Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, claims management companies offer advice and other services to consumers making claims for compensation. They can provide vital support for consumers who may be unwilling or unable to bring a claim for compensation themselves. When the CMCs market functions well, these companies can act as a check and balance on business conduct.
CMCs are currently regulated by the Claims Management Regulator, under the Ministry of Justice. This regulatory regime was established in 2006 through the Compensation Act and was initially intended to be temporary. Reports of widespread misconduct suggested that the Government should act to strengthen regulation of CMCs. In 2015 the Brady review found evidence that the majority of stakeholders felt the Claims Management Regulator lacks the sufficient powers and resources to supervise the market properly. The Government took the first step to stronger regulation in 2016 through the Financial Guidance and Claims Act. This mandated the transfer of regulation to the FCA and the handling of complaints about CMCs to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
The aim of this legislation is to introduce a robust regulatory regime for CMCs that benefits consumers and is proportionate to the needs of the sector. We consulted on its provisions and we are confident that this legislation delivers on this aim. Through changes to the regulated activities order and the financial promotions order, this legislation makes claims management a regulated activity in England and Wales and in Scotland for the first time. This will require firms to seek authorisation from the FCA in order to promote and carry out claims management services.
The order defines the types of claims management activities that will be regulated by the FCA by creating seven different permissions across different sectors for different types of activity. This will mean that regulation will be comprehensive as each CMC will need separate permissions depending on the specific activities and sectors that it wishes to operate in, which will enable the FCA to take into account the different types of work across each sector and different activities. Regulation will also be kept proportionate as CMCs will need authorisation only for the activities they actually carry out.
This is a change from the previous regime, which set out one permission enabling claims management activity across six different sectors. These six sectors have been preserved from the previous regime and mean that CMCs must be regulated for their activities in personal injury, financial products and services, employment issues, industrial and criminal injuries, housing disrepair, and for seeking out, referring, and identifying claims. As the Economic Secretary noted in the other place, the Government are aware of increasing claims management activity in areas other than those I have just named. The Government will monitor the new regulatory regime and consider how best to meet this challenge.
The order also sets out which organisations are exempt from the FCA’s regulation. Concerns had been raised about the exemption of legal professionals, but I can assure the Committee that, first, solicitors are already strictly regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for their work, which can closely resemble claims management work, and secondly, CMCs will not be exempt from regulation merely because they employ a solicitor. Rather the exemption is designed to ensure legal firms are not unduly burdened by dual regulation.
We have taken steps to make sure that this is a smooth transition. The FCA will be implementing a temporary permissions regime to ease the process for CMCs. The FCA is well placed to take on the regulation of CMCs, having already started to build the department which will oversee the transition of regulation. It is well resourced and has an expert pool of conduct supervisors and detailed knowledge of financial services. CMCs will be held to the same conduct standards as all FCA-authorised firms, and the FCA’s rules will provide a robust and proportionate framework for how CMCs should carry out business and treat their customers. The FCA will be able to use its regulatory powers to deal with CMCs that do not abide by its rules.
In summary, the Government believe that the proposed legislation is necessary to ensure that the regulation of claims management companies is fit for purpose so that consumers can benefit from a professional service that offers value for money. I hope members of the Committee will join me in supporting the order. I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I welcome the order. The FCA’s greater range of powers allows for tougher regulation to address the conduct issues and other problems that we are familiar with in the CMC market. The reauthorising of existing claims management companies will ensure that they can comply with the new regime, and the senior managers regime can be used to hold managers accountable for the actions of their businesses. All this is to be welcomed.
Is there any estimate of how many existing claims management companies will not get authorisation under the new regulatory regime? What will happen to the cases that such companies are handling if they are not authorised? The previous regime required only one permission to enable claims management activity across all six sectors—personal injury, financial products and services, employment, industrial and criminal injuries, and housing disrepair. The order creates seven different permissions across those sectors, which again is a positive because it strengthens and focuses the regulation of the CMCs. However, it maintains the same exclusions and exemptions from FCA regulation that existed in the previous regime, even though there have been a number of responses to consultation suggesting that additional sectors should be brought into scope, particularly claims about cavity wall insulation, aviation and timeshares.
Ofgem’s response to the Treasury consultation, by way of example, was prompted by an increase in correspondence with claims management companies dealing with cavity wall insulation, which are not regulated under the current regime. In eight months it received over 2,250 such requests compared with only 80 in the same period for the previous year. The energy company obligation scheme, which Ofgem administers, places an obligation on larger energy suppliers to deliver energy efficiency measures, including cavity wall insulation, particularly to individuals in fuel poverty and therefore vulnerable households. Ofgem considers that the significant increase in the number of subject access requests reflects claims management companies looking to pursue claims for clients against failed or wrongly installed insulation.
Somewhat wryly, Ofgem observes that over 6.2 million homes have cavity wall insulation under government schemes. It is clearly an emerging area for claims management companies, and it is in the interest of consumers for this area to be regulated. The Government’s response was to the effect that further work was needed to understand whether this and other claims sectors should be regulated. Against that, though, we are hearing from an authoritative regulator telling the Government that there is an escalating problem that needs to be addressed. I ask the Minister to confirm the extent to which the order allows for additional claims sectors to be included in the new regime and to what extent a further statutory instrument is required to extend its scope. When can we expect a decision on the inclusion of cavity wall insulation claims? What other sectors are the Government currently considering whether to include?
It is proposed that the exemption afforded to claims management activity by independent unions, if they adhere to a code of practice, is maintained. Again, in my view that is a positive because thousands of trade union members get service through their union. The existing code applicable to trade unions will be replaced by a new code to be published by the Treasury in time, I understand, for the regulatory transfer on 1 April 2019. What is the process for consulting the trade unions? Could the Minister give a steer on what areas in the code the Treasury is looking to change?
The Minister referred to solicitors carrying on claims management activity also being exempt if that activity is carried on as part of their ordinary legal practice because regulation comes via the Solicitors Regulation Authority. If a solicitor is not acting in the ordinary course of their legal practice but is carrying on claims management activity separately, the exclusion does not apply. Again, I noted that several responses to the Treasury consultation questioned that exemption or expressed concern about the robustness of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, suggesting, as one sees if one reads the submissions, that a risk of regulatory arbitrage could arise where the presence of a legal professional in a company allows it to seek SRA authorisation rather than meeting the more robust FCA process. Although the SRA and the FCA can develop memorandums, which I am sure they will, what assurances can the Minister give that this risk of regulatory arbitrage will be closely monitored, and does this order allow the FCA to revoke that exemption—that is, if it wants to consider that exemption, can it do so under this regulation?
Finally, under the General Data Protection Regulation 2018 and the Data Protection Act 2018, where personal data is obtained through an unlawful cold call, further use of it is prohibited. This is something that many of my colleagues were concerned about during the debate on this matter in the House. I know from reading the documents that the FCA is consulting on requiring claims management companies that buy leads from third parties to carry out due diligence to determine whether the lead generator is authorised and complies with the relevant legislation and regulations. However, again, I ask the Minister: when will the FCA conclude what is required of claims management companies—that is, to undertake due diligence and ensure that the leads they are buying are authorised—and will that be available before April 2019?
My Lords, given the hour, I shall try to be very brief. I support this statutory instrument but want to reiterate some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and others.
Obviously, I support the transfer of supervisory responsibility to the FCA and the Financial Ombudsman Service, but it will be effective only if the FCA decides that it will use its powers. The notes accompanying the statutory instrument refer to the senior managers and certification regime, which has been in place for two and a half years. The industry was initially very afraid of that regime and the discipline that might follow, but it is not so any longer. Can the Minister tell us or ask his officials to write to us setting out how many actions have been taken under that regime? Obviously, you do not expect anything in the first months but, by now, given the fairly constant level of misbehaviour within the financial services industry, we should be seeing something coming through. I fear that the number will be quite low—possibly even zero.
I also reflect the concerns that the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, expressed about exemptions. The Minister referred in particular to the concerns expressed in consultation about the exemption for the legal profession, and he talked of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I am afraid that its reputation is not good, and it is certainly not one of a body that is rigorous in its enforcement. I understand that there will be a memorandum of understanding and some sort of joint regime between that body and the FCA, but it would have been handy to have sight of that before we saw the SI. Can the Minister expand on that to give us some level of confidence both that these two bodies will work together and that they will be determined to be rigorous—something that, frankly, sits in neither’s history?
I pick up the issue of cold calling, which the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, addressed. As the Minister knows, we have been very concerned that there is not a much more vigorous prohibition on using data obtained in an unauthorised way, and cold calling was a particular issue. The fact that no penalty will be paid by those who use the information is a really significant loophole. Can the Minister give us any update on whether there will be action in this arena? He will know that, although Parliament has provided many powers for regulators to tackle cold calling, anecdotally we are aware that its incidence has not slacked; it has just become much more targeted against vulnerable people. That is almost the worst outcome that any of us could have anticipated and something that needs to be dealt with very rapidly.
Lastly, I turn to the issue of new areas. This industry has a long history of producing one new wheeze after another. We could use some assurance that the FCA and others will be able to move rapidly as it begins to become evident that the industry has found yet another way to target individuals in some abusive form. I do not want to damn all claims companies. Some of them are very good; some are extremely responsible, but it is an industry that has managed to draw in quite a number of rogues. We all want them to be expelled as soon as possible.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this statutory instrument and thank the Minister for introducing it. I also endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, has said, particularly her questions. I will not repeat what she said, but just observe that the regime will involve the Senior Managers and Certification Regime. I am sorry to hear that it is not as yet being used effectively. Perhaps the Minister will reduce our concerns. Perhaps it would be more top-of-mind if the reversed burden of proof originally in the scheme had been retained. Certainly, it is meant to be a regime which makes managers very clear of their duties, if not fearful. I endorse the idea of six bundled areas of responsibility being expressly divided into seven. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, asked whether there should be more than seven. It is a bit unfair of me, but I feel that the ombudsman becoming the financial ombudsman gives me a feel that he will be steelier and more effective.
The solicitor exemption depends on the exclusion that the activity is being carried on as part of their ordinary legal practice. The trouble is that we are talking about solicitors. They are paid to get around regulations. Who will be policing that boundary? Who will have responsibility for understanding what a particular solicitor is doing and saying, “Sorry, that should now go into the financial control”? The solicitors doing this work in the ordinary course of their business nevertheless need proper regulation. Is the Solicitors Regulation Authority up to the job?
Lastly, I understand that the CMRU staff will be redundant at a point when the FCA will, we hope, looking for similar skills. I would like to know the Government’s plans at a practical level for those staff.
I thank noble Lords for their scrutiny of this SI and for their general welcome. I will try to address some of the key points and questions which have been raised.
First, the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, asked about estimates of numbers. According to the CMRU, there are current 1,238 authorised CMCs in operation. The overall number of authorised CMCs has been reducing on average by 10.9% per year for the past four years. The FCA’s modelling shows that it expects to take on 906 firms in 2019.
The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, mentioned the solicitors’ exemption and concern about potential regulatory arbitrage. The SRA and the FCA are in the process of updating their memoranda of understanding to ensure that the sector is closely monitored and properly regulated. The order contains a provision which disapplies the exemption from regulation by the FCA, should a CMC seek to avoid FCA regulation by employing a solicitor. That CMC will continue to be regulated by the FCA.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked about solicitors, and not other regulated professionals, being exempt. Solicitors are already regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I understand the point that she made about that authority. The work of a solicitor advising on a claim is the same as, or very similar to, the work of a CMC seeking compensation for a consumer. As solicitors are regulated by the SRA for their usual activity, appropriate regulatory oversight is already present.
The Government have retained the other existing exemptions; we consider it correct that these bodies are not subject to regulation. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Drake. The FCA will continue to monitor exemption from claims management regulation if it moves or migrates into other activities. Of course, it will also retain the right to come back with further suggestions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, asked about the exemption for trade unions.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I was just touching upon the code of practice for trade unions, in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake. The Treasury proposes to maintain the code for trade unions and will replace the MoJ on the monitoring board. The Treasury is working with the Trades Union Congress and Scottish Trades Union Congress at an official level and will publish the code in due course. The code is being amended, mainly to update it to reflect the transfer of regulation.
The noble Baroness asked about CMCs moving into other sectors. We will carefully monitor the effectiveness of CMC regulation and work with the FCA, the SRA and others to ensure that the sector is benefiting its customers. On the estimate of how many CMCs will not get authorisation from the FCA and what will happen to their cases, the number of CMCs has been declining, and I gave some statistics on that at the beginning.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked what will happen to the highly qualified CMRU staff. The CMRU and the FCA are currently agreeing the transfer of staff as part of their transfer scheme under the Financial Guidance and Claims Act. The details are still subject to discussion.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked whether the Solicitors Regulation Authority was up to the task. The SRA is subject to oversight by the Ministry of Justice and provides strict professional regulation. A memorandum of understanding between the SRA and the FCA is being reviewed.
That is something that I think the FCA would be liaising on. If it felt that its activities were aligned with a CMC then, as I mentioned earlier, that would mean it would have to continue to be regulated by the FCA. On the specific point, unless there is any inspiration on its way, I will write with clarification to the noble Lord.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked if any action had been taken on CMCs doing their due diligence on data under GDPR. The FCA is in the process of updating and publishing its rules for the CMC regime. It will be working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is responsible for the oversight of data protection laws, to ensure that CMCs comply with the order, FCA rules and data protection legislation.
The noble Baroness asked whether the SRA was an effective regulator. The MoJ is responsible for the oversight of the SRA. The FCA and the SRA are currently reviewing their memorandum of understanding, and their conclusions will be published in due course. I think that covers most of the points.
Could the Minister clarify a point from one of my questions? Where an existing claims management company, authorised under the previous regime, transfers across to the FCA on the due date in April and is then subjected to the reauthorisation process but is not reauthorised, what happens in that instance to the caseload that it has been managing?
Committee adjourned at 8.04 pm.