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Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 (Amendments to Audit Requirements) Order 2017

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 1 February 2018

Financial Services Act 2012 (Mutual Societies) Order 2018

Building Societies (Restricted Transactions) (Amendment to the Prohibition on Entering into Derivatives Transactions) Order 2018

Motions to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, these three orders relate to the mutuals sector, which encompasses co-operatives, community benefit societies, credit unions and building societies. In the mutuals sector the interests of members, not shareholders, are paramount. Mutuals are an important part of Britain’s diverse and resilient economy, and we wish to keep it that way. Recognising this, the Government have brought forward a package of measures to provide further support for the sector and level the playing field between mutuals and companies.

There are nearly 7,000 co-operatives in Britain today, which together contribute more than £36 billion to the UK economy. They employ over 200,000 people and are part-owned by 13.6 million members of our society. The Government recognise the value of co-operatives and want to ensure they are not saddled with unnecessary administrative burdens. Since 2012, small companies have enjoyed an exemption from the requirement in the Companies Act 2006 to have their accounts fully audited.

The first statutory instrument, the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 (Amendments to Audit Requirements) Order 2017, will increase the thresholds at which co-ops are required to appoint a professional auditor from £2.8 million in assets and £5.6 million in turnover to £5.1 million in assets and £10.2 million in turnover, in line with those for companies. While this proposal is deregulatory, noble Lords can be confident that appropriate controls remain in place. Members must vote to apply the exemption and the regulators can still demand a full audit if they have concerns over the management of a co-operative. Furthermore, co-operatives which disapply the requirement to appoint a professional auditor will still be required to prepare a less onerous audit report.

The second of the three orders before the House is the draft Building Societies (Restricted Transactions) (Amendment to the Prohibition on Entering into Derivatives Transactions) Order 2018. Building societies serve over 20 million UK customers and are an integral source of loans to first-time buyers. In order to offer fixed-rate mortgages, building societies must hedge against the risk of interest-rate changes and may do so by buying derivatives. The European markets infrastructure regulation of 2012 requires all derivatives to be centrally cleared. This means that building societies must either become direct members of a clearing house or clear through third-party members.

However, as it currently stands, the legislation prevents building societies complying with the membership rules of the main UK clearing house. The specific rule which we are concerned with requires that, in the event of a member defaulting, other members must bid for a portion of the defaulted member’s derivatives portfolio. Under current legislation, building societies cannot take part in this process because they are prohibited from trading derivatives for any purpose other than to hedge balance-sheet risk. As a result, building societies must clear indirectly through third parties which are members, placing them on an uneven footing as compared to banks. Clearing through third parties incurs expensive broker fees and makes building societies dependent on clearing-house members continuing to offer this service.

This SI will amend the Building Societies Act 1986, which I believe I put on the statute book, to allow building societies to trade derivatives not just to hedge their balance-sheet risk but for the purpose of complying with the membership rules of a clearing house. The Government have consulted representatives of the building societies and the Prudential Regulation Authority in developing these proposals, and they are content.

The last order before the House concerns mutuals in Northern Ireland including, for this purpose, credit unions. Under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, mutuals in Great Britain are registered with and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. As noble Lords will recall, prior to the appointment of the FCA as the primary financial services regulator, this function was performed by the Financial Services Authority. Following the failure of Presbyterian Mutual in October 2008, at a cost to the taxpayer of £50 million, Northern Ireland Ministers and HM Treasury agreed that responsibility for regulating Northern Ireland credit unions and other mutuals should transfer to the FSA. Responsibility for regulation was transferred in 2011. The aim of this transfer was to provide members of those mutuals with access to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and the Financial Ombudsman Service, among other benefits.

It was intended that the registration of Northern Ireland’s mutuals should follow in due course, once the establishment of the new Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority was completed. It is clearly logical for registration and regulatory oversight to lie with a single authority. The Northern Ireland registering authority, the Department for the Economy, also supports the move. A good deal of preparatory work has now taken place, and Department for the Economy and FCA officials are working closely to ensure that Northern Ireland’s mutuals are supported during the transfer of registration, which is set to occur on 6 April this year. Societies previously registered with the Department for the Economy will not have to re-register; their records will simply be transferred to the FCA.

I trust that the Members of the House will agree that these orders represent a welcome update to mutuals legislation across the country for the wider benefit of the sector. I commend the orders to the House.

My Lords, I have a few questions to ask the Minister on these orders, although I cannot see anything major wrong with them. The first order the Minister described lifts the threshold at which point a co-op is required to have a professional audit. I have two questions on that. Looking through the attendant paperwork, I notice that responses to the consultation came from different co-operative societies. It is no surprise that they would wish to be on a level playing field with their various competitors which are privately owned companies, so I perfectly understand why they feel it is unfair that they should carry a cost burden which their competitors of the same size do not. But there is a difference between a private company and a co-op, which is that the membership of the co-op, which in effect is its ownership, is typically much more widely cast and made up of a large number of people who may not have a great deal of financial sophistication, whereas the owners of a privately owned company may have much greater awareness of the financial structure and happenings within that company. So I wonder to what extent the Government in their consultations took into account the exposure of relatively small people to losses that might seem quite small to those who have very large incomes but might be significant to those who are part of the membership of a co-op. It is the first area of concern.

Secondly, I am curious to understand the choice of benchmark. From the outside, it looks slightly random. I wonder whether it was done on a percentage of size within the industry or whether there was some structural characteristic within the industry that led to the choice of that benchmark.

The second issue the Minister addressed was the provision of the order that would allow building societies to be members of clearing houses. I think that all of us in this House agree that it is crucial that interest-rate swaps are cleared through a central counterparty—in the UK that would usually be the London Clearing House—and that it is very frustrating for building societies and mutuals to have to go the agency route and pay a brokerage fee, usually through an existing member which, quite frankly, is fairly disinterested in the service that it provides to that building society, never mind charging for it—so I am entirely on board. Can the Minister strengthen his confirmation that this provides no capacity for building societies to engage in speculation? It seems to be very clear that it does not. We all recognise that anyone providing a fixed-rate mortgage can do so only if they can hedge it through a derivatives contract, so that is an entirely appropriate and necessary use of a derivatives contract, or by doing it at the level of the balance sheet to achieve the same kind of protection.

At the very end of his speech, the Minister referred to the cascade process that occurs when a member of a clearing house fails. I think he has given us an assurance that the category of membership that would apply to a building society would mean that it would escape the consequences of that cascade. He talked about the cascade that occurs when a single member fails. There is also the cascade that occurs when the entire CCP fails. If the Minister wishes to look at a reference, during the passage of what became the Financial Services Act 2012 the discussion of the construction of the cascade was fairly substantial. Will the Minister tell us how a building society fits into that rather different cascade, because typically the members create a sort of protection fund, which is the first element to be raided, and they will have other contingent responsibilities in the course of that cascade. If there is a way that building societies could be carved out from that, I would be very grateful. It may be that that has already been achieved and I am just completely unaware of it, so I will raise that question.

The final issue is about the change that makes the FCA the registrar as well as the regulator for credit unions in Northern Ireland. I can find no comments that would suggest anything negative about that. Have any issues been raised that I simply have not been able to find that we should be aware of around this, or is there a wide consensus that this is a logical fitting in place of the final piece of a jigsaw that has already been assembled and is functioning properly?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for finding so much to say about these three orders. On the first order about equality with private limited companies, I have no comment. On the order relating to Northern Ireland mutuals moving under the control of the FCA, I was curious about why it took so long. The consultation started in 2010 and is only now coming into action. Were there some complications that were not brought out in the Explanatory Memorandum or was it just slowness of pens?

Finally, on derivatives trading, we have the same general concern as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, that we do not want to make building societies any less safe through the application of this order. Membership of a clearing house, at least at a theoretical level, has some risks—but, as I understand it, the building societies see this as a very positive thing, so I am hoping that the consensus that this makes sense is right. I would like an assurance that the extension of a building society’s right to trade in derivatives in order to be a member of the clearing house is so worded that it applies solely to that and does not in any way allow further extension of the building society’s right to trade in derivatives beyond that which is already exercised.

My Lords, I have some brief comments in respect of the orders in front of us today. I declare that I am a member of the Co-operative Group and have been a member of the Co-op, as it were, for over 40 years, after starting off in the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. I am also a director of the London Mutual Credit Union, one of the biggest credit unions in London. These orders will affect us because its turnover is in excess of the uprated ones here.

The audit requirement is good news, and will certainly help many smaller credit unions in terms of the audit function burdens they have. The point the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, made about ensuring that the organisations are properly accounted for is important as well. These sums of money are owned by members. They should be properly accounted for and any risks taken into account. Where there are problems, people should be alerted to them, and they should be dealt with properly.

I support the building society order, which enables them to join clearing houses. I see from the papers that the Government consulted the large building societies. That is fine, but did they also consult the Building Societies Association, which is the umbrella body for them? I cannot see that there are any views from it in the papers here.

It is a good move to put mutual societies in Northern Ireland under the umbrella of the FCA. The credit union sector in Northern Ireland is very big and much bigger than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom—in fact, the credit union sector is big in the whole island of Ireland. Giving it protection under the umbrella of the FAC is very welcome.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Although I am not sighted on the detail of the co-operative and community benefit societies order, it feels like the right direction of travel. My point is really just a general one. I spend a lot of my life in SMEs and small charities, and at the moment many of them are becoming overwhelmed by the amount of bureaucracy, red tape and other things that are appearing on their desks. My question is really one that the Minister might take back to government. Someone needs to look carefully at what is happening to these small organisations, in terms of the amount of red tape and things that are appearing on their desks, and whether we can create this direction of travel for some of them. It is just a general point and a concern.

I was at a small charity last weekend, with one member of staff and two part-time people working in it, which is doing a great piece of work around education in the local community. The amount of treacle and stuff they were having to deal with was immense and extraordinary. You can feel many good people, who want to do good things in their community, wondering how much longer they can have a role in these kinds of things. They become very fearful of the 92-page document that appears on their desk. It is a general point, but one that needs to go back to government.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this brief debate and hope to address as many points as I can in response.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked why the figures for the thresholds had been chosen. The reason is given at point 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum:

“These thresholds are out of step with both inflation over the last decade, and current company law. Over the same period, the thresholds for private limited companies of comparable size have been updated”.

We are aligning the thresholds in this order with those for companies. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, this has by and large been welcomed. The noble Baroness made a different and wider point, which goes to the heart of the Co-operative movement— namely, how it takes decisions. Not just those on audit, but all decisions in co-operatives are nominally taken by the members. If she wants to press that issue, it goes to the heart of what the Co-operative movement is and how it is regulated. It is a much broader point than the specific one on audit. As I said, they would have to vote for this exemption. In addition, there is still an opportunity for the regulator to intervene if he is concerned, and there will still have to be an ordinary audit of the accounts.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the exemption for building societies and were slightly concerned that it might go broader. But if one looks at new paragraph (d) in Article 2 of the SI, it is very narrowly drafted. The general exemption, which the noble Baroness referred to, is lifted in the very constrained circumstances of complying with,

“an obligation imposed by a recognised clearing house”.

So it does not open the building societies into the wider field of trading in derivatives and of speculation.

The noble Baroness asked a general question about cascades. When I introduced the order, it was in the specific context of a limited failure and the members having to bid for the interests of the defaulting member. On the broader question of what happens if the whole system collapses, the briefing I have here says, “I will write”. It is a good question about what happens if there is a systemic failure. As I say, I will write about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about consultation with the Building Societies Association. Yes, we consulted representatives of the BSA and they are supportive of the change. As I said a moment ago, the exemption is sufficiently narrowly drafted so that building societies will not be able to engage in speculation.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the delay in transferring the registration responsibilities from Northern Ireland over to the FCA. It was caused, first, by the transfer of the responsibilities of the FSA to the FCA and PRA, which were established in 2012. Secondly, time was needed to prepare for the transfer between the FCA and Department for the Economy officials. I do not think there is anything sinister behind it. Northern Ireland Ministers agreed with HM Treasury to transfer the function, and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland has indicated that it does not have the resource to continue providing this function. If it had kept on doing it, it would have had to increase the fees. As I said when I introduced the order, it is logical to have registration and regulatory oversight sitting with the same body.

The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, raised a more general point about regulation for charities. I will take that away, but we have recently made it easier for charities to reclaim the tax through Give As You Earn, by making it less bureaucratic to claim the extra tax. I think I remember taking through an SI, or indeed a Bill, on that a year ago. I will write to the noble Lord, because he raises a good, general point about the regulatory burden on charities, which we certainly want to lift.

I think I have covered all the points raised, apart from the systemic one about cascade failure. I beg to move.

Motions agreed.