National Security and Investment Bill (Fifth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Sir Graham Brady, † Derek Twigg
† Aiken, Nickie (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
† Baynes, Simon (Clwyd South) (Con)
† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
† Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)
† Flynn, Stephen (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
† Garnier, Mark (Wyre Forest) (Con)
† Gideon, Jo (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)
Grant, Peter (Glenrothes) (SNP)
† Griffith, Andrew (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
† Kinnock, Stephen (Aberavon) (Lab)
† Onwurah, Chi (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
† Tarry, Sam (Ilford South) (Lab)
† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
† Whitehead, Dr Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
† Wild, James (North West Norfolk) (Con)
† Zahawi, Nadhim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
Rob Page, Yohanna Sallberg, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 1 December 2020
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
National Security and Investment Bill
I have a few preliminary points to make. I ask Members to switch electronic devices to silent and remind them of the importance of social distancing—spaces are clearly marked. Members who are not able to fit into the body of the room—the Opposition Benches are full—will have to sit in the Public Gallery. I will suspend the sitting if I think that anyone is in breach of social distancing guidelines. Hansard will be grateful if Members e-mail electronic copies of speaking notes to email@example.com.
Today we begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list is available at the back of the room, showing how the selected amendments have been grouped for debate. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same or similar issues. Decisions on amendments are made not in the order in which they are debated, but in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper.
The selection and grouping list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment are taken when we come to the clause that the amendment affects. I will use my discretion to decide whether to allow a separate stand part debate on schedules and clauses following debates on amendments.
Call-in notice for national security purposes
I beg to move amendment 3, in page 1, line 6, after “Secretary of State” insert “upon the assessment of a multi-agency review or recommendation of the Intelligence and Security Committee”.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to assess a multi-agency review prior to issuing a call-in notice.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 4, in clause 4, page 3, line 21, at end insert—
“(aa) at least one week before the statement is made, consult with the Intelligence and Security Committee in respect of the contents of the statement; and
(ab) amend such legislation as may be necessary to allow such consultation to take place;”.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult with the Intelligence and Security Committee before publishing a statement under section 3.
Amendment 5, in clause 6, page 5, line 3, at end insert—
“(10) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must—
(a) provide the Intelligence and Security Committee with one week’s advance notice of his/her intention to bring forward such regulations; and
(b) make any necessary amendments to legislation to allow the Intelligence and Security Committee to respond with recommendations.”.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to notify the Intelligence and Security Committee before making regulations under this section, and would provide a mechanism for the Committee to respond with recommendations.
May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and what a pleasure and, indeed, honour it is to discuss this important Bill with the rest of the Committee?
This issue is important to Members on both sides of the Committee, and as we scrutinise the Bill line by line over the next two weeks I am sure we will get closer—or as close as social distancing allows. Labour Members look forward to a constructive and collegiate debate and recognise that Members on both sides of the Committee share the objective of making well-informed contributions. It was clear from speeches made last night on the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, the interests and ambitions of which overlap those of this Bill, that all Members share a belief in the critical importance of national security, and I am sure that will be reflected in our deliberations.
We agree on the importance of securing our national security, for which line-by-line scrutiny is vital. The Government’s impact assessment notes the need for change and says that national security is an area of “market failure” requiring some Government action. I found that statement somewhat shocking, and a marked difference between the views of Labour and Conservative Members. It is an astonishing claim, because national security is not a private concern first, and a Government after-thought second. There is no market in national security, which is the first duty of a Government and not a failed responsibility of the private sector. It ought to be the first priority of any Government to address it. It is not under-supplied by the market; it is outside the market altogether.
Although that claim is astonishing, it is unsurprising from this Government and the party that leads them. The impact assessment is a marker of a Government who have outsourced significant responsibility for national security; a Government who let Kraft take over Cadbury in 2012 because the market promised good behaviour by the acquirer, only for them to be embarrassed when the acquirer broke all its promises—national responsibility outsourced and British jobs and national interests handed over to the market.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I meant to say that national responsibility was outsourced—and British jobs—and the national interest handed over to the market. That was the concern with the Kraft takeover. If he wishes, I shall follow up with further examples, but the national interest and the responsibility of this Conservative Government for economic security have clearly been lacking. This is the Government who let the Centre for Integrated Photonics, a prized research and development centre, be taken over by Huawei in 2012—an event that our head of the National Cyber Security Centre said that in hindsight we would not wish to happen. National security was outsourced and the British interest again relinquished to the market.
My hon. Friend makes a point about the market failure that we have experienced over the past decade and its relevance to or inappropriateness for national security. The Government actively encouraged inward investment from China and let the market be totally open, without any control whatsoever, which is one of the driving factors in the challenges we face today, especially with Huawei, as outlined in last night’s debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. This is particularly relevant to amendment 3, as we shall see. This Government, and previous Conservative Governments of the past 10 years, have maintained an ideological position that bypasses the question of national security and leaves Government responsibility much curtailed and focused purely on our defence capabilities and requirements without considering the impact of our technology and R&D. As the debate on the telecoms Bill showed, the Government are not considering the impact of the telecoms sector on our short-term and long-term security.
On the specifics of amendment 3—these principles guide the reason for the amendment—the Secretary of State would have to draw up a multi-agency review or act on the recommendation of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee prior to issuing a call-in notice.
The Bill marks the total transformation of the UK’s existing merger control process and the provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002. It would move us away from 12 reviews in 18 years to a potential 1,830 notifications a year. It would shift the locus of merger control from the experienced Competition and Markets Authority to a novel unit of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. As we heard in our expert evidence, the world is looking at the UK and seeing a pretty seismic change. We recognise the need for such a change, but we do not accept that the skills and knowledge to implement and monitor such a change reside wholly in BEIS.
The Minister is a modest man, and he may not want to share with the Committee the fact that he has recently been made the tzar for vaccine acquisition and delivery across the nation, but that is one of the many responsibilities of his Department. I hope he will agree that is a considerable responsibility, but the responsibility of identifying and understanding the national security implications of 1,830 notifications a year is a particularly great challenge. As someone who champions the importance of trade and economic growth, he will agree that there is potentially a conflict of interest—we have seen this for many years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington suggested—between the trading implications of foreign direct investment and access to finance and the national security implications. This is such a huge shift that we cannot rely on discretionary judgments made potentially to suit political ends alone. We cannot rely on BEIS alone because the Department may have a conflict of interest in its separate role of boosting UK investments.
This is a critical point, and I hope to hear from the Minister how he or the Secretary of State will prioritise the role of the Department in boosting investment in the UK and in scrutinising these 1,830 notifications. We need to ensure a robust contribution from across Government and the agencies in guiding these decisions.
Is not the entire purpose of calling in a decision to then instigate an investigation into whether that investment would be contrary to national security? It is after the Secretary of State has called it in that the agencies and Departments can look into the investment or takeover to see whether it is contrary to national security. That investigation does not take place before the call-in notice has been issued.
The hon. Member makes an interesting point. We will examine the skills of those involved in the examination once a transaction has been called in. There was a clear contradiction in what he said, because if it is not called in those skills and expertise will not be brought to the table. There is obviously a need for the expertise before the call-in, or there would not be a call-in.
The hon. Member makes an important point that goes to the heart of our concerns. I do not wish to detain the Committee for too long on this, but it is important to discuss the way in which the skills and resources of our national security services, who do so much to keep us safe and secure, will be used to work with the Department to identify potential triggers for a call-in. Some guidance will be given in the statement issued by the Secretary of State, and we will debate that shortly, but what was mentioned many times yesterday during the debate on the Telecommunications (Security) Bill was the capacity and the need for institutions such as our Intelligence and Security Committee to have a more concrete role. Not all of their expertise and knowledge can be in the public domain. As we heard yesterday, the Committee first issued concerns about Huawei back in 2013. If, back in 2013, the business Department had been able to benefit from that expertise, knowledge and insight the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would be in a different position today.
As my hon. Friend rightly says, the fundamental purpose of our amendment is to ensure that the screening process takes place upstream so that the multi-agency and highly technical capability of intelligence agencies and the Ministry of Defence can be deployed in advance of the Secretary of State—who otherwise may be in a state of isolation—making an initial decision about whether there is a trigger event or whether action is required. The amendment would ensure that the screening process is done by multiple agencies that can then give the Secretary of State advice that is well informed and rooted in an understanding of the risk that we face.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting it so clearly, and I hope that addresses the concerns of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. We want the screening process to benefit from the knowledge of our intelligence agencies and others before the Secretary of State calls it in. Our national security depends on having those robust contributions from across Government and the agencies in guiding decisions. In some cases, this may rely on the established sensitive channels of information and access and communications that have marked the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. That is the best way to guard our national security, relying on our world-leading intelligence agencies, diplomatic service and our civil service expertise across Departments and not just on a single Secretary of State.
During the evidence sessions last week, we heard from an academic expert witness that institutional capacity in this area usually involves a multi-agency review body. We heard from the former head of MI6 that
“the co-ordination of Government Departments is one of the really big challenges”.––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 24 November 2020; c. 23, Q25.]
I am sure everyone who heard Sir Richard Dearlove’s evidence was struck that his years at MI6 had clearly taught him that this is a big challenge and that it is important to have co-ordinated and organised multi-agency input. We heard from the recent head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre that the new body
“needs to be broadly based and multidisciplinary.”––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 26 November 2020; c. 85, Q103.]
The consensus of academic and intelligence service experience is that we need an approach that includes different agencies upstream of the calling decision.
My hon. Friend is making incredibly important points. There are really two issues. One is the volume that will be coming through, as she articulated earlier, but there is also the multiplicity of the challenges and where they may come from. This is not simply about the most obvious security challenges or risks. It is not necessarily about defence contracts or telecoms; it could come from all sorts of areas. It is the soft areas that are perhaps the most vulnerable. That is where the expertise of the different Departments will come into play, and that is why a multi-agency approach is so important.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Perhaps I should have emphasised that point more.
When we look at the examples of Huawei or DeepMind, which was allowed to be sold to Google in 2014, we are looking backwards. We now recognise the security implications. Artificial intelligence is a key security capability, as I think the Minister will agree, given that it is one of the 17 sectors for which notification will be mandatory. At that time, it was difficult and I take it—perhaps the Minister will contradict this—that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills did not recognise the security implications of the acquisition.
The key question is, what are the acquisitions now that will have security implications in five or 10 years’ time? That is what the Secretary of State needs to know in order to make the decisions we are discussing. It is no injustice to the Secretary of State and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to say that alone, they are not in a position to know that. Deciding from where in the world the great threats to our security may come is not purely technological, although it requires technological expertise, and it is not even purely geopolitical. Last night we heard a lot about China and Russia. In future, we may be looking at other emerging threats. This is an attempt to improve the Bill by ensuring that there is a multi-agency approach.
I do not think it would be appropriate to be prescriptive at this point. Some of the agencies I have in mind are the Intelligence and Security Committee, the National Cyber Security Centre and our security services—MI5 and MI6. I am very happy to hear from the hon. Gentleman what agencies should be involved, but the key point is that we need multiple agencies.
If the University of Cambridge were approached by a Chinese academic institution with an offer of funding to collaborate on some project, for example, surely that would need the intervention of the Department for Education. It is obviously not just about the intelligence services; it would need the engagement of the DFE and not just BEIS.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. I am reluctant to continuously mention China, because this is not an anti-China Bill per se, but we heard in oral evidence of the real concerns about Chinese influence in our higher education institutions. He is right that the Department for Education may have an important input to make about securing our future national security.
In defining the agencies that need to be involved in this multidisciplinary approach, we could look at the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has nine voting departments, two non-voting agencies and additional White House representation on its decision-making committee. I know that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has done some work on comparisons with other countries, in particular our Five Eyes allies. There are models to take.
I welcome this debate. If by that the hon. Member is asking whether I think human rights have a relationship to national security, that was very well debated yesterday in relation to the Telecommunications (Security) Bill. A number of his colleagues strongly made the point that there is a relationship between modern-day slavery and our national interest and national security. I do not have the expertise to identify what the agency should be. The Low Pay Commission is not an organisation that I had considered, but I am happy to take his advocacy for its being part of this multidisciplinary approach.
Order. Can we have just one meeting?
Thank you, Mr Twigg. As I was saying, not wishing to second-guess the scepticism that I may be picking up from Government Members, one reason I support the amendment is that I think it brings additional focus to the process. Without a clear definition of what national security is in the Bill, and a clear institutional capacity for the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State will be left with an open-ended process. By having a multi-agency, strong institutional capacity we will streamline the process. Our amendment is about cutting bureaucracy out of the process, and streamlining and focusing it. I hope that hon. Members will consider that when they take their sceptical approach.
As always, I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend, who does well to remind us that part of the underlying issue, which we will debate later, is the lack of any definition of national security. Rather than just considering the scepticism, let me focus on what we are trying to do. Given the lack of any definition of national security, is it not right that it should not be left to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to decide what the key issues are on national security? Fundamentally, I think that is the question that Committee members must consider.
The amendment seeks to fill the gap that expert advice and international precedence highlight. It enshrines credible decision making in law and, in doing so, protects our security and gives businesses confidence that the decision to call in has been grounded in evidence and expertise, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, who will find certain provisions of the legislation most burdensome and who may have the most to lose from lengthy processes once the call-in procedure happens—the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine referred to those processes. It grounds a mechanism for effective accountability for the call-in decisions of the Secretary of State.
Amendment 4, which would amend clause 4, has a similar aim. It would require the Secretary of State to consult with the Intelligence and Security Committee before publishing a statement under section 3, which sets out the scope and nature of how the Secretary of State would exercise the call-in powers. That statement would include details of sectors that might especially pose risks, details of trigger events and details of factors that the Secretary of State would consider in deciding whether to act. It would also include details of the BEIS unit’s resourcing, if amendment 9 were agreed to.
The measures are a seismic shift in terms of the UK’s approach to mergers and acquisitions and it gives significant powers and discretion to the Secretary of State. It suggests that the Government may publish a statement setting out the scope of the call-in powers. As part of our discussion this morning, we have talked about the way in which security threats evolve over time in the light of technological change—for example, security threats that we did not recognise in the past led to the Huawei debacle—and also, importantly, in the light of political changes, so it is understandable that our understanding of some of those changes will be imperfect and will rely on sensitive information. However, the critical point is that the fact that there will be change and its sensitivity should not preclude the need for accountability.
In other areas of national security, the Intelligence and Security Committee holds Government to account through proper scrutiny and with access to sensitive information. I refer again to the debates on the Telecommunications (Security) Bill and the Second Reading of this Bill, where members of the Intelligence and Security Committee demonstrated their understanding of the key issues around national security and their ability to make a contribution—I think it is fair to say that they are very willing to make a contribution. It is only right that we bring the same level of scrutiny to measures in this Bill, on matters of critical national security. The amendment would bring the scrutiny of the Intelligence and Security Committee to changes in the Secretary of State’s call-in powers, ensuring that these major powers consistently act to protect our national security.
Scrutiny is especially needed in this area. We have had the Enterprise Act since 2002, but there have been only 12 national security cases under it. That speaks very clearly to the lack of experience and an acute need for scrutiny as we now move up to almost 2,000 annual cases. Several witnesses in our evidence sessions emphasised that we were going from effectively zero—a standing start—to Formula 1 performance levels, and that as such, we needed to ensure that we put in place the resources, the expertise and the support to enable that to be effective and not unnecessarily impede our business, our economy and our foreign investment.
As Professor Martin said in one evidence session,
“I think that the powers should be fairly broad. I think there should be accountability and transparency mechanisms, so that there is assurance that they are being fairly and sparingly applied.”––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 26 November 2020; c. 81, Q96.]
That goes to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington has just raised: we do not have a definition of national security. We are giving the Secretary of State significant, broad powers. Surely it is the tradition in our democracy that that must go hand in hand with accountability and transparency mechanisms, and what is better placed to do that than the Intelligence and Security Committee?
I am listening intently to what the hon. Lady is saying and I understand the point she is trying to make, but surely it is already within the power of the ISC to call in anything that it thinks is a threat to national security. Therefore, it can investigate anything that it thinks it will be detrimental to the national interest. If we read further down, clause 4(2) states:
“Either House of Parliament may at any time before the expiry of the 40-day period resolve not to approve the statement.”
There is already capacity in the Bill as it stands, and the procedures that we already have in Parliament, to ensure scrutiny of any procedures that the Secretary of State might decide to take forward.
I recognise that at the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, and I agreed with him until he said that there are already powers to “ensure scrutiny”. The powers that he describes might enable scrutiny, but I do not think they would ensure scrutiny. We are trying to ensure the scrutiny of the Intelligence and Security Committee by writing it into the Bill. I see him nodding, and I appreciate that we understand each other here.
This is about putting it on a different footing; it is as simple as that. As was said by Sir Richard Dearlove and others in the evidence sessions last week, with the sort of agenda that a Government of any political colour may have, we have seen particularly over the past decade an embrace of, say, China, and the investment in our nuclear power stations provision as well as in other areas. Now, that could have been Russia, and if it had been Russia, what would the advice have been? What would the agenda of the Government of the day have been? Would it have been as embracing? That is why it is really important to understand from the ISC what its views are and to put this in a different setting, as my hon. Friend has said.
Another excellent contribution from my hon. Friend, who raises a delicate, nuanced, important point. Governments of all colours may have trade and geopolitical agendas that lead to, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) described it, a “hug a panda” approach, whereas the ISC, which we have seen mark its independence of thought both as a Committee and in its contributions in parliamentary debates, has a duty, a responsibility and an understanding to see beyond short or even medium-term political ambitions and to focus wholeheartedly on the security of our nation. That is where its support is invaluable.
I will finish my comments on the amendment by quoting some of our parliamentary colleagues with regard to the Intelligence and Security Committee. On Second Reading, the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), said that
“there is a real role for Committees of this House in such processes and that the ability to subpoena both witnesses and papers would add not only depth to the Government’s investigation but protection to the Business Secretary who was forced to take the decision”.—[Official Report, 17 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 238.]
I think that is powerful advocacy for the amendment. A member of the ISC, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), said that
“we need mechanisms in place to ensure that that flexibility does not allow the Government too much scope. That is why—this point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and I emphasise it on behalf of the ISC—Committees in this place missioned to do just that need to play an important role.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 244.]
We had support in the evidence sessions, support across the House and, most importantly, we have the support of the ISC itself, or at least its agreement that the amendment would be a constructive improvement to the Bill.
Finally, I will say a few words on amendment 5, which would require the Secretary of State to notify the Intelligence and Security Committee before making regulations under clause 6 and would provide a mechanism for the Committee to respond with recommendations. Regulations made under clause 6 would likely define the sectors that pose the greatest national security risk and would come under mandatory notification requirements. With the amendment, the ISC would be able would to provide both scrutiny and challenge to these sector definitions. The Committee will understand that the driving reasons behind the amendment are similar to those behind amendments 3 and 4, which is of course why the amendments have been grouped together, and would seek to improve the Bill through putting in place a requirement for parliamentary scrutiny specifically on the definitions.
As we have said, the Bill gives the Secretary of State major powers, and it demands mandatory notification of investments in large parts of the economy, with 17 proposed sector definitions already. I really cannot emphasise enough how broad those definitions currently seem. I know it is the intention that the definitions should be tightly drawn. However, I speak as a chartered engineer with many years’ experience in technology. Three or four decades ago, we might have talked about digital parts of the economy, but now the economy is digital. Similarly, in the future, parts of the economy not using artificial intelligence—from agriculture to leisure to retail to education—will be looking to use it.
I am a scientist myself, so I share a passion from a technology perspective. I am listening to the hon. Lady’s view of the breadth of opportunities, but amendment 5 would bring the Intelligence and Security Committee into the process, and I wonder whether we would be creating a bottleneck. The hon. Lady talked earlier about breadth and said that time is critical for SMEs and larger companies that need a decision. I think she would accept that Government is perhaps not the most effective and efficient vehicle, so why does she seek to put additional steps into something that is time critical and based on national security?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. It is great to have scientific knowledge in Committee and in the House. I welcome the contributions and scrutiny that a scientific background can bring. She is right that there is a tension. The technological environment is fantastic and innovative, with its start-up and enterprise culture. We have great centres of development and innovation, from Cambridge to Newcastle. I am sure hon. Members can mention other centres of great technological development that lead to lots of local start-ups in different areas. All or many of them may be caught by the provisions of the Bill, and that is a concern, but our amendments have been tabled to put in place parliamentary scrutiny.
Parliamentary scrutiny of the call-in process should be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said, upstream of the actual call-in notification. This is about the definitions of the sectors to ensure upstream scrutiny. Small businesses, particularly start-ups, seek finance, often foreign investment. There are enough barriers in their way and we do not want to create more unnecessarily, but our amendments are about clarifying and ensuring the robustness of the definitions before they hit the coalface of our small businesses and start-ups, whose interests I want to protect. The Opposition are champions of small businesses, are we not?
Indeed we are. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I reiterate that what we propose is, through consultation, removing bottlenecks—the key word in the intervention from hon. Member for South Ribble. By improving consultation and ensuring that we have the best possible expertise, we will make the Secretary of State’s life easier, not more difficult. It is about removing bottlenecks, not adding them.
I thank my hon. Friend for his eloquence. I reiterate that we are looking to make the Secretary of State’s life easier. We hope that, in the not-too-distant future, a Labour Member will be in that position. Our guiding principle is that we want every clause to be as effective as possible and our amendments are designed to make the Bill work as effectively as possible.
I suggest that, in seeking to make the Secretary of State’s life easier, the Opposition are making the life of the Intelligence and Security Committee much more difficult. On current projections, there could be more than 1,000 call-in notices a year. That would make the ISC’s job almost impossible to do alongside all its other important work throughout the rest of the year.
I think the hon. Member and I have the same aims, and we are looking to make the process work as effectively as possible. The Intelligence and Security Committee has clearly said that this is an area in which it can make an important contribution. Further, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon so eloquently said, this is about putting in additional security upstream. I do not envisage—I think I am right in saying this—that these measures would result in the Intelligence and Security Committee reviewing 1,800 call-in notifications; this is about putting in place the ISC’s expertise and scrutiny upstream.
I am listening, or trying to—perhaps it would be helpful if we turned the volume up a bit. The hon. Lady is asking Parliament to form part of the process of being the Government, when surely the purpose of Parliament is to scrutinise the Government’s work, rather than doing their work for them. That is why I am finding her arguments quite troubling. Will she explain why she thinks Parliament should be doing the work of the Government, not just scrutinising the Government?
That is a really interesting point, and we could debate for some time the nature of the Government—the Executive—and the role of Parliament. So as not to exhaust your patience, Mr Twigg, I will just say that the role of Parliament is to scrutinise Government, but our proposal is actually about scrutinising decisions that the Government are taking—for example, the definition of the 17 sectors in the amendment that we are considering. I do not want to put words in the hon. Gentleman’s mouth, but I think his argument is that that parliamentary scrutiny should take place only after myriad companies have complained that the definitions are far too broad. We are trying constructively to find a balance on this important question, but I want to draw that balance in the interests of national security, small businesses and our business community who have to work with these definitions.
Some of the work of the International Trade Committee carries across to this argument. That Committee’s job is to scrutinise on behalf of Parliament the trade deals that are going through; we have just had the first example of that in the Japanese trade deal. The work of a Select Committee, which is what the hon. Lady is talking about, is to help to inform Parliament and to enable it to scrutinise the Government properly. I am worried that with this amendment, she is asking Parliament to be part of the process of the work of the Government. That is where the amendments become rather confusing. It is important that Parliament scrutinises thoroughly what is done, but it must be independent. What it must not do is to participate in the Government’s work by doing some of that work in its scrutiny.
Perhaps I do not quite understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, because we propose that the Intelligence and Security Committee should provide that scrutiny. The scrutiny that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee provides is necessarily limited to business. At the centre of this is the fact that we are putting in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy a key issue of national security. Is it not right that those who have expertise and experience in security, as opposed to international trade or business, should be part of that?
The hon. Lady is being very kind in giving me a chance to come back on this. Surely we should not be putting a duty of Parliament in a Bill. It is up to parliamentarians to decide what we do on scrutiny, and we should not have that in a Bill or enact it in law; we should be doing it anyway.
I am struggling to see how that would happen. How would Parliament, after the Bill becomes law, decide that the Intelligence and Security Committee, as opposed to or in addition to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, should have a role. How would that happen in practice?
There are plenty of examples of Select Committees getting involved in the upstream work of Government—for example, giving feedback on White Papers. Parliament and its Select Committees consistently get involved in the work of Government in that context.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because I think we are getting to the nub of it. The amendment is necessary because, as I outlined, there is an inherent conflict of interest within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with regard to foreign investment and national security. In addition, there is a need for security-cleared knowledge. I do not know the security clearance of the current members of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, but I doubt it is at the same level as the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Sorry, I nearly put my hand in the air then—I am still new. Listening to the debate, I was reflecting on the efficiency of the process. We must make sure we do not put Parliament within an operational procedure. Does that not also apply to amendment 3 and the idea of a pre-emptory notification? Is the hon. Lady not seeking to put together some kind of ethereal multi-agency association, when all that is really needed is a phone call to a team of people who are security cleared within BEIS? Does she accept that point?
The hon. Lady makes a good point, in that much would be solved by the appropriate phone call at the appropriate time. Had Sir Richard Dearlove been phoned by the right person when the Huawei acquisition was going through, that issue would have been solved. Whichever Government are in power, we are continuously looking for ways to ensure a more joined-up approach to government.
Given the importance of national security—I think we can all agree that national security is the first duty of Government—and given the reality of the conflicting pressures on Departments, I think these proposals to improve scrutiny by involving a multi-agency approach are necessary. I also point the hon. Lady to the approach of the US Government, who have found this to be necessary, as have others of our allies. With that, I will make some progress.
Order. I think it is important that we stick to the amendments we are discussing.
I will follow your guidance, Mr Twigg.
Under the amendments, the Government would have to publish notifiable acquisition regulations to define sectors and notification rules in greater detail. From time to time, those sectors and rules will need to change, with new regulations made to keep up with changing technological, security and geopolitical risks, as we have discussed. To guard our security, not all those risks should be discussed in public, but the need for change and for sensitivity does not preclude the need for accountability—a point I have made a number of times. In other areas of national security, the ISC holds the Government to account through proper scrutiny and with access to sensitive information. It is only right that we bring the same scrutiny to bear here, on matters of critical national security.
The amendment would bring ISC scrutiny to notifiable acquisition regulations specifically up-front of any decision to call in or notify, so ensuring that these major powers consistently act to protect our national security. Again, that is an important point. Significant powers are being given to the Secretary of State to protect our national security. It is right that we should have security input into the definition of these sectors.
In his oral evidence, Professor Martin, the former head of our National Cyber Security Centre, said:
“I think that the powers should be fairly broad”,
“there should be accountability and transparency mechanisms”.––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 26 November 2020; c. 81, Q96.]
We need to ensure that flexibility does not allow the Government too much scope, so flexibility must go hand in hand with accountability and transparency. The ISC, critically, has the skills, security clearance and expertise to provide that scrutiny and accountability.
Before I open up the debate, I will say a couple of things. The Committee is just getting into its stride. The first hour has now gone. I suggest that Members keep interventions succinct. Also, a few people have used the word “you”. Members should refer to each other as “the hon. Member” or, better still, by their constituencies. I have given some leeway, as it was the first hour and the Committee is just getting into its stride. I call Stephen Flynn.
Thank you, Mr Twigg; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I once again thank all the witnesses who gave evidence in previous sittings. They did a sterling job and answered numerous questions in a very insightful way.
As we have seen through the lengthy presentation of the amendments and the back and forth between Members across the Committee, this is an incredibly important matter. Perhaps the amendments strike to the core concern that many have regarding the Bill: its scope and how we balance the need for investment and the desire to continue to encourage inward investment—particularly given that there will be an extremely challenging economic event in just 30 day—against national security concerns without potentially overwhelming a Department and while allowing it to create structures that have sufficient capacity to deal with the potential number of call-ins.
As we heard on numerous occasions, in excess of 1,800 notifications or call-ins are expected annually. How do we marry all that together in a coherent platform, while ensuring that each and every call-in that is made is dealt with coherently on the basis of national security? The amendments are helpful in creating a wider dialogue about how to achieve that. The role of the Intelligence and Security Committee seems to be one that we would want to utilise. Its skills and expertise in this regard are unsurpassed.
On issues of national security, having the key experts in the room assisting the Government is clearly something that all Members would support. I am mindful that there seems to be a wider discussion of how that might work in terms of process, but that relates to the entire Bill, and it would be helpful if the Government would be clearer about why Bills are being discussed before consultation with sectors are complete, and how they intend Departments to deal with the raft of potential call-ins. I am sure that the Minister is incredibly capable, but he is also incredibly busy, and his life is about to get much busier; I will not be alone in hoping that he spends a lot more time getting the vaccines rolled out than he does sitting in rooms like this listening to some of our debates.
Notwithstanding that, the hon. Member for Aberavon summed it up best when he talked about removing bottlenecks. I have a wider concern about the potential for micro-businesses and small and medium-sized businesses getting caught up in this. We need to find solutions to make sure that does not happen. Would this amendment achieve that? It certainly appears as though it could. The Government should give wider consideration not just to that, but to how we balance these competing matters in a way that does not stifle investment. No one wants that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and to speak on this important Bill. I am grateful for the congratulations—or perhaps commiserations!—of the shadow Minister and all colleagues on my new role as the vaccines delivery Minister. I am obviously focused on the NSI Bill now, but I am also conscious of my responsibility for delivery, and I had a very good conversation with the devolved Administrations last night.
I hope that the Committee agrees that the Second Reading debate and the evidence sessions last week demonstrated the importance both of this legislation and of getting it right. I again place on record my thanks to the Opposition parties for the constructive way in which they have approached the Bill thus far, and I look forward to discussing the amendments that they have tabled to this part of the Bill.
Amendment 3 requires the Secretary of State to assess a multi-agency review or recommendation of the Intelligence and Security Committee before issuing a call-in notice. I remind hon. Members that it is vital for the Government to have the necessary powers fully to scrutinise acquisitions of control over entities and assets that may pose national security risks. To enable this, clause 1 gives the Secretary of State power to issue a call-in notice when he or she reasonably suspects that a trigger event has taken place, or is in progress or contemplation, and that that has given rise to, or may give rise to, a national security risk. It is entirely reasonable, as Committee Members have said, to want the Secretary of State to make full use of expertise across Government and Parliament to run the most effective and proportionate regime that he or she can. The amendment aims to recognise that.
To explain why the amendment would not achieve that noble aim, it would be helpful briefly to summarise the overall screening process. First, businesses and investors can notify the Secretary of State of trigger events of potential national security concern. In certain parts of some sectors, notification by the acquirer will be mandatory. Following a notification, the Secretary of State will have a maximum of 30 working days to decide whether to call in a trigger event to scrutinise it for national security concerns. For non-notified acquisitions, the Secretary of State may call in a completed trigger event within six months of becoming aware of it, both on a case-by-case basis and when developing his overall approach. The Secretary of State intends to draw on a wide variety of expertise from across, and potentially beyond, Government as is appropriate.
If the Secretary of State calls in a trigger event, there will be a detailed review. At the end of the review, the Secretary of State may impose any remedies that he reasonably considers necessary and proportionate to address any national security risk that has been identified. The Bill gives the Secretary of State 30 working days to conduct an assessment, but this may be extended for a further 45 working days if a legal test is met, and then for a further period or periods with the agreement of the acquirer. The purpose of the initial assessment of whether a trigger event should be called in is not to conduct a detailed review of the entire case, or to determine whether the trigger event in question gives rise, or would give rise, to a risk to national security. That comes later. It is simply a preliminary assessment of whether the trigger event warrants a full assessment. Prohibiting the Secretary of State from calling in a trigger event until a multi-agency review has taken place, or the Intelligence and Security Committee has provided a recommendation, could severely upset the process – as we heard eloquently from my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble.
I thank the Minister for giving way and again congratulate him on his new role. I also thank him for his constructive tone. I sense a contradiction in the point he is making. He is saying that the Business Secretary will call on a wide range of advice and expertise, but that if he is required to call on a wide range of advice and expertise, it will upset the process.
What I am trying to get at is the point made so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble—the bottleneck issue. It is unlikely that adding this review, or requirement for a recommendation at the stage where the Secretary of State is assessing whether to issue a call-in notice, would be feasible within the 30-day window following the notification.
I remind the Committee that the Government’s impact assessment estimates that there will be at least 1,000 notifications every year. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble said, under this amendment, every single one would need a multi-agency review or an Intelligence and Security Committee recommendation, which would be a truly massive and, in my view, unfeasible undertaking.
The review would be required before issuing a call-in notice. The impact assessment mentioned about 1,830 notifications, but only 90 call-in notices. It is not accurate to say that the amendment would require about 1,800 reviews. It is only for those that would lead to a call-in notice, which is a much lower number.
We can debate the number, but the issue is one of delay and bottlenecks. It could mean that the Secretary of State was timed out of calling in potentially harmful acquisitions and of imposing any national security remedies. Alternatively, if the initial assessment period following a notification was extended beyond 30 working days, which is not currently possible under the Bill, that could reduce certainty for businesses, which I know the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Aberavon were also concerned about. Any delay to remedies addressing national security risks would be a problem. However, I assure hon. Members that the Secretary of State will eagerly seek expertise and advice from a wide range of sources, and we will work together to safeguard our national security. Having a slick and efficient call-in process is vital to that.
Amendment 4 seeks to require the Secretary of State to consult the Intelligence and Security Committee prior to publishing a statement on the exercise of the call-in power, known as the statement of policy intent. Clause 4 requires the Secretary of State to carry out such a consultation on a draft of the statement as he thinks appropriate, and to take into account the response to any such consultation during the drafting process. That process could include engagement with interested parties across the House, and I am delighted to learn that such esteemed colleagues as members of the ISC might wish to discuss the statement in detail. Parliament has been provided with the first draft of the statement, and we would welcome its view on its content.
I draw attention to the fact that clause 4 requires the Secretary of State to lay the statement before Parliament, as my brilliant hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine rightly pointed out. If either House resolves not to approve the statement within 40 sitting days, the Secretary of State must withdraw it. That provides Parliament, including members of the ISC, with plenty of opportunity to influence and scrutinise the contents of the statement, which I believe is the aim of the amendment and which I am therefore not able to accept.
Amendment 5 would require the Secretary of State to notify the Intelligence and Security Committee prior to making regulations under clause 6 and to enable the Committee to respond with recommendations. I welcome the contributions made by many members of the ISC on Second Reading, and I have since written to the Committee Chair, who unfortunately was unable to attend, to follow up on a number of the recommendations made by his colleagues.
Clause 6 defines the circumstances covered by mandatory notification. The Bill calls them “notifiable acquisitions” on the basis that they must be notified and cleared by the Secretary of State before they can take place.
Members are aware that any modern investment screening regime must provide sufficient flexibility for the Government to examine a broad range of circumstances, bearing in mind the increasingly novel way in which acquisitions are being constructed and hostile actors are pursuing their ends. The regime needs to be able to respond and adapt quickly. Regulations made under the clause will be subject to parliamentary approval through the draft affirmative procedure, giving Members ample opportunity to ensure that mandatory notification and clearance regimes work effectively.
The draft affirmative procedure means that regulations may not be made unless a draft has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House. I am pleased to advise esteemed members of the ISC that in developing the regulations the Secretary of State will take the greatest care, and will consult as widely as is judged appropriate, while ensuring he is able to act as quickly as needed. I see no need for a formal consultation mechanism. Indeed, such a mechanism between the Committee and the Secretary of State would be unprecedented.
For the reasons I have set out, I am not able to accept the amendments, and I hope that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central will not press them.
I thank the Minister for his response and the generally constructive tone with which he laid out the aims of the amendments and the reasons he did not feel able to accept them.
There is, however, as I suggested in an intervention, a sense of the Minister playing both sides at once. He says that the scrutiny proposed in the amendments, by the ISC and through the multi-agency approach, should take place, but that it would be wrong to require it because it will take place. The hon. Member for South Ribble said that the challenges and the need for input scrutiny could be addressed by the right phone call at the right time. That is true, but there are many reasons why that might not happen. For example, the Minister might be looking at vaccine delivery at the time the phone call was being made. We therefore propose the amendments to ensure that that input, scrutiny and expertise are in the Bill.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
It is vital that the Government have the powers necessary fully to scrutinise acquisitions and control over entities and assets that might pose national security risks. The Bill refers to such acquisitions as trigger events.
The clause therefore gives the Secretary of State the power to issue a call-in notice when he or she reasonably suspects that such a trigger event has taken place or is in progress or contemplation and it has given rise to, or may give rise to, a national security risk.
The parameters of the call-in powers will give the Secretary of State sufficient flexibility to examine potentially sensitive acquisitions connected to the United Kingdom while ensuring they may be used only for national security reasons. The Committee will note that in the acquisition of or control over businesses, unlike in the Enterprise Act, there are no minimum thresholds for market share or turnover.
Why is that necessary? It is necessary because acquisitions of small businesses at the start of their ascendancy can harm our national security, particularly if they involve the kind of cutting edge, world-leading technology for which this country is known. Although there is a broad range of scenarios in which the power may be used, of course, most trigger events will not be called in, as they will not raise national security concerns.
Examples of those that may be more likely to be called in include a person acquiring control over an entity that operates part of our critical national infrastructure; a person acquiring the right to use sensitive, cutting-edge intellectual property; and boardroom changes that mean that a person acquires material influence over the policy of a key Government supplier. Clauses 5 to 12 and schedule 1 set that out in detail.
Call-in notices may be issued in relation to trigger events that are in contemplation or in progress, as well as those that have already taken place. That will ensure that potential national security risks can be examined at any stage of the process rather than, for example, waiting until a transaction has taken place or is nearing completion, when it is more difficult for the parties involved to make any changes that may be required. It is envisaged that, in most circumstances, call-in notices will be issued after the Secretary of State has received a notification about a trigger event from an involved party, but it is also important that the Secretary of State retains the ability to call in trigger events where no such notification has been received. The limits for issuing a call-in notice are set out in clause 2.
The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses have as much clarity as possible when it comes to the use of this power. We heard in the evidence session about the need for real clarity for businesses, so the Bill is proportionate. The Secretary of State may not, therefore, exercise the power until he publishes a statement for the purposes of clause 3, setting out how he expects to use the power. The Secretary of State must have regard to the statement before giving a call-in notice. A draft of the statement was published when the Bill was introduced. I do not intend to anticipate our discussions in respect of the statement when we move on to clauses 3 and 4, but I am confident that it will provide reassurance that the Secretary of State intends to exercise the call-in powers in a measured and considered way.
Hon. Members will appreciate, though, that it would not be responsible, given that national security may be at stake, for the Secretary of State to be restricted to exercising the power only in the circumstances envisaged in the statement. The purpose of the statement is, after all, to set out how the Secretary of State expects to exercise the call-in power, not to give binding assurances. That is why clause 1 specifies that nothing in the statement limits the power of the Secretary of State to give a call-in notice, though I reiterate that I expect the vast majority of call-in notices to be issued in accordance with the expectations set out in the statement.
I hope that hon. Members will agree that clause 1, alongside clauses 2, 3 and 4, enables the Government to carry out a vital assessment of relevant trigger events in a measured and effective way.
I thank the Minister for his remarks on clause 1 stand part and for setting out the Bill’s aims and ambitions. We largely agree with those aims and ambitions, and in that spirit I will give further clarity on the Opposition’s overall position. We stand in support of the need for the Bill, and indeed we sought it years ago. We support the need for the new powers to protect our national security, as set out by the Minister, and the need for those new powers in the context of changing technological, commercial and geopolitical realities. Our approach to the Bill is therefore one of constructive challenge and is guided by three principles, the first being the security of our citizens. We do not want narrow legal definitions. Our proposed amendment to clause 1 would have ensured broad input into the considerations, such that our national security was not threatened as a result of insufficient expert advice or by the pure, ministerial market ideology of recent record. Our group of amendments sought to bring legal powers, multi-agency expertise and proper decision making to bear in putting British security first.
There has already been significant discussion of the right national security powers, both on Second Reading and in the Committee evidence sessions. An essential part of that discussion has been focused on the merits of giving the Government powers to protect our national security by using a public interest test. There are understandable concerns that too broad a test might result in a drop in investment for the UK’s start-ups and businesses, and these concerns note an economic challenge in expanding our national security powers. At the same time, however, there is widespread agreement that national security and economic security are not entirely separate. They are deeply linked. A national security expert told us that a narrow focus on direct technologies of defence, for example, was mistaken, and that we should look at the defence of technologies that seem economically strategic today and might become more strategic in future.
Our concern is that we have a Government who are years behind our allies in even contemplating the new national security investment regime. We have seen only 12 national security screenings in 18 years, and not a single instance of the Government acting decisively to block a takeover and guard our national security. In the context of what other countries are doing and how rapidly technologies progress from being economically strategic to becoming security threats, we must not just consider a narrow national security test, but pursue a road to sovereign technological capability and much more ambitious and robust routes to protecting national security and strategic interests. The Opposition will therefore put the security of our citizens first. We will not shy away from regaining national sovereign capability, and we assure our citizens that Britain will have the technology and the capability to protect its national security.
In scrutinising the Bill and this clause, we will champion clarity and support for our prized SMEs and innovative start-ups—the engine of British jobs and British prosperity. We have already heard from market participants that the Government’s belated rush with this Bill has created huge uncertainty and concern over the ability of BEIS to operate the new investment screening regime that the Minister set out. The Government’s impact assessment notes that 80% of transactions in the scope of mandatory notification will be by SMEs. We heard from our expert witnesses that the impact assessment fails to account for the costs faced by the acquired companies, and for the overall impact on funding for our start-ups. The Opposition will not turn a blind eye to those costs for our small and medium-sized enterprises. At each step, the Opposition will plug gaps left by the Government in coherent policy making, to champion British creativity and innovation. It is the least our small and medium-sized enterprises deserve.
Finally, we will stand for effective scrutiny of the Government of the day. That is why we tabled the amendment, which has unfortunately not been accepted by the Committee. However, we will find proportionate, robust and democratically legitimate means of seeking accountable action to protect our national security. Our amendments will stand up for British security, and for competent and coherent decision making. Clearly, we regret the Committee’s decision on our amendment, but we will not oppose the clause standing part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further provision about call-in notices
I beg to move amendment 10, in clause 2, page 2, line 12, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) No more than one call-in notice may be given in relation to each trigger event, unless material new information becomes available within five years of the initial trigger event.”.
This amendment would enable the Secretary of State to issue multiple call-in notices if material new information becomes available.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.
Rather late in the day, I will say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I am sure you are aware that we share an anniversary: we are among the few surviving Members of the 1997 intake—those happy days when Labour used to win elections. We came to this House in 1997 and have been here ever since.
The reason I emphasise that fact, Mr Twigg, is to underline just how many Bills you and I have sat on, led for the Labour party or been involved in over the years. I am unable to tot up the exact number but it is a considerable, and it is a great pleasure to be sitting on this Bill Committee. I have served on a large number of Bill Committees of late, the most recent being the Environment Bill Committee, which has just finished its deliberations. I was unable to be present for this Bill Committee’s witness sessions because I was finishing off the Environment Bill—well, trying to strengthen it rather than finish it off. I am grateful to my colleagues for asking a series of pertinent questions in the evidence sessions. We are all grateful for that and, indeed, to the expert witnesses.
I want to cite the amendment in the context both of the various Bills that have come through the House and of the witness sessions, which I have assiduously read, even though I was not present for them. I hope the Minister will accept that the amendment is entirely in line with the constructive way in which I hope we have gone about our business in this Committee. The amendment, which I shall unpack in a moment, strengthens not only the Bill but the ability of Ministers to do their job properly as far as its provisions are concerned. That is its intention.
The amendment seeks to replace subsection (1), which is a bald sentence:
“No more than one call-in notice may be given in relation to each trigger event.”
My time with Bills has taught me to look carefully through all of the different clauses to find the qualification. In my experience, tucked away somewhere in most Bills is a qualification. Sometimes it is about when a clause is to be implemented, sometimes it is a definition of the wording, and sometimes it is an additional provision that mediates the clause to which our attention was first drawn.
This clause has no such qualification. It is an absolutely straightforward statement. We have discussed trigger events to some extent in our evidence sessions, and they are elucidated and qualified in further clauses, as are call-in notices, but the fact that we get only one call-in notice per trigger event seems to be the central essence of this subsection. Our amendment seeks to put a question mark against whether that bald statement about the fact that we get one go per trigger event is the wisest formulation to have in the Bill.
The amendment makes a modest change to the clause, stating:
“No more than one call-in notice may be given in relation to each trigger event,”
“unless material new information becomes available within five years of the initial trigger event.”
From his experience of many Bills, I wonder what the hon. Gentleman made of the provisions in clause 22 on false or misleading information that has been given to the Secretary of State, whereby if he has been given that information he can change a decision he has previously given and can therefore issue another call-in notice.
Yes, indeed. The hon. Member is quite correct to draw attention to clause 22, which concerns false or misleading information. It relates to where someone has, at the time of the trigger event, concealed or misled or sought to deceive those concerned with the trigger event about the nature of the event. I would suggest that that is a different case from what we are trying to establish today. It is not that anyone has tried to deceive anybody or maliciously mislead anybody at the time of the trigger event, but new material may come to light or become available within five years of the initial trigger event that might cause a further call-in notice to be introduced. According to the definition set out in the Bill, that looks like it might not be possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and he is being very generous in doing so. He rightly talks about new material or information, but what about the evolving nature of geopolitical threats? There may well be countries that are not considered to be hostile actors now, but political changes one, two or three years down the line could have a massive impact on whether we see that country as a threat to national security. It could become a hostile actor.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which was reflected in the evidence sessions on this Bill. I want to dwell on that briefly, because he makes a really important point. These matters are evolving. Not only that, but the nature of databases evolves. The nature of what we do and do not find out evolves. There are circumstances—my hon. Friend mentioned a particularly important one—where the Secretary of State could be excessively curtailed in the diligent pursuit of his role in terms of call-ins and trigger events if no amendment is made to this clause.
The expert evidence we received from Dr Ashley Lenihan of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics gave rise to a couple of important considerations in terms of how evolving circumstances or new information might be important. Dr Lenihan made a very important point, similar to that made by my hon. Friend, when she stated:
“Dealing with the kind of evolving and emerging threats we see in terms of novel investments from countries such as China, Russia and Venezuela needs the flexibility to look at retroactively and potentially unwind transactions that the Secretary of State and the investment security unit were not even aware of.” ––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, Tuesday 24 November; c. 34, Q36.]
Speaking of existing databases, Dr Lenihan also stated:
“They do not cover asset transactions; they do not cover real estate transactions, which are of increasing concern, especially for espionage purposes.”––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, Tuesday 24 November; c. 35, Q36.]
I note that there has been a lot of concern in the United States more recently about real estate purchases in strategic locations, which may give rise to espionage or other national security concerns. As Dr Lenihan emphasises, existing databases do not cover such arrangements but might do in the future and might find it necessary to do so in the future. Under those circumstances, new information could well come to light.
Dr Lenihan also gave an interesting example—this is not strictly in line with our considerations today—of how information might come to light in a way not easily anticipated by those doing the initial call-in notice and trigger event. She referred to the purchase in the United States of a US cloud computing company, 3Leaf, which had gone bankrupt. Huawei—as it happened—quietly bought up the assets, employees and patents of that bankrupt company. That was not noticed at the time by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States regulators, because they did not pay attention to bankrupt companies, as opposed companies that continued to operate. That went quietly unnoticed, uncommented and unactioned until, Dr Lenihan informed us, a Government staffer happened to notice on his LinkedIn account that someone he thought had been partially running 3Leaf was listed as a consultant for 3Leaf for Huawei. He thought to himself, “How can this be?” Only through his attention and reporting back was that acquisition unravelled in the United States. No one was providing malicious information or seeking to mislead at the time. It was just that new information came to light, in that instance through surprising mechanisms. However, an important issue came before regulators and the security services. That emphasises that clause 22, important though it is, does not cover those sorts of circumstances and eventualities.
The amendment would close a loophole. If information comes to light that the Government have honestly sought and that has not been dishonestly concealed, there appears to be little, according to line 12, that the Government can do about it. They cannot pursue a new call-in notice. According to line 12, it is a done deal—the trigger event has been and gone and cannot be revived.
The amendment would not provide an open-ended opportunity for someone many years later to find something out. Companies would not be in the position of forever facing the possibility of prejudicial information coming out. We have included a sunset provision on the new information becoming available. The amendment states that it should be
“within five years of the initial trigger event.”
That marries with arrangements elsewhere in the Bill for five-year limits.
It is important to make the change, particularly because the impact assessment acknowledges that there is a struggle to access appropriate data on the relevant transactions. It is not that anyone is doing their job badly or concealing anything, but it is possible that information is not accessible at the time of a trigger event.
I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment, and certainly the spirit in which it is intended. Although we want to make it clear that it is important that, as often as possible, the trigger event and the associated call-in are clear, resolved and put to bed thereafter, there are circumstances where that is not possible, and the Minister should have the ability to rectify that problem and act in the best interests of national security and of fair play for the companies involved.
I hope that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test and other hon. Members will permit me, in responding to the hon. Gentleman’s points, to begin by considering stand part and by laying out the Government’s broad rationale before turning to the substance of the amendment.
The clause contains further provisions about the use of the call-in power. It is vital that the Secretary of State is able to call in and scrutinise trigger events that have taken place. However, it is right that clear limits are placed on the call-in power to ensure that it is used in a proportionate manner—the whole point here is proportionality. The clause therefore prohibits a trigger event from being called in more than once. It also provides that the Secretary of State may issue a call-in notice only up to five years after a trigger event has taken place and no longer than six months after becoming aware of the trigger event.
The time limit of five years strikes the right balance between ensuring the Secretary of State has enough time to spot completed trigger events that may pose a risk to national security. The hon. Gentleman cited evidence from Dr Lenihan on 3Leaf, which speaks more to the screening operation than the amendment. Of course, the Secretary of State also has to make sure that the risks to national security are balanced against avoiding undue uncertainty for the parties involved, which we all want to make sure we look after, and we have heard from colleagues about the challenges that small businesses face in building or rebuilding their business
For trigger events that take place before commencement but after the introduction of the Bill, the five-year time limit starts at commencement rather than from when the trigger event takes place. If the Secretary of State becomes aware of that trigger event before commencement, the six-month time limit also starts at commencement. The ability to call in trigger events that take place before the commencement of the call-in power but after the introduction of the Bill will help to safeguard against hostile actors rushing through sensitive acquisitions to avoid the new regime, now that we have set out our main areas of interest.
The five-year time limit does not apply if the Secretary of State has been given false or misleading information, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) reminded us, or in relation to notifiable acquisitions that have been completed without prior approval.
In all this, we will seek to provide as much transparency and predictability as possible. The Secretary of State may not, therefore, exercise the power until under, clause 3, a statement is published setting out how.
Could the Minister say a little more about what the problem is with not having the Minister’s or the Secretary of State’s hands tied? Our amendment simply says that if information comes to light that creates cause for concern, the Secretary of State may, if he or she so wishes, look into it again. It is not an obligation; it simply makes sure that the option is there.
I was going to address that at the end of my remarks, but I will touch on it briefly and hopefully reiterate it at the end. It is about certainty and proportionality. Everything we are doing by legislating in this way has an impact on businesses and the certainty of attracting investment and growing, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, reminded us in her opening speech.
As I was saying, a draft of the statement was published alongside the Bill. Following commencement, if parties involved in trigger events are concerned about them being called in, they will be able to remove any doubt about this by notifying the Secretary of State of their event. They will then be entitled to receive a quick and binding decision on whether the Secretary of State will call in the event.
I will turn briefly to amendment 10, which seeks to extend the Secretary of State’s power to issue a call-in notice in respect of a trigger event that has previously been called in when no new material information becomes available within five years of the trigger event. After a trigger event is called in, the Secretary of State has—
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Financial Services Bill (Ninth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Philip Davies, † Dr Rupa Huq
† Baldwin, Harriett (West Worcestershire) (Con)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
† Davies, Gareth (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)
† Eagle, Ms Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
Flynn, Stephen (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
† Glen, John (Economic Secretary to the Treasury)
† Jones, Andrew (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
† McFadden, Mr Pat (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
† Marson, Julie (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
† Millar, Robin (Aberconwy) (Con)
† Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
† Richardson, Angela (Guildford) (Con)
† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
† Thewliss, Alison (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
† Williams, Craig (Montgomeryshire) (Con)
Kevin Maddison; Nicholas Taylor, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 1 December 2020
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
Financial Services Bill
Before we begin, I have a few preliminary points to make. Please switch electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are forbidden during sittings, but I will allow Members to take their jackets off, as Chris Clarkson politely asked at the start, so feel free to remove outer layers if you wish.
I remind Members of the importance of social distancing. Everyone is sitting in the right place, but if necessary, people will have to sit in the Public Gallery. Hansard reporters have asked for speeches to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Today we will continue with line-by-line consideration.
Individually recognised overseas collective investment schemes
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Thank you for your continued chairmanship of this Committee, Dr Huq.
The clause makes changes to section 272 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which allows individual investment funds from other countries and territories to be marketed to the general public, including retail investors, in the United Kingdom. Although we have separately introduced a new overseas funds regime to allow specified categories of overseas funds to market to retail investors, section 272, the existing provision, will remain and will be available for investment funds that do not fall within the scope of an equivalent determination under the OFR, but still wish to market to retail investors in the UK. Investment funds that are eligible to apply under the OFR will not be able to make an application under section 272. This is to ensure that funds always apply through the most efficient route possible.
We have proposed simplifications to section 272 and sections relating to it, which are supported by both the Financial Conduct Authority and industry. First, the changes will streamline the FCA’s assessment of individual investment funds from other countries. In making its assessment, the FCA would now need to consider only issues that are subject to existing rules on UK authorised funds rather than potential laws that do not yet exist. Secondly, we will simplify when the fund operators have to notify the FCA of changes to their funds and, thirdly, we will make wider changes so that section 272 is compatible with the new OFR.
Also, provisions are added to FSMA, mirroring the ones in the OFR, to enhance consumer protections and ensure consistency in comparability between the two regimes. This includes requiring fund operators to notify such persons as the FCA may direct, such as investors, if the fund’s permission to market is suspended or revoked. The FCA will also have the power to make public censure if certain rules and requirements are breached. Finally, we are also making it clear that sub-funds can be recognised under section 272 if investment funds are part of an umbrella and sub-fund structures.
As I noted earlier, an umbrella fund is a legal entity that groups together different sub-funds where each sub-fund has a separate pool of assets that typically has its own investment strategy. The changes set out in clause 25 will improve the process in section 272, reducing the administrative burden for the FCA and asset management firms. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.
I want to ask the Minister where the clear water is. In simple terms, is this about granting equivalence recognition to individual companies from countries where we do not grant the overall country the equivalence recognition? The Minister nods, so perhaps that is what it is about. That implies that those firms might need a higher level of monitoring or observation, given that they are from countries that have not been granted equivalence recognition—presumably, we think that the regulatory system in the country in which they are based is perhaps not quite of the standard of some other countries. Will he tell us a little more about how that would work? Will there be a set of firms that the FCA keeps an extra eye on? If the FCA decided that equivalence recognition permission should no longer be granted to an individual firm, how would the process work? Is it something that can be withdrawn quite quickly if we think things have changed?
I thank the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East for his questions. His characterisation of what this is about is absolutely right: the clause provides a mechanism to ensure that funds that are not eligible for the new overseas fund regime may still apply and secure access. In terms of the FCA, monitoring and protection, it is important to point out that the FCA’s online register shows that there are currently four stand-alone funds, seven umbrella funds and 27 sub-funds that have permission to be marketed to UK retail investors under section 272. Some of those funds have been carried over from a previous regime for overseas funds marketing to the UK, set out in section 270 of FSMA.
To give some comfort about investor protection, the FCA is required to examine whether the fund gives adequate protection to investors in the scheme. It will examine whether the fund’s arrangements for constitution and management are adequate; the powers and duties of the fund’s operator, trustee or depositary must also be adequate. It is another mechanism to be applied in conditions where a country as a whole is not given the adequacy equivalence decision.
Under the clause, the FCA has suitable powers to verify the full context of the fund’s operations and to take account of the risks associated with the fund. It would make a determination based on the full range of factors available to it.
We will be discussing a couple of similar clauses very soon, but it strikes me that quite a big role is envisaged for the FCA in advising the Government on equivalence recognition and regulation in other countries. It has not performed such ongoing monitoring up until now. It is quite easy to go through the Bill clause by clause, subsection by subsection, and think that each change is a nothing more than a small change here and a small change there that do not add up to much, but the impression gained is that the Bill creates a big job for the FCA. Is it properly resourced and equipped to carry out that role?
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. In this context, the obligations on the FCA and the Prudential Regulation Authority will continue to be considerable. They will have significant responsibilities. In previous sittings, we talked about the necessity of having a clear framework for the regulator to be accountable to Parliament, subject to Parliament’s determination of what that will be. The resourcing of the FCA with the right sort of skills to carry out the proposed functions will be an issue that its new chief executive will consider in due course. We will seek to co-operate with him to ensure that he has those resources.
The section 272 provision is extant and I outlined the number of funds that are using it, but I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s general point about the FCA. It is something of which we are very aware.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 25 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Money market funds authorised in approved countries
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 26 is a core element of the overseas funds regime, the equivalence regime for money market funds. As I am sure a number of colleagues know, money market funds are a type of investment fund that invests in liquid assets such as cash, Government bonds and corporate debt. They are considered to be a low-risk, short-term and high-liquidity investment. Many organisations in the UK, such as local authorities, use money market funds to invest their cash in the short term as an alternative to bank deposits, and the vast majority of money market funds currently available to UK investors are domiciled overseas. UK investors need continued access to those overseas money market funds to use for cash management purposes. Money market funds are subject to separate regulations for other types of funds, and the Government therefore believe it is necessary to have a separate equivalence regime for money market funds that allows the Government to consider the additional factors and regulations.
Clause 26, and the new article 4A equivalence regime that it creates, will ensure that overseas money market funds that wish to become recognised in the UK must be from a country or territory where the relevant regulations have equivalent effect to the MMF regulation in the UK. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
We have met the capital requirements regulation, we have met undertakings for collective investment in transferable securities, and now we meet the money market funds regulation. I have a couple of questions for the Minister on this issue. First, new article 4A(2) of the money market funds regulation says that the Treasury must be satisfied that the requirements on money market funds
“have equivalent effect to the requirements imposed by this Regulation.”
The key phrase here is “have equivalent effect”. That is the yardstick by which judgments will be made. How will this be assessed? What exactly will the Treasury be looking for when it makes such an assessment? How are we judging equivalent effect?
Secondly, article 4A(4) says that when considering the revocation of equivalence,
“the Treasury may ask the FCA to prepare a report on the law and practice of the country”
that is involved. That harks back to what I said a moment ago. Will preparing reports on the law and practice involved be a new task for the FCA? The Bill states only that the Government “may” ask the FCA, but I would have thought that if the Treasury were to consider the revocation of one of the equivalence recognitions, it would be pretty essential that the FCA be involved in that.
Thirdly, there is nothing in new article 4A that requires the UK to continuously monitor the law and practice of other countries once equivalence has been granted. That is important, because we grant the equivalence recognition on the basis of a view at the time that a country’s regulations have equivalent effect. However, how can we guarantee that there might not then be a process of regulatory or deregulatory change in the country that had been deemed equivalent, with consequential risks for UK consumers if—to put it in lay terms—the rules become a lot more lax in that country? Really, I am asking how this will all be monitored again in the future, and I would be grateful if the Minister has some comments on that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those questions. Essentially, there are two parts. The first is about how the assessment will be made. The UK is committed to what we describe—I have said it before—as an outcome-based approach to equivalence. That is based on the principles of FSMA, which means acknowledging how different regulatory practices can combine to achieve the same outcomes, as opposed to the prescriptive rule-by-rule-based approach that our friends in the EU have often preferred. We would not expect to see identical line-by-line regulations.
The OFR does not require countries to have those exact rules and regulations, but they must have laws and practices that have an equivalent effect in terms of the outcomes achieved. Obviously, there is considerable expertise involved in evaluating that and a particular group of people who are capable of doing that within the FCA. We believe that that outcomes-based equivalence can provide a high level of consumer protection while also allowing the UK to maintain a competitive market for overseas funds.
The second part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question addressed the issue of future evolution and divergence in standards, and how that would be monitored. The monitoring would be conducted in line with the equivalence guidance document that the Government published on 9 November. It sets out the framework for ongoing monitoring, recognising this outcomes-based approach, but being cognisant of changes in the underlying regulatory regime. This would not be a question of going through a gateway, gaining approval and that would be it forever. There would be some monitoring proportionate to the nature of the risks and the assurance that we had around the regime. I hope that answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Provision of investment services etc in the UK
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 27 gives effect to schedule 10 and amends the markets in financial instruments regulation. MiFIR is a piece of retained EU legislation that will continue to have effect in the UK after the end of the transition period, with amendments made under the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 to ensure that it continues to operate effectively.
In summary, the amendments that the Bill makes to MiFIR broadly reflect the changes that the EU has introduced to its own third country regime, so it makes sense for us to do so. The third country regime in MiFIR established the basis on which overseas investment firms will be able to offer investment services and undertake investment activities in the UK. It allows overseas firms to apply for recognition that will allow them to provide cross-border services to more sophisticated clients, without establishing a local branch, if there has been an equivalence in respect of their home jurisdiction.
The changes made in this Bill will ensure the effective operation of the equivalence assessments and the subsequent operation of the recognition regime. That will mean that we can access the EU and treat EU investment firms in the same way that the EU will assess the UK and treat UK firms in the future. I will detail the specific amendments that this Bill makes to MiFIR during my explanation of schedule 10. I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
I have two questions about schedule 10. The Minister has set out what it is intended to do, but I want to ask a few questions on the theme of monitoring and compliance.
New paragraph 5A of article 46 of the regulation defines reverse solicitation, and therefore an exemption from the equivalence rules, as when a business is not initiated at a client’s own initiative. Is the Minister confident that this is a tight enough turn of phrase to mean that firms cannot solicit business in the UK while dodging the stricter regulations that come within such marketing activity?
Secondly, and more important, new paragraph 1C of article 47 of MiFIR says that when making an equivalence determination the Treasury must take into account whether a country is classed as high risk for money laundering. Surely that is not strong enough. We will talk more about money laundering shortly. Why do we not say outright that the UK should not consider any such jurisdiction as equivalent until it is no longer considered a high-risk location for money laundering?
New article 48A of the regulation gives significant powers to the Treasury to impose additional requirements on third-country firms, but there are no details of what those requirements might be. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister said a bit more about that.
The amendments to article 49 of the regulation mean that it no longer says that the FCA “shall withdraw” recognition in circumstances where a country’s firms have acted in a manner clearly prejudicial to the interests of investors, but only that it “may withdraw”. Again, if someone has acted in a manner clearly prejudicial to the interests of investors or to the orderly functioning of markets, having seriously infringed provisions and requirements, that looks like a softening of our stance and I am not quite clear why we would want to do that.
Finally, what is the rationale for exempting rules made under MiFIR from the action for damages provisions of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000? Is that not an important consumer right? I am sorry, that was quite detailed, but it looks as if there is some loosening here of what we might do when people are breaking the rules or when countries are at high risk of money laundering, and that does not seem to me to be the right direction of travel.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He raises a number of specific points around drafting, and if there is anything that I cannot answer, I shall write to him today.
On the first point, the FCA needs to register overseas firms, which will give the right oversight, and also needs to monitor the overseas framework on an ongoing basis. From June 2021, the EU will be able to assess the UK and treat UK firms under a new regime. These changes are necessary to ensure that the Treasury is well equipped to assess the EU and that the FCA can exercise the appropriate level of oversight over overseas investment firms operating in the UK under this regime.
The core thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions relates to the apparent weakening of the UK’s position. The Treasury has not yet determined which additional requirements, if any, would apply to overseas firms; that will be done when an equivalence determination is made, after the Government have fully considered the views of the FCA and other relevant matters.
The point the right hon. Gentleman makes about protection for consumers is obviously a critical one. Firms operating on a cross-border basis under this regime are not allowed to service UK retail consumers. The regime only applies to more sophisticated professional clients such as other financial services firms. None the less, I recognise that it is clear that we need to ensure that firms that are accessing UK markets from overseas are subject to similarly robust regulatory standards to those we place on our firms at home, and these amendments will do exactly that.
The Treasury will be able to determine whether a third country has a regulatory framework that has an equivalent effect to the UK’s, meaning that we can be confident that these third-country firms are regulated to the same level as our own. For firms that do not play by the rules, it is important that we have the right mechanisms to call that out, and the FCA will be able to step in where needed to protect UK investors and the integrity of our financial system.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s last point about money laundering specifically, we need to assess a jurisdiction’s regulatory framework as equivalent. That provides a high bar for anti-money laundering risks, and that is reflected in the guidance document that I referred to earlier. I will make the general point, though, that I understand the sensitivity to this fear and anxiety around wilful divergence to have a less regulated and less secure environment. I want to put it on the record that the Government do not see the changes as a mechanism to achieve some loosening. However, we will need to take account of the new directives that the EU continues to develop without our being at the table, and we will also need to develop our own response. Even though it will not be identical, that does not mean that we will not observe the high standards.
I think the Minister is getting to the heart of it. I asked detailed questions, but at the core of them is this one: is there a policy intent in these little changes of words, when we transpose the regulation, to have a loosening in some way, or are those little changes almost incidental—with no policy intention to have a less rigorous regime than MiFIR proper would apply to money laundering, recognition or any of the other things that I asked about?
There is no intention to moderate or significantly alter the effect of the regulation. This is about doing what is necessary to ensure that we regulate the services and activities of overseas investment firms following an equivalence determination. The changes are designed to be consistent with the direction of travel that we have pursued within the EU, but making changes that are necessary for the different outcomes-based approach that we have always taken in the UK.
Just briefly to add to the questions from my right hon. Friend, why on earth is there all this faffing about when we are having total equivalence and companies will want the rules to be the same? Is this just another obtuse obsession with sovereignty, which will cost a hell of a lot more money because we will have to have our own bespoke regime that is meant to do exactly the same thing?
I think the hon. Lady’s point goes back to the decision made to leave the EU and the implications of that. I recognise that we had a conversation in the previous sitting about the nature of the regimes that have been mooted as a possible solution.
I did an extensive session with the Lords EU Services Sub-Committee yesterday morning dealing with the issue of equivalence. We see this as a technical process. We have filled in several thousand pages of forms across 17 questionnaires for the EU, and it has not made those determinations, so we moved forward and made our determinations of the EU and are seeking to bring as much clarity as possible. This is another example of our bringing clarity to industry in as straightforward a way as possible, and the changes reflect that.
I praise the Minister for his diplomacy. Having been a Treasury Minister myself, I know that diplomacy is extremely important when he sits in his bivouac. Has he made any assessment of the extra red tape that he is putting on our own financial services sector by insisting, for reasons of sovereignty, on a different but hopefully equivalent route? He and I both know that the minor differences between what is allowed and what is not can turn into weaknesses and reasons for arbitrage and rule breaking if those who regulate are not extremely careful.
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s deep experience in this matter and I am grateful for her empathy with the need to be diplomatic as a Treasury Minister. The measure is about extending limited supervisory powers to replicate EU powers. Her general point about the additional costs that can accrue to industry is something that we are very concerned about. We have always had within the UK a different approach to onshoring regulations, and that will continue.
FSMA 2000 gives us that outcome-based approach. When we downloaded the directives that we participated in creating in the EU and the Commission process, we always did it in our own way as per those principles. The hon. Lady’s main point is a key concern for the Government. That is why we are anxious to give assurance of continuity where it is plainly necessary and illustrate how we can do things as smoothly as possible, to minimise disruption to industry in a time of prolonged uncertainty, which I hope will come to an end soon.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 27 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendments of the Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation
I beg to move amendment 18, in schedule 10, page 164, line 7, leave out “services” and insert “investment services, or performing investment activities,”.
This amendment provides that the Treasury’s regulation-making power under new Article 48A of the Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation applies to third-country firms performing investment activities, as well as to third-country firms providing investment services.
The intention of this amendment is to make a correction to article 48A for the markets in financial instruments regulation by replacing the word “services” in line 7 of page 164 with
“investment services, or performing investment activities,”.
This will mean that the Treasury may impose requirements on overseas firms performing investment activities in the UK in addition to overseas firms providing investment services in the UK.
Amendment 18 agreed to.
Question proposed, That the schedule, as amended, be the Tenth schedule to the Bill.
Schedule 10 amends the retained Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation. This regulation will continue to have effect in the UK after the end of the transition period. In part, it regulates overseas firms that provide investment services and activities in the UK, following an equivalence determination, as I described in relation to clause 27.
Under MiFIR, investment firms in a jurisdiction the regime of which has been found to be equivalent can provide a specified range of services in the UK under a recognition regime. The amendments the Bill makes to MiFIR broadly reflect the changes that the EU introduced to its own overseas regime for investment firms where those changes make sense for the UK. These changes will ensure that we can assess the EU and treat EU firms seeking to operate in the UK in the way the EU will assess the UK and treat UK firms in the future.
Schedule 10 provides the FCA with a power to specify reporting requirements for overseas firms that register under the regime. As the expert regulator, the FCA is best placed to specify that level of detail. Schedule 10 also updates the assessment criteria for equivalence to reflect the latest changes in the UK’s prudential regimes, as updated by this Bill. Countries will be required to have provisions in place that are equivalent in effect in areas such as prudential rules, business conduct, market transparency and other areas. That means that overseas firms accessing UK markets will be subject to the same level of investor protection and prudential regulatory standards as that which we place on UK firms.
The process of equivalence is a dynamic one. Indeed, we need to ensure that equivalence can be monitored, not only now but in the future—that speaks to the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East. That is why the FCA will be required to monitor the regulatory and supervisory developments and enforcement practices of an overseas country that has received an equivalence determination and report its findings to the Treasury. By doing that, we will be able to ensure that we can continue to protect UK consumers as much now as in the future.
Schedule 10 also enables the FCA to temporarily restrict or prohibit an overseas firm from accessing UK markets if the firm does not co-operate with the FCA. In some cases, the FCA may withdraw an overseas firm’s registration. These important tools need to be exercised carefully and, as such, schedule 10 also specifies the procedures that the FCA must follow when using them.
Finally, schedule 10 will enable the Treasury, where appropriate, to impose specific requirements on overseas firms that register under the MiFIR regime as part of the equivalence decision. That will allow the FCA to account for the specific nature of overseas firms providing services across borders to UK markets. The schedule therefore provides the Treasury and the FCA with the appropriate powers to ensure that the UK remains open to global investment, while upholding the highest standards of investor protection and ensuring the effective functioning of UK markets.
The powers are necessary to prevent not only exploitation that might pose some systemic risks to the financial system, but catastrophic loss to UK investors due to rogue investors or investments. Regulators are reluctant to use the more draconian end of their powers, and there is little evidence that they actually go there.
Is the Minister satisfied that the practical effect of the changes will be that the FCA is determined to use those powers, if need be? It seems to be reluctant to go to the stage of closing firms down. That would be a huge decision that may involve considerable disruption. Is he convinced that the FCA has the resources, the aptitude and the determination to do that if necessary?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. This goes to the heart of the evolution in the FCA’s responsibilities in an environment where it is being asked to do things differently and to account to Parliament for its actions. The future regulatory framework discussions through the next six months will allow us to solidify what those responsibilities will be.
The hon. Lady is right to say that the FCA will be required to make significant judgments on regulatory and supervisory developments, enforcement practices and other relevant market developments in third countries. The Treasury will request reports from the FCA with regards to overseas jurisdictions. We will consider those reports and other sources of information and take appropriate action, which would involve reviewing and equivalence determination or withdrawing equivalence.
Resourcing is a matter for the FCA itself, which it reflects on and establishes a levy for. I have conversations every six weeks with the FCA’s chief executive and chairman, and such matters are under ongoing review. Clearly, in the light of these changes, the FCA will need to update its provision. The FCA has a new chief executive officer who is undertaking a significant transformation project. I welcome his appointment and his plans, but reviews will be ongoing, and I am confident that he and his organisation will rise to the occasion.
I am sorry to press the Minister again, but this area is crucial to ensuring that our financial services industry is properly and appropriately regulated. We will be discussing crime, money laundering, and market abuse later today, I think, but the powers arranged against a regulator wanting to take drastic action, particularly in the form of disruption, trouble, lawyers, threats and all that, can mitigate decisive action. With Action Fraud and the failures in some of these areas, we have seen that even when criminal liability and offences are in the mix, rather than just regulatory offences, we do not seem to have developed a system that is as effective as it needs to be.
To what extent does the Economic Secretary think that the FCA’s use of levies to finance that activity is good enough given their volume and the drastic effects of some decisions, especially considering the funding of other regulators? Across the pond—we will increasingly have to look across the Atlantic—regulators are much better resourced than our own. Is he convinced that he has got the balance right for capacity and resources?
The hon. Lady is taking me further and further away from the Bill. Her core point is about the suitability and sufficiency of the FCA’s capability. The FCA has provision to take account of consumer and market conditions and intervene, and I am clear that it has the capacity and the experience to do that work. The broader economic crime challenges that she mentions are why the March Budget contained an additional £100 million economic crime levy to support existing public investment and levies.
These are an ongoing, challenging, evolving and changing set of risks across that market, with the application of new technology—I have mentioned cryptocurrencies—and new ways of doing business that mean that the nature of crime is also evolving. I would never be complacent about the capacity of the FCA, and I recognise that it needs constant review and refresh to ensure that it is aligned with the other agencies involved in monitoring and dealing with threats to market integrity.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 10, as amended, accordingly agreed to.
Part 4A permissions: variation or cancellation on initiative of FCA
Clause 28 introduces schedule 11, which amends the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to put in place a new process so that the FCA can more quickly cancel the authorisation of firms that it believes are no longer continuing regulated activity.
Since the existing grounds and method for cancellations were introduced, the FCA-regulated population has expanded, such that the FCA now regulates approximately 59,000 firms. Under the current cancellation process, it can take considerable time for the FCA to build its evidential case that the firm is no longer carrying out authorised activity, even when it is likely that the firm is no longer doing so. That means that there is a delay between the firms being identified as inactive by the FCA, and the FCA being able to remove or vary their authorisation.
The FCA estimates that at any point in time, the number of firms no longer carrying on FCA-regulated activities but which have not sought cancellation to their authorisation is about 300 to 400. Although that is a small proportion of the 59,000 FCA-regulated population that I mentioned, the Government nevertheless consider that it creates a risk, particularly in regard to the financial services register. Fraudsters can take advantage of inaccuracies in the register to their benefit by cloning inactive firms to scam consumers. That involves impersonating a firm that is on the register to give people the impression that they are dealing with a regulated entity.
As far as I am aware, the Companies House register is a separate entity run from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A considerable amount of work is going on at the moment to look at how the data around Companies House registration works, reflecting concerns raised in the December 2018 Financial Action Task Force report. The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point about the alignment of the two registers, and I will need to come back to her on that matter. Clearly, it would be perverse to remove an FCA-registered entity but not have a forfeit of registration from Companies House. I shall write to the Committee and to the hon. Lady on that matter.
I want to ensure that consumers can take informed financial services decisions. To achieve that, we need to ensure that the financial services register is accurate and that consumers are not exposed to unnecessary risk. This new process will sit alongside the existing process, to allow the FCA to streamline cases in which it suspects that a firm is no longer carrying on an authorised activity, enabling the FCA to more quickly cancel the firm’s authorisation and update the financial services register accordingly. In cases in which the FCA is looking to cancel a firm’s authorisation for another reason, this will continue to pass through the existing process.
I therefore recommend that this clause stand part of the Bill.
I suspect that I am going to follow up on the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. As the Minister has explained, the problem that this clause and schedule are intended to resolve is dormant companies that no longer do the things that they were doing when originally registered with the FCA. Regulation is sometimes described as a needle-in-a-haystack problem, because there are so many companies and there is so much going on. Okay, it is not a massive number; it is 300 or 400 among 59,000 companies, but if we can strip those out, we make the job of the regulator that little bit easier because it is monitoring fewer companies and there is less danger of the cloning activity that the Minister described.
However, this does prompt a question: if 59,000 companies are regulated by the FCA and some 4 million to 5 million are registered with Companies House—we will come on to this under other clauses shortly—surely the process that the Minister has just outlined for clause 28 and schedule 11 should apply to companies there, if we find that they are simply paper organisations that may be designed as much to deceive as to actually carry out any business. Where they are engaged in activities that they should not be, they should be taken off the register, too, but that would of course imply a change in job description for Companies House. It has traditionally regarded itself more as a register and library rather than a real regulator or what might be called a partner in law enforcement. Therefore, can the Minister at least—he will hear this more than once today—talk to colleagues in BEIS to encourage a parallel approach with Companies House? It seems to me that what is being done in clause 28 is sensible, but it is only part of the picture of clamping down on illegal activity.
The point here is that clearly a business could be registered at Companies House, could historically have done regulated activity under the FCA and that regulated activity could have ceased; it may have other business activities that are completely compliant with Companies House law, but it should not be registered for doing financial services regulated activity. The question would then be this: what would be the obligation on Companies House to make an interaction so that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the definition of its activities would be amended?
Obviously, there are complex legal issues here. This is associated with the review that BEIS will be coming back to, responding to. I think it is important that we acknowledge that issue about not doing a regulated activity but continuing to trade legally in other realms. But the point that I hear and recognise needs to be clarified is this: what is the interaction between the two processes? I undertake to examine that and to make clear to my colleagues in BEIS what the risks are and what the view of this Committee is.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 28 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Variation or cancellation of Part 4A permission on initiative of FCA: additional power
Question proposed, That the schedule be the Eleventh schedule to the Bill.
I have already explained why we are acting to create a new process so that the FCA can more quickly cancel the authorisation of firms that it believes are no longer continuing regulated activity. Schedule 11 amends the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to give the FCA the necessary power to do that If it appears to the FCA that an FCA authorised person is no longer carrying out a regulated activity, it can vary or cancel that firm’s permissions. Examples of where the FCA might pursue this approach could be when the firm has failed to pay its fees or levies or provide information to the FCA as is required in the FCA handbook.
The schedule sets the conditions that must be met for the FCA to vary or cancel the authorisation, which include giving written notice to the firm that appears to be no longer carrying out a regulated activity and allowing the firm an opportunity to respond. It also includes a process for annulling any cancellation or variation and establishes a right of appeal for the firm.
As I have said, I want to ensure that consumers can take informed financial services decisions and, to achieve that, we need to ensure that the financial services register is accurate and that consumers are not exposed to unnecessary risk. I therefore recommend the schedule stand part to the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 11 accordingly agreed to.
Insider lists and Managers’ Transactions
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 29 makes two small technical changes to the market abuse regulation. The first concerns insider lists, which are lists of all persons who have access to inside information and are working for firms that issue financial instruments or those acting on their behalf. They are a crucial tool for regulators and for firms themselves in controlling the flow of inside information. Currently, the market abuse regulation requires issuers or any person acting on their behalf or on their account to maintain an insider list. This has created uncertainty as to whether third parties acting on behalf of an issuer should be holding their own list or sending it to the issuer to hold, leading to a risk that some of the parties are not maintaining insider lists. These lists are vital. In this clause, we are acting to remove this uncertainty by making it clear that both issuers and any person acting on their behalf or on their account are required to maintain an insider list.
The second part of the clause concerns the timetable within which issuers are required to disclose transactions by their senior managers in the issuers’ own financial instruments to the public. Under the market abuse regulation, senior managers—referred to as persons discharging managerial responsibilities, or PDMRs—need to notify the issuer and the FCA of any transaction undertaking in financial instruments related to the issuer. This notification must be made within three working days of the transaction and the issuer must also notify the public within the same three working days of the transaction. This means it is possible that an issuer may only receive the notification from the PDMR on the day that they are required to publish the transaction. We are changing this to require notification to the public within two working days after the issuer receives notification of a transaction. This introduces a more practical and sensible timetable for observing timely and transparent disclosure of PDMR transactions to the market. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 29 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Maximum sentences for insider dealing and financial services offences
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 30 concerns the penalty for criminal market abuse. Market abuse undermines integrity, reduces public confidence and impairs the effectiveness of the financial markets. Market abuse is comparable to other types of economic crime, such as fraud, so it should carry an equivalent penalty.
The clause will increase the maximum prison sentence for such crimes from seven to 10 years, demonstrating that the Government take criminal market abuse offences just as seriously as other types of economic crime offences. In 2015, the findings of the fair and effective markets review were published jointly by the Treasury, the FCA and the Bank of England. This report assessed market standards in the financial services industry, looking for ways to improve fairness and effectiveness in fixed income, currencies and commodities markets. The report contained 21 recommendations to improve market standards assigned to a number of public bodies. The Government are committed to delivering the improvements to the body of financial services legislation that were recommended in the report, and the clause follows the recommendation of the report. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
The clause before us increases the penalty for insider dealing, and I do not think any Opposition members of the Committee will have a problem with that. The obvious point to make is that sentencing is effective only if there is a reasonable chance that someone will get caught, and if there is a proper and effective system of enforcement of the rules, as well as an overall regulatory system that properly polices such activity.
The Financial Times reported last year that the FCA had prosecuted only eight cases of insider dealing, securing just 12 convictions over a five-year period between 2013 and 2018. There is a big contrast between the prosecutions and the investigations, because the same newspaper, reporting on the figures ending in March this year, said that there were a relatively high number of ongoing investigations—more than 600. However, only 15 resulted in financial penalties or fines.
There are few prosecutions and few fines. Why does the Minister think so few of those 600-plus investigations lead to any kind of punishment? Can we conclude that, after all, there is little insider dealing and only a handful of people do it? Alternatively, would the conclusion be that there are flaws in the investigatory process or, perhaps, resource issues that make it difficult to pursue a case to an unquestionable conclusion?
We should acknowledge that the regulator’s task is difficult, because the people doing insider dealing will be clever, and will take every step they can to cover their tracks. For example, they might not trade in their own name. They might trade in a relative’s name. They might set up a company to trade, and register it either here or somewhere else, which would make the paper trail all the more difficult for the regulator to follow. They might try all sorts of things to blow the regulator off the scent.
There is no problem with increasing the sentence from seven to 10 years, but it strikes me the relevant provisions of the Bill might be too narrow in scope for the problem that we are dealing with. It would be a big mistake to think that approving the clause is job done on insider dealing, and we can tick the box, thinking it will make a big difference. The low rate of prosecutions suggests that there is a need for a much deeper look under the bonnet.
Does the Minister accept that general premise, and will he undertake to carry out that deeper look? Will he make sure that the increased sentences are matched by the resources that the regulators need and, probably more importantly, by other changes in their powers or the regulatory system or the legal basis? That will ensure that more cases are brought to some sort of action at the end and that we do not carry on with such a huge contrast between the number of investigations launched and the small number resulting in a fine or prosecution.
I want to come in briefly, on the back of what the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East has said. What analysis have the Government done on whether the increase will be any more of a deterrent than the current seven-year maximum? I note that that is a maximum, and relatively speaking not a huge amount of time, given the severity of some of the crimes that may have been committed. What is the average sentence handed out at the moment? Is it closer to seven years, or is it closer to a couple of years and just a slap on the wrists?
As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, few cases get to that stage anyway. To help increase the number of people who are prosecuted, what additional resourcing will be put into the policing of financial crime? It is clearly an area that needs significant expertise. If we are going to catch people who are looking to circumvent the system, we need to have people at least as good on the other side of the balance sheet to make sure that they are catching up with them. What recruitment schemes are being put in place to attract the kind of people who will be able to investigate, prosecute and see processes through to the end, to make sure that there is a proper deterrent and people feel that they are going to get caught, fined and locked away? There needs to be sufficient expertise to make sure that that really does happen.
My concerns mirror the comments that were made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East and by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. Financial crime and fraud are areas of crime that have been under-played and under-resourced for enforcement in recent years. We know about the effects of Action Fraud and its almost minuscule levels of successful prosecutions over the years. It is one of the areas that I feel most worried about as a constituency MP. When constituents come to me with issues of fraud, they have often been given the run-around for many years and I know that, realistically, justice for them is often very far away.
Financial crime is somehow regarded as less worrisome than other forms of crime. It seems always to be at the back of the queue in terms of enforcement resources. It is almost as if some people think, “If you can get away with it, more power to your elbow.” That introduces attitudes and approaches to the rules, regulations and law that are, at the very least, unfortunate and, probably more accurately, dangerous. It is particularly worrisome given the size of our financial services sector and the number of jobs associated with that sector, and the impact if it were to be destabilised by that kind of attitude getting a grip. It is extremely important that, as a jurisdiction, we clamp down on these crimes.
Is the Minister as worried as I am? Is he satisfied that this form of levy approach is the right one? It makes it look like the state does not worry so much about financial crime—that it does not worry enough to finance the prosecution and policing of it, and that the industry has to somehow pay for its own policing and prosecution. That is an issue.
We would all welcome the increase in sentencing from seven to 10 years that clause 30 contains, but is not the real deterrence to be found in much more rigorous enforcement and financing of enforcement, rather than simply increasing the likely sentences if someone is caught? If people feel that there is not much of a chance that they are going to be caught, an increase in sentencing from seven to 10 years is not really much of a deterrent to bad behaviour. The other thing that worries me is that the risks to those individuals who might be tempted are quite small, when we consider the number of prosecutions, but the rewards, should they get away with it, can be huge. Such a risk-reward assessment does not exactly imply the sort of the deterrence that we all want to protect the integrity of our markets.
The snapshot reaction is to increase the criminal sentence by three years, but we should also consider what goes on in a more dynamic manner. Someone who is tempted to insider deal or to abuse market regulations may not behave as such at the beginning of their tenure in a company. But what if they subsequently see others getting away with that, or hear rumours that such stuff goes on, is not regulated and the authorities do not come down on people like a ton of bricks? What if they see others flaunting the profits derived from such behaviour? Let’s face it, the City can sometimes be a bit like that, although not at the moment because all the bars are closed. The Minister knows what I am talking about. In those circumstances, over time the temptation grows and the deterrence is not enough. The enforcement needs to be beefed up.
Will the Minister outline the reasons for clause 30, and why and how the Treasury plan to change the balance of the risk-reward assessment? If enforcement is to be stricter, how will deterrence be strengthened? If we got answers to those questions, many of us would feel better than we do about how market abuse will be regulated in future.
I thank Opposition Members for the last three speeches. I think that they expressed a broad understanding of and agreement with the measure, but more general concern about the capacity for implementation and the need to ensure that the issue is addressed more broadly. I am happy to try to respond to those points.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East started the conversation about enforcement and prosecution. The terms of the clause will help to ensure that market abuse is recognised as serious misconduct in the same way as fraud is currently judged, and that will send a clear message to individuals who break the law: they will be held to account.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central spoke about the length of sentencing. Since 2009, there have been 36 successful prosecutions for market abuse offences—the average sentence is 1.7 years, and the longest sentence was 4.5 years. To date, no criminal market abuse case has been tried that resulted in a seven-year sentence. That does not preclude the possibility of convictions in future cases that require a longer sentence as a result of aggravating factors, such as a significant breach of trust by senior individuals or sophisticated criminality by organised criminal groups.
In the light of the comments of the hon. Member for Wallasey about the challenges faced, I also want to add that in last week’s spending review an additional £63 million was allocated to the Home Office to boost Action Fraud. I also mentioned the economic crime levy in an earlier response, although that is anti-money laundering specific, and will not cover fraud. But a number of other activities are relevant to the points raised by Opposition colleagues.
A significant amount of work is going into the reform of suspicious activity reporting, where banks highlight transactions that give reasons for concern. That reform will be integral to our response to economic crime, and it is vital in uncovering and combating wider criminal activity. The Home Office is leading on that work.
The hon. Member for Wallasey made a point about the £100 million levy and the outsourcing, essentially, of capacity. It is important that we have joint working between the Home Office, the Treasury and the private sector on this matter. Just last week, I had a conversation with the payments regulator and UK Finance about push payment scams and the need to increase the confidence in the way those matters are treated. They are complex and involve sophisticated fraud against many of our constituents. I completely empathise with the hon. Lady’s frustration regarding the apparent lower prioritisation of this area. Across my 12 broad areas of responsibility, it is this that I find most challenging to move forward on definitively because the nature of the challenge is evolving. However, the work going on there and the payments regulator’s imperative to act, which it will do following the consultation, is significant.
However, with respect to the questions on this particular clause, I hope that the value of that enhanced sentence, which reflects the 2015 report, is understood. We will not bring the broader measures to a conclusion now, but I hope that I have signalled some of the ongoing efforts to try to deal with what is a particularly challenging area.
To some extent, this is illustrated by the fact that the enhanced sentence was in a 2015 report but we are only just legislating for it now. Five years later, we are still only talking about a sentence that is highly unlikely ever to be used, based on the past record—the Minister just quoted it himself. I wonder whether he might increase the confidence that some of us have that this is being tackled in a coherent way—we will get on to some of this later—by talking about the fragmented supervisory system and what he is doing to help bring that together so that the fragmented regulation of this whole area can actually be done more coherently, so that we can get enforcement on abuse. We all know that, prior to the big bang in the City, this was all done informally anyway, by gentleman in their clubs. It seems to me that we never really got a grip, after the big bang, in dealing with that informal networking that goes on, where a lot of the gaps and a lot of the potential insider dealing actually lurks. Perhaps he could give me a little bit more confidence about that.
Something between three and four a year, which is hardly the sign of a system that is working, unless we think that only three or four people a year are doing insider dealing. However, for those who do not believe that, and who believe that hundreds of investigations go on but only three or four people are prosecuted a year, that illustrates the point that increasing the sentencing alone will not deal with this problem.
I would never say that the measure was a panacea for economic crime or the complexity of the evolving and changing nature of the risks that we face in financial services. It is obviously an interconnected world across different jurisdictions. I empathise with the frustration around which of the multiple agencies will get a grip on this. It is necessarily complex because of the sophisticated nature of the way that data flows are reported and the way that different specialist agencies of crime enforcement and regulators need to work together.
I do not think I will give satisfaction to the Committee on this matter. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East makes a reasonable point about the implied annual number of successful prosecutions. It is impossible for me to comment on what is lost, because it is counter-factual; I cannot prove what is not there. However, I recognise that there is more work to be done and that this is one step, amid others in other Departments—particularly the Home Office—to move this forward.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 30 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Application of money laundering regulations to overseas trustees
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 30—Application of money laundering regulations to overseas trustees: review of effect on tax revenues—
‘(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the effects on tax revenues of section 31 and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the date on which this Act receives Royal Assent.
(2) The review under sub-paragraph (1) must consider—
(a) the expected change in corporation and income tax paid attributable to the provisions in this Schedule; and
(b) an estimate of any change attributable to the provisions of section 31 in the difference between the amount of tax required to be paid to the Commissioners and the amount paid.
(3) The review must under subparagraph (2)(b) consider taxes payable by the owners and employees of Scottish Limited Partnerships.’
This new clause would require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to review the effect on public finances, and on reducing the tax gap, of section 31, and in particular on the taxes payable by owners and employees of Scottish Limited Partnerships.
New clause 35—Money laundering and overseas trustees: review—
‘(1) The Treasury must, within six months of this Act being passed, prepare, publish and lay before Parliament a report on the effects on money laundering of the provisions in section 31 of this Act.
(2) The report must address—
(a) the anticipated change to the volume of money laundering attributable to the provisions of section 31; and
(b) alleged money laundering involving overseas trusts by the owners and employees of Scottish Limited Partnerships.’
This new clause would require the Treasury to review the effects on money laundering of the provisions in section 31 of this Act, and in particular on the use of overseas trusts for the purposes of money laundering by owners and employees of Scottish Limited Partnerships.
This amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 ensures that the Government have the power to change, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has the power to enforce, elements of our anti-money laundering regime relating to extraterritorial trusts. Enacting this amendment will cement HMRC’s power to access information on who really owns and benefits from overseas trusts with links to the UK. This is part of our wider reform efforts to improve beneficial ownership transparency.
It is important to stress that this merely ensures the continuation of existing powers. After the end of the transition period, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act will take over from the European Communities Act 1972 as the statutory framework for implementing sanctions and anti-money laundering policy in the UK. Changes introduced by the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 provide for the expansion of the HMRC trust registration service. Some non-UK express trusts with a connection to the UK, including those buying UK land or property, will need for the first time to register with HMRC’s trust registration service. The number of registered trusts is expected to increase from 120,000 to an estimated 3 to 6 million as a result of those changes made by the money laundering regulations.
The amendment made by the clause will confirm the Government’s ability, after the end of the EU exit transition period, to make regulations applying to trustees of overseas trusts with links to the UK, even where they are non-resident. It also confirms HMRC’s ability to take enforcement action against those trustees. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
New clauses 30 and 35 are the result of long-standing concerns that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South have about money laundering in the UK. That was accentuated by what the Minister said about increasing the number of trusts. It goes some way to reflect the evidence we took during prelegislative scrutiny of the draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, where a witness suggested that if he were going to hide some money, trusts are pretty much where he would go to do so. The Government should be doing an awful lot more on this, because with this increase in trusts and the Government’s response, it feels as though the Government are pursuing a Whac-a-Mole strategy. However, Whac-a-Mole is not a mole-eradication strategy; it just makes them pop up somewhere else. The Government need to be wiser to that.
Our new clauses would require the Treasury to review the effects on money laundering of the provisions in clause 31, and in particular on the use of overseas trusts for the purposes of money laundering by owners and employees of Scottish limited partnerships. The Minister will be fed up with me talking about Scottish limited partnerships, because I and the colleagues who preceded me have never shut up about them, but they remain a problem. The number of people fined for misuse of SLPs remains pretty much at zero, as far I am aware. The Government need to do a huge amount more.
It beggars belief that the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act left an oligarch loophole, allowing money laundering by overseas trusts to buy UK property with impunity. That Act contains the framework that the UK will use to implement sanctions and anti-money laundering policy after leaving the European Union single market. However, as the Government have observed, it is not clear that under the current drafting anti-money laundering regulations can be made in relation to non-UK trustees of trusts based outside the UK. Even though a trust may be based outside the UK, and the trustee may be a non-UK corporate or individual, the trust may have links to the UK—for example, because it owns UK property. We start to see the very complexity of the web that exists here, and the difficulty in dealing with it and finding who is really in control. New clause 31 would amend schedule 2 to the 2018 Act to ensure that regulations can be made in respect of trustees with links. Without this, any powers HMRC sought to exercise to access information about such trusts are at risk of being held invalid under legal challenge.
The Government, for their part, believe that the change will reaffirm the UK’s global leadership in the use of public registers of beneficial ownership, as identified by the Financial Action Task Force mutual evaluation of the UK in 2018. They will further support public and private sectors sufficiently and effectively target resources towards potential criminal activity using trusts, maintaining the resilience of the UK’s defences against economic crime. That is quite a joke; it really is not good enough. Trusts are the largest gaping loophole that we have. We want the Government to accept our amendments and come clean on how little impact this measure, as with many others previously, has had on money laundering.
In June 2019, HMRC published revised estimates that put the tax gap at £35 billion for 2017-18, representing 5.6% of total tax liabilities. While welcome action has been taken and that gap has had some impact, no Government have yet created a comprehensive anti-avoidance rule, because at the moment people are allowed to move around in different ways and find different loopholes and different mechanisms to avoid paying their tax.
We need a workable general anti-avoidance rule that tackles tax avoidance in all its forms; does not exempt existing and established abuse from action being taken; includes within its scope international tax abuse; gives the right to a tax authority to take action against tax avoidance, which it defines in an objective fashion capable of being numerically assessed without the consent of any unelected authority; and places the burden of proof of this issue on the taxpayer. The UK Government need to introduce a robust and transparent system of company registration in order to combat money launderers’ attempts to register entities for illicit purposes. As has been highlighted previously, Companies House is not responsible for anti-money laundering responsibilities, and the FCA register does not link up with the Companies House register. There are huge gaping holes that the Government do not seem interested in properly addressing.
I appreciate that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has had consultations upon consultations, but the gaps have been evident for quite some time. The extent of the abuse in the current system was laid bare in the Global Witness report “Getting the UK’s house in order”, which highlights the severe deficiencies at Companies House in compliance with ownership regulations. I have particularly looked at the extent of missing information and the accuracy through the persons of significant control register, which is a mechanism that ought to be collecting information on all persons and corporate entities with significant control of a business or company.
The current system allows those with intent to conceal or deceive to easily do so by registering effectively in secret as a Scottish limited partnership. Unlike English limited partnerships, those financial vehicles have legal personality, which means that agreements can be made by individuals in the name of the financial product without ever having to name the person or people who control it, and they can hold property as well. The abuses of SLPs have been well documented by Richard Smith and David Leask, formally of The Herald in Glasgow. There have been all kinds of criminality, such as arms running, money laundering and theft from overseas Governments. The Government really need to clamp down on that. SLPs have been used for years to funnel millions of pounds of dirty money created by illicit business activities, enabled in no small part by a lack of proper checks at Companies House. The Government have consistently failed to take the tough action needed to stop that.
We know for sure that the links between SLPs and criminality pose a threat to combatting organised crime, yet nothing really has happened. Every time I table parliamentary questions on SLPs and the number of people prosecuted or fined for not having persons of significant control registered, it comes back as nothing, because Companies House is not an enforcement body; all it does is collect information, and it does not check if it is good information or absolute guff. A lot of the times with these organisations, it is absolute guff. The only person to be prosecuted was a whistleblower, who was doing so in order to expose the nonsense of Companies House, which is absolutely bizarre.
In the last Parliament, we secured support for a Finance Bill amendment seeking a review into the impact of UK tax avoidance measures and forced the Government to accept the need to tackle the use of SLPs. We were also strongly involved in the Magnitsky amendments in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. But there is much still to be done. Our new clauses are a further suggestion of what more the Government could and should be doing if they are serious about the scourge of dirty money on our doorstep. I move these amendments in my name and hope that the Government will at some point listen, enforce these things and act to deal with this, because it should not be this way. I have been here for five and a half years, banging on about SLPs, as did my former colleague Roger Mullin, yet the issue is still not resolved. The Government must do better.
Just a note of caution: these amendments have not been formally moved yet, but on Thursday, when we reach that point, the hon. Member can move them.
Sometimes, when I look at this Bill and all the different things it attempts to deal with, I have an image in my head of somebody cleaning out a cupboard in the Treasury, finding lots of policy things and looking for a legislative truck on which they can be loaded.
Otherwise known as a portmanteau Bill. It is a shame that they could not find more in the cupboard. A couple of small measures are not objectionable in themselves, but we have to ask whether they are up to the challenge. This measure deals with money laundering and trustees based overseas. I do not think that Opposition members of the Committee will object to that, but we must ask, given the scale of money laundering, whether the Government could not have done more.
The membership of this Bill Committee includes a few illustrious members of the Treasury Committee, which has looked into this issue. In fact, it reported on it last year. In compiling that report, it took evidence from witnesses who suggested that the scale of the problem could run to hundreds of billions of pounds. Of course, by definition, as the Minister said a few minutes ago, it is difficult to pin down the size of an unknown, and we cannot be certain, but these were credible witnesses. Even the Government’s then Security Minister, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), told the Committee in his evidence that the figure of £90 billion was probably “a conservative estimate”.
The Treasury Committee’s report highlighted that in a post-Brexit situation, new trading opportunities could also
“provide opportunities to those wishing to undertake economic crime in countries that are more vulnerable to corruption.”
That is why I am asking the Minister how these things will be monitored and how we will insulate ourselves against the temptation to strike trade deals here, there and everywhere and, in so doing, perhaps not always looking as deeply as we would into the regulatory systems and so on. The Committee pointed out in its report:
“There is a clearly identified risk that company formation may be used in money laundering.”
The Treasury Committee heard evidence that there had been no fines or criminal proceedings relating to the issue of beneficial ownership. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central pointed out, the one Companies House-related prosecution that took place was simply intended to show how weak the system of scrutiny was. In discussing the role of Companies House, the report concluded that it represented “a weakness”. That is quite a damning conclusion for a very eminent Committee of this House to reach, and it painted a picture of an organisation that saw its role as keeping a register—being a librarian rather than a partner in law enforcement.
There is a history to this, of course. We have always prided ourselves on being a country where it is easy to set up a business—it is a fast process and there are not many barriers. That approach has a lot of strengths, but given that only a few individuals control literally thousands of companies on the register, we cannot afford to be so lax. The Government have to some degree recognised that. In September, just before this Bill was published, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in September made an announcement, in which it recognised the problem with the current structure of Companies House and proposed some changes.
The three most important proposals were compulsory identity verification, which has not been happening up until now, a greater power to query false information, and powers on data. The Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), said that those changes would make it easier
“to crack down on dirty money and financial exploitation, to protect our security and prosperity.”
That is all good, but the Royal United Services Institute, a respected think-tank, had a look at the Government announcements and tested them against the problem, noting also that 3,000 potentially suspicious UK company structures were cited in what was leaked from the recent Financial Crimes Enforcement Network files.
Let us look at the proposals, starting with mandatory ID verification for the directors of companies or persons of significant control. It would be good if that is done, but there is a big, gaping loophole in it. The proposal will apply only to those incorporating companies directly with Companies House, rather than to the estimated 60% that choose to incorporate via third-party agents. It is a good measure, but it applies only to the minority of companies that register with Companies House.
The second proposal is to give the registrar and CEO of Companies House the power to query information. Up until now, the registrar has had no legal power to do that and has had to accept all information on trust. It is simply astonishing that that has been the case up until now, given that they hold a register of 4 million companies. The scope of the power and how it will be operationalised remain subject to future consultation, so we do not really know how far it will go in allowing the Companies House registrar to probe what they are being told when people come along to register a company.
Thirdly, the proposals about data sharing are welcome, including for bulk data sharing between Companies House and other public sector datasets. The reason that they are important relates to what I asked earlier about the job description of Companies House: is it a register, or is it an organisation that sees itself like any kind of regulator?
The Government proposals are stark. A big hole has been identified in them, but they are also a recognition of the scale of the problem and that we cannot adequately crack down on the big money laundering problem unless we do something about Companies House, too. Global Witness, a charity that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central referred to, estimates that more than 336,000 companies have not disclosed their beneficial owner. It also found that 2,000 company owners had been disqualified directors. The September proposals are a start, but what more can the Minister tell us about how they will be taken forward?
I have mentioned the Treasury Committee, but we also have the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia, which referred to “the London laundromat”. That report exposed the weaknesses in unexplained wealth orders and, in particular, their applicability to people who may have been here for some time and invested in property. Property is at the heart of clause 31, because it is through investment in property that those who may not have come by their money legitimately can cleanse their property and say that their wealth is explained, after all. In evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s inquiry, the National Crime Agency called for amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, specifically using serious and organised crime as a justification for sanctions.
Reference has also been made to the draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on where we are with that, because that is another important piece of this jigsaw. As I said, since the Russia report, we have had the FinCEN files, which once again place a number of British financial institutions at the centre of further allegations of money laundering.
In the face of all that, we have before us a clause that deals with one specific part of this. We certainly do not object to it, but given what the Treasury Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee have said about it, and given what the Government themselves have said about the weaknesses in Companies House, the Bill seems to miss the opportunity to do more about it. Where is the broader plan to tackle corruption and money laundering, especially as we are on the cusp of moving from European regulation to a post-Brexit situation? We will return to some of these issues when we debate the new clauses on Thursday, but it is important to put that on the record and to put this clause in some kind of context, given the size of the problem we face.
A couple of boring things: first, I have been told that I am being too generous with interventions—I do not think there are any at the moment. Secondly, that last oration was good on the generalities of money laundering, but I think clause 31 focuses tightly on overseas investors, so if it happens too often, knuckles will be rapped. However, it was interesting and I learned a lot, so thank you, Pat McFadden.
I suspect you have just wiped out most of my speech, Dr Huq. We want to hear from the Minister about the adequacy of having just this clause, and not a lot else, to deal with the issue in this portmanteau Bill. In the debate on clause 30, we heard that it had taken the Treasury five years to increase from seven to 10 years the potential sentence for market abuse. The Treasury Committee’s 2019 report—I am now a member of that Committee—was excoriating about the scale of the problem, with between tens of billions and potentially £100 billion lost. As we have discussed in relation to other parts of the Bill, we know that small weaknesses in the defences can be ruthlessly targeted and become much bigger if they are not closed off.
We are reassured about the point that the Minister is trying to make with clause 31, but given that our country has been described as a laundromat for money laundering, perhaps the Government could have used this Bill as a suitable legislative opportunity to make other changes to the money laundering legislation that this clause amends. Perhaps the Minister could explain why that action has not been taken and give us an idea of what will follow. He has already referred to a reform of the suspicious activity reports regime. Why is that not included in this Bill, given that an analysis of it has found that over 80% of the reports are from banks, and very few from other places where there might be suspicious activity, such as property ownership in the UK? As we know, that is how money can be laundered.
We seem to have got ourselves into a situation where the banking structures just produce suspicious activity reports in massive numbers—three quarters of a million of them in a year, I think. Among those, the real ones are perhaps hidden, but the regulators are trying to get through them all and do very little. At the same time, we know that when the FinCEN papers were actually leaked, that involved, between 2000 and 2017, the transfer of close to $2 trillion of transactions, which were included in these suspicious activity reports.
Many transactions laundered money through our systems—many from overseas, in terms of what we are dealing with in clause 4. HSBC allowed fraudsters to move millions of dollars of stolen money around the world even though they knew it was a scam. J.P. Morgan allowed a company to move more than one billion through a London account without knowing who owned it. I could go on.
It seems that clause 31 is a tiny little attempt to stop an abuse, given that the abuse going on is of that scale. There is also the husband of a woman who donated £1.7 million to the UK’s Conservative party, secretly funded by a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Putin. Again, I could go on. I hope that the Minister is going to at least give us some view about what is going on here and whether clause 31 is the be-all and end-all of what the Government intend to put in place to deal with this issue.
On victims of fraud, criminals have successfully stolen £1.2 billion from individuals through banking fraud; in an earlier debate, the Minister was talking about his own frustrations with trying to get a grip of that issue. That figure on scams comes from 2018. It is also estimated that £5.9 billion a year is defrauded from businesses in the public sector.
The issue is not just about oligarchs running their money around the world and laundering it into property and other things. It is not just about mafiosi or corrupt political leaders doing the same, although all that is happening. This involves your constituents, Dr Huq, and my constituents, who are losing money through banking scams. Our public sector is losing money through other scams, which bleeds away the resources available to us to do the other things we need to, especially when these resources are scarce.
This issue can sometimes look very technical—it is about overseas investors and is only little clause 31. But it is not only about corrupt laundromats, Russian reports and corruption on a scale we can only think about. It is also about some of our well-known high street banks indulging in such activity and covering it up somehow, because having the business is so profitable for them—and, again, the risks of being caught and fined are outweighed by the profits that can be made by turning a blind eye. It involves all of the major banking and investment institutions. It involves estate agents, lawyers and accountants who are facilitators—wittingly or unwittingly—to all these activities.
We had better get a grip: the more this kind of money is present, the worse and dirtier it makes our structures and systems and the more cynical it makes our constituents. It makes all of us less likely to follow the rule of law and agree that the right thing should be done. It changes the balance that people calculate between the risks of doing something wrong and the rewards of not being caught. None of that helps the rule of law; none of it helps honesty; and none of it helps those of our constituents who strive their whole lives to do the right thing and yet see others profit massively from scams and reprehensible behaviour—criminal behaviour, in a lot of cases.
Dr Huq, I have ranged a bit wider than the terms of clause 31, but I think that it is the start of a fightback on money laundering regulations. Even though it represents a tiny, tiny little step, the Government have yet to persuade me that they want to get a grip of the situation and intend to do so through the Bill.
I thank Members for their contributions, although at times as I listened I thought that I was in the wrong place, given the wider conversation about economic crime. However, I greatly respect the sentiments and points expressed and I will try to address the questions put.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East spoke of a mental image of a cupboard being cleared out. I will not deny that in my three years as Economic Secretary I needed to legislate on a number of matters, and the Bill necessarily brings together a number of them. However, there will be more legislation if I can persuade the authorities in this place to grant me that opportunity. I assure him that the Bill does not represent the end point on a number of matters. The clause, however, merely ensures the continuation of, and ability to vary in future, existing powers and requirements with respect to overseas trusts.
New clause 30, proposed by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, would impose a requirement on the Treasury to report on the impact of the provisions of clause 31 on the expected change in corporation tax and income tax paid, and the expected change in the difference between the amount of tax required and the amount tax paid in relation to overseas trusts and Scottish limited partnerships. I reiterate that the Government are committed to ensuring that the UK’s corporate structures are not exploited by those seeking to avoid or evade tax. For reasons that I will outline, however, the Government cannot support the proposed new clause.
As I have said, the Government have introduced changes through amendments to the money laundering regulations that directly aim to improve the transparency of the ownership of trusts. In particular, those changes significantly expand the requirement for non-UK trusts to register with the HMRC trust registration service. Trusts will have to provide evidence that they are registered before entering into business arrangements with regulated firms under the money laundering regulations. HMRC needs clear powers to take enforcement action against those who do not comply with registration requirements, and the Government need to maintain the ability to amend those requirements in future.
The powers in the Sanctions and Anti-money Laundering Act 2018 will ensure that the UK Government can continue to make and amend their regulations. The proposed new clause would require the Treasury to publish a report on the effects of clause 31 on the amount of taxes paid, but it is not in line with effects of that clause, which does not make changes to taxes. The provision is not expected to bring about any changes in the amount of corporation tax and income tax paid nor any change to the tax gap in relation to Scottish limited partnerships or otherwise. Neither is it envisioned that it would be possible to attribute any variation in taxes paid, nor the tax gap, to clause 31.
New clause 35 imposes a requirement on the Treasury to report on the impact of the provisions in clause 31 on money laundering volumes involving overseas trusts and Scottish limited partnerships. I understand that it seeks to measure the impact of our efforts to prevent money laundering through trusts, but may I remind hon. Members that the current Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the 2017 regulations that they amended, namely, the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017, already require the Treasury to carry out a review of its regulatory provisions and publish a report setting out the conclusions of its review by June 2022? That wider review will provide a more meaningful evaluation than simply reporting on the narrow provision of the clause, and provide continuity in the Government’s powers to make changes in the UK’s anti-money laundering regime.
I also remind colleagues that Scottish limited partnerships are not specifically within the scope of the trust register, and point them towards separate legislation that deals with transparency for those vehicles. In June 2017, Scottish limited partnerships were brought into scope with the public register of beneficial ownership maintained by Companies House. Since the Government introduced new reporting requirements for Scottish limited partnerships in 2017, new registrations of Scottish limited partnerships have greatly reduced, with registrations falling from 4,932 in 2016-17 to 2,689 in 2017-18, and falling further to 657 in 2019-20.
I want to take this opportunity to address some of the broader points on the alleged failures, and the work in progress, with respect to anti-money laundering and trusts. I think it reasonable to say that the UK is recognised as having some of the strongest controls internationally for tackling money laundering and terrorist financing. In recent years, we have taken a number of steps, including creating a new National Economic Crime Centre, passing the Criminal Finances Act 2017, and establishing the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision.
The hon. Member for Wallasey referred to the challenge of suspicious activity reports processing. The economic crime levy, in working with industry, is a direct attempt to invest in that reform. She asked specifically why legislation on that is not included in the Bill. That is continuing work that urgently needs to move forward, but provision for extra investment to process SARs more efficiently is being conducted at pace.
Last year, the Government published the landmark economic crime plan, which brought law enforcement and the private sector together in closer co-operation than ever before to deliver a whole-system response to economic crime. This year, we completed the transposition of the fifth anti-money laundering directive into domestic law. That remains comprehensive and responsive to emerging threats, in line with the evolving standards set out by the Financial Action Task Force—the international body that monitors such matters.
The expansion of the trusts registration service referenced today will bring millions more trusts in scope, including overseas trusts that purchase land or property in the UK. We will ensure that information on the register is made available in certain circumstances to those with a legitimate interest. We do recognise—I acknowledge the sentiments that have been expressed—that more needs to be done, and we are committed to making further progress, building on that made so far, to lead the global fight against illicit financial flows.
New clauses 30 and 35 make small amendments to clarify that the Government can enforce extraterritorial trust registration in relation to non-UK resident trustees and update those requirements in future. On why we are not doing more in the Bill, I have mentioned a number of the activities that the Government are undertaking, but I recognise that more needs to be done.
I should also mention the overseas entities Bill. In line with the ongoing commitment to combatting illicit finance, we intend to implement a register of beneficial owners of overseas entities that buy or own land in the UK as a measure of the economic crime plan 2019 to 2022. The register will be the first of its type in the world. The Government published a draft of that legislation, which accepted many of the subsequent recommendations by the Joint Committee that carried out that pre-legislative scrutiny. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central knows, the Queen’s Speech last year committed to this Bill and to the continuing progress of that draft legislation. Lord Callanan’s written ministerial statement in July outlined the progress to date of that draft Bill.
On Companies House register reform—another matter mentioned by several colleagues—the Government are currently considering a broad package of reforms to Companies House to boost its potential as an enabler of business transactions and economic growth, but also giving it a bigger role in combatting economic crime. Following last year’s consultation, the Government issued our response to the corporate transparency and register reform on 18 September. The response summarises the views received and sets out how the Government will take forward those plans.
The Government will legislate when the parliamentary calendar allows and intend to deliver more reliable information on the companies register—reinforced by the verification of the identity of people who manage, control or set up companies, as has been referenced—and greater powers for those at Companies House to query and challenge information, so they are not just librarians, as I think they were described.
We will bring effective protection of personal information provided to Companies House and a more effective investigation and enforcement regime for non-disclosure and false-filing; the removal of technological and legal barriers to allow enhanced cross-checks on corporate data with other public and private sector bodies; continued investment in technology and in the skills of Companies House staff to make that register more efficient, effective and resilient; and broader reforms to clamp down on the misuse of entities I hope that my answers have done some justice to the questions asked, and I ask the hon. Member for Glasgow Central to withdraw the new clauses.
Actually, new clauses 30 and 35 will not be decided until Thursday because of where they are on the amendment paper, so the hon. Member for Glasgow Central can decide then whether to press or withdraw them. For now, we are on clause 31 stand part.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 31 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(David Rutley.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Financial Services Bill (Tenth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Philip Davies, Dr Rupa Huq
† Baldwin, Harriett (West Worcestershire) (Con)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
† Davies, Gareth (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)
† Eagle, Ms Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
Flynn, Stephen (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
† Glen, John (Economic Secretary to the Treasury)
† Jones, Andrew (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
† McFadden, Mr Pat (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
† Marson, Julie (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
† Millar, Robin (Aberconwy) (Con)
† Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
† Richardson, Angela (Guildford) (Con)
† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
† Thewliss, Alison (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
† Williams, Craig (Montgomeryshire) (Con)
Kevin Maddison; Nicholas Taylor, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 1 December 2020
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Financial Services Bill
Debt respite scheme
Before I call Pat McFadden, it might be helpful if I give a bit of guidance so that we do not go off-piste from the scope of the clause.
To clarify, the scope of the clause takes in the debt respite scheme, similar schemes to assist individuals in debt, and measures to stop people getting into debt in the first place, where these are specifically connected to businesses regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Items outside the scope of the clause include: personal insolvency, including reforms to debt relief orders, and any other matter set out in the Insolvency Act 1986; the provision of advice to the public about personal finance decisions; corporate debt, and measures to stop people getting into debt in the first place that do not concern businesses regulated by the FCA. I hope that is helpful.
I beg to move amendment 29, in clause 32, page 38, line 22, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) Section 7 of that Act (debt respite scheme: regulations) is amended in accordance with subsections (2A), (3) and (4).
(2A) For subsection (2), substitute—
(2) After receiving advice from the single financial guidance body under section 6, the Secretary of State shall make regulations establishing a debt respite scheme within 12 months of this Act coming into force.”
This amendment would require the debt respite scheme to come into force within 12 months of this Act being passed.
I cannot think that anyone on this Committee would try to push the boundaries of what it is legitimate to include in our debates, Mr Davies. That would be a truly shocking thing for anybody on a Public Bill Committee to do, so I hope that we will not see any of that in the next few hours.
I will not push amendment 29, which I am sure is in scope even if it is not perfect, to a vote; rather, I will use it to ask the Minister a question. The purpose of tabling the amendment was to make the point that we want to get a move on with this debt respite scheme, which has support on both sides of the House, because of the current pandemic situation and the difficult economic impact it is having on the household finances of a large number of people. Unfortunately, this will lead to increased problems of debt and to more people looking for the kind of help that is envisaged in the clause. People should have access to thr debt respite scheme, so I would be grateful if the Minister set out a little more about the timetable for introducing the scheme after Royal Assent.
Let me see if can get straight to the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The statutory debt repayment plan is an option that will be available to people who go into the breathing space scheme. That will be up and running on 4 May next year, and the SDRP is an option that we would move the regulations for as soon as possible after this Bill is passed. After Royal Assent, we will consult on those regulations. Given the challenges and complexity involved, we need to work very closely—as we did on the breathing space scheme—with the debt advice sector, creditors and regulators to ensure that we deliver the policy successfully.
The regulations that come from this work will need to be developed and consulted on over a longer timetable, and we will consult on those draft regulations as soon as possible after the Bill receives Royal Assent. In the meantime, we are pushing ahead with the implementation of the breathing space scheme, which will come into force on 4 May next year. Other voluntary and statutory debt schemes will continue to be available to debtors in the meantime. This is an option to add to the list of options available to those who go into the breathing space scheme.
Amendment 29 would require the Government to make regulations establishing a debt respite scheme within one year of the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018 coming into force. As that Act has been in force since 1 October 2018, that would make it a retrospective requirement and I do not think that is quite what is intended. The regulations establishing the first half of the Government’s debt respite scheme—the breathing space scheme—were made in November 2020, and the right hon. Gentleman participated in the debate on that statutory instrument. That part of the scheme will commence in May 21, as set out in those regulations.
Leaving aside the drafting issues, I understand that hon. Members are keen that the Government do not delay introducing the second part of the scheme, the statutory debt repayment plan. I assure the Committee that it is our intention to support those who are experiencing problem debt swiftly and effectively. The Government will consult on those regulations as soon as possible after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We set out our outline policy in the June 2019 consultation response, but there is significant ongoing work to be done. In the meantime, the breathing space scheme will be up and running from next May and all existing statutory and voluntary debt solutions remain available to those in problem debt. I respectfully ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 34, in clause 32, page 38, line 23, at end insert—
“(2A) After subsection (3) insert—
(3A) Where, by virtue of subsection 2, the Secretary of State makes regulations establishing a debt respite scheme, the time period that the debtor protections provided for by virtue of section 6(2)(a) and section 6(2)(b) shall be no less than 120 days.”
This amendment would require the breathing space to provide debtors with a minimum of 120 days protection from the accrual of further interest and charges and enforcement action.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 11—Extension of the Breathing Space and Mental Health Crisis Moratorium—
“(1) The Debt Respite Scheme (Breathing Space Moratorium and Mental Health Crisis Moratorium) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 shall be amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 1(2), for ‘4th May 2021’ substitute ‘31st January 2021’.
(3) In paragraph 26(2), for ‘60 days’ substitute ‘12 months’.”
This new clause would bring forward the start date of the Debt Respite Scheme and extend the duration of the Breathing Space Moratorium from 60 days to 12 months.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a pleasure to have this debate. I see the Minister is already smiling. I know he has been looking forward to this debate, because he and I have talked for some time now about how best to help our constituents with debt.
As a nation, we find it easier to talk about anything other than money; even our intimate relations tend to get more coverage in our national press now than the state of our bank balances. Each of us, as representatives in this place, will know from our surgeries how critical this issue is for our country and how important it is to get right the measures to help people with their financial position, because the honest truth is that this is a country not waving but drowning. We all see it in our constituencies.
Mindful of what you said about scope, Mr Davies, in speaking to the amendments I will first set out why I agree with the Government absolutely that we need a breathing space scheme. The amendments come from a desire to work with the Minister to get that scheme right. I know he shares my concern to get these policies right, because we see in our communities the damage—the financial damage, the social damage and the mental health damage—caused by problem debt.
I do not think we can start to have the conversation about whether the Bill needs amending until we define what we mean by problem debt, which is a term that we use interchangeably in debates and discussions. We know that when people do not talk about their debts, they can get into all sorts of debt without thinking that it is a problem until it is too late. All of us, whether we have been an MP for a year, 10 years or 20 years, will have encountered the person who comes to a surgery and says, “I’m going to be evicted next week. Can you help me save my house?” We know it is too late, because they have got into a level of debt they cannot get out of, but they did not see it as a problem.
One of the things that we must do in this place is to make it as popular to talk about our debts and the problems that debt can create, how people can be good with money and how we can help people be good with money—and, when it comes to the Financial Conduct Authority, how we make sure it is a fair fight—as it is to talk about people’s intimate relations. Indeed, the sidebar of shame in the Daily Mail should be more about companies seeking to exploit our constituents by offering them poor levels of debt that we want the FCA to regulate than the size of Kim Kardashian’s derrière. I put that out there as something we should be more concerned about.
Problem debt has been an issue for generations, and over the past decade it has got a lot worse. It is important that the Government are proposing a breathing space, because we can layer on top of that debt the Monty Python foot that is covid and the disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods. I know that some Members would rather be in that debate today than in this one, but I hope I can convince them that this debate in Committee and getting these measures right is the most important place we can be.
As a country we do not talk about problem debt. We do not even see it as a problem, but the problems that will face our constituents and communities in the coming months will be horrific. Let us consider how almost half the UK adult population went into 2020 with debt already hanging over their head, with almost 5 million of our fellow citizens owing more than £10,000 in credit and loans alone. That is unsecured personal debt. This is not about mortgages and housing debt; it is about people having too much month at the end of their money, and people finding ways to deal with that that do not seem to them to be a problem because, if they can keep cycling things through the cards and keep borrowing and making repayments, they can probably keep going.
The nation went into coronavirus already in hock in ways that make people financially vulnerable, but without an awareness of what that might mean for their communities. When asked about their debts at the start of 2020, 40% of those polled said the debt was due to normal living expenses. One thing that we need to knock on the head is the fact in this country debt is not about people buying flash cars and tellies, much though that sidebar of shame might like to make us think it is. It is about people trying to put food on the table and keep the car going so they can get to work, and yes, there are people putting their mortgage on their credit cards.
When I talk about problem debt, I do not just mean the Wongas of this world. I mean the credit card companies that have a sort of respectability because they have helped to keep people going. I am not against borrowing or any form of credit at all, but when we know how the country and our constituents were leveraged at the start of this year, and we see what has happened this year, getting right our proposals to help them, because debt will be a problem, becomes all the more important.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that there is a big problem around catalogues and debt for basics such as school clothes, trainers and jackets? People are building up debt for the essentials of life and are told they can pay it back in tiny amounts, but it is over a very long period, which means the debt is never really cleared.
I completely agree. Many a time have I had conversations with constituents about how they buy things, and they do not see it as a problem. They have no other option, so they use the catalogues and do not look at the interest rates. What they need is not more financial education, but more options. The brutal reality is that it is very expensive to be poor in this country. That is why it matters that the things we do to help them if they get into difficulty work.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to debt and interest payments incurred—the price of having that debt—the concept of an unfair contract is far too lax on those who lend the money and far too harsh on those whose circumstances often, as the hon. Lady just mentioned, mean that they have to borrow?
My hon. Friend knows that I completely agree with her. She also knows that she is tempting me to discuss other amendments that I have tabled about that fair fight, and I do not want to disrespect you, Mr Davies, or the Clerk in trying to keep us to the issue at hand. My point is that when we talk about a respite scheme to help people with problem debt, we have to be clear about what we mean by problem debt and whether people recognise that they have a problem. The point of a breathing space is to be able to address that problem.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) and I tabled the amendments because we recognise that people do not necessarily see things as a problem until it is too late, so when we construct measures to help people in these difficult places, we have to be able to work with them and where they are at, and how people deal with debt. We might look at something and say, “That is an unsustainable financial situation that you have got yourself into,” but our constituents not see it that way.
I said at the start that it was worth thinking about where this country stood at the start of the year. There are conflicting figures, which I am sure the Minister has been looking at. I know he shares my concern about consumer debt and consumer credit. Bank of England data shows that during the coronavirus crisis people have actually been trying to pay down their debts—frankly, they have been stuck at home, so they have money and they think, “Well, I’ll try to pay down my debts.” Since March this year, £15.6 billion of household debt has been repaid, and credit card debt has fallen by 13% in the last year.
The Minister might think that is a ground for optimism—that maybe our country can cope with its debt and it may not be as much of a problem; that when we are thinking about things like a breathing space process, there may not be that many people who need to use it. The worry I have is that we have to set that against the figures on unemployment and people already in debt with no savings, because that was how they coped with the cost of living. They are the people the Government expect to go out and spend money when all the shops reopen, to put money back into the economy and to eat out to help out. Those people will be in the position where they are going to drown, because that is how they put food on the table and they will have lost their jobs.
The conservative estimates of unemployment this year are about 3 million or 3.5 million; many people think it may rise to 4 million. It does not take a rocket scientist to recognise that if our country is dependent on people going out to spend again and credit is easily available—credit is a critical part of the FCA’s role, and I have tabled further amendments on that—something has got to give, but it does take a Parliament that sees personal debt as a national priority. We know that it will be our constituents’ pay packets. Those are the people who will need a breathing space. The concept of a breathing space is absolutely right, because it comes into play when people have a problem.
New clause 11 speaks to the same concern that I have, which is what happens when people finally ask for help. We know that many do not ask for help. They might talk to their friends or their friends might lend them money, but in this environment that is not going to happen. There are going to be double pressures, including the social pressure that comes from the shame of getting into a financial difficulty. Those of us who have been involved with our local food banks in the last seven months know that a new crowd is turning up, consisting of people who have never had to deal with financial disruption in the ways that we have. We have people who are on low incomes and always have been who are very good at budgeting, because they have always known that the catalogue is the only way to get things sorted and that that is the extra cost they have to pay. We have people who are self-employed, whose industries have completely collapsed, who are suddenly finding themselves in need of debt advice and help.
The amendments are about how to make the breathing space work for everyone. There may absolutely be people seeking help for whom 60 days is enough time to get things sorted and make some difficult decisions about what assets—if they have any—they can sell.
My right hon. Friend is right, and that was one of the points I was going to make. If we are dealing with a new group of people who have never been in financial difficulty before, one of the sources of help and support for them may well be our welfare system. Anybody who has ever dealt with people trying to make new claims in our welfare system knows that 60 days is an incredibly tight timeline for that to happen—to deal with any appeals and paperwork, and to even get a response to the claim that has been made. Yet experience tells us then when people do get into problem debt, sometimes they do not know what support they are entitled to.
The amendments speak both to the reality of people and to the practicality of making a breathing space work. I hope the Minister will see them in that way and recognise that that is why so many debt advice providers support the amendments and say, “Yes, actually, what’s proposed does feel too tight to get things right.” Some people’s situations can be resolved in 60 days; others’ will take longer. It is not right to close off the opportunity of a breathing space by setting a deadline or threshold that means that for some people who are waiting for information it will be too late. The amendments speak to how we can make the process work for everyone, giving debt advice providers the discretion to be able to work with people and to use the breathing space for its intended purpose, which is to give those who recognise they have a problem the chance to get it sorted before we go into some of the more serious options.
The brutal reality is that we know that, with jobs thin on the ground, debt already mounting up and the cost of living not reducing any time soon, not everybody who gets a breathing space is going to be able to breathe again. I know the Minister would be frustrated if, rather than the financial position of the people involved, it was that timing, that threshold, that meant the breathing space did not work in the way in which it is intended.
The Minister will have seen that I have tabled other amendments on we make this breathing space work. I know he cares about getting this right. In these Committees, there is always pressure on Ministers to say no to amendments, but I hope he will acknowledge that this is about making the policy work, recognising the evidence on the ground about what works with people who are in problem debt and how long it takes them to see that they have a problem. If he does not accept the timescales, if he does not accept the intentions of myself and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West in acknowledging the distress people feel when they have to front up and talk to a stranger about the financial position they are in and their fears in an environment where unemployment is widespread. Goodness knows, getting people to take debt advice at the start of this year, when there seemed to be jobs in our economy, was difficult—anybody who tried to refer a constituent to Citizens Advice knows that. Getting people to a point where they have the chance to breathe again means making this process work.
If the Minister does not think the extension is right, I am keen to hear what he thinks we should do to make sure that that threshold is not a cliff edge over which people fall and cannot come back from. We are all going to be seeing a lot of people in financial difficulty in the coming months in our surgeries—people who have nowhere else to turn, people who are very frightened, and people whose families, homes and mental welfare depend on us getting this right.
I wish to spend a short amount of time congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow on the focus and experience she brings to this very important topic. As she said, debt is one of those taboo subjects. People feel ashamed if they have got into debt and tend not to discuss it—sometimes within their own relationships, let alone with other people—because it is a source of shame.
To some extent, it is a bit like the people who fall for scams or fraud. It is a uniquely difficult thing because if someone has got themselves into that situation, it makes them feel ashamed of their behaviour or that they have fallen for something. They feel isolated and unable to discuss it and go to get assistance. To some extent, even getting to what my hon. Friend is suggesting in her amendment means someone has gone a considerable distance: first, admitting there is a problem, and secondly, seeking help and trying to see what can be done to alleviate the problem.
I also feel that when people get into debt in this manner, they are uniquely judged by those looking on. The taboo is reinforced by the judgmental nature of onlookers who think, “I would never get into debt like that,” or, “How on earth have they done that?” There are caricatures of how people who get into debt behave that are almost designed to blame them for their debts, suggesting that somehow they are incoherent with money, that they cannot manage, that they have inadequacies, or that they have gone on spending sprees all over the place and not thought about the future. I suppose in a minority of cases that might be true, but in the majority of cases, in my experience—certainly in my advice surgery—it is not. People get on a slippery slope.
We live in a consumer-oriented society where those who wish to sell us things, and the financial services companies that wish to provide us with the wherewithal to buy them immediately, are very sophisticated. We are in a culture very different from the one I grew up in. I will now reveal how old I am: when I was growing up, one had to put money away and pay for goods gradually before one could get them. Now there are all sorts of electronic currencies that can be used.
On Black Friday, I was shopping for deals from my room, but—uniquely—had no positive results because everything was out of stock. That demonstrates how easy it is to spend money to acquire things, and to get into debt. It is now instantaneous. With the shift to online, one does not even have to physically be in shops to buy things; one is two clicks away from having this kind of problem.
If ever there were something that made it easier for people to get into trouble, it is the speed and effectiveness with which they can click on things and spend money. We talk about that with regard to gambling, but buying goods can also be addictive. People are propagandised the whole time about how success comes with having goods, and that one has to have the right trainers and the right brands.
The hon. Member makes an excellent point. In my constituency some years ago, a survey was carried out on how people felt in local communities about the pressure on them to have things. Does she agree that in many communities there is a huge amount of pressure put on people to fit in and to have those goods? Lots of shame is carried by families who feel they cannot afford things, which then puts pressure on them to go beyond their spending limits.
Absolutely. It is about success and belonging, and that is the kind of culture that the very sophisticated advertisers that push this kind of thing go for. They also advertise to children, so there is the pester element of it. Kids used to want the latest Cabbage Patch Kid; I do not know what it will be this year, but whatever it is will be extremely expensive and beyond the means of quite a lot of people.
Can I gently interrupt the hon. Lady? I am happy to give a bit of latitude for people to set out the issue, but I do not want this to become a Second Reading debate on debt. If we could stick a bit more rigidly to the amendment, I would appreciate it.
Of course I will, Mr Davies. The amendment is about having breathing space when one has got into this situation. I accept your guidance, obviously; I was merely trying to set out how people can get into a situation of requiring breathing space, how judgmental people can be about debt, and how different the culture is now about getting into debt. It is so much easier to do it—just two clicks away.
To introduce breathing space and some of the issues that we will get on to in terms of trying to get people out of debt, we need to shed the taboos so that people can ask for help. We need to think about how we can put more warnings in between the two clicks it takes to spend. We also need, as a society, to stop being quite so judgmental about the situations that people find themselves in. If we can do that and foster more upfront and open discussions about how such situations happen, and if people can stop feeling so ashamed about it and so alone, we may find that there are better, more effective ways of tackling debt and preventing the necessity for the breathing space issue.
I accept that we are not there yet. I am more than happy to support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it.
Forgive me, Mr Davies; I did not acknowledge what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in my previous remarks, so I do so now. I will address amendment 34 and new clause 11, but first I feel that I should respond to the general context that colleagues have raised. The hon. Member for Walthamstow is right that I share many of her perspectives, if not always her solutions.
High-cost credit will always be with us; the question is about the terms on which it is made available and what we can do to make available better alternative provision of credit. As the hon. Lady acknowledged, we have had conversations and debates about the issue many times. It will be useful for the Committee to know that Chris Woolard, the former interim chief executive of the FCA, is currently conducting a review into high-cost credit, particularly looking at the explosion of new models of payment—“buy now, pay later” in particular.
I have also been very focused on making more of the alternatives, by supporting the credit unions to allow them to lend more easily and by looking with the Association of British Credit Unions, one of their trade bodies, at what legislation we can bring forward. That is something we have committed to. I have also committed to working on pilots for the no-interest loan scheme, because that could be really useful; if we can establish where that can be used, it would provide a meaningful alternative.
Some of my most compelling experiences as an MP have come from working on the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and the former Member for Birkenhead. On a visit to South Shields in 2014, I remember seeing first hand some of the really challenging situations that people get into with debt. That has been echoed in my own constituency in Salisbury, where the Trussell Trust was founded. That is why it is really important we have invigorated the support that the debt advice sector can have. We have allocated an extra £37.8 million in May, so that it has £100 million this year.
The main objective of the breathing space mechanism is to get people to a place where they can evaluate their situation and find the right option. The effect of amendment 34 is to require the Government to provide protections that last at least 120 days when making future regulations concerning breathing space or the statutory debt repayment plan. The amendment does not amend the existing breathing space regulations, which, I believe, was probably the intention. The aim of breathing space is to provide temporary debt relief, and extending the duration by that amount of time does not align with the policy intent.
In the 2017 manifesto, we committed, as an aspiring Government, to a six-week moratorium breathing space period. That is what we consulted on and it was, I think, through my direction as the Minister two and a half years ago that we committed to extend that to 60 days. That was the expectation and consensus among those who contributed to that. The Government consider those 60 days to be an appropriate period for a breathing space moratorium. I have not received any direct representations from charities, although StepChange believes that 60 days is the right period, although that could be changed in exceptional circumstances. I recognise that that charity may consider that as being met, but I am told by my officials that I have not received direct representation about that.
Apologies; I just want to clarify. Some 80 debt advisers have written to the Committee to support the measure on precisely the grounds that I have set out. Is the Minister saying he has not seen those representations or that he does not see them as a voice of the sector? There is a difference and I do not know whether that is an absence we need to address.
The difference is that, as a Minister, I have not been written to by them. I recognise that there is a range of views out there, but I also recognise that a significant piece of work was done to consult on and to establish these measures and to secure cross-party support for them.
We believe that the time period will allow individuals to identify and access a debt solution, while the fixed period will provide certainty to creditors. It is important to reflect on that: this is in the interests of both the debtors—the individuals who have significant debt—and also creditors, often small businesses, who are owed money. There is a judgment to be made about how that balance is achieved.
Given the current circumstances, I understand why Members believe that a stronger moratorium would benefit those in problem debt who are struggling with their finances during this difficult time. The Government have put in place an unprecedented package of support to help people with their finances during the covid-19 pandemic. We have worked with mortgage lenders, credit providers and the FCA from the outset to help people manage their finances. A lot of work has been done and is still being done by financial services firms to make those measures work.
During the consultation period, the Government explained their position on the duration of the scheme and were supported, as I said, by many stakeholders. The regulations were approved by Parliament in October and by the Welsh Senedd in November and have subsequently been made.
The amendment would also apply to any regulations made in the future on the statutory debt repayment plan—the second part of the debt respite scheme, which the clause is focused on. It would set a new minimum duration for an SDRP of 120 days. Of course, in practice, most SDRPs are likely to last for a period of years rather than months, allowing individuals to repay their debts to a manageable timetable. Introducing a minimum duration is not likely to be a necessary protection in this scheme.
New clause 11 would do two things. First, it would require the breathing space scheme to commence on 31 January 2021 instead of 4 May 2021, which was set out in regulations that we approved in October, as I said earlier. Secondly, the new clause would also extend the duration of a breathing space moratorium from 60 days to 12 months.
Increasing the duration of the scheme to 12 months would create much greater interference in creditor rights without increasing any of the corresponding safeguards. For example, the midway review process, which regulations stipulate must take place between days 25 and 35 of a breathing space moratorium, would need to be reconsidered and redesigned.
As the breathing space regulations have already been made and the proposed amendments would not achieve the policy intent, I ask, with some regret, the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am sorry to hear that he did not see the document, which I know was sent to his office yesterday by the debt advice workers, because I think we all recognise that we are dealing with unusual circumstances. Covid is that Monty Python foot coming down on any of the plans that might have made the policy intent 60 days prior to our current situation.
Unless the Minister thinks that the Office for Budget Responsibility is wrong about the levels of redundancies, unemployment and financial contraction—we have not even mentioned the B-word, Brexit, on top of that—that will face the economy that we want to provide the jobs that allow people to earn the money to pay off their debts, he is having a bit of a tin ear to what people are saying. In this circumstance, we need to extend the breathing space for it to be a breathing space.
This is not just about high-cost credit; this is about the people who are stuck on credit cards as well—the people who will end up spending 25 years to pay back the credit card average debt at minimum repayments. He talks about small businesses. This is about people who have mortgages, for example—
Well, but there are also major banks. If we push too quickly, problem debt will sink any possible financial recovery. We have never learned that lesson as a country. I really wish we would. With the greatest respect to the Minister and his talk about policy intent, he is in the wrong place on these measures at this point in time. I will press this to a vote because I think it is important that we set on the record the concern that we should listen to the debt advisers who say that we will need longer in the pandemic to sort the issues out.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 35, in page 38, line 23, at end insert—
‘( ) After subsection (3) insert—
( ) Where, by virtue of subsection 2, the Secretary of State makes regulations establishing a debt respite scheme, these regulations shall not extend to placing debt advice providers under any obligation to initiate a review of debtor eligibility for the protections provided by the scheme.””
This amendment would remove the requirement in the current draft regulations for debt advice providers to conduct a ‘mid-way review’ of eligibility for breathing space.
This amendment follows in a similar vein to amendment 34 in trying to make the Government’s policy work. It is about how we translate policy intent into the practical reality of dealing with people who are in problem debt. I said in the previous debate that problem debt might be when people realise that they have a problem with their debts and finally seek help. A breathing space in those circumstances would be useful.
Amendment 35 is about the midway review. I encourage the Minister to check his inbox because he will see the note from the 80 different debt advisers, who are the people we will be charging to deal with the debt respite scheme and make it work. They say that there are two very practical reasons why they would like the clause to be amended. Any good debt adviser will be in continual contact with their client and will try to make the breathing space a genuine one that leads somewhere rather than simply limbo. To those debt advisers, the requirement always to have a midway review does not work for two very simple, practical reasons. First and foremost, it moves them from being somebody who might be able, finally, to offer a helping hand and wise counsel to being someone who is policing their relationship with that debtor. We have all had someone come into our constituency surgery who is in financial difficulty and had them cry because they are embarrassed and ashamed. At that point, censure is not helpful; for someone in debt, practicality and kindness are the things that get them through. To ask debt advisers to police the breathing space could have a negative impact on the relationship with the debtor. We are simply suggesting that rather than making the midway review a requirement, we should give the debt advisers the discretion to decide.
The second reason that debt advisers support the amendment is entirely practical and refers again to the policy intent that the Minister set out. The brutal reality is that there will be a big increase in the numbers of people needing debt advice. The Minister has given more funding to the debt advice sector, but that is being done in an environment where millions of people are out of work, and millions already have debts and limited credit options. I wish that the expansion of the credit union movement could happen; as a Co-operative Member as well as a Labour Member, we have been talking about that since I was elected in 2010, but that has yet to materialise. The reality is that people will be looking for credit and it is likely to be had at an expensive price; we can all debate what expensive is, and I know that later amendments refer to that. The reality is that there will be a lot of people who will need debt advice and to include the mandatory requirement of a midway review will limit how debt advisers can manage their caseload.
To put it into context, and I wager that I am not the only Member in this situation, in the last seven months, 42% of my constituents have come to be dependent on some form of Government support. People are in a completely new scenario; they have suddenly found themselves without the income on which they have always relied.
Not all those people will seek help; some may just go under. Some will come to my surgery in tears. Think of that repeated across the country, and imagine the number of people who will need help. We must let our debt advice services help them. If our debt advice services, the citizens advice bureau or StepChange cannot get to them, we all know who will—the high-cost credit companies, and the doorstep lenders, who have been out there in this pandemic. I have seen in my constituency the leaflets offering people loans to get through covid. We may read the small print, but some of these leaflets do not even have small print. There is a direct trade-off there.
Charities such as StepChange worry that a personal debt crisis is emerging because of covid. The severe debt problem has almost doubled since the start of the outbreak, and affects 1.2 million people. What if, through the respite system, 1.2 million people get the help that we want them to? Imagine trying to organise the mandatory review for those 1.2 million people, instead of giving debt advisers the flexibility to be the advocates and the wise counsel that we want them to be.
The policy intent may not have changed, but the context has, as I hope the Minister recognises. It is therefore right to remove the mandatory review. Perhaps it could be put into statutory guidance or something as a good idea; StepChange was relatively flexible about that in its evidence to us. Mandating the review, though, and saying to debt advisers that they have to police people during a time of economic restriction, when we know the shame that comes with debt, is a retrograde step.
My right hon. Friend raises a real concern. If we have a large influx of people needing to speak to a debt adviser, and there are no appointments, will they get access to help? One reason why they will not be able to get an appointment is because debt advisers will have to do a midway review with people. We should simply trust debt advisers. Anybody who has worked with them, as the Minister has, will know that they are part Martin Lewis, part Alison Hammond from “This Morning”—a kind person who makes jokes so that a person feels better about themselves. They are trying to help people in distress. Through the legislation, we are asking them to do a job; we should let them do it as they see fit.
I hope that the Minister will listen to the sector when it says, “Let us hold those reviews when we need to, rather than telling us that we have to hold them, because if we are overwhelmed by people, we can’t do the job that you are asking us to do.” I do not disagree on the policy intent, but the context is different, and if we do not react to the context, all this good work, and all the legislation, will be for nothing, because there will not be appointments. There will be a negative relationship between debt advisers and the people whom they are trying to help, which will affect whether people listen to what advisers are saying; debts will continue to rise; creditors will go unpaid; and for people, the breathing space will feel like holding their breath, rather than coming up for air.
We should recognise the professionalism, expertise and qualifications of those giving debt advice to our constituents, and not try to put a provision in the Bill that prejudges what they do. Speaking from experience, they have worked incredibly well, over time, with my constituents, so I question whether the midway review is necessary.
Let me give a case from my constituency. A woman came to my office very upset, very much in the way that the hon. Member for Walthamstow described, because she was being evicted the next day. We had to swing into action and try to find ways around that, and spoke to the Glasgow Housing Association. It did take time to make that happen, but the GHA sat down with her, went through all her bills and outgoings and worked with her intensively over a period, to make sure it would get the rent money and that the other debts she had, that were also causing her problems, were taken care of.
I was struck by the professionalism of the GHA advisers and by the fact that they were experienced and were tough but compassionate with the woman. They made sure she could see a way through. If people see an arbitrary cut-off point halfway through, that will give them fear, not reassurance. There is a risk that the respite will be removed from people who are supposed to be helped by the midway review, if it is put at an arbitrary halfway point. The Minister should consider whether that is really the outcome that he wants to achieve. Yes, there should be some kind of review mechanism, but my experience is that it is done all the way through the process. There is no need for the midway review, because reviewing is already happening.
Amendment 35, put forward by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, would restrict the Government’s ability to require debt advisers to complete any review of debtor eligibility in any future regulations made concerning breathing space or the SDRP. As the Committee will be aware, breathing space regulations were approved by the House in October, and they state that a debt adviser must complete a midway review after day 25 and before day 35 of the moratorium.
The amendment would not amend the existing breathing space regulations, which I believe was the intention. In addition, it would apply to any regulations made in the future on the SDRP and the second part of the debt respite scheme, which the clause is focused on. That would restrict the Government’s ability to require debt advisers to complete any review of debtor eligibility related to a plan. It is expected that SDRPs will be reviewed annually, or when requested by a debtor, to ensure that payments are set at the right level and the plan remains appropriate. If those reviews could not consider a debtor’s eligibility in any way, that could be a significant constraint on the design and effectiveness of the scheme in future, and would remove the safeguards put in place for creditors.
What the Minister has just said suggests he thinks there is a binary choice between debt advisers reviewing and being involved in seeing how the breathing space is working, and their being completely absent. Does he recognise that, in the words of a previous Prime Minister, there could be a third way? Debt advisers could be given the professional courtesy of having the responsibility of doing their job. As part of that there might, absolutely, be some people they would spend more time with, whereas they might know that others had got on the right course. It is not that debt advisers would be absent if not put under a requirement; sometimes red tape can be a burden, not a benefit.
Absolutely; that is why we listened carefully to the sector in constructing the measure. For example, when we were designing the breathing space scheme, we worked with the Money and Mental Health charity to design a different pathway for different groups with chronic crisis in mental health, allowing them to re-enter the scheme on multiple occasions in a year, and giving an extra provision. It is not something where I am being prescriptive when, alongside the SDRP regulations, it is being consulted on. However, we are in danger of making arbitrary changes in a similar vein.
If I leave aside the question of drafting, which I think I have addressed, the Government consider that a midway review is necessary to the breathing space scheme, to assess whether the debtor continues to comply with the conditions of the moratorium. I see that not as a policing exercise but an appropriate step in reviewing the suitability of the mechanism. The breathing space mechanism will not work for everyone, and it is important for a review to take place.
During the consultation period the Government explained their position on the midway review and it was supported by many stakeholders. The regulations were approved by Parliament in October and by the Welsh Senedd in November, and were subsequently made. I respectfully ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.
Again, I am afraid that the Minister has a slightly tin ear to the reality of what people will be asked to do and what they are trying to do. We cannot have it both ways. It cannot be claimed that our amendments about how services should be run are too prescriptive but it is not prescriptive for the Government to specify that after 30 days there must be another meeting, something which puts at risk the ability of debt advice providers to manage their own diaries. That does feel like the dead cold hand of the state going overboard, and I am sure that many Conservative Members present who perhaps have pledged their lives to fighting such intervention would recognise that that requirement is rather prescriptive.
Above all, I am listening to the sector, and those debt advisers say that in the current environment, when they will be overwhelmed by so many people needing their help, they should be allowed to do it in the way that they know best. I do know that the Minister wants to get this right, but I think he is not listening, and I think it is important that Parliament does, so I will press the amendment to a vote. We can then say to the sector that we have tried to articulate its concerns about this particular prescriptive clause.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 33, in page 38, line 38, after “applies.” insert—
‘(4B) The regulations must include provision for an assessment, before the introduction of any debt repayment plan, of the debtor’s resources by a debt advice provider which must—
(a) disregard the value of the debtor’s main residence, provided that this does not exceed the median house price reported by the Land Registry for the local authority in which the debtor resides;
(b) make a recommendation about the timetable under which the individual can repay the debt whilst maintaining a living standard at least equivalent to that of households in the second quintile of income distribution.”
(4C) The regulations must require any debt repayment plan to take account of the assessment under subsection (4B) in determining the timetable over which the debt can be repaid.
(4D) The regulations must make provision for a revised assessment in the event that it is not possible for the debtor to repay their debts within three years and maintain the required living standard during this period, in which the debt advice provider must consider, and offer advice on, insolvency options available to the debtor.”
This amendment requires any regulations for the Statutory Debt Repayment Plan to make provision for an assessment of a debtor’s resources and, should the debtor be unable to pay their debts within three years, for a revised assessment to advise on insolvency options.
I am hoping for third time lucky in convincing the Minister that there are things that we need to address.
Amendment 33 is about maths. It is about how debts are calculated and how we understand whether someone is able to take advantage of the debt advice scheme—I am sure we always looked forward to double maths on a Tuesday afternoon at school. It is about how we make the scheme work while recognising that some of the guidelines and regulations on how to deal with those in problem debt have not kept pace with the times. I am not talking just about covid but about some of the calculations that have made been over a period of time.
I am incredibly mindful of what you said, Mr Davies, about insolvency and not straying into a discussion of the Insolvency Act 2020. When we are thinking about debt advisers and what work they can do with people, however, it is relevant to consider the options, as the Minister said. That is what we have the debt adviser for—they may push people towards different statutory formats. The reality is that the cost of those options and the cost of living will, I believe, artificially restrict debt advisers’ ability to give the best advice. The amendment is about giving clarity to how those calculations should be done, so that we do not see people pushed into further difficulties, or indeed fail to seek help because of those artificial thresholds.
What am I talking about? At the moment, it costs £680 to file for bankruptcy. If someone is broke, filing for bankruptcy is often beyond their reach. That means that they are stuck in limbo. The breathing space protections are designed to operate before someone reaches that point, so that they have space to sort out what they are able to do. If the calculations mean that none of the available options are open to someone, because they have no money, which is why they need a breathing space and why they turned up at a debt adviser, that is no choice at all. It is the Henry Ford choice—every option is the black car.
I started by talking about the average debt of £10,000—in those Tuesday afternoon maths lessons we will have studied the mean, the mode and the median. Households with the worst debt, who owe more than £20,000, will be excluded from some of the available options. The debt adviser will be unable to have that conversation with those people because those debts mean that they are too far gone. In fact, a debt relief order is open only to the very poorest because people have to be at the point where their monthly surplus income is less than £50 after accounting for their expenses. That £50 threshold was set in 2009. We all studied inflation in our Tuesday afternoon maths lesson, so we recognise that a £50 threshold in 2009 does not make any sense in 2020.
The amendment would help to set out the level of living expenses we should expect people to have before we start talking about their debts, so that we are not asking people to be in penury. That does matter, because we could be talking about people being in that financial position for a very long period of time.
As the debt advisers who have written to the Minister say:
“The current calculation of essential expenditure is underpinned by the use of the Standard Financial Statement ‘trigger figures’, which have been agreed by the Money and Pensions Service and the credit industry. These figures are derived from the actual expenditure of very low-income households (those in the bottom income quintile). Where the expenditure of the debtor is higher than these ‘trigger figures’”—
the 50 quid—
“or ‘spending guidelines’ then creditors are apt to object and to demand higher repayments.”
Basically, only if someone is absolutely flat broke, but not too in debt, are these options open to them. That means that these options are not as open to people as we want them to be.
I have been looking at the figures. I am sure, as I say, that many hon. Members have started to see it in their constituencies—people who have never struggled with debt before and have previously had wealthy incomes or good incomes, but who work in industries that are collapsing. Those people might be taking some of the welfare assistance. As I say, that is now up to 42% in my constituency—a London borough that people might think of as a wealthy place. We can buy a chai latte, but we also have the ninth highest level of child poverty because of housing costs. These are some of the people that we are going to want to help make sense of their finances.
It does not make sense to have thresholds that were written 11 years ago that do not make any sense in the current financial context. It does make sense to start to ask, “What is a reasonable and fair level of income—people might be having to deal with this for some time in their lives—so that you can put food on your family’s table and so that you are not tempted by those leaflets offering you a loan, no questions asked, to get through covid?”. We will come on to whether the FCA is dealing with those companies. The reality is that they are already on people’s doorsteps; they are in all our constituencies now. If we cut people off from sensible, pragmatic options for how they can deal with their debts, not just emotionally but practically, they will of course take the other option, because the alternative is to have no money at all and to be unable to feed their family. It is not even about the cost of Christmas—Christmas has gone for those people, and they cannot get respite from some of the other schemes.
The amendment sets out some very basic parameters for the kind of living that we would want for our constituents. It is not affluent and it is not exorbitant, but it is a sensible move to help make sure that people can get through being in a debt repayment plan without it being so onerous that they either take more borrowing and get themselves into more difficulty, so that they then have to resort to debt management—there will always be companies that will lend to people in difficulty, as the last 10 years have taught us and as we have all seen it in our constituencies—or they go hungry. They are the people who will end up at food banks, and none of us wants that. Wherever we land on the food bank debate, I think we all agree that we do not want people to have to rely on them. It is only when we get such cases in our constituencies that we will see where those thresholds come in and why people have to rely on food banks. It is therefore right that we act in this place to move the thresholds.
Amendment 33 says some very simple things about housing costs and about living standards, and it moves from the lowest quintile to the second lowest quintile, which is, as I say, not exorbitant. It is just about giving people a decent breathing space and making sure that they can eat while they start to repay their debts.
Amendment 33, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, would dictate specific eligibility criteria for a statutory debt repayment plan, which would involve requiring debt advice providers to carry out a complex assessment of a debtor’s resources against external data and benchmarks and, where a debtor is unable to repay their debts within three years, to conduct a revised assessment of the debtor’s circumstances and advise on insolvency solutions.
I reassure the Committee that the Government are keen for any eligibility criteria to strike the right balance between allowing suitable debtors to enter the protections of an SDRP and ensuring that creditors are repaid over a reasonable timeframe. The Government set out the proposed eligibility criteria in their consultation response of June 2019, and they expect the principles to remain the same.
Imposing an additional obligation on debt advice providers to conduct an assessment of a debtor’s living standards, fixed by reference to income distribution and local house prices, could lead to inflexibility and inconsistency in the way the SDRP is provided. In any case, the appropriate mechanism for setting out that level of detail is the regulations, on which, I absolutely reassure the Committee, the Government will consult.
I turn to the suggestion that debt advice providers be required to conduct an assessment of a debtor’s circumstances, and to consider insolvency solutions if the debtor is unable to repay the debt within three years. Again, let me reassure the Committee that it is absolutely the Government’s intention for debtors’ plans to be reviewed regularly. In fact, our consultation response proposes that debt advice providers complete an annual review to ensure that a debtor’s plan continues to be the most suitable solution for them. This review can propose changes to the planned payments if the debtor has experienced a rise or fall in surplus income.
In line with the consultation response, we expect to include in the SDRP regulations provision for a debtor to request a review, and provision for payment breaks in the case of an income shock. The ability for an individual’s plan to last longer than three years, and up to a maximum of 10 years in exceptional circumstances, is intended to support sustainable repayment plans over time. If, once the SDRP scheme is up and running, a debt adviser considered an insolvency solution more appropriate for an individual than their entering into an SDRP over a longer period, that option would remain available.
I thank the Minister for what he is saying, and I appreciate that he is setting out that he thinks the amendment is not needed because there will be earlier interventions. Does he understand that the £680 cost of going bankrupt can be a barrier to taking up the options that he is talking about? It could lead to people above these very low thresholds staying in the same position not for a couple of years, but for seven, eight, nine or 10 years—not because they want to live like that, but because they have not got enough money built up to take the alternative.
I recognise that these are complex matters. There will sometimes be a need to pay fees over a much longer period, and that option exists. The consultation on how the regulations will work will engage very closely with the sector, and I anticipate that it would get to the right place. I do not think that I have reassured the hon. Lady, but I hope that I have reassured other members of the Committee about the Government’s intentions. I ask her to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for what he said. If he is saying that he is prepared to engage on the subject of debt advice—perhaps the debt advisers’ writings for the Committee on this point were lost in translation—I am happy to withdraw the amendment. It is about recognising that the thresholds have to change, and it sounds like the consultation is the right place to have that conversation. If the Minister nods and says that that is the sort of thing that the consultation will consider, that is perfect.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 12—Impact of COVID-19 on the Debt Respite Scheme: Ministerial report—
“(1) The Treasury must prepare and publish a report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the implementation of the Debt Respite Scheme.
(2) The report must include—
(a) a statement on the extent to which changes to levels of household debt caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the usage and operation of the Debt Respite Scheme;
(b) a statement on the resilience of UK households to future pandemics and other financial shocks, and how these would affect the usage and operation of the Debt Respite Scheme; and
(c) consideration of proposals for the incorporation of a no-interest loan scheme into the Debt Respite Scheme for financially vulnerable individuals affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
(3) The report must be laid before Parliament no later than 28 February 2021.”
This new clause would require the Treasury to publish a report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the implementation of the Debt Respite Scheme, including consideration of a proposal for the incorporation of a no-interest loan scheme into the Debt Respite Scheme.
New clause 19—Report on functioning of debt respite scheme and compatibility with personal insolvency regime—
“(1) The Treasury must prepare a report on—
(a) the functioning of the debt respite scheme under section 32;
(b) the extent to which it is achieving its objectives;
(c) its compatibility with personal insolvency legislation and policy.
(2) That report must be laid before Parliament no later than one year after this Act is passed.”
New clause 25—Debt Respite Scheme: review—
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the impact on debt in parts of the United Kingdom and regions of England of the changes made by section 32 of this Act and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the date on which this Act receives Royal Assent.
(2) A review under this section must consider the effects of the changes on debt held by—
(b) individuals with protected characteristic as defined by the Equality Act 2010,
(c) small companies as defined by the Companies Act 2006.
(3) In this section—
“parts of the United Kingdom” means—
(c) Wales, and
(d) Northern Ireland; and
“regions of England” has the same meaning as that used by the Office for National Statistics.”
This new clause would require a review of the impact on debt of the changes made to the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018 in section 32.