinks that the immediate action that the Government have taken is not appropriate and that he would like it to go further.

I cannot think of a better way of getting a national consensus and getting rapidly to the heart of these issues than through a Joint Committee of the two Houses—not least because, as we saw two weeks ago in the Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill, there is extraordinary and relevant expertise that can be brought to bear from this House alone. There was a remarkable debate on that Bill in which two former Chancellors, three former Treasury Permanent Secretaries, former members of the Court of the Bank of England, other former Treasury Ministers and leading financial journalists all spoke. We should not undersell the great expertise that can be brought to bear through the Joint Committee, which will have public hearings and be able to call, under oath, whomever it chooses to call. I do not agree with the noble Lord that we should go through some other route.

I remind your Lordships that recent public inquiries and those that are still live have taken an extraordinary amount of time and cost a huge amount of public money. Leveson, established in July 2011, has so far cost £2.8 million; Baha Mousa, started in May 2008, ran for more than three years at a cost of £13 million; the Mid-Staffs inquiry started in June 2010 and is still running—it is nearly finished—and so far has cost £11.8 million. These are expensive and long inquiries. For the safety and good order of our financial services markets, we need to get on with the inquiry and a Joint Committee is the appropriate way to do so.

The proposed terms of reference will come back to your Lordships’ House via a Motion that will go through both Houses. I do not read them as being limited in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, seeks to limit them. The proposed terms of reference refer to drawing on and building on both the Treasury Select Committee’s work and the conclusions of the UK and international regulatory and competition investigations into the LIBOR rate-setting process. Then I read what follows, which states,

“consider what lessons are to be learnt from them in relation to transparency”—

that is LIBOR and the work of the Treasury Select Committee—

“conflicts of interest, culture and the professional standards of the banking industry”.

I read that as the committee being able to go extremely wide in its investigation and I am sure that it will do so. I certainly do not believe that there is a problem of the sort identified by the noble Lord.

As to when the Treasury first knew about the substance of the LIBOR-fixing allegations and investigation at Barclays, naturally Treasury officials have been in contact with the FSA during its investigations to consider LIBOR policy as it is in contact with FSA officials about many other things that they do. As was the case under the previous Government, it would be inappropriate to disclose the details of meetings while this is an area of developing policy.

My Lords, I said last week that there was public outrage, and that outrage has only been growing. Mr Diamond remains in post; he just does not get it. That now raises questions about the fitness of Barclays’ board, which also just does not get it. Does the Minister agree that this matters? I very much welcome the review that Martin Wheatley will lead. Whatever changes are made to the rate-setting of LIBOR will always depend on engagement with the major banks. Therefore, there must be confidence that the banks fully understand their role in providing that information.

The other area of outrage, as I recognise it, is the perceived impotence of the FSA in being able to pursue sanctions for activities that are so widespread that, according to the Telegraph, they have their own technical term—the,

“dislocation of Libor from itself”.

Will the Minister explain why there is no scope under Clauses 397 and 400 of FiSMA, which I can quote if he wishes, to pursue individuals and the officers who supervise them? Surely an amendment could be put into the Financial Services Bill. It would be welcome if there was any way for it to be retrospective. Can he also explain why it was the CFTC in the United States that jumped on the issue in May 2008, based on information from whistleblowers, whereas with the same information the FSA did not become engaged until 2010? Obviously, I am dependent on media reports. Can we please look at the powers, resources and capacity of the FSA to ensure that it is never again in such a position?

My Lords, first, I will not comment further on the senior executives of Barclays. Clearly the chief executive is coming before the Treasury Committee later this week and will be asked a lot of questions that will further elucidate those aspects.

On the question of prosecution, the basic flaw is that the setting of LIBOR was not and is not a regulated activity, so the FSA does not have a direct way in. My noble friend is right to be quizzical and shake her head but that is the position as it was under FiSMA and the construct put in place by the previous Government. If the FSA wanted to bring criminal prosecutions, as it has done with the civil settlement, the attempted fixing of LIBOR is an activity that is ancillary to a regulated activity. The construct is difficult and the chairman of the FSA has pointed out the difficulties.

As I said in repeating my right honourable friend’s Statement, most normal people would assume that there was a prima facie case to look at the Fraud Act and false accounting and that is precisely what the SFO was doing. Through the inquiries that are going on, we will look at what needs to be done to plug gaps in the financial services legislation. For the avoidance of doubt, I should tell my noble friend that there will certainly be no retrospective legislation in respect of criminal action because—before anybody else jumps up—it would be against the European Convention on Human Rights. I am sure that my noble friend would not want us to go there—and she acknowledges that.

As to which regulator started work when, I would not rely too much on what the newspapers say. As with all these things, I am sure that in due course the regulators will look into their conduct and the lessons to be learnt. I certainly would not take as gospel the newspaper reports of who started when.

My Lords, the Minister is obviously aware that this has not just started. It has been going on for years and it could not have involved only Barclays but virtually every major bank, not only in the UK but elsewhere. Barclays could not have been handling this on its own. Listening yesterday to the chairman of the FSA, the noble Lord, Lord Turner—who unfortunately is not in his place—the FSA knew nothing whatever about it, nobody in the Bank of England seems to have known anything about it, and now the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, tells us that the Treasury has known about it apparently for only a short while. We obviously recognise that to be the truth, but should there not be criticism of some of the people involved here? The sheer incompetence of not knowing anything about it deserves some kind of criticism.

I appreciate that the Minister cannot say that he will listen and change anything, because it is a matter for the Chancellor. However, my noble friend Lord Eatwell put a lot of serious points to him and I hope that he will take them back to the Chancellor to ensure that there are some changes. There should be some changes now.

My Lords, first, as we discussed last week, there are a significant number of other banks under investigation. Secondly, we could debate the history of this for a very long time, but this Government are moving extremely fast on a number of fronts to plug the gaps through one or both of the pieces of legislation that are or will shortly be before Parliament. We need to get this right, which is what we are doing.

My Lords, could I ask about the statement that the FSO will begin to consider criminal charges in the next month? I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, in referring to the level of outrage in the country about these events. The SFO could announce today that it is launching a criminal investigation. It is about not criminal charges but a criminal investigation into conspiracy to defraud, because if this is not a conspiracy to defraud, then I have never seen one—and I have seen a few.

My Lords, just to repeat: the SFO is actively and urgently considering the evidence to see what criminal charges can be brought. It expects to come to a conclusion by the end of this month. That is exactly where it should focus its efforts.

My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, I see much merit in a parliamentary inquiry, especially if, as has been suggested, it includes people of the talent and experience of my noble friend Lord Lawson. There are many from all sides in this House who can do this. It is an inquiry that needs, above all, practitioners and people from the financial world rather than lawyers, and it does not prevent further inquiries in due course.

However, four points of action were put forward by the Prime Minister under the heading of banking in his Statement. Three of them are quite clearly covered by the Chancellor’s Statement but one is not. That is a confusing matter and I would like enlightenment. In the four actions proposed by the Prime Minister, one was,

“increasing the taxes banks must pay”.

What was the Prime Minister referring to?

I am grateful to my noble friend for confirming that a Joint Committee is the way to take this forward. We have already increased the tax on the banks by putting a special levy on them so that the big banks effectively do not take any advantage of the lowering of corporation tax, which other parts of industry have already benefited from. This tax on the banks is enduring and will raise far more than the one-off tax that the previous Government brought in. So we have already done that.

My Lords, I broadly welcome the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Statement, and in particular the appointment of a Joint Committee, the report to be produced by Mr Martin Wheatley and the timetable to which both those reports are working.

I would like to return to the point I made to your Lordships’ House earlier about the BBA. It is increasingly clear that the British Bankers’ Association was very aware of what was going on—the collusion that was leading to fraud. The chairman of the BBA at that time is now a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government. Will the Minister assure us that the work being done by Mr Wheatley will look at the BBA’s role? It appears that there is a prima facie case that the BBA colluded in and supported a corrupt act. I am grateful that the Minister and the Chancellor have confirmed that there is no lacuna in legislation that prohibits criminal prosecution of the quite monstrous things that appear to have occurred here.

I have two further short questions. There was no suggestion by the Minister that any action would take place to lead to an inquiry and the payment of compensation to those who lost out as a result of this systemic collusion and manipulation of an important rate. That includes taxpayers, because there were a number of arrangements between the central bank, the Treasury and banks that were based on the LIBOR rate. Will the Minister confirm that there will be an appropriate investigation about whether the taxpayer was disadvantaged? Finally, will the Minister explain why the FSA’s fine was so small compared with the fines imposed by the American regulators?

My Lords, on the first point, presumably if there is evidence that the BBA colluded in criminal activity, that will be well within the scope of the work that the SFO might do. As for the wider question about the role of the BBA, the review of LIBOR will look comprehensively at governance, which comes very much back to the BBA role and what, if any, that should be in the future framework.

On the question of whether there should be compensation, our difficulty at the moment is that we do not know whether LIBOR was successfully manipulated as opposed to there being an attempt to manipulate it. From the evidence that has already been made public, we know—

The American regulators were very clear that LIBOR was manipulated. They were unequivocal in that statement. They understand the subtleties of the issue.

My Lords, if the noble Lord will hear me out, we know that there was attempted manipulation from the evidence that has already been made public. I do not know on what basis the American authorities have come to that conclusion, and it may just be semantics, but the authorities are currently investigating whether LIBOR was actually manipulated.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, in the case of Barclays, it was the dollar LIBOR rate and not the sterling LIBOR rate that was the subject of the attempted manipulation that has come out. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Myners, that these investigations need to carry on, but we cannot come to any conclusion about the answer.

Lastly, I answered a question about the fine last week, but I will repeat it in summary. This is the largest fine that the FSA has ever handed down, which indicates the seriousness of this matter within a UK context—the US has a completely different approach to the way it imposes penalties. The most important and relevant point is that this is the largest ever fine in the UK handed down by the FSA.

My Lords, there is plenty of time. Perhaps we can hear from the Cross Benches and then from my noble friend.

My Lords, if I may, I will make a point in support of the very pertinent submission made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. This is not a question of who should prosecute or who can prosecute. A simple, straightforward criminal offence was created in Section 397 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000; I checked it. That provision deals with a false statement or declaration that is made deliberately or misleadingly and that distorts a market. It is an offence that is punishable on indictment with a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. There would seem to be ample prima facie evidence that such an offence has been committed. In the circumstances, bearing in mind the damage done and the ruthlessness with which such practices were conducted, is there any reason why persons responsible should not stand trial?

My Lords, I am sure that the FSA will listen to the analysis given by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan; and if it has not already got to the bottom of it, it will take his points on board. The authority is acutely aware that it needs to press on, but the noble Lord, Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, has made it clear that it is very difficult, which is why the FSA seems to be taking the lead on this.

My Lords, it would seem that Barclays’ defence is, “We had to cheat in order to preserve our reputation”. That suggests that the bank is seriously misguided in the way it looks at these matters. Certainly there is a case for a parliamentary investigation, which I support. It is equally true that we should be absolutely clear that the terms of reference are the right ones for such an investigation.

If I may, I will make a very narrow point. As I understand it, the proposal is that the Joint Committee should be chaired by the Member for Chichester, Mr Tyrie, for whom I have the very greatest respect. However, as I was myself chairman of the Treasury Committee for some 14 years, I question whether it is appropriate that his energies should be diverted from the Treasury Committee, where he is doing an excellent job, by being chairman of this authority. This is too heavy a burden for one person, however talented, to take on, and we ought to consider that point.

My Lords, on my noble friend Lord Higgins’ first point, there were two distinct periods during which Barclays was found to have attempted its manipulation. The first period was before the financial crisis, when its traders appear to have been driven by pure greed and tried to drive rate up. The second period was during the financial crisis when the preservation of Barclays’ reputation seemed to be the main driver and it was attempting, it seems, to move the interest rate down. I think there were those two distinct motivations.

Regarding the committee chair, notwithstanding the suggestion that the chair of the Treasury Committee chairs the Select Committee, I would guess that the formal position is that the committee itself will decide who the chair will be. I imagine that this will be taken up either in the Motion itself, in which case your Lordships will have a chance to take a view on it, or the committee will decide who the chair will be in due course.

My Lords, I want to pursue for a moment the sheer seriousness of the situation that the noble Lords, Lord Eatwell and Lord Blair, and my noble friend all pointed to. I can think of nothing more likely to undo the prospect of this country’s return to prosperity from the crisis than the present, huge doubts about the trustworthiness of the financial system. When I extensively read newspapers from the United States, what comes out very loud and clear is the view that as a result the major beneficiaries will be countries that are in direct rivalry and competition with the City and that hope to gain from what they regard as an extremely dangerous problem that we have brought upon ourselves.

I am satisfied with the prospect of a parliamentary inquiry and I accept what the noble Lord said about the necessity for speed and getting on with it. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and my noble friend Lord Higgins asked about the terms of reference. The missing term of reference that troubles me is the inquiry’s relationship to the role of the regulators. The Daily Telegraph may not be a very good source, but it is becoming completely clear that there were seminars, discussions, meetings and debates throughout 2007 and 2008 about LIBOR, and if anything is likely to be true about those rumours and suggestions it is vital that we explore whether our present regulatory structure is adequate to deal with an issue as serious and as far-reaching as this one. I therefore, with great respect, suggest to the Minister, probably with the support of the Opposition, that the terms of reference should at least extend to the roles of regulators, to the reasons why they failed to probe into this matter at an earlier stage and to what steps could now be taken to give them the confidence and the resources to enable them to do better in future.

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that these are all relevant and important questions. It is equally important that the proposed Joint Committee’s terms of reference should be clear and should focus on transparency, culture and professional standards. The role of the regulators is rather different, but I am sure that the Treasury Select Committee, in the normal course of its business, will want to ask questions about those matters in due course. However, I take on board what my noble friend has to say.