Motion to Consider
My Lords, these regulations ensure that a ring-fenced retail bank cannot be liable for pensions obligations arising from other parts of its wider banking group. These regulations are the final piece of secondary legislation necessary to bring about the ring-fencing of retail banking from investment banking. In completing this process, these regulations represent the final piece of legislation needed to complete the biggest ever overhaul of Britain’s banking system.
On election, the Government set themselves the task of fixing the banking system following the worst banking crisis in the entirety of British history. In 2010 we set up the Independent Commission on Banking—the ICB—led by Sir John Vickers to consider the options for structural reform of the banking sector. The ICB recommended ring-fencing core retail banking services from investment banking and trading.
Ring-fencing will insulate crucial core retail banking services, such as the taking of personal deposits, from shocks originating elsewhere in the financial system, and will make banks simpler and easier to resolve. This will help curtail the implicit government guarantee enjoyed by banks that are seen as too big to fail, and will protect taxpayer money from ever again being used to provide solvency support for failing banks.
One of the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking was that ring-fenced banks should not have any liabilities to group-wide pension schemes. The Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 gave the Government the power to ensure this, and these regulations exercise that power. They require ring-fenced banks to make arrangements to ensure that they do not have any shared pension liabilities with other group members or outside companies—with the exception of other ring-fenced bodies within the same group, and wholly owned subsidiaries. The regulations also give powers to the banks and to the trustees of banks’ pension schemes to ensure that the necessary changes can be made, and set out the role of the regulators, the PRA and the pension regulator for monitoring and assessing the changes.
The regulations are a necessary part of ensuring that there is a robust ring-fence in place protecting core banking services. Any shared pension liabilities could pose a huge risk to the viability of the overall ring-fence and could threaten the ability of the ring-fenced bank to maintain the provision of vital services. Collectively, the large banks run their pension schemes at a deficit that reaches the multiple billions of pounds. This means that were a non-ring-fenced investment bank to fail, the ring-fenced bank could suddenly be left with a large pension liability in the many millions, or even billions, of pounds that it might be unable to pay.
Although implementing these regulations will have some transitional cost to the banks, the measure is clearly good value for money. The cost to the banks is hard to estimate, but the Treasury expects it to be in the tens or low hundreds of millions of pounds. This is relatively small in comparison to the cost of the broad ring-fencing package.
Furthermore, ring-fencing itself is the best strategy for structural reform of UK banks. The plan to ring-fence UK banks is based on the comprehensive work of the Independent Commission on Banking. The mechanisms by which ring-fencing will help financial stability are clear. The ring-fenced retail banks will be insulated from shocks elsewhere in the financial system. They will have higher capital requirements, which will improve their resilience. Ring-fencing will make banks’ structures simpler and will provide additional options to the regulator for a bank to be restructured, which will help resolution in the case of failure. By ensuring economic and operational independence, ring-fencing will achieve the objective of complete separation of retail banking from investment banking while still allowing the bank to benefit from its relationship with the wider banking group.
We firmly believe that this is the most cost-effective and proportionate option, and one that will ensure the long-term stability of the sector. The regulations play a key part in building a robust ring-fence and a stable banking sector, and I commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, I sat through the creation of the Act to which these regulations relate. Broadly speaking, it had cross-party support. This is, as the Minister pointed out, a key element in completing the picture and therefore I welcome it. However, having spent several years serving on the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee of your Lordships’ House, I can only join in its complaint—it is now called the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee—from its 26th report, published on 10 February. The committee said:
“In the EM, HMT gives limited information about the consultation process which was held from July to October 2014, referring only to a number of technical changes made in the light of consultation responses, as well as to two substantial changes in order to limit the burden on the banks and regulators. Though the draft Regulations were laid on 21 January, HMT had not published the summary of responses by 10 February. We are clear that Departments should publish their consultation summaries no later than the time of laying the instruments concerned before Parliament, as we set out in the report of our inquiry into Government consultation practice. In our view, Parliament should be asked to consider secondary legislation only when Government have provided adequate information, including about consultation, to support such consideration”.
I agree with the comments in that report. I believe that that general principle should be kept to and I am disappointed that the Treasury, in this particular case, has failed.
Also, what progress is being made in this whole ring-fencing process? As the Minister will recall, there was a degree of scepticism from our Benches and other places that the timescales that the banks had to create their ring-fence structures were extended. Can the Minister give the Committee some indication of what progress the banks are making in that extended timescale and what processes the Government and presumably the PRA, the FCA or whatever is the appropriate combination are putting in place to ensure that the banks are progressing towards their ring-fenced state and that we do not once again end up in a situation where too-big-to-fail institutions land us with a fait accompli and say, “We haven’t done it yet: we’ll do it later”. With those comments, I have no objection to the regulations in principle because, as the Minister said, they complete the picture to create ring-fenced entities.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments. On the consultation and the publication of the consultation response document, I am sorry that it was not published earlier. It has now been published. Compared with most SIs that we take through your Lordships’ House, this is actually—though important—quite short, and has a single purpose.
I also take the point that compared with the importance of the SI this is a modest point, but to a poor opposition spokesman like myself, without a wonderful array of staff behind me, if a document is not signalled in the EM I have great trouble actually finding it. While I am sure that the statement has been published and is right, surely it should be a matter of discipline that it should be published before it is laid, and every effort should be made to make sure that any documents referenced are referenced in the Explanatory Memorandum.
I agree with the noble Lord. It is very difficult from the document itself to gain any sense of where pressure points or disagreements might be, and things should be published promptly, as the rules suggest.
The noble Lord asked how the ring-fence process is going. This is the final piece of secondary legislation required to implement ring-fencing. By passing it now, we have fulfilled our commitment to legislate for ring-fencing by the end of the Parliament. Further ring-fencing rules, which do not require legislation, are now being consulted on in two consultation papers and being put in place by the PRA. The PRA’s first ring-fencing consultation closed in January, and it is on course to publish its second consultation paper later this year. The big banks that have to implement ring-fencing are fully engaged with the PRA and, in January, gave their initial plans for ring-fencing to the PRA. So there is a bit of an iterative process going on between the drafting of rules and the banks’ own thoughts about how best they might do it. The other thing that has been happening is that Lloyds and RBS have been making changes to their business by winding down certain of their activities, both in terms of geographical spread and contracting some of their investment banking activities in anticipation of ring-fencing coming into effect. As far as we are aware and can see, both the regulators and the banks appear to be on track to have the ring-fencing successfully implemented in due time by 2018.