Report (1st Day) (Continued)
84: Clause 27, page 40, line 1, leave out sub-paragraph (i) and insert—
“(i) takes or agrees to the taking of any decision or the carrying on of any activity by or on behalf of B as to the business of a group bank, or”
My Lords, in moving this amendment I am gratified to see so few people in the Chamber. I drafted two amendments in this area of the Bill and found to my astonishment that the Public Bill Office had converted them into 10. The excess is not due to lowly endeavour. Their quantity does not overcome their simplicity, which is designed to improve the drafting of this section; the section creates a major new criminal offence in respect of banking.
I draw the attention of the House to the following facts. First, because it is a criminal offence in nearly all circumstances it would have had full attention from both Houses. Secondly, however, in this Bill’s history, this offence was not in the original Bill before the other House. It is a criminal offence of a major kind that will have serious attention only from this House, because, thirdly, if it goes back to the Commons in a shuttle process it is hardly likely to receive the appropriate attention that it would otherwise merit. That is an important question.
As the House agreed when this first came up in debate, one of the main purposes of the draft offence was to phrase it to create a major deterrent just by its wording. Of course people who transgress can be punished, but one would devise this kind of offence in order to deter people from thinking of committing it. Therefore, its wording is extremely important—more than in most circumstances. Many criminal offences are the result of spontaneous behaviour. This offence is directed at what you might call systematic misconduct.
With those points in mind, I turn to the amendments. First, Amendment 84 is not pedantry. In the Bill’s present wording on decisions with which the amendment deals,
“as to the way in which the business of a group … is … carried on”,
the use of “way” in this phrase is in legal terms extremely loose. When it is substituted by the word “activity”, as in,
“carrying on of any activity”,
it is more precise. The word “activity” is defined as behaviour or actions of a particular kind, whereas “way” is much more nebulous. This amendment is a drafting one designed for precision. If one did not want to accept it, one would want to be persuaded why “way” is more accurate and more easily understood by a jury than,
“carrying on of any activity”.
That amendment is straightforward. Amendments 88, 91, 93 and 99 carry on its usage in other parts of the clause. Amendment 105 makes clear the words “decision” and “activity”, although the singular includes the plural. Amendment 84 and consequential amendments stand apart from what I shall add. It is a simple and sensible amendment.
On Amendment 95, when you are dealing with corporate activity and the decisions or activity of a group of individuals that lead to a major event such as the failure of a bank, all that imports a mixture of events and circumstance. Therefore, with that background, one must be very careful in a legal context about using just the word “cause”. You face the inevitable argument from defendants: “I may have done something wrong, but it wasn’t the real cause”. Most statutes that deal with this kind of issue use words like the ones in this amendment or in the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, “cause”, or “contribute significantly to”. That wording prevents defendants inviting juries and judges to enter into philosophical discussions about the extent of causation by virtue of the acts that were committed. That is extremely important; when it comes to a trial we deal with juries, and we want language that will enable them to come to common-sense conclusions. I suggest to the House that this is a commonsense amendment; the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, is to the same effect but with slightly different wording. Therefore, that also stands apart.
The next issue is recklessness. The noble Lord, Lord Deighton, on opening at Second Reading, said that this created an offence of “reckless misconduct”. The terms of the offence do not use the word “reckless” as we identified it on the previous occasion. That is extremely important, because at Clause 80(6) in the same Bill the intended statute creates an offence of recklessness. It actually uses the word “recklessly” to describe a certain action. It can be guaranteed that lawyers will argue that if a statute uses the word in one clause but not in another, then where it was not used it was not intended. How could Parliament describe two offences as having the same effect, using the word “reckless” in one but not in the other? That point therefore requires us to consider whether the wording covers recklessness to an adequate extent.
In the helpful but indeterminate discussion that I had with Treasury and Home Office lawyers, it crossed my mind that the case which they mentioned—a case called Cunningham—is not the current Supreme Court authority on the word “reckless” in this kind of offence. The appropriate authority to look at is R v G in 2004. The wording is simple. The decision says that a person acts recklessly with respect to a result if he is aware of a risk that it will occur—that is straightforward enough—and it is, in the circumstances known to him,
“unreasonable to take the risk”.
The intention of that case was to produce a definitive meaning of the word “reckless” for general criminal law. Therefore, let us test that standard set by the Supreme Court against the present wording, to determine whether it meets the current judicial test and whether it should match that test or if there is justification for a different test. This offence differs from R v G in three ways.
The first is the use of the phrase,
“far below what could reasonably be expected”,
rather than, “is unreasonable”. It makes a difference. This means that the jury will be told—in a case where a judge will have to determine whether there is an offence of this kind—whether “far below” only creates criminal liability for the most egregious acts or omissions—disastrously bad mistakes which jump off the page. That is what “far below” imports. This, to many, would strike one as an extraordinarily lenient way of approaching people who ruin a bank—that they should only be liable if they have been guilty of the most stupid and egregious mistake. That difference, having regard to the risk, is not justified. In this amendment, therefore, “far below” is deleted so as to be replaced by the words, “is unreasonable”.
The second point, by way of a difference to the case of R v G, is that the risk to be guarded against by the people involved is the failure of a bank. Therefore, to favour such conduct with a narrow test—the most egregious conduct—appears to be unwarranted in social justice terms. Why should this test be narrow? If, as I understand it, the offence is intended, despite my suggestion to the contrary that it does not in Committee, to involve wilful blindness—people deliberately avoiding looking at the risk— how is a judge or a jury going to assess somebody who is wilfully blind so as to be totally unreasonable, compared to somebody who is wilfully blind in the most egregious of circumstance? It is a complete paradox of terminology. You are either blind to the risk or you are not. The concept of extensive, as opposed to minimal, wilful blindness is absurd. It is an invidious distinction and will produce serious confusion. The fact that it is used in corporate manslaughter terms is not to the point. As I indicated in Committee, a corporate manslaughter event is usually an explosion, a building collapse, or a crane falling over: the circumstances cry out as indicating the “far below” standard compared to ordinary industrial safety standards. It is not the same circumstance; it is not an appropriate analogy.
The third difference that I suggest to the House is unwarranted is the test. If you look at the offence outlined in Clause 27(1)(c), the test is whether the conduct fell “far below” or was unreasonable, having regard to,
“what could reasonably be expected of a person in S’s position”.
In this context, the unreasonableness of conduct should be tested against the standards of people in that position: the unreasonableness, not gross unreasonableness. There is already a test that can be used and the “far below” point simply does not add to that. What could reasonably be expected of a person in his position is enough.
The House has been patient in listening to this. The fact is that in a few minutes I have summarised what will take days in court hearings about what this all means. What we want to avoid is the occurrence of court hearings. We do not want terminology that will provoke legal argument. The supposed improvements by these amendments that I have advanced at this stage have been debated before. If the Government are not sure of their ground regarding what judges and juries will do, they really ought to take independent opinion from Treasury counsel, not internal lawyers who have no real experience of criminal litigation. I commend these amendments to the House.
I must advise the House that if Amendment 84 is agreed to, I shall be unable to call Amendments 85 to 87 for reasons of pre-emption.
My Lords, my name is on the 18 amendments in this group and I am the sole signatory on eight of them. I endorse entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, said. He speaks from great experience, which is of great help to the House.
One of the scandals—I think one can fairly use that word—of the past five years in terms of financial failings has been the extreme paucity of prosecutions for some of the greatest criminal failings, to use a neutral word, in the history of our or any country. It is rather staggering to think that over the past five years you can count on the fingers of your two hands the number of City malefactors who have been prosecuted, when during that time probably 20,000 or 30,000 people have been prosecuted for shoplifting at an average of £25 a time.
I tabled these amendments not in any spirit of vindictiveness—one can also say that, I am sure, of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and the other signatories—but to try to give real teeth to a very important clause, Clause 27, which is designed and put forward on the basis that it will be a significant deterrent to conduct arising in the future which is comparable to the conduct that has occurred in the past five or six years. The wording of Clause 27(1) in particular seems to those of us who have tabled these amendments to be so narrow—to cite the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan—that the prospects of getting a conviction before a jury, or, indeed, starting to prosecute at all, will be remote. To give a simple, direct example of that point, Clause 27(1)(b) makes plain that a conviction can be secured only if the implementation of a single decision—“the decision”—causes,
“the failure of the group bank”.
When, except in the rarest of circumstances, did a single decision cause the failure of a bank? Life is much more complicated. Very often a series of decisions is involved and even then you cannot say that the decision or decisions cause the failure but rather that they,
“contribute directly and significantly to”,
the failure of a group bank, as I have put it in my amendment.
We have tabled these amendments to give practical effect to Clause 27 and other clauses. They are important clauses and we must not shackle them with such a narrow set of requirements that they will not serve their purpose. We should never forget that British criminal law is rightly strictly construed, and construed against the prosecution. If you think of that and you think of the wording in the clause, you will realise that it is not fit for purpose. I hope that if my noble friend the Minister does not accept the wording of these amendments—they could be drafted differently—he will at least undertake to come back at Third Reading with wording that the Government find acceptable and which will serve the purpose that we seek to serve in putting these amendments forward.
My Lords, having listened to my noble friend Lord Brennan and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, I found this discussion quite disturbing. The creation of a criminal offence is one aspect of the Bill that pushes forward the regulatory regime in the UK and creates an environment more suited to the somewhat cavalier nature of finance in a global marketplace—in particular by identifying those activities that have inflicted enormous harm upon our fellow citizens. What I heard was that, as drafted, the probability of securing a conviction or even a prosecution, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, put it, is vanishingly small. Unless the terminology is clarified in a way laid out so clearly by my noble friend, this part of the Bill will simply bring that aspect of regulation into disrepute because it will be worthless. That is why I regard the remarks that I have heard from the two distinguished lawyers who have just spoken to be very disturbing. It is incumbent upon the Government not simply to produce a pat answer here this evening but again to produce a carefully written assessment of the case for an appropriate criminal regime and its implementation in order that the whole House has an opportunity to assess this important aspect prior to Third Reading.
My Lords, these amendments essentially aim to make three changes to the criminal offence: first, to allow defendants to be prosecuted under the offence when a number of decisions taken together cause the bank to fail; secondly, to enable the offence to be made out when the decision or decisions in question were a significant contributory factor to the failure of the bank, rather than its sole cause; and, thirdly, to include within the definition of bank failure the systematic failure of the bank to prevent liability with regards to broader criminal offences.
On the first two issues, while I understand noble Lords’ concerns, I assure them that these amendments are not necessary to deliver the effects they intend. First, I assure noble Lords that, as a matter of law, under Section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978 words in the singular include the plural unless express provision is made otherwise. The term “decision” includes “decisions”, plural. Therefore, where appropriate, it will be possible to prosecute on the basis of the implementation of a number of decisions. The Interpretation Act 1978 ensures that it is not necessary to repeat the defined terms or make express provision for the singular to include the plural in every single statute. The case for abandoning that practice seems rather minimal in this instance.
Moreover, in practice we generally expect a prosecution of the offence to focus on one individual decision in order to maximise the ability of the prosecution to make its case effectively when asking the jury to consider what are likely to be very complex events. This would enable the prosecution to focus on the causal relationship between the implementation of one decision and the failure of the bank, where that relationship seems to be most clear. In these cases, any other relevant decisions would be taken into account by the jury as the circumstances in which the key decision was taken, when the jury was deciding whether the defendant’s behaviour fell far below that which reasonably could be expected of him or her. For example, a decision to take on a risky acquisition may be more or less reasonable depending on earlier decisions to strengthen or weaken the bank’s capital position.
These amendments also include references to agreeing to the carrying on of activities by a firm. This would add nothing to the offence as currently drafted, since the reference to agreeing to the firm carrying on certain activities assumes that those activities in some way require authorisation and this must involve taking a decision, or agreeing to the taking of a decision, by or on behalf of the firm, and is therefore already included in the offence.
Moving on to Amendments 94, 95, 100 and 102, under general principles of criminal law the test for an action having “caused” an event to occur is that, had that action not been taken, the event would not have occurred. Therefore, in this specific offence the test is that, if the decision or decisions in question had not been implemented, the bank would not have failed. The implementation of the decision need not be the sole or even the main cause of the bank’s failure. In practice, because of the evidential standard that applies to criminal cases, we expect that cases will be prosecuted only where it is very clear that the implementation of the decision or decisions in question was a significant contributing factor to the failure of the bank.
In addition to these general points, the Government oppose some aspects of the amendments in principle. As well as including reference to “activity”, Amendment 97 would lower the bar of the reasonableness test for when the offence would be committed. As set out in Committee, the Government do not think this is appropriate. Referring to conduct which is far below that which would be expected has precedents in the Law Commission proposal for a statutory offence of killing by gross carelessness and in legislation creating the offence of corporate manslaughter. We have used this particular phrase knowing that it works and can be effectively interpreted by the courts. There is no precedent in UK criminal law for criminalising behaviour that is merely unreasonable. To do so would amount to an indiscriminate diffusion of criminal liability, in a way that made it hard for individuals to know with sufficient certainty when they might be committing an offence.
Amendment 118 would expand the definition of institutional failure that would trigger the offence to include occasions where there was a systematic failure of the bank to comply with a range of laws imposing criminal liability in connection with the conduct of financial services business. A similar amendment was raised in Committee, focused specifically on compliance with the Fraud Act 2006, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 or the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. The Government’s position on this remains unchanged—this offence has been introduced to plug a gap in existing legislation where there are no criminal powers available to sanction senior managers who have recklessly caused their banks to fail. By definition, criminal liability can arise where offences already exist that individuals can be convicted for and appropriately punished, depending on the seriousness of the breach. In certain cases, they can also be charged with consenting to or conniving in such activities. It is difficult to see how this amendment strengthens the offence.
The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, raised the question of the definition of “way”. The expression includes both the activities in the business and how those activities are carried out. This makes the offence broader. The noble Lord also suggested, if I understood him right, that in some cases the real risk is that people did not know what risk they were taking or wilfully turned a blind eye. While it might appear attractive to include incompetence by senior managers in the offence, doing so could introduce unwelcome and potentially damaging uncertainty into the sector. Further, to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, the offence must be sufficiently certain to enable individuals to know when they are at risk of committing the offence. However, this does not mean that it is possible for a senior manager to simply close their eyes to the risk the bank is taking. In some cases a court may decide that it can be inferred that a particular person had knowledge of a risk. In the case of a director, ignorance of a risk to the bank’s existence may, in some cases, be to admit to breaches of the duties under the Companies Act 2006. Accordingly, there are cases in which an argument that a defendant had no knowledge of a particular risk would carry very little credibility and could even expose the defendant to criticism for breach of duty.
We take this offence extremely seriously as a key part of the new infrastructure that we are putting in place and we believe that it meets the test we have set out. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, first, is my noble friend quite certain that the Interpretation Act 1978 does not itself operate subject to the context of the language which is being interpreted? If that is so, I believe that there will be real ambiguity about this clause because, as I say, the law is construed strictly in favour of the accused. Secondly, does he accept that in a clause like this, to rely on the Interpretation Act rather than put in some plain words that make it clear, is unhelpful to people who must refer to this piece of legislation in the future?
My Lords, listening to the exposition of the Minister leads an experienced lawyer to think that those were the kinds of arguments that would make for an entertaining tutorial at university and deprive the participants of any career at the criminal Bar, because they simply would not know what they were talking about in terms of what a judge and jury would expect by way of argument. I am sorry to put it so bluntly, but it really is a clash with the Interpretation Act that would lead to ribald laughter in most criminal chambers. I am being serious about this. It is the kind of argument that you would expect to get from a bright lawyer with no criminal law experience. The Government must face up to this. I do not understand why they cannot take advice from a competent independent Treasury counsel on the scope of the offence in order to make sure that they can prosecute, or at least hope to prosecute. Creating such an offence in-house is, I think, highly suspect.
I will go through this point by point. First, why should not the statute say decision and/or decisions—one of the two? Secondly, why, as the noble Lord has suggested, do we have to get ourselves into the circumstance of having to identify the key decision? It may be extremely difficult to do that because it may be a refined banking judgment where a series of acts or decisions which led to failure may be cumulative and not the result of the key decision. Thirdly, how the word “cause” in the criminal law can be construed to be “significantly contributed to” is not, I think, something that figures in the criminal law books.
I turn next to corporate manslaughter. The argument has to be met. The fact that you get the same words in another statute is of no importance until you consider the context in which the words are being used. Far below that, in the industrial safety context, is the matter of common sense. In terms of banking behaviour, it is an extremely complex exercise to expect a jury to carry out, and an unnecessary one. The answer given in response to the amendments did not include any explanation of why this statute is taking itself down a different route from R v G. Wilful blindness is a specific criminal law phrase designed to embrace the people who deliberately close their eyes to something. It does not embrace innocent incompetence. The very word wilful imports the culpability of it.
My last point, in agreement with my noble friend Lord Eatwell, who is known as an academic, is that the legislature would be shooting itself in the foot if it created a criminal offence which the public came to treat as having no effect, bordering on the ridiculous. That would be a major political mistake. Those on the government Bench who take such matters into account should pay more attention to that than to the legal advice they are getting. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 84 withdrawn.
Amendment 85 not moved.
Amendments 86 and 87
86: Clause 27, page 40, line 1, leave out “B” and insert “F”
87: Clause 27, page 40, line 2, leave out “bank” and insert “institution”
Amendments 86 and 87 agreed.
Amendments 88 to 95 not moved.
96: Clause 27, page 40, line 7, leave out “bank” and insert “institution”
Amendment 96 agreed.
Amendments 97 to 102 not moved.
Amendments 103 and 104
103: Clause 27, page 40, line 11, leave out “bank” and insert “institution”
104: Clause 27, page 40, line 12, leave out from beginning to “group” in line 13 and insert “A “group institution”, in relation to a financial institution (“F”), means F or any other financial institution that is a member of F’s”
Amendments 103 and 104 agreed.
Amendment 105 not moved.
Clause 28: Section 27: interpretation
Amendments 106 to 117
106: Clause 28, page 40, line 32, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert—
“(2) “Financial institution” means a UK institution which—
(a) meets condition A or B, and(b) is not an insurer or a credit union.(2A) Condition A is that it has permission under Part 4A of FSMA 2000 to carry on the regulated activity of accepting deposits.
(2B) Condition B is that—
(a) it is for the purposes of FSMA 2000 an investment firm (see section 424A of that Act),(b) it has permission under Part 4A of that Act to carry on the regulated activity of dealing in investments as principal, and(c) when carried on by it, that activity is a PRA-regulated activity.”
107: Clause 28, page 40, line 37, leave out “subsections (2) and (3)” and insert “subsection (2)”
108: Clause 28, page 41, line 1, leave out subsection (5) and insert—
“(5) Subsections (2A), (2B) and (4)(b) are to be read in accordance with sections 22 and 22A of FSMA 2000, taken with Schedule 2 to that Act and any order under section 22.”
109: Clause 28, page 41, line 3, leave out “bank” and insert “financial institution”
110: Clause 28, page 41, line 4, leave out from “into” to “in” and insert “by the institution, or by a contractor of the institution,”
111: Clause 28, page 41, line 5, leave out “bank” and insert “institution”
112: Clause 28, page 41, line 5, leave out from “performs” to end of line 6 and insert “a senior management function.
(6A) A “senior management function” is a function designated as such—”
113: Clause 28, page 41, line 10, leave out “bank (“B”)” and insert “financial institution (“F”)”
114: Clause 28, page 41, line 11, leave out “B” and insert “F”
115: Clause 28, page 41, line 13, leave out “B” and insert “F”
116: Clause 28, page 41, line 14, leave out “B” and insert “F”
117: Clause 28, page 41, line 15, leave out “B” and insert “F”
Amendments 106 to 117 agreed.
Amendment 118 not moved.
Amendments 119 and 120
119: Clause 28, page 41, line 23, leave out “B and B’s” and insert “F and F’s”
120: Clause 28, page 41, line 24, leave out “B’s” and insert “F’s”
Amendments 119 and 120 agreed.
121: Before Clause 30, insert the following new Clause—
“Part 4ARegulation of High Cost CreditRegulation of high-cost credit agreements
(1) The FCA shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, include among the regulations governing high-cost, short-term credit agreements provisions to—
(a) restrict such loans to one outstanding loan per customer at any given time;(b) provide for a 24-hour cooling off period between loans in which no new loan may be entered into less than 24 hours after the settlement in full of a previous loan;(c) establish at the lender’s cost a real time database of loans outstanding to be used in the enforcement of paragraphs (a) and (b);(d) restrict the amount of any loan to a maximum face value of £300, exclusive of permissible fees; (e) restrict any transaction fees and charges of any kind to a maximum of 10% of the face value of the loan plus a £3 verification fee;(f) restrict the term of any loan to between 7 and 31 days;(g) allow the borrower to extend the loan term for an additional 60 days beyond the due date without any additional charges of any kind;(h) require borrowers who avail themselves of the extension in paragraph (g) to undergo credit counselling with a designated professional counsellor or organisation and to abide by the plan established to retire the debt.(2) For the purposes of this section—
“high-cost credit agreement” means a regulated credit agreement as defined by section 137C of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (as inserted by the Financial Services Act 2012) that provides for—
(a) the payment by the borrower of charges of a description from time to time specified by the FCA; or(b) the payment by the borrower over the duration of the agreement of charges that, taken with the charges paid under one or more other agreements which are treated by the FCA’s rules as being connected with it, exceed, or are capable of exceeding, an amount specified by the FCA;“charges” means charges payable, by way of interest or otherwise, in connection with the provision of credit under the regulated credit agreement, whether or not the agreement itself makes provision for them and whether or not the person to whom they are payable is a party to the regulated credit agreement or an authorised person; “authorised person” has the same meaning as in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.”
My Lords, this amendment has been somewhat overtaken by events. As little as four weeks ago, the Government were claiming in this Chamber that there was insufficient evidence for a cap on the cost of payday loans. They said:
“The Government do not believe that current evidence provides sufficient justification to support a cap on the cost of credit”.—[Official Report, 23/10/13; col. 1109.]
On Sunday, the Chancellor underwent a kind of Damascene conversion. He is now convinced that there is sufficient evidence for a cap. That is very good news. Surely it would be unkind to point out that there was no more evidence available to him on Sunday night than there was four weeks ago.
After the Chancellor’s announcement that there would be a mandatory cap, there was another late intervention. At nine o’clock last night, like all of us, I was e-mailed a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Deighton. Without elaboration, it says that,
“the balance of evidence has tipped in favour of a cap”.
He says that the Government,
“will give the FCA a clear duty in legislation to use the powers we have given it to implement a cap”.
“The FCA must ensure that it designs a cap that works in UK consumers’ interests and fits the UK market”;
but he goes on to say that the FCA will draw upon,
“the analysis and findings of the Competition Commission, whose investigation of the payday lending market is currently underway”.
The investigation is indeed under way, but it has a statutory reporting date of 26 June 2015. That is far too late. It means that any cap is unlikely to be in place before the end of 2016. That would mean millions of the most financially troubled people continuing to pay millions of pounds to PDL companies entirely unnecessarily. The Chancellor, in his interview on the “Today” programme on Monday morning, said clearly that installing a cap could happen in parallel with the Competition Commission investigation. I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, about this issue earlier today. At the close of our conversation, he committed the Government to have the cap fully implemented by the end of January 2015. This seems to me to be reasonable and to allow the time necessary to put all the systems in place. I would be grateful if the Minister would explicitly confirm to the House the commitment made to me by the noble Lord, Lord Deighton.
The main difficulty this evening, of course, is the lack of any concrete proposals from the Government. We cannot know exactly what the Government will propose. This is a fundamental problem because the devil is very much in the detail when it comes to the regulation of payday loans. We can only make a little progress tonight, but it would help to hear the Minister confirm to the House that they will by legislation oblige the FCA to impose a cap on the total costs associated with any payday loan.
It would help to hear the Minister say that the FCA will be instructed to look again at the restrictions on rollovers. The FCA has said that it is minded to restrict rollovers to two. This is completely wrong. Some 28% of all borrowers have one or more rollovers, and a full 50% of payday lending revenue comes from rolled-over loans. Rollovers should be banned. We should do here what they have been doing in Florida for the last 11 years. In Florida, no loan may be taken out until any previous loan has been settled in full; and no new loan may be taken out within 24 hours of the settlement of a previous loan.
Will the Minister confirm that he will instruct the FCA to consider this system? In Florida there is a real-time lending database in operation. This database prevents rollovers. It also prevents borrowers having multiple simultaneous loans. Will the Minister confirm that we will have a similar real-time database here in the UK? Will he confirm that the FCA will be instructed to consider banning multiple simultaneous loans?
There are another couple of features of the Florida regulatory system which should be closely examined on the basis that we should use them here unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. First, in Florida, any loan may be extended by 60 days without any additional charge at all. That is certainly not true here, but it should be true here. Secondly, any borrower in Florida who extends a loan by 60 days is required to undergo approved credit counselling and to abide by the plan agreed to retire the debt. This helps stop the spiral of increasing debt and provides a way out. We should have this here in the UK too.
The fact is that the Florida regulatory system is a model for payday loan regulation. Perhaps this is what the Chancellor suddenly realised on Sunday night. I ask the Government to ask the FCA to consider all aspects of the Florida regime for adoption here in the UK. At its simplest, in Florida, if you borrow £300 for 30 days you pay back £333. Here, if you borrow £300 for 30 days from Wonga, you pay back £397. That is three times as much—a wholly unjustifiable transfer of cash from the poor to the rich.
In closing, I simply ask the Minister to confirm that when we come to the capping amendment at Third Reading, we can operate under the less restrictive Committee-stage rules, as I think is entirely appropriate given the late stage at which the amendment is being introduced. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, but I speak from a slightly different point of view. After so many years in your Lordships’ House, from time to time certain problems are raised with me when people have nowhere else to go. I want to talk about the link between the payday loan and credit and other things, particularly unemployment.
Take the situation at the moment of the young unemployed, or with some sort of weighting allowance in some form or other, who want to buy a mobile telephone or an iPad or something like this. They go along to any one of the suppliers, which then offers them a package that means they do not need to pay £500 up front but can pay it later. They sign up to something that they do not quite understand and then find that they cannot meet the necessary payments. They may have various allowances but, before they know it, the pressure builds up. So what starts as a £500 transaction can multiply into £1,000 fairly quickly. They cannot afford to pay the bill, so they go to a payday loan company—I will not mention their names—which, without the necessary research, offers them facilities at an exorbitant rate of interest. What starts with the wish to buy an iPhone or something of that sort for £500, when they have not got the money up front, can turn into nearly £5,000.
That is a worry that I had not fully appreciated, and I have tabled a Question next week on the subject. If you have no income and are not employed, you cannot have a payday loan. However, here you have people who get allowances from the state actually getting payday loans. There is something immoral or wrong about that. I do not want to make a fuss about it tonight, but I have quite a lot of evidence and research on it. It worries me because this is a generation of unemployed who have got into a level of debt that they cannot cope with. This issue is becoming increasingly important.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, makes an interesting and important point about those people who are in the situation where they see this as a last resort for receiving credit. If any noble Lords were watching “Newsnight” yesterday evening, they would have seen a disturbing feature concerning Wonga; the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, did not want to name companies, but this company was named in the programme. It turned out that people who had had loans from Wonga, and had then gone to try to get a mortgage, had been told by their financial adviser, or by the mortgage company, that they were not going to get a mortgage simply because they had had a loan. I am sure that would apply to any payday loan company.
It seems perfectly wrong that somebody who takes out that kind of loan and pays it back within the defined period at no additional cost and without extending it or anything—in other words, someone who has done nothing wrong or outwith the agreement—is then penalised. It seems that this stain on their record remains for six years. It seems fundamental that any payday loan company ought to be saying on its website, or telling people over the telephone, “Yes, we are happy to give you this money, but we have to tell you that some mortgage companies and some lenders will not lend to you for a period of six years simply because you have taken this loan”. This seems to be a nefarious practice, and it also seems quite wrong that those companies are not obliged to state unequivocally and perfectly clearly that this could be the case.
My Lords, we of course look forward with interest to the amendments that the Government will put down at Third Reading. However, I was somewhat disturbed by newspaper reports suggesting that the Government are going to ask the FCA to formulate a policy on the level of the cap. That would be entirely inappropriate. It is for the Government to formulate and to define the objectives of the policy and for the FCA to then implement it. The FCA may, on the basis of research, be charged with setting the level of the cap in relation to principles defined by the Government, but it is up to the Government to specify those principles, specify the objectives and, indeed, design the policy. We do not want to hear a cop-out, where the Government declare, to general acclaim, that they are going to cap payday loans and then hand the whole design of the policy over to an organisation which is a regulator and not designed, in and of itself, for the formulation of policy.
I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance that when these amendments are brought forward at Third Reading, they will contain clear objectives, principles and processes that will define the approach and policy that the Government are prepared to implement with respect to payday loans and that the responsibility that is then handed to the FCA will be one of implementation, not of policy design.
My Lords, Amendment 178 concerns continuous payment authorities. This is an issue that I raised during the passage of the Financial Services Act 2012. Continuous payment authorities are a recurring payment mechanism involving a debit or credit card where the debtor gives his or her card to the company and they contact the bank. Unlike direct debits or standing orders, this allows a firm to take regular payments from a customer’s bank account without having to seek express authority for each payment. When I made this point to the Minister, the noble Lord Lord Newby said that,
“abuse of the CPA is one of the most concerning practices of payday lenders”.—[Official Report, 28/11/12, col. 235.]
Consumer groups, the Law Society and the OFT have expressed ongoing concerns about this issue. The real issue is that the debtor—the customer—is not in full charge of their affairs. The continuous payment authorities do not offer the same guarantee as direct debits or standing orders. In effect, they give the company authority about how much is taken from an individual’s account and when. This is hugely important to those who take out payday loans, whose financial position is tenuous. Unlike direct debits and standing orders, there is no written communication between the individual and the bank. This situation has led to the banks reviewing up to 30,000 complaints from customers since 2009. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, quite a number of those will be eligible for compensation. That authority has said that many of the banks or providers are not cancelling recurring payments to payday loan firms.
Last December, the OFT warned that businesses should not lock customers into CPA traps because people did not know what they were signing up to. The OFT opened formal investigations last November into several payday lenders over aggressive debt collection practices. Their progress report focused on concerns regarding unfair or improper practices:
“Using the CPA in a manner which is unreasonable or disproportionate or excessive in failing to have proper regard to the possibility that a debtor is in financial difficulties”.
“seeking payment before income or other funds may reasonably be expected to reach the account”.
The Financial Ombudsman Service was seeing 50 new cases a month at the end of last year. My information is that that number has increased since.
Such blatantly unfair treatment of consumers should not be restricted to a matter of guidance. The new clause that I am proposing ensures that debtors are informed about their rights and that only the debtor may cancel or vary a CPA in communication with the bank. Furthermore, the debtor’s bank is obliged to comply with the debtor’s instructions, as they do with direct debits and standing orders. I suggest to the Minister that in these austere times we ought to legislate to protect such debtors and to ensure a level playing field between the lender and the debtor.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord McFall, for raising this very important issue again. The Government wholeheartedly agree that consumers must be protected when they borrow from payday lenders and use other high-cost forms of credit. Payday lenders are causing unacceptable consumer harm and the Government are committed to putting that right.
As noble Lords will know, the Government have taken decisive action to protect borrowers by fundamentally reforming the regulatory system governing these lenders. This House strongly supported the Government’s proposals to transfer the regulation of consumer credit to the FCA during the passage of the Financial Services Bill last year.
The Government have ensured that the FCA has robust powers to protect customers of high-cost lenders. It will thoroughly assess every lender’s fitness to continue to trade. It will put in place much higher standards that firms will have to meet, and those requirements will, for the first time, be binding on firms. It will proactively monitor the market, focusing on the areas most likely to cause consumer harm. The FCA has a broad enforcement toolkit to punish breaches of the rules: there is no limit on the fines it can levy and, crucially, it can force lenders to provide redress to consumers.
The FCA takes up its new regulatory responsibilities in this area on 1 April next year. But it has already demonstrated that it is serious about cracking down on high-cost lenders. Its draft rules, published on 3 October, restrict some of the practices that cause most consumer detriment, and have won widespread support. But we are convinced that further action will be needed to ensure that this market functions in a way that is in consumers’ interests. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have announced that they will bring forward an amendment to this Bill at Third Reading to require the FCA to use its powers to cap the cost of payday loans.
I will not pre-empt our discussion at Third Reading but I would just like to make a few key points on the need for a cap on the costs of credit. The Government have always kept the case for a cap under review as the market has evolved. With growing evidence, including from other countries, in support of a cap, we believe that now is the right time to give the FCA a clear parliamentary mandate to take action under the powers we have given it to implement a cap on total costs.
The FCA has an important job to do: it must ensure that it designs a cap that works in UK consumers’ best interests and fits the UK market. To do that, it needs to consider the evidence thoroughly, including drawing on the valuable work being undertaken by the Competition Commission to investigate the fundamental problems in the payday market. As the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, has already pointed out, we do not intend to wait until the Competition Commission has finished its work and have committed to implementing the cap in January 2015.
The Government’s commitment this week sends a strong message to lenders: “Do not wait for the authorities to act, raise your game and start charging and treating your customers fairly now”. We will have a full debate on the government amendments at Third Reading—
I thank the Minister for giving way. He made the point about treating customers fairly. I understand that he is making a broader point but I noticed that he was nodding a few minutes ago when I spoke about the potential damage to somebody trying to get a mortgage, having taken out a payday loan. Does he agree that some way should be found of ensuring that specific information is given to those taking out a payday loan so that they do not affect their ability to handle other aspects of their financial affairs?
I was going to come on to this point but I will do so now. I did not see “Newsnight” but I read about the report in today’s papers. It seems demonstrably unfair. I have two sons in their 20s. I have no idea whether they take out payday loans but I know that at some point in the next six years one or both of them might think of getting a mortgage—if they keep working hard. It does seem demonstrably unfair that someone taking out 50 quid for a payday loan today could be automatically denied a mortgage in six years’ time. If the noble Lord will permit me, I propose to draw that to the attention of the FCA.
There are two elements to this. First, there is the point that the noble Lord made about what might be on the website to point this out. There is also another issue, which is whether it is reasonable for people offering mortgages automatically to deny them to someone who may have taken out a small payday loan and paid it off rapidly. I do not know, for example, whether that rule applies to somebody who has taken out a loan under the traditional method of door-to-door payday-type loans that we had in this country for many decades. I shall draw that to the attention of the FCA.
I was just beginning to say that we will have a full debate on Third Reading, and I can commit to operating, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey suggested, on Committee stage rules. Having sat through many debates in your Lordships’ House, I do not think that, even if I said that we were resistant to noble Lords’ proposals, that would make a huge difference to the behaviour of noble Lords. In any event, I am happy to give that assurance now.
Turning to the amendments before us, starting with that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McFall, the Government share his deep concern about the potential for consumers to be misled by lenders. It is essential that consumers are well informed of the risks before entering into an agreement. However, I believe the noble Lord’s concerns will largely be addressed by the FCA’s proposed rules, or already exist in legislation.
Regulations made under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 in accordance with the consumer credit directive currently require that creditors provide adequate information to enable the consumer to assess whether a proposed credit agreement is suitable to their needs and financial situation. Requirements on lenders to be clear to consumers are also set out in the OFT’s Irresponsible Lending guidance. These requirements will be transposed into binding FCA rules. The noble Lord was worried about guidance; this is being transposed from guidance into rules.
The FCA has also proposed a tough package of measures to restrict how payday lenders can access money from their customers’ bank accounts via the continuous payment authority mechanism on their debit and credit cards. These include limiting the use of CPAs to two attempts, and banning part payment. The FCA is also proposing to turn the guidance around the use of CPAs from the outgoing regulator, the OFT, into binding FCA rules. Several of the provisions set out in the noble Lord’s amendment are therefore directly covered by these proposed rules, including a requirement for lenders to give the debtor a statement of their rights in relation to the CPA, and the ability of a borrower to cancel a CPA at any time.
The Government believe that the provisions set out by the noble Lord and not reflected in FCA rules will not, in practice, serve to improve consumer protections. Requiring lenders to provide additional information to consumers on their legal rights presents a real risk of information overload and confusion for consumers. As the noble Lord said in Committee, no one wants to be swamped by hundreds of pages of dense legal text. It is also important to balance awareness of legal rights with promoting awareness of the Financial Ombudsman Service, the free service to help consumers resolve disputes. Taking a case to court can be too expensive for consumers.
The issue here is a level playing field for continuous payment authorities, and direct debits and standing orders. There has to be a loud and clear message from the Financial Conduct Authority to banks, which have 30,000 complaints against them at the moment, and to companies, that we cannot tolerate an imbalance between the power and authority of a lender and the debtor, who can be in ignorance about what is happening to their account. If the Minister can assure me that he will send that message to the FCA, which in turn will send out the message that it needs a level playing field, at least that would be a step forward.
Absolutely, I am very happy to do that. I hope that the rules would send that message very clearly, but I am very happy to reinforce it.
I go back to the terms of the amendments. I am concerned that some of the provisions could make it more difficult for a consumer to cancel an agreement—for example, requiring borrowers to sign for cancellation of a CPA. I am confident that the FCA’s proposals will give consumers control with respect to CPAs and in managing their repayments. I strongly support the noble Lord in seeking to protect consumers using the high-cost credit market and ensuring that they know their rights. However, I believe the objectives of transparency and protections for consumers are already provided for by the new regulatory regime; the FCA has already set out the action that it proposes to take in this area.
I turn to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. His proposal would require the FCA to implement a number of rules from the Florida model of payday regulation, including a requirement for a cap on credit. I can give the noble Lord at least some of the assurances that he seeks in terms of the FCA considering the Florida approach to regulating payday lenders very closely, as it decides how to design a cap on the total cost of payday loans for the UK market and make sure that it works effectively here. It will consider rollovers and look, for example, at the experience of Florida with a real-time database.
While I completely support the noble Lord’s desire to learn lessons from other countries’ experience, I have some doubts as to whether it is as straightforward as he thinks to simply import almost an entire regulatory framework from another jurisdiction. The UK has a very different market from other countries, and it is right that the rules governing regulation of payday loans in the UK reflect our own unique national characteristics. The FCA will be charged with doing that, building on the international evidence and examination of the UK market, and drawing on the Competition Commission’s analysis among other things. Therefore, while I share the noble Lord’s commitment to ensuring the UK consumers are protected when they borrow from high-cost lenders, I hope that he will agree that the best way to achieve that is through development of evidence-based rules that are tailored to protect UK consumers. We have a clear action plan to deliver this objective.
The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, raised the question of the content of the amendments and the relationship between the Government, in setting policy in this area, and the FCA—where the Government stop and the FCA begins. I heard very clearly what he said. The exact nature of the amendment that we will debate at Third Reading is currently being formulated, and I shall make sure that his point is very much in the minds not only of Ministers but of officials as they set about that task.
With those assurances about the amendment that we will introduce, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I was struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, that the Government must at some point surely say how the FCA is to arrive at a rate or an amount for a cap and by what criteria the cap should be determined. I am sure that they will want to revisit that whole notion again at Third Reading.
As to Florida, I am encouraged by what the Minister says. I make the overriding point that the Florida system has been operating for 11 years; it is simple, it is easy to understand and it works. What we have here now does not work, is not simple and is not easy to understand—and it costs three times as much as Florida. That is a powerful reason for looking carefully at Florida and assuming that there is something that we can really learn here, no matter the differences between the two jurisdictions. However, I am very grateful for the Government’s decision to cap the total cost of payday loans, and I look forward to a further discussion of the issues at Third Reading under Committee stage rules. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 121 withdrawn.
Consideration on Report adjourned.