House of Lords
Monday 19 April 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of London.
Arrangement of Business
Death of a Member: Lord Judd
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, families play a primary role in caring for and educating their children. The right honourable Secretary of State for Education is charged with driving family policy across government. The Government announced £27.3 million for the family fund in 2021-22 to support over 60,000 families on low incomes raising children with disabilities and serious illnesses. We are also investing over £14 million to champion family hubs.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reply. The Lord Chancellor was referring to current lack of support for separating couples, whose conflicts may be amplified by 2020-style no-fault divorce reform, which legalises one party unilaterally leaving the other without recourse. Mr Justice Cobb’s Family Solutions Group highlighted the role of family hubs, a classic cross-departmental policy in supporting separating couples. Can my noble friend say what progress has been made in providing such support in readiness for these legal changes to divorce?
My Lords, we are creating the new national centre for family hubs to provide expert advice, guidance and advocacy to support local councils in developing those family hubs. They will be very much locally grown and locally specific and should be part of the relationship support network for families who need it.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that all government departments should recognise the vital importance of family to the well-being of society, particularly of course in the field of taxation policy? To that end, will the Government consider the case for including in all draft legislation of relevant departments a family impact assessment?
My Lords, strong families are the bedrock of a strong society, and we need to ensure, especially now, that families get the support they need at the time that they need it. Can the Minister outline what further help will be given to fund support for relationships, marriage and reconciliation, especially for those who do not have support networks such as other family members to rely on for help and advice?
My Lords, that is precisely why the Government committed to championing family hubs to provide a locally based—through local authorities—support network. The noble Lord may be aware that the family justice reform group is also looking at matters for those families to try and avoid, if at all possible, people coming through the family justice system and encouraging them to resolve things amicably.
My Lords, the troubled families programme is a commendable example of the benefits of a cross-government approach to policy. However, there is still insufficient co-ordination of support across departments for families to ensure that children and young people achieve better outcomes. In which specific cross-departmental policy areas is the Cabinet-level lead for families, the right honourable Gavin Williamson MP, bringing together ministerial colleagues, and what progress has been made?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct: what has now been renamed the Supporting Families programme has been successful at supporting families with some of the most complex needs. It has shown that they can avoid the need for further statutory services and for some of their children to go into care or the criminal justice system, as a result. There are various cross-government issues which are dealt with and led partly by the Secretary of State for Education, such as the care leavers board, which he chairs jointly with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. Given that the adversarial nature of the family law courts is unhelpful in many cases, and that separating couples often need much earlier help addressing emotional distress and practical issues to encourage effective co-parenting after separation, as well as ensuring that children’s needs remain centre stage, could the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to ensure a closer link with, and easier access to, relationship support in the family justice system?
My Lords, as I have outlined, the family justice system currently has a review into these matters, looking at a potentially more investigative approach to family justice. We also hope that the family hubs will give local authorities the option to bring together not just statutory services but the charitable and voluntary sector, which often provides support in the circumstances that the noble Baroness outlines.
I commend the Government on their Supporting Families programme. Could my noble friend tell the House what is being done to help families whose children have missed out on education during the pandemic to catch up, and whether the Government would consider building grandparents into family policy, as wider families can often help with dysfunctionality?
My Lords, the catch-up in the education section of building back after the pandemic is focused on children catching up their education, but particularly disadvantaged children. On many occasions, noble Lords have asked about the laptops that they have received, and a specific element, £302 million, is a Covid catch-up premium built on the pupil premium. She is right that, in considering family policy, we changed the coronavirus regulations to recognise informal childcare support bubbles, where grandparents and others are giving support.
My Lords, during a debate on family food banks earlier today, a local government spokesperson said that the priority seems to be just getting the money out of the door and bemoaned the lack of consistency and equal standards across the country. Does the Minister agree that budgets could be immeasurably more cost-effective, if administered and monitored by a senior-level Minister, with the department able to provide guidance on, and fair distribution of, the available government funds?
My Lords, getting the money out the door is very important, but I take the point that the noble Baroness makes. As the Minister responsible for the efficiency and commercial function of the department, we rely on and give grants to local authorities. We then trust them on the ground. For instance, we have given an additional £40 million to the Covid-19 Support Fund. However, when it comes to contracting with providers, there are procurement processes and contract monitoring, which is an increasingly professional function of the department.
My Lords, until January 2018, there was a Minister of State for Children and Families with the right to attend Cabinet. The post was then downgraded to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, which does not give the current holder the necessary clout either to be heard or to be properly effective. Many parliamentarians have today added their names to a letter from UNICEF UK to the Prime Minister, calling for the reinstatement of the Minister for Children and Families with the right to attend Cabinet, and urging him to deliver a national address directed to children and families to set out his vision of what building back Britain means for them. Does the Minister support these suggestions?
My Lords, the current Minister for Children and Families, the right honourable Vicky Ford MP, works across government on many issues—for instance, online harms, at the moment, and the issues that have been raised by Everyone’s Invited. The independent Children’s Commissioner today launched her Big Ask to talk to children about their experiences. The group that the noble Lord outlined will get a reply from the Prime Minister, but it is beyond my pay grade to comment further.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a degree of confusion about who takes the lead in various family issues? What decisions will be made about which departments lead on certain problems? For instance, if it is finance, will the Department for Education or the DWP lead? What is the process by which that decision is made?
My Lords, decisions are made on an issue-by-issue basis. As I outlined in terms of care leavers, the dual chairmanship of that is clear. It is important there is also a degree of flexibility so that, as issues arise, a responsible Government are able to work across departments. For instance, the Home Office, DCMS and the Department for Education have been meeting in regard to safeguarding in schools. I have a meeting with the Home Office on violence against women and girls this afternoon.
Nuclear Energy: Hydrogen Production Targets
My Lords, the energy White Paper acknowledges the important role that both nuclear energy and hydrogen can have in meeting our climate targets. I am aware of industry proposals showing how current nuclear technologies could play a role in hydrogen production during the 2020s, while small and advanced modular reactors could unlock further efficiencies in future hydrogen production. We will say more on the role of hydrogen production technologies, including nuclear, in our forthcoming UK hydrogen strategy.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Nuclear is a low-carbon, always-on source of power that has the power to economically produce green hydrogen at scale, complementing offshore wind. Will the Minister agree to liaise with the Department for Transport to ensure that nuclear energy is added to the renewable transport fuel obligation following the consultation? This is a great opportunity to create demand and get green hydrogen production moving. Can she also assure the House that nuclear will play a role in her department’s forthcoming hydrogen strategy?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, makes a very good point. The RTFO was created specifically to address the transport element of the EU renewable energy directive, but to be eligible hydrogen had to be produced from renewable energy. This year we are consulting on preferred long-term sustainable business models and the revenue mechanism to stimulate private investment into new low-carbon hydrogen projects. The UK will take a science-based approach to this whole area of taxonomy. I am sure the noble Lord will have seen the recent leaked report from the EU, which concluded that nuclear is actually no more harmful than any other technology, so we will watch this space.
My Lords, given the strategic and economic significance of hydrogen to the future of the UK economy and climate change, does the Minister believe there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that interruption to supplies can be prevented and emerging technical solutions can be protected from any foreign Government who might operate or acquire nuclear facilities in the UK?
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, makes a very good point—particularly as the National Security and Investment Bill is proceeding through the House this week. I assure him that the UK has a robust safety and security regime. Any nuclear reactor operating in the UK now or in the future will be subject to those safety and security regulations.
My Lords, there is clearly a huge opportunity for hydrogen to help us achieve our net zero ambitions and create quality jobs across the UK. I note that the global hydrogen race is really heating up. I hope the Minister will agree that, with the UK having done distinguished science in the field, we must not allow others to walk away with the prize of commercial exploitation, as has happened too often in the past. We must benefit from our own scientific activities; I hope we do. Does the Minister agree that, as others have mentioned, in view of the importance of nuclear in this area and as the UK has operational nuclear sites and great expertise, we should start with this now to drive forward green hydrogen production with innovative schemes, such the one associated with the Freeport East Hydrogen Hub? That should be at the forefront of our efforts.
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness as we have a world-leading position in the production of both green and blue hydrogen. I also welcome the Freeport East Hydrogen Hub. In an ideal world we would see Sizewell C being built by workers transported on hydrogen buses made by Wrightbus. We would see all the heavy loading gear at the ports driven by hydrogen-powered cranes and JCB diggers, which have been adapted for hydrogen.
My Lords, I ask the Minister: how much support is being given to the development of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors—HTGRs—to produce hydrogen? All forms of nuclear reactors can be used to generate hydrogen—I strongly support the proposals for Sizewell B and C—but the high-temperature capabilities of HGTRs make them especially suitable for producing hydrogen because they enable the relatively efficient hydrogen reforming and closed-cycle thermochemical processes for hydrogen production.
The noble Lord is entirely right: the HGTRs are a very promising AMR technology which the Government have supported with £30 million for feasibility and development of AMR designs and the £170 million committed in the 10-point plan. I am delighted that the National Nuclear Laboratory and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency have been working together on this project and produced a report last October calling for increased collaboration on their technical agreements.
The energy density of ammonia, which combines one atom of nitrogen with three of hydrogen, exceeds that of hydrogen. This makes it a useful vector of energy. Its use in land transport is inhibited by its messiness and toxicity; nevertheless, it represents an ideal fuel for shipping. It can also be produced cheaply and efficiently by allying the Haber process with a nuclear reactor. Are the Government mindful of such opportunities and, if so, do they propose to pursue them?
The Government are mindful of such opportunities and ammonia represents good potential as an energy storage medium. BEIS has supported ammonia-related innovation projects under our £33 million hydrogen supply competition. Between BEIS and the Department for Transport, we are dealing directly with a clean maritime plan setting out both hydrogen and ammonia, which are expected to play a significant role in decarbonising the maritime sector.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in Aldustria Ltd. Surely to use an extremely expensive form of energy such as nuclear power to produce another form of energy such as hydrogen, with all the efficiency losses that that entails, cannot make sense. With the Prime Minister’s call for a massive increase in offshore renewables, surely what we need now is not more baseload energy but counter variable, flexible sources such as interconnectors, demand response and energy storage.
I certainly do not agree with the premise of the noble Lord’s question. Sizewell C will use only 35% of its heat, with the rest being discharged into the sea. If we can use that excess heat to produce blue hydrogen, that has to be a very good factor in achieving net zero by 2050.
My Lords, countries across the world are investing billions of pounds into kickstarting their hydrogen economies. We have the ingredients in this country ready to go: great offshore wind capabilities and a highly skilled nuclear industry. This country also manufactures a lot of hydrogen equipment, from electrolysers to boilers and buses. Does my noble friend therefore agree that we should do everything possible now to use the UK’s nuclear energy resources to get our hydrogen economy going and thus ensure as many hydrogen jobs as possible are created in the UK?
Of course I agree with my noble friend. The UK’s 5 gigawatt production ambition could support up to 8,000 jobs and £0.7 billion gross value added by 2030. This puts us on a pathway to up to 100,000 jobs and £12 billion of GVA by 2050 under a high hydrogen scenario.
It is clear that there is a role for hydrogen in the UK’s future energy mix and that nuclear has the potential for cogeneration, producing electricity and heat together. It is also clear that the Government are actively favouring the production of blue hydrogen—an option reliant on fossil fuels. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government will commit to using a net-zero hydrogen fund to prioritise the production of green hydrogen and encourage the participation of the nuclear industry in the Hydrogen Advisory Council?
I disagree that we are actively encouraging the production of blue hydrogen; we are in a position to do so only because of the length of time that it will take to get AMR and new nuclear technology on stream to help us with the production of green hydrogen. The Government are following the twin-track approach, supporting both electrolytic green hydrogen and CCUS-enabled blue low-carbon hydrogen production in the meantime. We keep the membership of the Hydrogen Advisory Council under review at all times.
My Lords, the Government have pledged to increase low-carbon hydrogen production capacity to five gigawatts by 2030. Have the necessary investment commitments been made to achieve that objective, and what role will hydrogen produced through nuclear energy play in helping to hit that target?
Investment was a point made very powerfully by Bill Gates in his new book. We recognise the importance of ambition and a supportive policy framework in building investor confidence in the development of low-carbon technologies in the UK. The Government’s dedicated hydrogen strategy, which will be published in the second quarter of this year, will have more detail on how we work with industry to meet the 2030 ambition, but it will also incorporate a “minded to” paper—that is Civil Service speak—on ways that we could finance these large projects.
Immigration: Skilled Migrants from Commonwealth Countries
My Lords, we do not believe that highly skilled migrants who came to the UK using the tier 1 general visa route have been incorrectly refused indefinite leave to remain. There have been many cases of applicants appearing to deliberately misrepresent their earnings to qualify for leave to remain. We are giving applicants opportunities to respond to these concerns, and each case is being considered on its merits.
My Lords, my understanding of the Home Office data, supported by the Migrants’ Rights Network, shows that all highly skilled migrants who have been refused indefinite leave to remain are non-white and from six Commonwealth countries in south Asia and Africa. Given that the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that 60% of all online self-assessment tax returns have discrepancies—the main reason for their refusal—can the Minister explain this worrying racial disparity, particularly coming after the Windrush review?
My Lords, I absolutely refute that this has anything to do with the Windrush generation. The noble Lord points out that a large proportion of the refusals were given to non-white people; the countries represented have populations that would normally be non-white—that is the link there. People falsified earnings: quite often, amendments were made to tax returns over three years after the original returns and often less than six months before making the ILR application.
My Lords, will my noble friend also look into the fact that there will be many skilled migrant workers who, because of Covid, will also have lost their current regular income, which may impact on their applications to stay? Following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, would she look a little deeper into the fact that a number—indeed, all—of those who have been refused are people of colour?
My Lords, as I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, the fact that these are people of colour probably reflects the countries the applications came from. There were some fairly appalling practices with these applications, as I have outlined—and where ILR had been granted, we saw cases of applicants subsequently amending their tax records back down again not to have to pay additional tax. I totally get my noble friend’s point, but we need to see these cases in perspective.
My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness’s response is in order. However, circumstances exist that border on the inhumane and run counter to the spirit of the Commonwealth, and indeed elsewhere. If the Government can be considerate to Hong Kongers, would they consider a one-time amnesty to all those thus impacted, through no fault of their own, thereby doing the right thing in the right way?
Absolutely—we have humanitarian routes, which are used. The noble Lord talked about BNOs, and he is absolutely right: the people of Hong Kong are coming here legally—we have granted them leave to remain under the BNO route. Far from being inhumane, this country has a proud record of giving refuge to people who need it.
My Lords, on that point, there has been and continues to be a particular problem of young people and teenagers, who have spent a considerable number of years in this country, sometimes—through no fault of their own but because of the bureaucracy of the system, the decision-making and so on—finding themselves threatened with a return to the country of their parents’ or their birth, despite having spent a number of years in this country, attending school here and experiencing the growing-up process here. Is that really a humane reaction, and is there a better way that the Government could handle these cases?
I totally get the point that the noble Lord is making about some of the humanitarian considerations that we should give to people who grew up in this country, but this is a very different issue. The cases we are talking about this afternoon are of people who falsified their earnings, claiming back tax on them in some instances, as I have said. It is absolutely right that we are not only tolerant and welcoming but that we stamp out fraud where we see it—and these cases were of fraudulently declared earnings.
My Lords, I refer to the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration’s recent statement that highly skilled migrants should not face destitution or have their right to work refused while their case is being decided. In reality, nearly half are still experiencing destitution, and 55% have no right to work. What actions will the Government take to honour this, and will they consider compensation for the approximately 80% of the 1,697 cases of individuals who were later found not to have been dishonest in their tax discrepancies?
Of the nearly 1,700 refusals, 88% had differences of more than £10,000, and the average difference across all cases was £27,600, so they were not small differences. On people facing destitution, of course people will be cared for while their applications are being considered. Of course, particularly during the Covid pandemic over the past year, it has been very important to be able to give people that bit of respite because of the difficulties that they will face, first, coming here and, secondly, going back, if their applications are refused.
My Lords, it is rather a serious step to refuse people indefinite leave to remain who have been in this country for 10 years or more. The Minister referred to the non-criminal historic tax discrepancies, which are the cause of the trouble. Will she tell us how long ago these tax discrepancies occurred, on the basis of which indefinite leave to remain is being denied? Have they been recent cases or ones of some 10 years ago? Can she assure me that the statements that the Government are now making from the Dispatch Box have been checked by Ministers to ensure that they are accurate and that these people really are being denied indefinite leave to remain for good, strong reasons?
My Lords, most applications for settlement were made around 2016. Some of them go back some years. The reason why they were uncovered was because of the sheer volume that HMRC was noticing as a strange pattern of behaviour. It was sufficiently unusual to draw it to the attention of the Home Office. This is not an attempt to deny ILR—this was a deliberate attempt on the applicants’ part to falsify records so that they matched the self-employed earnings previously declared in tier 1 applications.
My Lords, I listened very carefully to what my noble friend has said. Is she absolutely convinced that these applications have been handled not only efficiently but sensitively, bearing in mind that we really owe a great deal to those who have provided wonderful services in our country for many years? We would all be extremely concerned if some fell through an imperfect net.
My Lords, I would share my noble friend’s concern if people were to fall through an imperfect net. We must not conflate them with the Windrush generation, who were genuinely and rightfully here and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. The people we are talking about have falsified earnings in order to come to this country.
Planning: Net Zero Emissions Targets
My Lords, our Planning for the Future White Paper committed the Government to ensuring that the reformed planning system will support our efforts to combat climate change and help bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. We are currently analysing the 40,000 responses to the consultation; we will publish a response later in the year, which will set out our decisions on the proposed way forward.
My Lords, the energy national policy statements are currently under review; they were due to be completed in October last year. When, more precisely, can we expect the completion of the review? Will the Government commit to not granting permission for new fossil fuel projects, such as the controversial Cumbrian coal mine, or any other major infrastructure projects, until the review is complete?
My Lords, I will not be able to comment on a specific planning application for obvious reasons; that particular scheme has been called in by the Secretary of State. I will have to write to the noble Baroness on when the review will be published.
My Lords, the construction sector, demolition and building use together account for about 40% of all carbon-equivalent emissions. Should not planning law and planning guidance require developers, planning authorities and, ultimately, the inspectorate, in all cases of major housing and office projects, to consider as first option retrofit and refurbishment to higher energy efficiency standards rather than, as is normally the case, opting for carbon-intensive demolition and rebuild?
My Lords, the Government recognise the benefits of retrofit ahead of demolition. Reuse and adaption of existing buildings can make an important contribution toward tackling climate change. The national planning policy framework already encourages this.
My Lords, core to this issue is the forthcoming future home standard, which currently threatens to remove the discretion of local authorities to set zero-carbon policies that go beyond current building regulations. Does the Minister agree that the future home standard should be a floor to those authorities struggling to keep up rather than a ceiling constraining what the most ambitious authorities quite rightly are doing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new development and lead the way for other councils?
My Lords, it is quite clear that the future home standard is there to provide a floor rather than a ceiling in respect of ambition for local authorities. The Government will set standards that will require the avoidance of fossil fuels in future homes.
My Lords, following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will the Minister be more specific with local authorities? They are much keener to allow a new building to replace an old building because it usually means more floor space and they will get some benefit from it. I hope that the Minister will press them very hard to consider retrofit before giving permission for a new building.
My Lords, as the Minister knows, there are two ways of getting housebuilders and developers to achieve higher standards: the national building regulations and the local planning requirements. Is the noble Lord’s Ministry looking at how these sometimes conflicting approaches could be harmonised and how the weak enforcement of local planning requirements could be better resourced to prevent housebuilders evading their responsibilities?
My Lords, we recognise the interdigitation between the national standards and other forms of regulation. That is why we started with the implementation of an interim 2021 Part L uplift for new homes as swiftly as possible, in advance of the 2025 new home standards. We are working closely with local government to ensure that consistency.
My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register. One problem is the timidity of the Government’s actions. When they had the chance to do something about this during the passage of the dreaded Housing and Planning Act 2016, the Government voted against the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in this House and opposed them again on ping-pong. I refer the Minister to the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, at the time. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government are finally serious in this matter?
My Lords, if the Government are as serious as the Minister suggests, would it not be a good idea to review all national policy statements including, for example, on aviation, to try to make sure that all these large infrastructure decisions are made with net zero in mind? That would also give business some certainty, rather than the current situation where major developments are called in and delayed.
My Lords, national planning policy statements are a matter for the relevant Secretary of State, but I would point out that Project Speed is at the moment reviewing national infrastructure planning reform and ensuring that we build projects faster, better and, of course, greener.
My Lords, it is obvious to me from my own experience as a councillor, and from speaking to planning experts and local planning inspectorates, that they just do not have good enough, strong enough guidance from the Government. I accept what the Minister says about the review but, quite honestly, writing better information for planning inspectorates is vital. We are going to be very embarrassed at COP 26 if we do not get to grips with this.
My Lords, we believe that the current National Planning Policy Framework is clear on how planning plays an important part, but we will look to ensure that the guidance is optimised for our planning inspectors, who play an important role in ensuring that we reach the net-zero economy that we all want.
My Lords, with the news last week that Germany has reached a tipping point in the sale of electric vehicles, is it not now possible to use planning policy to make a step change and ensure that all new developments include superfast broadband, solar panels and electric vehicle charging points?
My Lords, does the Minister agree that planning approval for new rail infrastructure should be contingent on the plan including a decarbonisation strategy, in line with the advice of both the Committee on Climate Change and the National Infrastructure Commission?
My Lords, the question relates to transport, which is not my area of expertise. However, we have published the first phase of the national decarbonisation plan for transport. I am sure that the policy experts will be looking into that, as will my colleagues in the DfT.
My Lords, the Government’s policy of incentivising a housebuilding boom could contradict their net-zero ambitions. Some time ago, the Committee on Climate Change recommended that the Government develop policies to minimise the whole-life carbon impact of new buildings. What progress has been made in this area? How would the Minister describe how the Government envisage the role for the planning system, permitted development and building regulations in delivering a sustainable built environment?
My Lords, we believe that it is possible to build homes, to grow our economy and also to decarbonise. As a nation, we have decarbonised our economy faster than any other G20 country. Our economy has grown some 78% while decreasing emissions by 44%. We have a clear set of planning policies to encourage further decarbonisation. Central to that is the future homes standard, which will be in effect from 2025.
Arrangement of business
Hong Kong: Pro-Democracy Campaigners
Private Notice Question
My Lords, we are clear that the Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures for prosecution is unacceptable and must stop. The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life, protected in both the joint declaration and the Basic Law, and it should be upheld. We shall continue to raise our concerns with the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments and bring together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his continued efforts in this regard, but is he aware of the letter sent last week by the last Governor of Hong Kong, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and signed by 100 parliamentarians from both Houses, including the shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy and myself? We urged the Government to impose Magnitsky sanctions on officials in Beijing and Hong Kong for the grave and repeated breaches of the Sino-British joint declaration and the serious human rights violations committed in Hong Kong. In the light of the sentencing of some of the most prominent moderate, mainstream, internationally respected and senior pro-democracy campaigners, is it not time to impose Magnitsky sanctions?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness on the issue of the increasing number of convictions. At the end of last week, further action was taken by the Hong Kong authorities against people who are simply calling on their rights to protest and to democracy. The noble Baroness knows what I will say about speculation on future Magnitsky sanctions, but, as we have demonstrated in the case of Xinjiang, we have acted, and when we have we have done so in co-ordination with our partners.
My Lords, these are friends and allies who have been locked up, people we all know. The Foreign Secretary has stated that Beijing is now in permanent breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, so I urge the Government to stop holding back on imposing sanctions. Will the Minister assure us that the human rights crisis in Hong Kong will be on the G7 agenda so that collective action can be taken?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will already have noted the co-ordination we have shown with our G7 partners and the support we have gained from them on the situation in Hong Kong. Although the agenda is still being finalised for the leaders’ meeting, I am sure the situations in China and Hong Kong will be very much a part of the considerations. As for taking action against those in Hong Kong, we keep the situation under review, as I have said, but I cannot go further than that.
My Lords, my noble and learned friend raises some important points about the people of Hong Kong. As he will have noted, we have taken specific steps to broaden the offer to British nationals overseas and their families. That process is operating well. Of course, if anyone seeks the sanctuary of the United Kingdom because of the persecution they face, we will look at each case individually and provide the support needed. That applies to anyone around the world.
My Lords, as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and an officer of the All-Party Group on Hong Kong, I personally know Martin Lee, the father of Hong Kong democracy, Margaret Ng, a formidable lawyer, and Jimmy Lai, a champion of free speech and a full holder of a UK passport. Does the Minister agree they deserve better than a medieval star chamber and a Stalinist show trial? Is the debasement of law by puppets and quislings not best met by calling out the Chinese Communist Party at the next meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, focusing on, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, the CCP’s lawbreaking and treaty-breaking, and its sentencing, imprisonment and detention in psychiatric institutions of women and men whose values we share?
My Lords, I agree totally with the noble Lord on the issue of values. That is why, as I am sure he would acknowledge, we have led in statements and in consolidating and increasing support at the Human Rights Council. It is something I have personally been engaged in and will continue to campaign for and make note of. He raised the cases of various individuals. Speaking personally, I saw the final interview Jimmy Lai gave just before his arrest, and it is quite chilling to see the conduct that happened thereafter to someone who stood up for media freedom. What has he been arrested for? It is for illegal assembly. We need to put this into context as well.
My Lords, I reinforce the points made by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws on Magnitsky sanctions. The Chinese Government recently criticised the UK for granting asylum to the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law. Does the Minister agree that a fitting way to rebut Beijing’s growing crackdown in Hong Kong would be for the Government to allow young Hong Kongers, who do not qualify for the BNO visa, to come to the UK to study and work?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s first point on asylum, as I said, I am proud that the United Kingdom continues to be a sanctuary for those seeking protection from persecution internationally, as it has been over the years. On her broader point, the BNO scheme has been introduced; it is working well. There are no other plans, but we continue to press the Hong Kong authorities to restore democratic rights and the right to protest within Hong Kong.
My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness’s question, I will press the Minister a bit further and ask whether the Government will go away and think again about the rights of young Hong Kongers. Would it be possible to pave the way for those who were too young to have been eligible for the BNO passport scheme to have access to jobs and education here?
My Lords, there is no more I can add to what I have already said, but I assure the noble Baroness that the plight of everyone in Hong Kong, including the young generation, is at the forefront of our work and the actions we have taken in partnership with other countries.
My Lords, while I appreciate that shouting from the sidelines will not have any effect at all on the Government of China, will the Minister accept that these latest convictions and sentences exemplify the repression of human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong? What practical and effective steps can we in the United Kingdom take, both alone and with our allies, to ensure that the position for the people of Hong Kong is improved?
My Lords, I agree with my noble and learned friend. Freedom and human rights, including the right to protest, continue to be suppressed in Hong Kong. On the further actions we can take, I believe it resonates with the Chinese authorities when we act in concert with our key partners, not least because they respond accordingly to the statements being made. While the impact of those actions might for the medium to long term, they are noticed not just in Hong Kong but in Beijing.
Will the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the ability of BNO applicants to safely leave the territory, after it has emerged that the Government of Hong Kong have asked some foreign Governments not to accept BNO for working holiday visas in Europe, North America and parts of Asia?
My Lords, I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are looking very closely at the operation of the BNO scheme. No apparent issues have arisen. Many BNO holders also have dual passports so their ability to travel is not limited. We continue to monitor the scheme very closely.
My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of the impact of these sentences on applications for their BNO scheme? They have already announced 27,000 applications in the first month but according to the small print this does not include dependants. Meanwhile, more than 300 BNO passports were issued last year, and even today we have had some noble Baronesses calling for the scheme to be expanded from 5 million to 7 million people. If, in fact, numbers run very high, will the Government seek to reduce immigration from elsewhere?
My Lords, the importance of the BNO scheme is to provide access—and indeed the rights of settlement—to those who qualify. That is a principled decision from the Government and we will stand by it. On the issue of immigration, while it goes into the realms of the Home Office, we have a specific immigration policy which is now operational.
My Lords, the Minister repeats that we should act in partnership with our allies. I reminded him last week that the United States sanctioned Hong Kong officials for these breaches four weeks ago. It is now five weeks. When will we act in concert with our partners? When will we support the United States on something that is our responsibility? We should act now.
My Lords, I note and of course accept that the noble Lord has raised this issue on a number of occasions. However, as I have said in answer to other questions, I cannot speculate on future sanctions. I assure him, and indeed all noble Lords, that we work very closely with our partners: the European Union, Australia, the United States and others.
My Lords, much as I sympathise with my noble friend and appreciate the limitations of his personal power and influence, it is appalling when an international treaty—to which we and Hong Kong are joint parties—is violated by one party. We appear to be dragging our feet and it really is important that we have action this day.
My Lords, while appreciating my noble friend’s sympathy for my position, I assure him that I have been persistent in my capacity as a Minister within FCDO and particularly in my responsibilities as Human Rights Minister to ensure that we do everything possible, in terms of both direct action and action with international partners. We continue to lead the international community. We have made statements through the Human Rights Council and the G7 and will continue to do so. On the wider policy of specific sanctions, I have already indicated our current position, but we keep that position under review.
Many of us who were able to visit Hong Kong in the past and were privileged to meet Martin Lee, Margaret Ng and other pro-democracy campaigners will recall that we were warned by them that this might happen and that we should not trust the Chinese Government to support democracy. Given the breach of agreements that the Chinese Government have gone in for, is it not time that this country rethought our whole relationship with China, not just on this one issue but on a whole range of issues? We cannot go on treating China as a normal country when it breaches international agreements in the way it has done.
My Lords, I totally agree on the breach of international agreements. Indeed, the Sino-British joint declaration and China’s continued non-compliance has repeatedly been called out by the UK. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, it is an agreement that has international recognition and China, as a major player on the international stage, should uphold its responsibilities. On the wider issue of China and its role in the world, as I have also repeatedly said, it has a role to play on climate change and, in that regard, without the Chinese the ambitions and the actions required cannot be reached and realised. However, we will not hold back from calling out egregious abuse of human rights as we have done in both Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
My Lords, while we all condemn the incarceration of democratic activists in Hong Kong, there is very little we can do to help them. Economic or cultural sanctions can be only a token of disapproval. Does the Minister agree that it would add weight to our criticism if we were more even-handed in criticising gross human rights abuse wherever it occurs, even in so-called friendly countries, such as Saudi Arabia?
My Lords, we consistently call out human rights abuses. It was this Government who introduced the global human rights sanctions—the Magnitsky sanctions regime—and this Government who have acted accordingly. Well over 70 designations have now been made for egregious abuse of human rights. The noble Lord rightly points to the situation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a partner, but even there we have specifically sanctioned individuals under that regime.
Nuclear Safeguards (Fissionable Material and Relevant International Agreements) (EU Exit) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Recognised Auction Platforms (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Regulations 2021
Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Wine) (Amendment, etc.) Regulations 2021
Plant Health etc. (Fees) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Motions to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 25 February, 8 March, 10 March and 11 March be approved.
Relevant document: 50th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 15 April.
University Students: Compensation for Lost Teaching and Rent
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 15 April.
“This Government recognise just how difficult the past year has been for students. Since the arrival of new and highly transmissible variants, we have had to adopt a cautious approach, in line with the wider restrictions. In January, we enabled only students on critical key worker courses to return, and from 8 March we allowed practical and creative students to resume face-to-face teaching. This week, we have announced that the final tranche of students will be able to return on 17 May, subject to step 3 of the road map. This decision was made, as promised, following a review during the Easter holidays. I understand the frustrations of students and parents; the pandemic has disproportionately impacted our young. That is one of the key reasons why we have worked with universities to ensure that education carried on throughout and that students can graduate on time.
Many things are indeed opening up in step 2, but most are outside and social mixing remains focused outside, and they do not involve the formation of new households. We know that, inside, the risk of transmission increases with the number of people mixing and the length of time they are together, which is why we are being cautious until stage 3.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that 23% of students are yet to return to their term-time accommodation, which still leaves up to 500,000 students yet to travel. Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.
At the heart of our decision was public health, but also student well-being. The last thing any of us wants is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate, as some did last autumn. That would not only have been damaging to their mental health and wellbeing, but would have risked the ability to graduate of some students studying creative and practical subjects.
This decision was taken not in isolation, but as part of the Government’s overall road map to reopening. Every relaxation—even those with a low impact and low risk—will have an impact, so we have to judge the impact of these relaxations cumulatively to ensure that the road map is irreversible.
The Government do recognise the financial pressures the pandemic has placed on students in the financial sense, including accommodation costs. That is why, this week, we have announced an additional £15 million, on top of the £70 million since last December and the £256 million of taxpayer funding that we enabled universities to access for hardship.
It is important to clarify that the exemptions still apply to students who need to return to their term-time accommodation for mental health reasons or because of a lack of study space. We have asked universities to make their facilities available to all students who are back, to support their mental health and well-being.
I end by assuring the House that I will continue to work closely with universities so that, together, we can support students, and especially those who will graduate this year.”
My Lords, the disruption to university students caused by the pandemic and subsequent government restrictions has meant that students have not enjoyed the university experience that they would have expected, ranging from teaching, lectures and seminars, access to specialist resources and facilities, and career-enhancing placements, as well as the social experience which forms an important part of university life. Indeed, many final-year students have been advised that they will not even be able to attend a graduation ceremony.
Universities report that anxieties are mounting among students, who feel underprepared for their final exams after more than 12 months of major disruption. Following the delayed government announcement on returning to campuses, many still do not know whether these exams will take place on campuses or online and their mental health is suffering as a consequence. What discussions have the Government had with universities about mitigation for students sitting their finals this summer, who have suffered disruption to their learning as a result of the pandemic? Will the Government please ensure that in future plans students are not the forgotten ones left to the end?
My Lords, the noble Lord sets out powerfully the disruption that students have faced to not only the academic element of their university experience but all the extra-curricular activities and the broader experience. The Government are very mindful of that; my honourable friend the Universities Minister engages directly with students and representative bodies and has set up a higher education task force to engage with the sector. Students and universities are certainly not being forgotten—they are being engaged with fulsomely.
My Lords, I declare an interest with three grandsons at Glasgow, Southampton and Bath, whose student experience, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, is a world away from what they were entitled to expect. Why must students wait until 17 May for a return? For many, that will mean missing out until the autumn, with their well-being, tuition and socialising all suffering, when most universities and students are more than ready to return now. Why are the Government so cavalier about our universities and so uncaring about the effect of their prevarications?
My Lords, our decisions have been taken with the well-being of students at their heart. Many students will be able to return from 17 May to engage with all the important experiences from that point. We do not want a situation where people return too early and have to self-isolate repeatedly, as has happened before. We are taking a cautious approach to make sure that we can move out of lockdown and recover from Covid.
My Lords, many institutions, including your Lordships’ House, seem to have adapted rather well to hybrid working. My daughter is in her first year at university, at Royal Holloway, and although she has missed the social life, she says she has actually quite enjoyed the learning experience. Could my noble friend the Minister outline whether the Government have any plans to investigate whether some sort of hybrid model of access to university education, which may offer more flexibility and affordability, could be made available in future?
I am glad my noble friend’s daughter has been able to enjoy her first year of university, notwithstanding the pandemic. He is right that many institutions have proved very adaptable and innovative in the face of the challenges of Covid-19. The Secretary of State for Education commissioned Sir Michael Barber to undertake a review of the shift towards digital teaching and learning, which was published on 25 February. We are considering its implications, particularly its role in supporting flexible provision, and are introducing the lifelong loan entitlement from 2025, which will support modular learning and make it easier for people to study more flexibly over their lifetime.
My Lords, what evidence did the Government take and consider when deciding to include student returns in step 3 rather than step 2 of the road map? Professor Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth, asked the Government to explain this, calling it “nonsensical” and “unfathomable” and saying that
“many universities will have finished their teaching”
by that time. He said:
“Students can now buy a book on British history in Waterstones and discuss it with a tattoo artist while they have their body decorated, but they cannot do the same thing in a Covid-secure environment with their university lecturer.”
I have seen first-hand, as chancellor of the University of Birmingham, the amount of testing and Covid-safety measures that universities are taking. Other university chancellors, the Russell group and UUK have all called this disrespectful and late. Please could the Minister explain where the data is which shows that teaching spaces are safe, that there are low infection rates and that university students should be allowed to go back to campus? For how much longer will the Government take the university sector—the jewel in the crown of this country—for granted?
My Lords, we certainly do not take it for granted. We have outlined a cautious approach which is underpinned by data rather than dates. We worked extremely closely with scientists and SAGE to understand and model various scenarios to inform our plan. We also examined the economic and social data to gain a balanced understanding, which led to our decision. Some things the noble Lord set out, such as tattoo parlours, take place in the same vicinity as people live; the difference here is people travelling to a part of the country in which they do not reside to form new households. That is why it is different and why we have made the decision we have.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chancellor of the University of Greenwich. Covid has meant additional costs for universities and students; they are out of pocket. Will the Minister assure us that his department will take that into account in future funding decisions for both universities and students, and will he please bear in mind, particularly for those universities either in London or working with particularly disadvantaged students, the additional costs of living and working in London, which KPMG estimates at some 14% additional cost? Will he make sure that those factors are taken into account in university funding, particularly in relation to the current consultation on London weighting?
My Lords, we understand the difficulty that students have faced throughout the pandemic, in London and elsewhere. That is why the Government announced last week a further £15 million of student hardship funding, meaning that, in total, we have made an additional £85 million of funding available for student hardship this year, on top of the £256 million of taxpayer-funded student premium funding which is already available to providers in London and more widely to draw on towards student hardship funds for this academic year.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Office for Students. Will my noble friend join me in commending those institutions which have offered rent rebates to students after a very difficult year for many and in calling for more to do the same?
This is my first opportunity to congratulate my noble friend on his new role; I look forward to his carrying it out with great rigour and independence, as I know he will. We welcome the decision from many universities and accommodation providers to offer rent rebates for students who need to stay away from their term-time address. We urge all large providers to join them and offer students partial refunds. We ask all providers of student accommodation, including universities, to make sure that their rental policies have students’ best interests at heart and that they are communicated clearly.
My Lords, prior to the pandemic last year, UK universities and their union demanded the stamping out of casual contracts and job precarity for staff in the higher education sector. As university teaching begins to return to normal in the coming academic year, there are increased calls to reimburse students’ tuition fees for lost teaching. Given that academic staff have continued to provide the same amount of labour, if not more, to produce innovative online teaching during this uncertain period, on top of managing disruptions to their personal research, how do the Government plan to protect and provide job security for academic staff going forward?
My Lords, university staff have worked brilliantly to minimise the disruption to students throughout the pandemic. Employment and staffing are of course decisions for universities, as autonomous organisations, but, like other businesses, they can avail themselves of the support which Her Majesty’s Treasury has made available to businesses during the pandemic.
My Lords, I condemn the Government’s last-minute decision to deny half a million students the opportunity to get back to their universities and resume face-to-face instruction. In my view, it shows a scandalous lack of judgment about the needs of these students, who have missed out on not just normal learning but the social experience of university. Since large numbers of students have returned anyway, the argument about the formation of new universities in the Answer is utterly unconvincing, especially in the context of data on the very low levels of hospitalisation for Covid. Will the Government compensate these depressed and disappointed students by funding the universities to extend the summer term into July?
I must disagree with the noble Baroness. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 23% of students are yet to return to their term-time accommodation, which leaves up to half a million students yet to travel. Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by mass movements; that is what underpins our cautious approach.
Arrangement of Business
Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill
Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 30th and 36th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass, and it is with pleasure that I make that Motion and propose to make a brief speech.
The Government stood on a manifesto commitment to
“introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces”,
and they have delivered on that promise. I have said consistently throughout the passage of the Bill that the principles are sound, the objectives are good and the Bill is necessary. The Government believe that the combination of measures in the Bill provides a better and clearer legal framework for dealing with allegations or claims arising from overseas military operations.
The Bill addresses the issue of unacceptable delays in bringing prosecutions and provides greater certainty to veterans for events which happened in the unique context of overseas operations many years ago. The provisions also require that civil claims arising from overseas operations are brought promptly so that the courts are able to assess them when memories are fresh and evidence is more readily available.
The measures recognise both the challenging and extraordinary—I use that word in its literal sense—circumstances of overseas operations and the adverse effects that they can have on our service personnel. These include being exposed to unexpected or continuous threats or being deployed alongside friends and colleagues who are killed or severely wounded in action.
The Bill delivers on a manifesto commitment to our Armed Forces and veterans. It is based on strong support for the proposals by clear majorities in the other place, and it is for these reasons that this House should support the Bill’s Third Reading.
I also thank those of your Lordships across the House who have participated in the various debates. I recognise particularly the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Dannatt, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. While I may not have been able to acquiesce to all their requests, our meetings have been cordial and their contributions constructive.
The Government have listened very carefully to the views put forward throughout the Bill’s progress. However, they do not agree with amendments that undermine rather than strengthen the Bill, are simply not aligned with its aims or would render it incompatible with the United Kingdom’s international obligations.
None the less, I have noted and trenchantly relayed the very real concerns so eloquently and robustly expressed by your Lordships, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, that by not excluding other serious offences, the Bill risks damaging not only the UK’s reputation for upholding international humanitarian and human rights law—including the United Nations convention against torture—but the reputation of our Armed Forces. I am sure that the other place has also heard those deep concerns loudly and clearly.
I also believe that we already offer the highest standards of care and support to our service personnel. I again reaffirm and reassure that the MoD has a long-standing policy that where a serviceperson or veteran faces allegations in relation to incidents arising from his or her duty, they receive full public funding for legal support, as well as welfare and pastoral support, for as long as necessary.
There have been a number of debates on investigations. In addition to requiring prosecutors to give consideration to the public interest in finality, where there has been a relevant previous investigation and no compelling new evidence has become available, we believe that the longstop measures in Part 2 of the Bill will help to reduce the likelihood of investigations being opened many years after operations have ended. Indeed, in the future, the longstops will act as a catalyst for encouraging any civil claims to be brought sooner, and any associated criminal allegations are also therefore likely to be investigated sooner. This reduces the risk of criminal investigations arising many decades later as a result of allegations made in civil claims.
I also remind the House that the review by Sir Richard Henriques into the reporting of allegations and the conduct of investigations on overseas operations is currently in progress. As I have said previously, this work will complement the measures in the Bill, and we should await his recommendations as to whether and what measures may be needed to improve our investigative processes and procedures.
The Bill will shortly move back to the other place for consideration of the amendments proposed by this House. Many of the debates we have had in Committee and on Report have, at times, been emotive. I am sure, however, that all have been born out of our conjoined desire to do the very best we can to support our brave current and former Armed Forces personnel both during and after their operational duties overseas.
In conclusion, I acknowledge and thank profoundly the Bill team led by Damian Parmenter and Jennifer Chamberlain and supported by the Bill manager, Richard Hartell. Their experience, expertise, resilience and patience with an at times crotchety Minister have been invaluable and exemplary. In these comments I embrace—metaphorically, that is—my colleagues: the Advocate-General, my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart, and the Government Whip, my noble friend Lord Younger. I thank them for their steadfast support. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, the Bill goes back to the other place with important changes. Throughout the Bill’s passage, we have wanted to work with the Government and colleagues across the House to improve it. I thank everybody who has engaged with us, including the Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie—and the Bill team. This positive arrangement resulted in the removal of the derogation clause, which is welcome.
We do not want to wreck the Bill; we do not want to kill the Bill. The Government have identified a real problem: personnel can be plagued by vexatious claims and shoddy investigations. But the Government are approaching the problem from the wrong direction by failing to tackle the issue head-on, damaging our international reputation and threatening the Armed Forces covenant.
The amendments which have been successful in this House put personnel first by recognising the MoD’s responsibility to support troops facing investigation and litigation by placing adequate restrictions on reinvestigations and by ensuring that the Armed Forces covenant is not breached by the longstop. They put forces personnel first because they have been led by noble and gallant leaders in this House. I especially thank the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord West, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, for their leadership and guidance on these important issues. I also thank former Defence Secretaries and Ministers for their contributions.
The other key amendment extended exclusions from the presumption to cover genocide, torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I want to thank my noble friend Lord Robertson for leading this broad coalition.
I also want to thank the Public Bill Office for all its advice and help, the House staff, my two leaders—my noble friends Lord Touhig and Lord Falconer—and my adviser and researcher, Dan Harris, without whom I could not have survived.
My Lords, as the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, have both pointed out, in many ways there is a lot of agreement on this Bill. Although from these Benches at times there were mutterings of “Kill the Bill”, they were not from me as the Front Bench spokesperson on defence; even my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford understands that this is an important Bill and that we are all coming from the same place. Our absolute commitment is to our service men and women and veterans, to getting the right provisions for them, and for dealing with vexatious claims. The question is: what is the best way of dealing with that?
Obviously, as the Minister has said, this Bill was part of a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but I am also aware that a lot of the issues about vexatious claims and extent go back to Northern Ireland, so at some point I am expecting similar legislation to come forward. I am also expecting that some of the issues that we have debated at various stages of this Bill, particularly those associated with the duty of care, will come back in the context of the Armed Forces Bill later this year. Some of the amendments that were passed—important amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has pointed out—go wider than the narrow confines of this Bill.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I would like to thank the Minister and also the Advocate-General for Scotland for the time that they spent talking to us and listening to our concerns. I am especially grateful to hear that the noble Baroness has trenchantly taken back our views on what was Amendment 3 on Report. One of the areas on which we have almost unanimous agreement on across the House is that it is appropriate for us to look again at the issues of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. If the Minister can do one thing, it would be to try to persuade the Government not to force the Commons to vote against that amendment; if it comes back here, we will send it back—it is so important. Clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, brought forward an important amendment on the duty of care, and if that could be kept in, that would be even more welcome.
I would like to thank the Minister again, the Bill team, my noble friends and also the Liberal Democrat whips’ office, without whom I could not have done what I have done on this Bill either.
My Lords, I begin by thanking all those associated with this Bill, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, the Minister, for patiently attending to the points that we have raised in Committee and on Report. I would also like to echo the words of the noble Lord, Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for the support that their Benches have given to many of the amendments to this Bill. I would also like to record my appreciation of the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Stirrup, for joining me in speaking on behalf of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force in trying to ensure that, in carrying forward this Bill, the best interests of our service people, both serving and veteran, are attended to.
I would like to congratulate the Government on standing by their manifesto promise to bring forward a Bill of this nature. I believe that the Bill, now amended going forth from your Lordships’ House back to the other place, represents a far more effective way of achieving that manifesto commitment of the Government. Not surprisingly, I would urge that the amendments, particularly on the duty of care, are retained within this Bill and that this Bill now passes through the other place without further reverse amendment. Should a number of our well-intentioned amendments be reversed by the other place, we will have the opportunity of the Armed Forces Bill coming forward quite shortly. I have no doubt that many of the amendments that we have tried to put into this Bill will receive further attention in the Armed Forces Bill, not least of which is the issue of the duty of care. The Ministry of Defence as a caring employer has, indeed, a duty to ensure that they are seen through.
Once again, I thank all those involved, particularly those speakers from the Cross Benches. I hope very much that this Bill now passes in the other place without undue reverse amendment.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, for Day 3 of Report stage of the Financial Services Bill, I will call Members to speak in the order listed. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are discouraged. Any Member wishing to ask such a question must email the clerk. The groupings are binding. Participant who wish to press an amendment other than a lead amendment in a group to a Division must give notice in debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question I shall collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
Financial Services Bill
Report (3rd Day) (and remaining stages)
28: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—
“Digital identification in the UK financial system
(1) The Treasury may by regulations establish a scheme for the use of a distributed digital identification for individuals and corporate entities operating in the UK financial system.(2) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.(3) In this section, “the UK financial system” has the same meaning as in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (see section 1I of that Act).”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 28 and 29 in my name on digital identification, and I thank my noble friends Lady Mcintosh of Pickering and Lord Holmes of Richmond for their support. I take a substantial interest in facilitating the provision of digital ID and have done so for several years. It is the sort of thing where the UK, with its early adoption of digital and skills in matters of security, should be ahead of the curve. Perfectly good systems exist in a number of areas and have been rolled out in other European countries and Asia but, unfortunately, not here.
I tabled amendments in the same sense during the passage of Covid legislation last year. I did not press the matter because I was promised progress and I had good meetings with my noble friend Lady Williams and with the Digital Minister, Matt Warman MP, who published proposals for the UK digital identity and attributes trust framework on 11 February. Last week, my noble friend Lord Holmes and I had another constructive meeting, this time with my noble friend Lady Penn—currently on the Front Bench—and civil servants in DCMS and the Treasury.
I am perhaps a little too impatient for the Civil Service or, indeed, for the Front Bench, which is no doubt why I am better suited to these Benches, but I warn noble Lords that I will continue to press this matter until we introduce a reliable system of online ID—not a consultation and not a plan, but a government-approved system. But I am very reasonable, so let us start in financial services—the subject of today’s Bill. So much progress has been made already that it ought to be possible to capture this in regulation now. As we discussed in Committee, this could be helpful in reducing fraud, which has mushroomed in financial services.
Likewise, we should be able to introduce digital ID for sales of alcohol; the supermarkets already use such methods for preventing the sale of knives to those aged under 18. We should also allow a trial in a pub chain or two, and we could use digital ID in the property sector, where the ID checks for domestic house sales are needlessly bureaucratic and repetitive. We do not need to get into the question of domestic vaccine passports, of which I strongly disapprove, or of ID cards, but evolutionary progress on digital ID—starting in financial services and honed to appropriate use—is overdue.
I have tabled two alternative amendments. Amendment 28 is an enabling power allowing the Treasury to press ahead, subject to a parliamentary debate, as soon as it has sorted out a system of digital ID—whether on a trial basis or when it has a definitive solution for the sector, which should be soon. We do not want to wait for the online harms Bill or another legislative vehicle. Amendment 29 provides for a review by 1 September this year. My own experience as a Minister and a civil servant is that such reviews and a clear date can be effective where there is a political will to get something done, as I believe there is here. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe; in doing so, I declare my financial services interests as set out in the register.
My noble friend and I came into the House in the same autumn and, since 2013, we have both talked very much about distributed digital ID. It was pressing in 2013, so it certainly is in 2021. I will speak to all the amendments in this group briefly. I had pleasure in adding my name to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s amendments; they are clear, succinct, short and to the point, and do the job. Does my noble friend the Minister agree?
My Amendment 30 merely seeks to flesh out some of the elements which must be considered if we are to have a successful distributed digital ID—the issues around scalability, flexibility and, crucially, inclusion. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that not only are these three issues vital to any distributed digital ID but that any ID should be predicated on the 12 principles set out in self-sovereign identity? Does she also agree that, because of the nature of this issue—as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe pointed out—including issues around ID cards and Covid passports, there is a pressing need not only to move forward with this work but to have a public engagement to enable people to understand the issues and really get to grips with a system that can work for all?
My Amendment 31 seeks only to push the opportunity for the UK around open finance. We have seen the advantages open banking has brought; does my noble friend the Minister agree that open finance could be a boon for the UK, and could she set out the Government’s plans to enable this? I brought Amendment 32 forward in Committee so I will not dwell on it, except to seek a specific answer on subsection (2)(a) of the proposed new clause. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that we need to seriously consider the dematerialisation of UK securities at least at the same speed as that proposed in the EU? This is a competitive market; it is a race.
Finally, my Amendment 37E was brought forward simply to push the need for a review of access to digital payments. Digital payments are the future, accelerated by Covid, but, crucially, huge swathes of the population rightly rely—and must be allowed to rely—on cash. Does my noble friend agree that we urgently need a review of access to digital payments?
I am delighted to support my noble friends who have tabled amendments in this group, particularly my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Holmes of Richmond; they are very timely contributions to this debate. I am delighted to lend my support by co-signing Amendment 28 in the name of my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and co-signed by my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond. My starting point is with my interest in developing digital ID and proof of age through digital verification. I speak as chairman of the Proof of Age Standards Scheme board.
For the reasons that both my noble friends have so eloquently given to the House this afternoon, time is passing, and we are living in a digital age; it is extremely important that this is recognised by all departments affected. I pay tribute to the work of the working group, of which PASS is a member, which is, I think, set up under the auspices of the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to confirm that the Treasury is also co-ordinating aspects of digital identification with these other departments. It is extremely important that, if it is the wish of my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe that we proceed initially with financial services, we co-ordinate with other aspects. It has been a huge success in terms of sales of alcohol and knives, as my noble friend expressed. In Scotland, where 16 year-olds are able to perform and purchase so many more services than 16 year-olds in the rest of the United Kingdom, the proof-of-age PASS card has been especially important in that jurisdiction.
With these few remarks, I hope that my noble friend will look favourably in particular on Amendment 28. It is important to proceed prudently but with some pace to make sure that we are ahead of the game. This is the time for digital identification—with the proviso that we have the ability to verify age. I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe that there is space for digital identification in the terms of the online harms Bill, but there is no reason to delay by not passing this amendment to the Financial Services Bill before us this afternoon.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register, particularly as one of the independent directors of the LINK scheme, the UK’s largest cash machine network. I support my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe, Lord Holmes of Richmond and Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on Amendment 37E in particular.
It is, of course, far too soon to be drawing definitive conclusions based upon our experiences of the past year or so. However, it is striking how the pandemic has tended to accelerate some existing trends. One has been the declining use of cash. For many people, this decline is something to be embraced. Last summer and again in recent days, pubs and restaurants have begun to reopen, almost universally on the basis of card payments only; the commonly preferred method is to order from the table and pre-pay through a mobile device—no cash, no cards even, and with minimised physical contact. Home delivery of food has expanded dramatically. It is therefore hardly surprising that withdrawal of cash from ATMs almost halved during the worst of the pandemic. I know people who have stopped carrying cash. However, as my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond pointed out, this approach does not work for everyone.
Think, for example, of the disadvantages for isolated, elderly people who have to rely upon neighbours for food shopping. Unless they bank online, how can they repay them? My noble friend’s amendment reminds us that even when a trend is broadly welcome to the vast majority of people, it can isolate a minority from the mainstream, sometimes with cruel and unjust consequences. Financial exclusion, digital exclusion, social exclusion and economic exclusion all too often go hand in hand. I know from my work with LINK that those in charge of the UK financial system are acutely aware of these problems and challenges. Indeed, they are working tirelessly to address them, and LINK in particular is committed to maintaining free access to cash across the country, for as long as consumers want and need it.
As part of this commitment, LINK maintains a financial inclusion programme. This has so far provided 1,800 communities with a new, free-to-use ATM service, by providing financial subsidies to operators who install the machines. Consumer and community groups, local authorities, Members of Parliament—including Members of this House—and indeed any other interested parties, can help to identify further, suitable sites. Some providers of ATMs base their business model on charging for transactions. That is a perfectly valid approach, but no one should underestimate just how precious a resource a free-to-use ATM is.
It may be that this amendment is too prescriptive, and I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister on the wording, but these challenges can be overcome only by partnership, including banks, the Post Office, retailers, regulators and the Government, all founded upon the latest possible information and analysis. This will require leadership and a positive, co-operative spirit.
We would be wise to take care in drawing any lasting conclusions from our experience of the pandemic. Much more analysis needs to be done of how financially marginalised people, particularly those without bank accounts, have fared since the beginning of 2020. I am confident that the trends and suggested responses set out in Natalie Ceeney’s excellent report of March 2019 will broadly stand the test of time. All that has changed is the acuteness of the challenge and the urgency of coming together to fashion a sustainable response.
My Lords, the amendments in this group all deal in one way or another with the digital world and its implications for financial services. We all understand that we are in the midst of a revolution which will gather pace, rapidly expand, and reshape how we lead our lives. It is important that the UK is at the front of the curve in delivering those changes, to underpin its financial services industry. I was very pleased to see that the Bank of England and the Treasury have just announced the creation of a joint task force on central bank digital currency, a potential linchpin to those changes.
These amendments are all extremely useful. On digital identity, the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, hit the nail on the head, when he talked about the importance of engagement with the public. There are a lot of issues around identity, including issues of privacy. It is not an easy issue but a complex one. I hope that this engagement is dealt with more broadly. It may well be that the kind of targeted examples that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is concerned to see delivered much more quickly are easier to deal with, but of course, they will always lead to further questions, and this is something that we must confront head on.
We will be discussing access to cash in another group, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has a specific amendment related to that, but it also points out how when we go through revolutionary change, there are always people who will be part of the “left behind”, either by choice or by capacity. Those people have every right to be able to pay a full part in our society and in our communities. Finding those mechanisms may be expensive, since it is much more efficient to go with a single strategy, but we must recognise the full complexity of the societies in which we live, the different pace at which people accept change and the degree to which they need support through that change.
I very much hope that we see something strategic coming from the Government, because we are dealing with each issue in a rather piecemeal way. We have reached the point where we need that fundamental underpinning, and I hope that we can begin to develop that strategic view, and quickly.
My Lords, we welcome the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, on digital ID and other, broader, fintech issues. They provide the Government with an opportunity to elaborate on the responses given in Committee. I hope that those who tabled the amendments will forgive me for not speaking to each in turn, but to do so would be to repeat many of the points already made.
While we would not necessarily endorse some of the timescales envisaged in the amendments, the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, are sensible. In commissioning a review of fintech, the Government have demonstrated a level of interest in it, but the key question is how that is developed into concrete initiatives that grow the financial services sector while also improving the customer experience. The use of distributed digital identification could bring about a fundamental shift in how individuals and financial service businesses operate and interact on a day-to-day basis.
Properly considered implementation of digital ID could empower consumers by giving them greater choice in the services that they can access and better control over their personal data. The latter point is crucial. Any steps to further digitise the sector must come with security and privacy safeguards built in. It may not be possible or desirable to roll out digital ID overnight, but it would be interesting to hear more on the steps being taken by the Treasury and others to assess the opportunities and risks that exist. I hope that the Minister can also speak to potential timescales, even if they are not as ambitious as those spelled out in the amendments.
Amendment 37E in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, appears to be a probing amendment, but I hope the Government will take seriously his suggestion of studying the links between digital and financial exclusion. In an earlier debate I referred to the need to tackle some of the bigger, more complex issues that contribute to financial exclusion. Without concerted effort now, one can envisage a scenario in which certain sections of the population already susceptible to financial exclusion will be unable to avail themselves of the products and services facilitated by new technologies.
We are at an interesting point in the fintech debate following publication of the Kalifa review. Items such as digital ID are mentioned in that document, albeit in the context of the need to establish international codes and standards. The UK has long been a leader in this sector. If we are to continue being so, both government and business must seek to participate fully in relevant cross-border discussions and initiatives.
I note from my latest perusal of the House of Lords business that the ever-tenacious noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has secured an Oral Question on 27 April regarding the Government’s response to the Kalifa review’s recommendations. I hope the Minister can provide sufficient reassurance that the Treasury recognises and wishes to harness the potential of fintech, but I am sure that any gaps in the response today will be revisited in just under two weeks.
My Lords, this group of amendments returns to the use of technology and data in financial services, a topic we have discussed at length at earlier stages. It is an important debate, and I welcome the efforts of noble Lords to bring this to our attention again.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, noted, as part of UK FinTech Week 2021 my right honourable friend the Chancellor, just this morning, delivered a speech setting out the Government’s commitment to fintech as a crucial component of the future of UK financial services. The Chancellor made several announcements, including the launch of a new task force between the Treasury and the Bank of England to co-ordinate exploratory work on a potential central bank digital currency; a new financial market infrastructure sandbox; confirmation that the FCA will take forward the idea of a regulatory scale box; a package of measures to support fintech firm growth; and a commitment to work with the fintech community to realise the idea of a new, industry-led centre for finance, innovation and technology.
The Chancellor also reiterated his thanks to Ron Kalifa for his landmark fintech review and confirmed that the Government will shortly provide a detailed response to Parliament via a Written Statement. I am not sure I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, whether that will be before the Oral Question on 27 April.
I turn to the amendments before us today. Amendments 28, 29 and 30 all relate to the establishment of a system of digital identification and call on the Government to publish plans for achieving this. Digital identity is a vital building block for the economy of the future. The Government recognise that digital identities have the potential to make it quicker, easier and more secure for people and businesses to get things done, to simplify people’s lives and to boost business. We want to offer people the choice to provide their identity digitally where and when it suits them, securely, easily and with confidence.
I was pleased to be able to meet my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Holmes last week. In that meeting, we discussed the ambitious programme of work that the Government are taking forward on digital identities that work across the economy, some of which I will summarise here.
The Government published their response to the digital identity call for evidence in September 2020 and committed to creating a framework of standards, governance and legislation to enable digital identities to be used in the greatest number of circumstances. I assure my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering that this work is being co-ordinated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport across all departments, including the Treasury, so that the policy on digital ID captures the widest number of applications and uses for it. An important part of this work was the recent publication of the draft UK Digital Identity and Attributes Trust Framework. This framework sets out a vision of the rules governing the future use of trusted digital identity products.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Holmes, the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about the importance of public engagement in this area. A public survey accompanied this publication, inviting industry, civil society groups and the public to share their feedback, so that the final trust framework meets the needs of all users. This is an important first step in the Government’s plans to enable the development of digital identities that work across the economy, including with financial services.
DCMS is working with a range of stakeholders across the public and private sectors, academia and civil society to further refine and develop the trust framework. To ensure the delivery of a productive digital identity market, the department is working with stakeholders so that they understand the framework and the ways in which it can be used. A second iteration will be published this summer, followed by a further period of in-depth consultation with stakeholders to ensure that they are confident with their understanding of new or updated sections.
The Government are also looking at how legislation can help to support widespread adoption of secure digital identities across the economy. We want to give legal certainty on how to use digital identities and legal gateways to check identity attributes against government data. The Government plan to formally consult on an enabling framework later this year.
The Government therefore consider that progress is already under way to support the use of digital identity products that will work across the economy and between different economic sectors, and that industry stakeholders and the public are engaged on how this work is being shaped. The Treasury will continue to work with financial services and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the Government’s approach to digital identity reflects the needs of financial services businesses and customers.
Amendment 31 would introduce a mandatory regime for open finance through the laying of draft regulations. I agree with my noble friend Lord Holmes on the importance of open finance to the UK. The UK is widely considered a global leader in open banking, which enables customers to share their data with third-party providers to increase access to a wider range of products and services. The Government therefore recognise that applying these principles to a wider range of financial services data through open finance has the potential to offer significant benefits to customers. However, increased data sharing also carries significant associated risks, and it is therefore essential that an appropriate regulatory framework is in place.
Such initiatives also stand to present a notable undertaking for firms to deliver. That is why the FCA published a call for input on open finance to increase understanding of how to enable data sharing in a way that is proportionate while maximising benefit and mitigating risk, including the right use of regulation. The FCA’s response to the call for input, published on 26 March, sets out its next steps for a regulatory strategy for open finance. Central to this strategy is supporting industry-led efforts to develop common standards and road maps to open finance.
Further, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has already announced plans to bring forward legislation that will give government the powers to mandate data sharing across sectors, including powers to legislate for open finance if required in future. As part of its next steps on open finance, the FCA has highlighted that it will continue to work to support the design of legislation.
On Amendment 32, I agree with my noble friend that this is a hugely important area and wish to reassure him that the Government are determined to ensure that the financial sector is able to take advantage of the opportunities of greater use of technology in financial markets. The Government are carefully considering the current legislative framework and what changes may be required to facilitate digital securities.
Earlier this year the Government put out a call for evidence on distributed ledger technology, DLT, in financial market infrastructures, which asked for feedback regarding what regulatory or legal barriers exist that currently limit the adoption of DLT in UK financial markets. The Government have today committed to setting up a new financial market infrastructure sandbox for firms innovating with new technologies such as DLT.
Similarly, the amendment seeks to require the Government to consider matching the EU’s timetable on dematerialisation. We have now left the EU and, while we should be considering the approach that other jurisdictions take, it would be inappropriate to refer to just one in legislation. The Government will of course update Parliament on any planned legislative changes as appropriate.
On Amendment 37E, the Government recognise that digital payments are playing an increasingly important role for businesses and individuals, with many making payments faster, easier and cheaper, and managing finances more straightforward. Amendment 37E calls for a review of access to digital payments, in particular among those with protected characteristics, those from different socioeconomic groups, and those from each nation and region of the United Kingdom.
I assure my noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Hunt that the Government recognise the importance of ensuring that consumers are not left behind by trends and innovation within the payments sector. I also assure the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, of our commitment to protecting access to cash, and that the Government are committed to advancing legislation in this area to provide further protections separate from the amendment we will debate later.
In addition, the Government have a range of existing policies designed to support inclusion. The Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions jointly publish an annual report on financial inclusion. This outlines the Government’s work and progress in key areas, including access to banking, credit, insurance, work with credit unions and support for financial capability, such as debt and savings. We are taking action to require banks to provide basic bank accounts, rolling out world class digital connectivity across the UK, and improving access to digital skills training for adults, including disabled and older people.
I hope that I have demonstrated the Government’s commitment to this important area, and that noble Lords will therefore feel able to not press their amendments.
My Lords, I thank all who have spoken in this short but wide-ranging debate. Time is passing, and we live in a digital age, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering said—a revolution indeed, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral reminded us that the withdrawal of cash halved during the pandemic, with some cruel consequences. LINK does great work; I remember that from my time at Tesco. We need a network to endure as normality returns. I thank the Minister for updating us on the Chancellor’s statement on fintech and open finance today.
It may not surprise noble Lords that I remain disappointed at the pace of change on digital ID. The Minister is right to emphasise what has been done in recent months, and I strongly support this. However, years are passing, our leadership in digital is eroding, and we can no longer blame the EU. We must solve this problem for the industries, services and, above all, consumers involved. Of course there must be public engagement, but this must not be used as an excuse for undue delay. I will be back, but for today, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 28 withdrawn.
Amendments 29 to 32 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 53. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
33: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—
“FCA duty to make a statement about ministerial directions on investigations
(1) The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 is amended as follows.(2) After section 1T (right to obtain documents and information) insert—“1U Duty to make a statement about ministerial directions on investigationsWhere a Minister directs, comments on, or intervenes with an FCA investigation into wrongdoing or malpractice by a company, the FCA must make a public statement about the nature of any such intervention.””
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for supporting this amendment. It was discussed in Committee, but the Government’s response has raised more questions than answers.
The amendment seeks transparency about ministerial interventions or directions on investigations, especially into malpractice by companies. It would require the FCA to make a statement as and when Ministers intervene. Currently, ministerial interventions and directions, especially those that stymie investigations, are made in secret. Parliament and the public are not informed, and there is no opportunity to question Ministers. Such interventions mean that selected corporations receive ministerial favours and others do not. In the absence of investigations into the criminal practices of major corporations, it is impossible to develop effective legislation or financial regulatory practices.
In Committee, I provided some evidence of how the UK Government protected criminal organisations. It related to HSBC, which, by its own admission, had been engaged in criminal conduct in the US. In 2012, it was fined $1.9 billion for money laundering offences, which at that time was the largest fine ever levied upon a corporation. HSBC also faced the prospect of a criminal prosecution.
HSBC was supervised by the Financial Services Authority, an independent regulatory body in the UK. The US fine did not persuade the FSA to investigate. Instead, on 10 September 2012, the then-Chancellor George Osborne, the Bank of England and the FSA secretly wrote to US regulators and urged them not to prosecute HSBC, as the bank was apparently too big to fail.
The ministerial interventions came to light not because of any statement made by the Government but through a July 2016 report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services. The report was titled Too Big to Jail, and reproduced the Chancellor’s letters and some email and telephone conversation records, though these are not comprehensive. It is clear that the Bank of England, the Treasury and the regulator colluded to protect a bank engaged in criminal conduct. The matter came to light in July 2016, but there was no Statement made to Parliament to explain why a criminal organisation was being protected by the Government. By July 2016, the FSA had morphed into the FCA, but the FCA did not launch an investigation either.
The report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services shows that the Government were also shielding other UK banks. These included Standard Chartered, which was fined £670 million for money laundering, and a closer reading of the same report shows that the Government also intervened to protect Barclays.
In Committee, I referred to my legal endeavours to secure a copy of the Sandstorm report, which provides some information about frauds and fraudsters at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The bank was closed in July 1991, but there has been no forensic investigation into the biggest banking fraud in the 20th century. Most of the Sandstorm report is available in 1,300 US libraries. The UK courts have forced the Treasury to release a copy to me, and it shows that the Government are still protecting individuals linked to al-Qaeda, Saudi intelligence, and the royal families of Abu Dhabi and other countries in the Middle East, as well as arms dealers, smugglers, fraudsters, convicted criminals, BCCI senior personnel, and some politicians.
What kind of Government protect criminal organisations and wrongdoers? What kind of democracy do we have when such interventions are not explained to Parliament and the people? One of our greatest failures is to not develop durable institutional structures, effective laws and enforcement, and a major reason for this is that many frauds and abuses are simply covered up.
The Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said in Committee that Section 77 of FiSMA provides safeguards and that
“the Treasury can require the regulators to conduct an investigation into relevant events where the Treasury considers there to be a public interest”.—[Official Report, 10/3/21; col. GC 691.]
None of the examples I have given has been subject to any investigation. Were they not in the public interest? Looking at even contemporary events, how can the Treasury be satisfied with the FCA’s failure to investigate fully and take action against those who perpetrated frauds at RBS and HBOS?
The Thames Valley police and crime commissioner has repeatedly said that there has been a cover-up of the HBOS and RBS frauds. The commissioner secured convictions and prison sentences for six individuals in connection with fraud at HBOS. He acted because the FCA and the Treasury did not. In an article in the London Evening Standard on 8 February 2019, the commissioner stated:
“I am convinced the cover-up goes right up to Cabinet level. And to the top of the City.”
I have in front of me some correspondence between the commissioner and the Prime Minister’s office, from which I shall read some extracts. On 30 May 2017, possibly in response to previous invitations, the commissioner wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May, saying:
“There is a serious problem with bank governance, which appears to be corrupt at the highest level in a number of our major banks. The governance system itself is being run by those most involved in cover ups and corrupt practices. For instance, the senior partner of the audit company that failed, either through incompetence or complicity, to notice a £1 billion fraud within HBOS is now Chairman of the Financial Conduct Authority, and the Chairman of the bank when much of this was covered up is now Chairman of the Financial Reporting Council.”
The letter goes on:
“Some of the cover up also involves the Treasury and two past Chancellors”.
These are serious allegations by a senior law enforcement officer, in a letter to the Prime Minister.
On 12 June 2017, Sir Jeremy Heywood replied from the Cabinet Office on behalf of the Prime Minister, saying:
“I was very concerned to read the extremely serious allegations set out in your letter. I would strongly urge you to pursue them formally through the proper channels, by contacting Andrew Bailey at the Financial Conduct Authority.”
Sir Jeremy went on:
“Given the extremely serious nature of your allegations, I will keep a close eye on this matter, and would be happy to meet you if you would find it useful.”
The commissioner wanted to meet Sir Jeremy, and said so on 19 June, but did not hear anything. He sent a reminder on 27 June 2017, saying:
“I would like to meet with you if possible to show you some of the compelling evidence”.
I do not know who was consulted after that by the Cabinet Office but, despite the initial offer, Sir Jeremy subsequently declined to meet the police and crime commissioner. What directions did the Cabinet Office and the Treasury provide, to whom, and when? I hope the Minister can give a commitment to publish all this correspondence and bring it to public attention, so that we can all judge whether the Treasury, No. 10 or anyone else is indeed engaged in a cover-up.
I also take issue with some of the replies provided in Committee. The Minister’s reply seemed to suggest that the evidence that I cited related to the era of the FSA and not the FCA, but forgot to mention that both these agencies were presided over by the Conservative Government and both were labelled as “independent”. It is no good saying that the matters are old or predate the creation of the FCA. That would be akin to saying that the police should not investigate matters just because the crimes predate the appointment of a new police commissioner. It is not uncommon for the police to investigate matters going back 10, 20 or 30 years, or even longer. So, why is it so different for the FCA and the finance industry’s activities?
Interestingly, on 16 March 2021, the FCA announced criminal proceedings against National Westminster Bank for money laundering offences between 11 November 2011 and 19 October 2016. These offences occurred before the FCA formally appeared on the scene. Why is it that the FCA can take on NatWest but not HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Barclays Bank? HSBC was fined in 2012 in the US. The Government cover-up came to light in 2016. At that time, the FCA was the regulatory body, so why did it not act? Was it overruled by the Treasury? There was certainly direct involvement by a Chancellor, as I have mentioned.
In my evidence in Committee, I referred to BCCI; that issue continues. On 22 March, the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, wrote to Members of the House who had participated in the Committee stage of the Bill, saying that
“there are currently no plans to publish an unredacted version of the report by Lord Justice Bingham into the supervision of BCCI, otherwise known as the Sandstorm Report.”
No justification was offered in that letter for suppressing a 30 year-old document. No time has been made available to ask questions about the nature of that report or its implications. As I have said, this document is sitting publicly available in 1,300 US libraries, but it continues to be a state secret in the UK.
If the Government accept the principle of transparency, they can improve the wording of this amendment and make it part of this or future legislation. The outcome can only be better regulation and government accountability, as well as higher public confidence in the finance industry—something we all seek. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, who has just delivered what I can describe only as a bombshell of a speech—one that makes the case for the extraordinary importance of this amendment and for a far broader cleanout of the Augean stables of our financial sector and its so-called regulation and, indeed, of our entire UK system of government.
I remind noble Lords that Amendment 33 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka—also signed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and to which I am pleased to attach my name—creates for the FCA a
“duty to make a statement about ministerial directions on investigations”.
I also remind noble Lords of a key part of the speech that we have just heard. On 30 May 2017, possibly in response to previous invitations, the Thames Valley police and crime commissioner wrote to Prime Minister saying:
“There is a serious problem with bank governance, which appears to be corrupt at the highest level in a number of our major banks. The governance system itself is being run by those most involved in cover ups and corrupt practices.”
That came from the Thames Valley police and crime commissioner, yet it appears that nothing has been done in response to that letter. I note also, as the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, said, that despite an initial offer of a meeting, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood subsequently declined to meet the police and crime commissioner.
Who should be paying attention to this? I would say everyone in the UK, and indeed the world, for while it might be more than a decade since the threat presented by the financial sector to the security of us all was made so starkly evident, the threat remains and is undoubtedly even greater now than in 2008. Among those who should be paying particular attention, I strongly suggest, are all those who have been assuring us in this House and elsewhere that everything is fine: “Nothing to see here, just a few bad apples being cleared out”. People have been saying that there is no problem with regulation or transparency, or the risks that the financial sector presents. They should pay attention to the noble Lord’s speech.
The House has heard my views before on the deep-rooted, decades-old—indeed, centuries-old—issues with our financial sector. I am not going to repeat those, which I explored at some length in Committee. Instead, I focus in this stage on the financial sector as a huge global crime issue, as a major United Nations initiative has recognised. I refer to the High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda—the so-called FACTI panel. It is calling on Governments to agree to a global pact for financial integrity for sustainable development. This reminds us that while we often think of white-collar crimes and fraud as victimless, in fact they are crimes that damage the whole world, but particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in the UK and globally.
The FACTI panel, consisting of former world leaders and central bank governors, business and civil society heads and academics, says that as much as 2.7% of global GDP is laundered annually, while corporations shopping around for tax-free jurisdictions cost Governments up to $600 billion a year. We have heard often in debating the Bill, and elsewhere from the Government in particular, about how prominent the UK financial sector is on the global stage and about its world-leading role. There can be no conclusion from the FACTI report except that it is directed clearly at the UK and at your Lordships’ House.
The FACTI panel says that stronger laws and institutions are needed to prevent corruption and money laundering, and that the bankers, lawyers and accountants who enable financial crime must also face punitive sanctions. The report also calls for greater transparency on company ownership and public spending, stronger international co-operation on the prosecution of bribery, to which this amendment is particularly relevant, on minimum corporate tax, which I asked a question about last week, and on the global governance of tax abuse and money laundering. In Committee, I also referred to the Center for American Progress, not necessarily an organisation with which I often ideologically agree. However, it was making similar arguments to those of the FACTI panel. I invite any noble Lords with an FT subscription—which is all of us, through the Library—to look at stories tagged “financial fraud”. They make for a sober set of reading.
Action is needed. We hear often about the need for the UK to be world leading. I want to reflect on a meeting—which I know was before the pandemic because it was in person, conducted upstairs in one of the Committee Rooms of your Lordships’ House—when I had a discussion with a group of University of Michigan master’s students. They were visiting with their professor while in Europe to study fraud; their entire master’s degree was in fraud and corruption, examining the scale of it around the world. Pointing down the road from your Lordships’ House, I said to them that the City of London was one of the global centres of corruption. I was perhaps not surprised but still interested to discover that there was no expression of shock or surprise from those students. They simply nodded in agreement, as if I had made a statement that to them was blindingly obvious.
The City of London has been trading on its global reputation with centuries of propaganda, backed for much of that time by the muscle of colonial power. The world has moved on and is less and less likely to believe the propaganda. Amendment 33 is a simple, modest and far from sufficient step, though an important one, to ensure transparency in the governance of our financial sector—indeed, transparency of our governance. I commend it to your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I rise to speak on Amendment 33 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, having studied the comments made in Committee and repeated today. I can understand his frustration with history in this area. In particular, I would highlight the long delay and prevarication by Lloyds and the then regulator in dealing with the HBOS scam, which led to the demise of a number of small businesses banking with HBOS’s corporate division in Reading. Maybe more transparency would have helped there but it was actually a failure by the bank itself and by the regulator, which I very much hope would not happen again today. I am still not entirely sure what eventually happened; I know that there were some high-profile convictions. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could update us on that sorry tale. I share everyone’s wish to see a system where it could never happen again.
However, I always worry that bad cases make bad law. The cases being quoted are generally old, while the FCA’s powers have been strengthened over the years and the culture has changed so that it is now very pro-consumer. Moreover, as my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House explained on 10 March, the FCA is an independent body and the power of Ministers to intervene is very circumscribed. I suspect we will come back to these issues in the next financial services Bill, so I would like to make two points today.
First, reports from the United States have to be treated with some care. It is a sad fact that, unlike our own regulatory authorities, the US ones are more than a little protectionist. They come down harder on foreign entities than their domestic ones and like to levy huge fines whenever they can. It is not a level playing field, unlike the UK, which is of course one of the reasons why investors like it here. Secondly, in the sort of cases we are talking about, Ministers—I speak from experience, first as a civil servant and secondly as a Minister at BEIS, DCMS and HM Treasury—act on advice, not as free-talking politicians. If they make a direction in an investigation, it will reflect a public policy need and that could be a confidential matter, such as security or a government interest. Once that is made public it might be difficult for those being investigated to get a fair hearing, which is unfortunate in itself and likely to lead to aborted prosecutions. Whichever party is in power, this would not be in the public interest. For all these reasons, I encourage those involved to withdraw their amendment today.
My Lords, I will be brief in my support for this amendment. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for speaking at great length. I therefore do not need to add a huge amount more, not least as I intend to go into a bit more detail on my concerns about transparency when speaking in support of Amendment 34, which touches on similar issues of accountability.
I am a little puzzled why the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, thinks that this is a case of bad cases making bad laws. It seems to me that there have been very considerable concerns in the past. Surely those ought to be investigated.
We are facing a real crisis of trust in public bodies at the moment, and I believe that this amendment will be a beneficial addition to this Financial Services Bill. In making provisions for an additional layer of transparency, it will act as an incentive against any possible interference; whether done formally or informally, it will still have that effect. The truth is that we do not know whether ministerial interference in FCA investigations has occurred, and positively stating either way is speculative.
Although I was not privy to the written response from the noble Earl, Lord Howe, which he promised to send to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, confirming whether there were provisions within the Ministerial Code to allow for interventions in FCA investigations, the assumption in Committee was that any attempt to steer an FCA investigation would constitute a breach of the Ministerial Code. That would require breaches of the Ministerial Code or other offences to be taken seriously, and not treated lightly or even dismissed. Last year, an inquiry found evidence that the Home Secretary had breached the Ministerial Code, yet the consequences extended little further than an apology. In February, it was revealed that the Health Secretary had acted unlawfully when his department failed to reveal details of contracts signed during the Covid-19 period. Just before Easter, we all started reading about allegations surrounding conflicts of interest in a former Prime Minister’s dealings with the financial services firm Greensill, and there have been concerns about the current Prime Minister’s dealings during his time at City Hall. It is vital that, if we are to rely on breaches of the Ministerial Code, they are given some teeth and have some effect.
I have no evidence, but it may be that no Minister has ever interfered in any FCA investigation, in any way. I sincerely hope that that is the case, but we cannot rule it out. If interferences have occurred, it would be doubtful to assume that investigations are always steered in the interests of consumers. Although provisions are in place to prevent misconduct, they should not discount the contribution that this important amendment can make in strengthening those rules and further disincentivising any possible ministerial interferences in FCA investigations. If Her Majesty’s Government have concerns about small parts of the wording here, I hope they come back with some improvements to ensure that the levels of transparency are clear to everybody, in every part of the system.
My Lords, unfortunately, I did not bring with me a copy of the letter that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, kindly sent me in response to my question about the Ministerial Code. I expect that a copy is in the Library and available to everyone, but I am sure that the Minister will follow through. While reading the content was reassuring, I do not want it to be a distraction—it is one of the reasons that I have not signed this amendment—from the underlying issue of whether there is adequate transparency to act as the cleansing light that we need in an industry sector that will always be subject to misbehaviour. There is just too much money and opportunity, and an awful lot of power, washing through this industry. Insight, clarity and visibility are probably more important than in almost any other sector of our economy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, talked as if all the misbehaviour was in the past, but we are talking about Greensill today and I have questions. I know that there are many task forces and investigations going on, but I still have no understanding of how a company with as many red flags against it as Greensill got through the accreditation process to enable it to participate in the CBILS. Other than writing to the British Business Bank—and I doubt that I will get an adequate answer—I am not sure what mechanism I can possibly use to get to the bottom of that. We do not have transparency in the areas where we need it.
I remember many conversations, in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequently, with regulators that were anxious not to rock the boat. The economy and industry were fragile enough, and they were disinclined to investigate. It is to that which I have always attributed the FCA’s inaction with regard to HBOS. I support the description of the HBOS crisis given by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. It was purely by chance that the fraud—it was literally fraud that sent people to jail for 10 years—at HBOS was exposed. Thames Valley Police decided to investigate when all the regulators, the Serious Fraud Office and the most relevant and obvious police forces had refused. Part of that was due to a lack of resources, from the police forces’ perspective.
I do not think I have ever forgiven the Treasury for its actions in this regard. It cost £7 million for Thames Valley Police to investigate that fraud and it was never reimbursed that money. The fine, of about £45 million, went to the Treasury and was deliberately not shared with the police force. Had it been, it would have encouraged and enabled police forces around the country to be more acutely aware and engaged when there was evidence of fraudulent behaviour. Even today, the various companies that were defrauded have not yet been fully compensated. Nearly 14 years on, it has not been resolved. We have two more bodies now involved in trying to clean up that mess.
The other area that leaves me with great concern is that the response I always get when I raise issues around transparency and enforcement in financial services is: “We now have the senior managers regime.” I was on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which drove a lot of the thinking that led to that regime, but, as we have often discussed in this House, it has been holed below the waterline by decisions of the FCA not to pursue senior executives. We know mostly about Barclays and Jes Staley—who had hired private investigators to track down a whistleblower—being fined but not declared unfit to hold his position. The fine was of a size that was more than made up by the bonuses he received in the following years, so it was pointless.
We have an underlying problem. It is not that the senior managers regime does not do some good—it establishes some procedures and processes—but it focuses on more junior people and does not hold people accountable at the senior level. With Greensill coming into the picture now and triggering a much wider discussion, I very much hope that the Government will take back the message that they have to sit the regulators and the various enforcement bodies down, and work out a way to make this system more effective. They are up against powerful forces and there is inequality of arms, but this industry has to be kept under oversight and control because, when it goes wrong, it takes a large part of our economy with it, as well as creating many individual victims.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sikka facilitated perhaps one of the most interesting debates in Grand Committee. The amendments raised several important questions about the independence of the FCA, as well as the nature and success, or otherwise, of its past investigations. My noble friend was not happy with the response provided by the Minister last time; nevertheless, I felt that we had a helpful initial response in Committee, with references to legislation that requires FCA action in certain circumstances and allows a Minister to initiate an investigation in others. The response was perhaps a little light on the limits of ministerial power; recent times have shown that the Ministerial Code is not always considered binding. I hope that we will hear more on this later.
Some of the concerns that my noble friends cited related to events preceding the financial crisis, and I wonder whether this is an area where Ministers can go further today. For example, the noble Earl mentioned Section 73 of the Financial Services Act 2012, which imposes a duty on the FCA to investigate in the event of certain regulatory failures. As the measure was introduced after the global crash, it is clearly of no use in shedding light on events that took place before it. However, is he confident that, if some of the instances cited by my noble friend were to happen today, the current legal provisions would be sufficient to trigger an independent investigation?
In his final remarks on 10 March, my noble friend Lord Sikka recalled the wishes of many would-be criminals to be prosecuted in the UK on the basis that our enforcement machine is seen as less effective than that of others. My noble friend Lord Eatwell raised that issue in several of his earlier contributions on the Bill. Ultimately, and irrespective of the wording of different amendments, we need to achieve a widespread perception of both independence and effectiveness. This is true not only of the FCA but also of our other financial services regulators and the various enforcement agencies that they work with. If he were here, my noble friend Lord Eatwell would say that there remains some way to go. However, the responses that we received to other amendments in Committee satisfied us that the Treasury understands the challenge and is grappling with it. I hope that my noble friend finds some comfort in the wider discussions we have had and that the Minister can shed more light on the issues of the constraints on ministerial power.
My Lords, before I respond to this amendment, I would like to express my sadness on behalf of us all at the news of the death of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Lord Judd took part in our debates on the Bill only just before Easter. He was a Member of this House for some 30 years, a man of great wisdom and wide experience, but above all a man of great kindness, who had an abiding concern for those less fortunate than himself both in this country and across the world. We shall miss him.
Amendment 33 seeks to require the FCA to make a public statement on the nature of any intervention a Minister may make concerning an FCA investigation into an individual firm. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, made a number of allegations against Ministers, past and present, and the Treasury. I do not have the facts or the briefing to enable me to respond to him today on so many detailed issues. Indeed, I have to say that, for the most part, I did not recognise the picture that he painted. I hope, therefore, that he will allow me to write to him on what he has said, copying in noble Lords speaking in this debate, and in doing so I shall attempt also to address the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. However, I can respond to the issue of principle raised by this amendment, which is what we are here to focus on for the purposes of the Bill.
The House may recall that, in Committee, I outlined the current legislative framework which establishes the FCA as an independent, non-governmental body. In my remarks today, I hope to build on that discussion and reassure noble Lords that this amendment is not necessary. Ministerial intervention in the activities of the FCA, were it to occur, would be one of two things: either legally permitted under existing statute, or illegal. What actions are legally permitted within the legislative framework? Under the framework established by Parliament, the Treasury and hence Ministers have strictly limited powers in relation to the FCA. Indeed, the Treasury’s ability to direct or influence the regulators is set out in statute. Most crucially, the Treasury has no general power of direction over the FCA.
The Financial Services Act 2012 sets out the legislative mechanisms through which the Treasury can launch investigations, provided under Section 77 of that Act, which provides a mechanism for the Treasury to direct the FCA to conduct an investigation into events related to a person carrying on a regulated activity. Section 77 was made use of recently, as noble Lords will know, in relation to the regulation of London Capital & Finance, or LCF. Under Section 78, the Treasury can provide direction as to the scope of an investigation, the timeline that it should cover and how it is conducted. So the scope of the powers available to the Treasury is tightly circumscribed by statute. That has to be right, because the ultimate independence of the FCA is vital to its role. Its credibility, authority and value to consumers would be undermined if it were possible for the Government to intervene in its decision-making or ongoing supervision of authorised firms.
As the FCA has acknowledged in its mission statement, Parliament has given the FCA a range of tools in order to deliver its objectives. These tools range from guidance, to censure, to its Section 166 FSMA powers, which allow the FCA to seek the view of an independent third party or “skilled person” on aspects of a regulated firm’s activities if it is concerned or wants further analysis. These accompany independent powers for the FCA to make decisions on how to use these tools most effectively. In my remarks in Committee, I did not intend to suggest that the FCA cannot investigate events that occurred before it was created. I merely pointed out that the events being discussed were historical. The FCA can and does look at historical behaviour of the firms that it supervises.
In the context of this amendment, it is necessary to appreciate that the FCA is an independent body and that there are laws which govern and strictly limit the directions that the Treasury can and cannot give it. However, were such directions to be given under Section 77 and 78 of the 2012 Act, I cannot conceive of a situation where Ministers and the Treasury would not make that fact public.
That covers the intervention that is legally permitted; what about nefarious interference? In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, raised the Ministerial Code, as indeed she has today, and asked whether the provisions of the code were applicable in this instance and strong enough in relation to engagement with regulators. I have since written to the noble Baroness on this topic and a copy has indeed been placed in the Library. However, for the benefit of the House I will expand on that now.
The Ministerial Code requires Government Ministers to
“maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”
In addition, Ministers must act in accordance with the highest standards as set out in the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. I particularly point to the requirements under the openness principle for Ministers to
“act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.”
I hope that this assures noble Lords that, even if Ministers were tempted to interfere improperly, the Ministerial Code provides the proper protections against this. In short, if a Minister were to attempt it, he or she would simply not get away with it. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in a real sense made my point for me. If anyone has evidence of improper behaviour by Ministers, the regulators or firms, they should of course raise that through the proper channels.
It is not a case of my arguing along the lines of “Trust me—I’m a Minister.” I hope that I have demonstrated that the appropriate legislation and the appropriate code and principles of ministerial behaviour are already in place in this space to safeguard against any undue interference as envisaged by this amendment. I hope that this reassures noble Lords that this amendment is simply not necessary, and that the noble Lord is thereby content to withdraw it.
My Lords, I join the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in expressing sadness at the death of Lord Judd, and send my condolences to all his loved ones.
In her response, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, raised the interesting point that some matters were confidential and that Ministers or the Government cannot therefore talk about them. There is also a broader issue of parliamentary accountability and public interest, and of being open and accountable, which should always triumph over the pursuit of private interests. I do not think that any of the issues I have spoken about touch upon the position of spy satellites or troop movements and are not, therefore, a real threat to national security. They may be a threat to private arrangements which some elites have negotiated with Governments, but that is another matter.
I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for his detailed explanation. He said that if there is any evidence about ministerial interventions it should be brought to the attention of the proper authorities, but the difficulty is that there is no mechanism by which this intervention is placed on public record. We only become aware of it because of revelations in other cases. In the case of BCCI, which I cited, it was after five and a half years of litigation against the Treasury that I managed to secure a copy of the Sandstorm report. The Government did their utmost to prevent the disclosure of that document, so there simply are no formal channels for any evidence. That means that we can only investigate past events, try to put the bits and pieces together and build up a picture about ministerial interventions.
This issue will remain with us, but one thing we cannot deny is that, even under the FCA’s rules and the Ministerial Code, which the Minister cited, the unredacted version of Lord Justice Bingham’s report on the Bank of England’s supervision of BCCI still remains a secret document. That is really bizarre. The Sandstorm report is on the internet, because I put it there, but as far as the state is concerned it is somehow a secret document.
As I said, this issue is not going to go away. In the post-Covid world there may well be more scandals and more issues. There will, therefore, be more questions about government accountability and interventions. For the time being, I withdraw the amendment, but hope to return to it in the future. I thank noble Lords for their indulgence.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.
34: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—
(1) There is to be a Supervisory Board to perform the function of monitoring the FCA and PRA.(2) The Supervisory Board must consist entirely of stakeholders.(3) Recruitment for the membership of the Supervisory Board is to be conducted through open competition and the appointments are to be confirmed by the House of Commons Treasury Committee, or another relevant House of Commons Select Committee.(4) The Chancellor of the Exchequer may nominate individuals to the Supervisory Board.(5) The following are ineligible for appointment to the Supervisory Board—(a) current and past employees of the FCA and the PRA, and(b) current employees of organisations supervised by the FCA and the PRA.(6) A member’s membership of the Supervisory Board cannot exceed a period of five years beginning with the day the member’s appointment is confirmed under subsection (3).(7) The Supervisory Board has no responsibility for—(a) the day-to-day operations of the FCA or the PRA, and(b) investigations and enforcement of the rules devised by the FCA and the PRA.(8) The Supervisory Board’s functions are to—(a) provide strategic oversight of the Executive Boards of the FCA and PRA responsible for day-to-day operations;(b) inquire into the adequacy of resources used and available to the FCA and the PRA;(c) seek explanations from the Executive Board for reasons for the delay in launching and completing investigations; and(d) seek explanations from the Executive Board in relation to the efficiency and effectiveness of the FCA and the PRA in discharging their statutory duties.(9) The Supervisory Board shall have powers to—(a) demand explanations from the Executive Board on any matter affecting the protection of consumers from harmful practices;(b) secure information from the Executive Board about their transparency and accountability to the public; and(c) liaise with whistle-blowers and examine FCA and PRA policies for protecting and rewarding whistle-blowers.(10) The Supervisory Board must hold open meetings with the Executive Boards of the FCA and the PRA at least once every three months.(11) The working and background papers of the Supervisory Board must be made publicly available.(12) The Supervisory Board must lay before each House of Parliament an annual report highlighting matters of concern relating to the operation of the FCA and PRA which it has discovered in exercising its powers and functions.(13) The Supervisory Board must be consulted on appointment and reappointment of the Chief Executives of the FCA and the PRA.”Member’s explanatory statement
The new Clause will create a Supervisory Body for each of the FCA and the PRA. Its function would be to internally monitor the Executive Boards of the FCA and the PRA and provide a diversity of views on the conduct and practices of the FCA and the PRA.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for supporting this amendment, which seeks to democratise regulators by giving the people a direct say in their governance structure, and thus act as a bulwark against capture by corporate interests. Almost every regulator claims to serve the people, but normal people—as I like to call them, rather than ordinary people— are kept off the boards. This amendment would put people inside the regulatory bodies. The amendment proposes a two-tier board structure for the FCA and the PRA. One tier, the executive board, would be responsible for the day-to-day operations, just as it is today. The second tier, a supervisory board consisting of stakeholders, would exercise oversight of the executive board and its practices. The amendment sketches out the composition and some of the powers, rights and duties of the supervisory board and its modus operandi, which is complete sunshine.
Throughout the debate on the Bill, many noble Lords have expressed concerns about the failures of the FCA. Capture by corporate interests has been identified as a major factor. The colonisation of the FCA and the PRA boards, working parties and committees by corporate interests means that their interests are prioritised and anything threatening is filtered out of consideration altogether. The FCA and the PRA are more likely to have one-to-one meetings with finance industry elites than with the victims of banking frauds or mis-sold financial products, or individuals concerned about the RBS and HBOS frauds and bank forgeries.
All too often, regulators come from the finance industry and see the issues through the lenses that they have been accustomed to, rather than through the eyes of those are negatively affected by the industry. All too often, regulators return to the industry and they have few incentives to antagonise their potential employers. They have become psychologically standardised and that is the essence of what is often called cognitive capture. In the absence of a diversity of views, organisations remain colonised and are therefore unable to identify possibilities of crisis, so democracy and public accountability are the best ways of tackling corporate capture. With people sharing similar world views, the FCA has become an echo chamber where emerging, and often vital, issues are neglected. This is well noted in Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s report on the collapse of London Capital & Finance, which stated:
“The FCA’s flawed approach to the Perimeter resulted in LCF being able to use its FCA regulated status to present an unjustified imprimatur of respectability to the market, even in relation to its non-regulated bond business.”
A similar pattern has been repeated at Greensill Capital (UK), which was registered with the FCA for anti-money laundering purposes and was not authorised to function as a bank, even though it was effectively lending money. Therefore, the FCA was not required to supervise its wider conduct, apply capital adequacy or stress tests. However, Greensill is part of the $200 trillion a year unregulated shadow banking industry. It gets its resources from investment and retail banks, insurance companies, pension funds and local authorities. Any problems and turbulence in shadow banking has the capacity to infect the entire financial system. The warning signs at Greensill were flashing red last year when three of its major clients—NMC Health, BrightHouse and Agritrade—collapsed, with billions in undisclosed borrowing. Insurance companies also began to withdraw cover or make it more expensive for the provision of supply-chain financing.
Yet that did not ring any alarm bells at the FCA, possibly because of its insular governance structure. Through the presence of diverse stakeholder views, the supervisory board might have asked the executive board to explain how it could safeguard the stability of the financial system when it neglects the impact of shadow banking on the regulated sector or the economy as a whole. It might also have asked questions about accounting for reverse factoring, which has been an issue for decades but has been utterly neglected by the regulators. The presence of stakeholders on regulatory boards changes the dynamics of regulation by empowering them to question executives. No doubt, some would oppose democratisation of regulatory bodies by arguing that finance is a complex issue. That may be, but most major scandals are rarely exposed by experts, even though stakeholders provide plenty of evidence. So why not co-opt them into the governance structures and empower them to hold the executives to account on a day-to-day basis?
Some may claim that the supervisory boards would increase the cost of regulation. That cost would be miniscule—certainly far less than the cost of the last banking crash, the possible shadow banking crisis or the pain suffered by stakeholders in LCF, Blackmore Bond, the Woodford fund and many other headline scandals. I do not intend to divide the House on this amendment, but I believe that we can find a solution together to the capture of the regulators, which is a most pressing issue facing us. I beg to move.
I start by sharing the powerful words of my noble friend the Deputy Leader on the sudden loss of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who contributed so very recently to this Bill and whom I remember well as an effective Minister of State at the FCO when I was a young civil servant. His death is a great loss.
As I understand it, Amendment 34 is designed to improve the culture of the financial services sector—a sentiment that I empathise with—although it would do so by adding an extra layer of regulation through a stakeholder supervisory board. I am against this for the FCA, the PRA and other regulators. I have substantial experience of regulation from my Civil Service past, as an executive and a non-executive of non-financial companies, as a Minister and, currently, as a non-executive of a small bank. In my judgment, adding an extra layer of board members without practical experience could have a perverse and negative effect.
For good outcomes, one needs clear, simple and outcome-based regulation, and company directors who take their responsibilities seriously and promote a good culture, with a focus on customers and protection, on risk and the good use of capital, on fraud and cyber, on the people who operate the business—from the top right down to the bottom—and on innovation and cost control. Above all, one needs directors who will challenge, get into the detail and be listened to.
I have been a non-exec for over 20 years and, until recently, there has not been enough attention paid to, or appreciation of, the challenge function and directors who challenge. Cases such as the HBOS scam, which we have been concerned about today, are the result. This needs to change, in terms of the selection of non-executives and with strong internal challenge in the executive structure of companies. This applies to financial services companies and more broadly.
An extra layer in the form of a supervisory board will not solve the problems of culture that have been highlighted. It risks introducing a further confusion of responsibility. To my mind it is, I am afraid, a bad idea.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, will not be surprised to find that I do not support his Amendment 34. In particular, as a former director of a supervised bank, I do not recognise the regulatory capture that he majored on in Committee and again today. In my experience, the relationships are always challenging and, sometimes, worse than that.
I have two main reasons for opposing the amendment. First, a supervisory board sitting over the top of the existing regulators undermines a fundamental characteristic of regulation in the UK—namely, that regulators are independent. That means that they are independent of government, certainly, and of Parliament and anyone else who thinks that they might have an interest in what they do. They are certainly accountable for delivering against their objectives and expect to be scrutinised by Parliament, but they are autonomous bodies. This amendment runs against that.
Secondly, the regulators already have governance structures that oversee the work that the executives undertake. In the FCA, it is the FCA’s own board, which has a chairman and a majority of non-executive directors. I believe that the only executive on the FCA board is, in fact, its chief executive. In the case of the PRA, there is a Prudential Regulation Committee, which has Bank of England executives and outside members, and is chaired by the Governor of the Bank of England. More importantly, in governance terms, as the PRA is part of the Bank of England it is overseen by the Court of the Bank of England, which, again, is a largely non-executive body chaired by a non-executive, although it does have the governor and the deputy governors, including the head of the PRA.
Governance of the regulators is carried out in the way in which governance in the UK is normally done. It covers the very things mentioned in proposed new subsection (8), which is therefore duplicative. If there are concerns, they should be dealt with within the organisations concerned, without writing reports to Parliament. I believe in transparency, but there is a point at which transparency becomes counterproductive, and I am sure that this amendment is way beyond that point.
Accountability to Parliament takes many forms, a key one being the annual reports that are laid before Parliament, setting out the regulators’ performance against their objectives, which is required by existing statute. It really is difficult to see what added value this amendment would create.
The amendment is also deficient in a number of respects. Perhaps the most glaring is the reference to the “Executive Board” of the PRA and of the FCA. As far as I am aware, there is no such thing specified in legislation or the governance arrangements of either body. I believe that each regulator has an executive committee or equivalent, but they do not have an “Executive Board”, with a capital “E” and a capital “B”.
The amendment would require the exclusion from the supervisory board of anyone who might actually understand what the PRA and the FCA actually do. Proposed new subsection (5) would disqualify “current and past employees” not just of the FCA and the PRA but of any organisation that they supervise. I have never thought that ignorance was a good qualification to be a member of a board.
Proposed new subsection (10) talks about “open meetings” but does not explain what that means in practice. Proposed new subsection (11) says that all the supervisory boards papers must “be made publicly available”, but it seems to pay no heed to the need for confidentiality or data protection. I could go on. These are unnecessary and ill-thought-out proposals, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will not accept them.
My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 34, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, which is an interesting contribution to the question of governance. I am keen that we find any ways that we can to speak into those organisational cultures that every industry adopts and promotes, and which sometimes lead to groupthink.
There are times when it takes someone from the outside to ask intelligent questions. I am reminded of Her Majesty the Queen asking the Bank of England why there had been a financial crash back in 2008, when many people in the industry, who were paid extraordinary amounts of money because of their supposed expertise, had not spotted that it was coming. I do not think that this is about inviting people who are ignorant to come on to boards; this is a question about whether there is a wider contribution that might be very useful and of help to thinking about issues of governance responsibility.
I will comment briefly on a further development in the FCA’s investigation into car finance, which I have referred to in the House in the past. Since the FCA introduced its new rules banning discretionary commission models in January 2021 and subsequently closed its investigations into Lookers, the car dealership firm, for possible mis-selling, it was revealed that the UK’s accounting watchdog, the Financial Reporting Council, was investigating accounting giant Deloitte for its role in auditing the very same Lookers that the FCA had only just ended its investigation into a few weeks earlier. The FCA never confirmed or dismissed whether there had been any mis-selling, remarking that it had made its concerns clear and did not intend to impose penalties on this FTSE 250 firm. However, the opening of a new investigation relating to Lookers raises questions about the thoroughness of the original FCA investigation: were all aspects investigated?
The introduction of a supervisory board with the statutory functions set out by this amendment—able to scrutinise the FCA and PRA’s decisions where it is reasonable to seek an explanation, such as in the case of Lookers—is an interesting idea that we ought to think about. This would not only strengthen accountability but provide the FCA with a chance to explain its responses and relay any concerns, whether they are structural or to do with resourcing. Where its investigations are delayed or prematurely completed without any subsequent action, the danger is that some may be tempted to think something is being hidden.
The FCA has been criticised during these proceedings and some of those criticisms have been justified. Other Members of the House have pointed out that this is a huge area, where there will always be some problems and they are to be expected. However, a lack of regular communication between the FCA and parliamentarians certainly does not help. If there are internal problems in the FCA that contribute to what some feel is a lack of enforcement, I am sure they and many others would be interested in hearing about this.
Through the annual report provided by this supervisory body, a better understanding of the problems within the FCA, and justifications where action has not been taken, could be facilitated. This would lead to more robust and accountable financial service regulators. This amendment, with its limited oversight and non-interference in running operations, could refine our financial services regulators over time to better undertake their functions and enhance communications between them and parliamentarians.
Any efforts to increase transparency and accountability are always welcome. I hope that the Government will reflect on this short debate and, if these are not the particular ways to enhance our financial regulators, come up with other ideas and resources so that we can work out how to be more effective in this vital area as we look to build a national and international reputation for these services.
My Lords, I declare my interests in financial services businesses, as stated in the register. I would also like to record my sadness and offer my sincere condolences at the passing of both the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. Both made an enormous contribution to your Lordships’ House over very many years and will be much missed on all sides of the House.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. We agree on so much, but on this question and this amendment I have to take a slightly different view from his. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, has brought back Amendment 34, substantially in the same form as his Amendment 120 in Committee.
The drafting of the amendment suggests that it is intended that there should be a single supervisory board of both regulators, the FCA and PRA. The Member’s explanatory statement on the other hand states:
“The new Clause will create a Supervisory Body for each of the FCA and the PRA.”
This implies one supervisory board for each of two regulators. That at least makes more sense than a single supervisory board for the two separate regulators, which is an impossible concept, as I pointed out on 10 March.
As the FCA and PRA are not the same organisation—although I sometimes wish they were—each has its own executive board. In the case of the FCA, this is the FCA board. However, the PRA board was replaced four years ago on 1 March 2017 by the Prudential Regulation Committee and the PRA was absorbed into the single legal entity of the Bank of England. I pointed this out to the noble Lord on 10 March, but he has not altered his approach. My noble friend Lady Noakes has also explained these fundamental errors clearly. A supervisory board such as he proposes, charged with exercising oversight over the board of the FCA and the Prudential Regulation Committee of the Bank of England, could not be a single entity. It would have to have two distinct personae, one within the FCA and one within the Bank of England.
My noble friend Lord Howe explained to the noble Lord that both the FCA and PRA must already
“attend … hearings before parliamentary committees, and those committees may also hear evidence from stakeholders about the performance of the regulators.”
“Parliamentary committees of both Houses are also able to summon the regulators to give evidence whenever they may choose.”
“the Treasury already has the capacity to order independent reviews into the regulators’ economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Therefore, all told, the amendment would result in a duplication of existing opportunities for scrutiny and oversight of the regulators’ resourcing.”
As I said on 10 March:
“I do not think that such a supervisory board would replace the need for parliamentary scrutiny of the regulators, which will in itself provide appropriate transparency and accountability, rather than the completely crushing, destructive oversight that I believe the noble Lord’s new board would cause.”
The noble Lord said that his new board would
“not duplicate in any way whatever what any parliamentary committee or review board might do. The supervisory board would simply be engaged in day-to-day strategic oversight. Those people would be in the organisation on a permanent basis, observing, requiring reports, making recommendations”.—[Official Report, 10/3/21; cols. GC 723-26.]
Such an advisory board would seriously and negatively impact the operation of the regulators.
The noble Lord has said that he will not press his amendment, which I think is a wise decision because I believe your Lordships would have rejected it as unworkable, impractical and likely to have a negative impact on the attractiveness of our financial markets which provide so many jobs and a large slice of the country’s tax revenues.
I suspect that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, was referring to the loss of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, which was just announced, rather than the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I join with him; I am still feeling slightly in shock, frankly, at the news. We have all lost too many people of significance to this House over this last year. I think we all want to pay tribute to all of them, but we are all struggling a little with some of the very significant people who will not be here for future debates.
On this amendment, I will speak briefly. I understand where some of the thinking of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, is coming from, but I cannot say that I see a supervisory board as the answer to the issue he raises. I am much more taken with the proposal made by my noble friend Lady Bowles in Committee, for an expert body—it takes experts to really understand how the regulator functions—regularly to follow the Australian model and review the regulators. This could be every three years; the number of years is not exactly the key issue. It would not second-guess the decisions the regulators have made but look at operations, resources and effectiveness. With the regulator now so detached in many ways, that is essential.
I would want the Treasury to be a good distance from anything like this because, like it or not, the Treasury will always be seen as an influencer of decision-making. An expert view is needed to help us ensure that our regulators are functioning in the way that they need to, given the enormous challenges and responsibilities that they have. With that, I have to say that I cannot support this amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Sikka for bringing back this amendment. In Grand Committee, it was discussed in the context of our wider debates on parliamentary scrutiny and the financial services regulators. My noble friend was not content with this, and while I believe that there is a degree of overlap, I accept the point that his amendment focuses on detailed day-to-day oversights rather than taking what some might call a “helicopter view”.
In his previous response, the Minister indicated that supervisory bodies are not necessary because of the various panels that must be consulted by the PRA and the FCA as they fulfil their duties. However, while these panels undertake valuable work, the extent to which the regulators take their views on board is unclear; for example, I sense that the FCA’s consumer panel would take a very different view on the duty-of-care amendment passed on day 1 from the positions taken by both the Treasury and the FCA.
The Minister also pointed to the future regulatory framework review as the correct vehicle for taking this issue forward. I have some sympathy with that view: I will be very surprised if the review endorses the status quo. If it does, we have had assurances that there will be further primary legislation and that means further opportunities for my noble friend to pursue this initiative.
My Lords, the Government agree that effective oversight of the FCA and PRA is a crucial component of our regulatory framework. The Government also agree that having a diverse range of independent views in such an oversight regime is key to its success. However, as I have touched on previously, a number of mechanisms already exist to ensure effective independent oversight of the regulators by a diverse range of stakeholders. I believe these are sufficient and I do not propose to go into them in detail here, given our other debates on Report. However, I know from our previous debate in Committee, and from what he has said today, that the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, is seeking particularly to address potential issues arising from so-called regulatory capture and groupthink with his amendment.
Regulatory capture becomes a risk in situations where regulators do not have the views of others—particularly stakeholders—to influence their work. I assure the noble Lord that there are already extensive arrangements in place to allow a wide range of stakeholders to contribute their views to influence the regulators’ work. There are also arrangements in place to provide effective scrutiny of the regulators and to require them to explain their actions; for example, both the FCA and PRA are required under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to consult independent panels on the impact of their work, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has just mentioned. For the PRA, this involves consulting an independent practitioner panel of industry representatives, while the FCA must consult four different statutory panels. These four panels are: the consumer panel, the practitioner panel, the smaller business practitioner panel and the markets practitioner panel. The FCA considers the views of each of these panels, as appropriate, when developing policies and making regulatory interventions.
I point to the work of the FCA’s consumer panel in particular. This panel meets twice a month to advise and challenge the FCA from the earliest stage of policy development, and to bring to the FCA’s attention broader issues for consumers. This ensures that different perspectives on how the FCA should take forward its consumer protection objective can be taken into account. The FCA board receives a report on the panel’s work each month, which helps to inform the FCA’s rule-making and policy development. Through the panel’s annual report, press releases and public statements, the consumer panel can publicly hold the FCA to account, enhancing transparency and reducing the risk of regulatory silence or capture. Furthermore, the regulators are already under a statutory obligation to organise and publish the results of their public consultations. These consultations allow interested parties—including financial services firms, but also consumer organisations and members of the public—to make representations on issues such as proposed new rules.
Other elements of the amendment also duplicate existing arrangements. The regulators’ annual reports to the Treasury already allow for oversight by stakeholders of the boards’ activities. These reports provide analysis of how the regulators have discharged their functions and advanced their objectives, and are published and laid before Parliament for interested parties to examine. This is not to suggest that the Government or the FCA are complacent about the need to continue to focus on high-quality regulation and supervision.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, mentioned LCF and the investigation by Dame Elizabeth Gloster. I welcome the FCA’s apology to LCF’s bondholders and fully support the changes that the FCA has made to date in response to Dame Elizabeth’s recommendations. I am confident that its ongoing transformation programme is the right next step to further improving the FCA’s approach to regulation. Consumers can take confidence from the comprehensive plan that the FCA has put in place to address Dame Elizabeth’s recommendations and continue its ongoing programme of reform. The FCA has committed to issuing regular public updates on progress and the Government will also be closely monitoring the FCA’s progress in implementing the recommendations. Therefore, Dame Elizabeth’s report and the FCA’s response demonstrate that the current arrangements for addressing any failures are working as intended.
The amendment proposes that the supervisory board should have the power to inquire into the adequacy of resources used by and available to the FCA and the PRA. On that point, I emphasise that the Treasury already has the statutory power under FiSMA to order an independent person to conduct a review of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which the regulators have used their resources in discharging their functions. Furthermore, the National Audit Office undertakes annual reviews of the regulators’ accounts, which are laid before Parliament. This provides ample opportunity to scrutinise the adequacy of resources used by the regulators. The FCA is already required to organise annual public meetings, where stakeholders and members of the public can question the chair and members of the board, thereby openly holding them to account.
The amendment also proposes that the FCA and PRA be required to attend hearings in front of a supervisory board. Here, again, I remind the House that they must already attend such hearings before parliamentary committees. Parliament is well placed to ensure that these hearings focus on the most vital areas. The FCA, for example, must attend general accountability hearings before the Treasury Select Committee twice a year. The PRA must appear before that committee after the publication of its annual report. In addition to these regular hearings, as I have stated previously, parliamentary committees of both Houses are able to summon the regulators to give evidence on an ad hoc basis. Requiring the regulators to also attend regular hearings before a supervisory board would therefore be unnecessarily burdensome; it would not substantively enhance our current oversight regime. Therefore, given the existing processes that I have just set out, which already offer ample opportunity for independent supervision of the regulators, I hope the noble Lord will consider withdrawing this amendment.
My Lords, I thank everyone for their contributions and deep insights. As I listened to the noble Baronesses, Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Noakes, I was briefly reminded of the historical development of the role of the non-executive director, which became popular after the 1973 US crash due to fraud at the Equity Funding Corporation. After that, audit committees staffed by non-executive directors became mandatory for companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
However, if you look at the history from about 50 years before that you will find non-executive directors frequently described as inexperienced, lacking in technical knowledge and not knowing enough about business. How could they really invigilate boards of directors in 15 to 20 hours a year? It is strange that so many years after non-executive directors were established we are now hearing the same kinds of points being made against the involvement of stakeholders in the governance of regulatory bodies.
To my mind, democratisation of regulatory bodies is essential. Periodic scrutiny by parliamentary committees is not a substitute for the real-time involvement of stakeholders and their oversight of the executive board. I have listened to all the arguments carefully and will withdraw the amendment; no doubt, I will refine it and return to it at some time in the future.
Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Amendment 35 not moved.
36: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—
“UK Finance Watch
(1) A body corporate called UK Finance Watch is established.(2) The purpose of UK Finance Watch is to provide oversight of—(a) the United Kingdom’s financial services industry,(b) its impacts on the real economy, and(c) all associated regulations.(3) The PRA and FCA must fund the activities of UK Finance Watch.(4) UK Finance Watch must produce reports on the following matters—(a) proposed changes in financial legislation and regulations;(b) deficiencies identified in retained EU law relating to financial regulation;(c) any other issue relating to financial markets and the financial services sector which, in the opinion of UK Finance Watch, threatens the stability and prosperity of the economy of the United Kingdom.(5) The Treasury, PRA and FCA must have regard to any publication produced by UK Finance Watch.(6) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must appoint members to UK Finance Watch.(7) When appointing members to UK Finance Watch, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must have regard to the desirability of appointing members who, between them, have expertise in— (a) academia;(b) accounting;(c) law;(d) climate, biodiversity and the environment;(e) trade unions.(8) UK Finance Watch may appoint officers and staff to assist their functions.”
My Lords, before moving the amendment, I join the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, in expressing my sadness at the death of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I send my condolences to his family. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, was the first person to ask me a question while I was in the middle of delivering a speech in your Lordships’ House and did so in his characteristically kind and generous manner. It was a good lesson—perhaps intentionally so—for a newbie.
In light of our time-truncated debate in Committee, Amendment 36 in my name, also backed, kindly, by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, is a somewhat adapted version of the amendment that I presented there. It would create a UK equivalent of the EU’s Finance Watch. I have chosen at this time to use this name for clarity as well as pronounceability.
I really must thank the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, who made the case for this amendment—intentionally or not, I am not sure—in our previous session on Report. He suggested that there were flaws in my Amendment 37, criticisms with which I would not necessarily disagree. He said the amendment
“asks the FCA and the PRA to—to use a phrase that has become popular today—mark their own homework. They are not really the right people to assess themselves; there are plenty of research institutes around this country that do a first-class job of assessing exactly these issues. However, we have not brought them together very well.”—[Official Report, 14/4/21; cols. 1425-26.]
I highlight the last sentence in particular because bringing together expertise, knowledge and analysis is exactly what “UK Finance Watch” would be designed to achieve—to bring together the undoubtedly wide range of expertise around the country to provide independent technical advice to enable Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place to contribute to public debate.
I set out in Committee and in briefings circulated before the Committee debate a detailed explanation of what the comparable EU body has achieved, and I will not repeat that here; nor will I repeat comments I made then about the thinness of the scrutiny of this Bill by your Lordships’ House, except to repeat that that is not a criticism of those here but rather a call for many more Peers to be engaged. The financial sector impacts on every aspect of modern life. We live in a financialised society, whether it is hedge fund ownership of care homes, water supplies or the PFI contracts and their successors doing such damage to our schools and hospitals. Peers who are experts in these areas have interests in these areas and many other Peers from all aspects of society need to be engaged in debates on financial Bills. But that is clearly not customary and could easily be daunting.
However, there is a need for a co-ordinated independent source of information, expertise and detailed knowledge that can, in some way, match the lobbying firepower and influence. I have in mind here the position of remembrancer, to empower Peers concerned with every aspect of society in overseeing the impact of the financial services laws and regulations that are so crucial. This would help the House obtain the complete picture that I was calling for in the amendment last week.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for her comments in that debate. She said that
“one of the big questions that has never been answered is: how does our financial services industry impact on the real economy, in contrast to something much more circular within the financial services economy?”—[Official Report, 14/4/21; col. 1425.]
She has entirely identified what I was seeking to do with that amendment. This amendment would not, as drafted, achieve that aim, being focused on ensuring the quality and effectiveness of legislation and regulation. However, when I put the words of noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, together, if UK Finance Watch proved to be a network, a clearing house—as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, suggested it could be in our debate in Committee on a similar amendment—of the information that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, referred to, then we would have made real progress in the oversight and public legislative understanding of what is currently a far too opaque and little-understood area. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said earlier, we need far more people asking questions about the financial sector from the outside, but they need help to be able to do that effectively.
I feel that the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, made the arguments for me but I note that Greensill is just the latest brand name for which the UK financial sector will be famous—or infamous. I hope this model being based on one in the EU does not prejudice noble Lords or, indeed, the Government against it. Being world leading surely means looking around the world, seeing best practice and copying it.
It is not my intention to divide the House on this amendment. The oversight and scrutiny of regulation and laws for our financial sector is clearly an ongoing debate of considerable concern to a wide range of Members of your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
My Lords, we simply do not need another body set up to look at the financial services industry. It is already in effect a core function of the Treasury and if the Treasury thought that it needed some help in identifying the issues that the proposer of this amendment identifies, it does not need the cover of primary legislation to set one up. In addition, Parliament itself has always taken a keen interest in the financial services industry. The long-standing Treasury Select Committee of the other place examines regulators as well as key emerging themes in relation to financial services and your Lordships’ House has recently created an Industry and Regulators Committee, which is having its first meeting as we speak. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, my noble friend Lord Blackwell and I are members of the new committee. Therefore, it should not surprise the House if in due course there is a focus on matters relating to the financial services sector.
I suspect that the subtext of this amendment is a belief that the financial services sector is wicked and has a negative impact on the UK economy. I do not believe that belief is widely shared in your Lordships’ House. On the other hand, there are few—if any—Members of your Lordships’ House who think that the financial services sector is perfect, and that includes me. The important point is that we already have the scrutiny mechanisms that I have described to give a proper focus to the activities and the impact of the financial services sector. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that this amendment should not be pressed to a vote.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. The key issue, which has been touched on by a number of speakers, has been how to secure effective, responsible and accountable regulation. This amendment presents another model. We have already heard about a number of models.
Numerous aspects of life have been financialised, and the finance industry affects every household and almost every walk of life—all the more reason to examine its effects on the economy and daily life. The last 50 years have been littered with examples of mis-sold financial products. We have had a banking crisis in every decade since the 1970s, but still the finance lobby is too powerful for Governments to resist. We need structures and policies that can mitigate the negative effects of the finance industry.
Amendment 36 invites us to think about the consequences of what is now popularly known as the finance curse. We have already seen how former Prime Ministers and other legislators are recruited by the finance industry to do its bidding in Parliament and advance its interests; and the Treasury officials jump to it. This has a corrosive effect on democracy and other industries, as they too are persuaded to join the arms race and hire former ministers and current legislators for their cause.
The finance industry’s false narratives of competitiveness and light-touch regulation need to be critically scrutinised. They certainly delivered the last banking crash. The resulting never-ending austerity should again encourage reflections on the claims that an oversized finance industry can somehow deliver long-term jobs and wealth creation. Of course we all need financial services—bank accounts, debt and credit cards, insurances, pensions and much more. But we can certainly do without much of its speculative and destructive practices. That is why the amendment calls for assessment of the impact of the finance industry on the real economy
Education and good citizenship are other casualties of the march of the finance industry. Thirty years ago, many UK universities delivered degrees in science, engineering and mathematics. Today, with the expansion of the finance industry, that number has shrunk. Almost all offer degrees in accounting and finance, which make shareholders the primary focus of corporate decisions. We all know that shareholder-centric and capital market-centric approaches lead to deep distortions in the measurement of business performance and the culture of its people and services. Look at any corporate fraud: it will tell a story. Organised tax avoidance and illicit financial flows have become central to the finance industry and continue to destabilise societies.
One consequence of the finance curse is that we have ended up with nearly 375,000—probably more—professionally qualified accountants, the highest number per capita in the world. Yet we have scarcity of good corporate accounts and effective audits, and plenty of financial and accounting scandals. Just think of the number of graduates who have gone into accounting and finance rather than into more productive sectors of the economy. That cannot be good for the future of our country. Finance has to be the servant, not the master, of the economy. That is exactly what this amendment seeks to deliver.
This amendment is one of a number of proposals that seek to promote a responsible finance industry. That task cannot be undertaken by the finance industry itself and necessarily involves stakeholders hitherto ignored. I support this amendment.
My Lords, I think we may end up coming to something like a UK Finance Watch, but I hope not, because I hope Parliament will step up to the plate. The kind of issues described here ought to be part of parliamentary accountability, but that will take support from significant expertise that I do not think currently exists for many of the committees we operate. This is such an important industry; it is so huge, complex and powerful. That specialist knowledge will be necessary.
I was on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and it is fair to say that the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, then in the Commons and chair of that commission, had to beg and borrow to find the staff we needed to support that commission. It was scratched together probably with the minimum number of staff with which it could have operated. We were so lucky; we had brilliant people totally dedicated and working the most ridiculous hours. That commission was a good demonstration of how we often underresource around critical issues. That is going to have to be remedied.
I hope Parliament, as it works out how it is going to manage this process of accountability, will take all that on board, so we will come back and look at this amendment for UK Finance Watch and see that a lot of what it proposes has been ticked off as “satisfactory,” because it has been embedded in the support and expertise that will be provided to Parliament. But anyone who thinks that two meetings a year with the Treasury Select Committee, and ad-hoc meetings on whatever happens to be the issue of the day, is anything close to satisfactory, and anyone who thinks that the annual report—never one of the most informative documents from any organisation—is accountability, completely misunderstands the animal with which we are now dealing.
I hope we will not have to go back and resort to an equivalent to the EU Finance Watch body. We may have to, but I would almost regard that as a mark of failure by this House and the other place. Our committees that look at these issues are going to need to be resourced and provided with the real expertise that they need to deal with both the quantity and the quality of the investigation and challenge that they will have to undertake.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, gave us fair warning that she was likely to bring an amendment back on Report for further debate, which is reasonable given the time constraint we faced in Grand Committee. As with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, we agree that implementing the right forms of oversight is of utmost importance. In Committee, several speakers mentioned the potentially valuable contributions to policy debates that could come from academics, think tanks and others, if they only had access to the data they needed. We agree that more must be done to facilitate such research, and I hope the Minister will say something on this.
The noble Baroness’s redrafting of her amendment addresses some of the points raised in the previous debate. However, her original pitch was for
“a network, not reinventing the wheel, not creating a whole new institution.”—[Official Report, 10/3/21; col. GC 735.]
Yet Amendment 124 from Committee and today’s Amendment 36 would create a whole new institution. I believe that the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, bear consideration. Surely the first thing we should do is to make sure that this role is fully taken up by Parliament. We have already established, informally at least, that much more scrutiny of how the FCA and the PRA work will be necessary, and I look forward to how well Parliament reacts to this challenge. It is also important to recognise that resources may be needed to give parliamentary scrutiny the expertise necessary in this complex area.
One area that interests me is the impact of the financial services sector on the real economy. We are all familiar with the arguments advanced by the Minister last time on jobs, tax take and so on, and colleagues will remember that I reflected on the successes of the sector at Second Reading. However, as the UK comes out of the pandemic and as government support schemes begin to disappear, we will need to monitor the extent to which lenders continue to support business expansion and other aspects of the economy. This brings us back to the point about ensuring the availability of data.