Second Reading (and remaining stages)
My Lords, in the UK there is a wide range of opportunities for people to invest and help make a better future for themselves and their families. The Government’s role is to ensure that the system of regulation is suitably robust, so that individuals are treated fairly and have confidence in the financial system that they entrust with their hard-earned savings. While our regulators are working hard to minimise harm to consumers and pensioners, unfortunately, no system of regulation can completely eradicate the risk that firms fail, or that some bad actors, intent on committing fraud, slip through the net.
This Bill relates to two areas where it is necessary for the Government to step in to ensure a fair outcome for London Capital & Finance investors and victims of pension liberation fraud. This two-measure and two-clause Bill will provide the necessary powers for these two separate groups to receive the compensation they deserve. The first clause relates to a new government scheme to compensate London Capital & Finance bondholders who lost money after the firm entered administration in 2019. The second clause seeks to provide the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the power to make a loan to the board of the Pension Protection Fund. The purpose of that loan is so the existing fraud compensation fund, which the Pension Protection Fund administers, has the necessary funds to continue to provide compensation to eligible pension schemes.
This Bill, which garnered widespread support in the other place, demonstrates that the Government will take action and step in when necessary. There are some important issues at stake. One, on which I am sure there will be considerable debate this afternoon, is the competence of the regulator. There is also the question of when and how the Government should step in to provide compensation. I would like to touch briefly on each of these issues and to provide some context for each of the measures and how they are intended to operate.
The House will be aware that the Government have committed to establishing a compensation scheme for investors in the failed mini-bond firm, so-called London Capital & Finance, or LCF. LCF was an FCA-authorised firm that sold unregulated non-transferable debt securities, commonly known as mini-bonds, to investors. Some 11,600 bondholders, many of whom had invested a significant portion of their savings, lost around £237 million when LCF went into administration in early 2019.
Following the unprecedented scale of this collapse, the Economic Secretary directed the FCA to launch an independent investigation into the FCA’s regulation and supervision of LCF. Dame Elizabeth Gloster led the investigation, which concluded that the FCA did not effectively supervise and regulate LCF during the relevant period. Dame Elizabeth’s conclusions raise serious questions about the regulator’s approach to supervision and I would like to use my remarks later in this debate to provide some further detail on the plans they have in place to address her recommendations.
LCF’s business model was highly unusual both in its scale and structure. In particular, the firm was authorised by the FCA, despite generating no income from regulated activities. This allowed LCF’s unregulated activity of selling non-transferable debt securities, commonly known as mini-bonds, to benefit from the so-called halo effect of being issued by an authorised firm, helping LCF gain respectability among bondholders, many of whom were elderly.
In response to regulatory failings detailed in Dame Elizabeth’s report, and the range of interconnected factors that led to losses for bondholders, the Government announced that they would establish a compensation scheme. The scheme will be available to all LCF bondholders who have not already received compensation from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. It will provide 80% of bondholders’ principal investment up to a limit of £68,000, which represents 80% of the compensation they would have received had they been eligible for FSCS protection. Where bondholders have received interest payments from LCF or distributions from the administrators, Smith & Williamson, these will be deducted from the amount of compensation payable.
The Government expect to pay out around £120 million in compensation to around 8,800 bondholders in total, and have committed to ensuring that the scheme has made all payments within six months of the Bill securing Royal Assent. However, it is important to emphasise that the circumstances surrounding LCF are unique and exceptional, and the Government cannot and should not be expected to stand behind every failed investment firm. This would create the wrong incentives for individuals and an unacceptable burden on the taxpayer. Ultimately, investors must choose investments that are suitable for their risk tolerance and invest in high-risk, high-reward schemes only if they are prepared to lose the sum that they invested.
Government stepping in to provide compensation in response to regulatory failure or maladministration is unusual, but not entirely without precedent. Noble Lords will recall that the Government provided compensation to investors in Barlow Clowes, an investment scheme that failed in the 1980s, and in respect of Equitable Life. Like the LCF scheme, compensation was based on a percentage of investors’ losses.
Turning to the specifics of the Bill, the LCF measure is contained in Clause 1 and includes two key elements. First, it provides parliamentary authority for the Treasury to incur expenditure in relation to the scheme. Secondly, it makes a minor technical change which disapplies the FCA’s rule-making processes for the purposes of the LCF compensation scheme. The Treasury intends to use Part 15A of the Financial Services and Markets Act to require the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to administer the scheme on the Treasury’s behalf.
By disapplying FCA rule-making requirements, existing rules pertaining to the FSCS can be applied to the scheme without the need for the FCA to undertake a lengthy public consultation and impact assessment. This reflects the fact that the Government are fully funding the scheme and so there is no need to directly consult with FCA levy payers. It also avoids any unnecessary delays to compensation payments that such consultation would inevitably entail.
As I set out, this is a two-measure Bill, the second clause of which concerns loans to the board of the Pension Protection Fund. Clause 2 will amend the Pensions Act 2004, inserting a new section, which will give the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the power to lend money to the board of the Pension Protection Fund, which manages the Fraud Compensation Fund. Pension savings are the largest financial asset for many people across the United Kingdom, for which they will save over the course of their working lives to provide for themselves in their retirement. That is why the Fraud Compensation Fund was established: to provide a safety net and pay compensation to occupational pension schemes which have lost out financially due to dishonesty.
When the Pension Protection Fund was set up in 2004, pension liberation fraud did not exist. This fraud involves members being persuaded to transfer their pension savings from legitimate to fraudulent schemes, with promises of high investment returns or access to a lump sum or loan from their pension scheme before the age of 55 without incurring a tax charge. It was not and could not have been envisaged for such schemes to be in scope for the Fraud Compensation Fund when it was established. Therefore, clarity was needed as to whether these schemes were eligible to receive compensation through the fund.
On 6 November 2020, the High Court found these pension liberation schemes to be in scope for compensation through the Fraud Compensation Fund, subject to meeting eligibility criteria. Since then, the Government and the Pension Protection Fund have worked rapidly to ensure that all those who have been victims of pension liberation schemes—an expected 8,806 people—are able to be compensated through the Fraud Compensation Fund.
One victim of this fraud is one victim too many. I reassure your Lordships that the Government are fully committed to working with regulators, the industry and enforcement agencies to protect people from pension scams perpetuated through transfers from one pension scheme to another, and to making it as hard as possible for criminals to carry out their malevolent intentions. It is estimated that the pension liberation fraud claims will exceed £350 million, far greater than the approximately £43 million currently held in the Fraud Compensation Fund. Therefore, there is a need for the Fraud Compensation Fund to have access to additional funding, and this Bill provides exactly that.
This Bill is necessary and important. It will ensure financial protection and fair outcomes for victims of pension liberation fraud. It will also provide some relief and closure for London Capital & Finance bondholders. I commend this Bill to the House and beg to move.
My Lords, I want to address the second part of the Bill, Clause 2, which allows the Secretary of State to
“lend money to the Board”
of the Pension Protection Fund. The background to this is that, in effect, the fund’s remit was extended to cover pension liberation schemes. I am not totally convinced by the argument that these were not known about in 2004be. Be that as it may, it is clear that, like Clause 1, this provision is necessary only because of a lamentable series of failures of Government, of legislation and of regulators.
It is of course right that members of occupational pension schemes should be compensated where they are victims of dishonesty and have a reasonable expectation that they should be protected. But we need to ask: why is this happening, and what can be done about it? This Bill is just a sticking plaster and we need to address what lies beneath. For example, we have to consider what the role of online advertising and spam has been. I have no doubt that there should be specific provisions in the draft online harms Bill, and we will certainly seek to add these when it comes before us. The Bill needs to tackle financial crime and advertising.
We have the stark warning from the House of Commons—both the Treasury Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee—that there is a risk of large financial losses to the public. This is all in the future, not something that has happened and will not happen again. The problem we face is that financial crime is ever evolving. We were told that pension scams were not recognised as a threat back in 2004. Of course, the arrangement goes back to 1995, following the Maxwell scandal. The reason pension funds are sitting ducks for this sort of fraud is that, in Willie Sutton’s apocryphal phrase, “That’s where the money is”. He was supposed to be talking about robbing banks. Here, we are talking about pension funds. Regrettably, in my view, the front door has been left open following the move to so-called pension freedoms. As well as claiming credit for the additional liberties introduced, responsibility has to be taken for the unintended consequences, which are indeed dire.
Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to get ahead of the game—to take a lead and not just react to the latest scandal in this area? We also need to ask: what more can pension funds themselves do to protect members? I recognise the difficulties, but it is the funds with members who are not subject to fraud which will have to meet the cost of this measure. There is every incentive for the industry itself to take a lead, so what steps will the Government and the Minister be taking to encourage the development of this work?
Finally, it is worth noting the amount of money involved in dealing with pension fraud: up to £350 million in compensation, we are told. That is no mean sum, particularly when set against the existing scale of the fund when it held only £26 million. The £350 million figure was estimated a year ago, at the time of the trial. Can the Minister provide an updated estimate of what the ongoing growth in the figure will be?
My Lords, my remarks relate to Clause 1. I preface them by saying that I have benefited from briefings by certain firms of city stockbrokers. This is obviously a regrettable but necessary Bill, which, of course, one supports. At times like this, one casts around looking for people to blame for getting us into this situation. It could be the avarice of the promoters, the weakness of the regulators or the cupidity of the private investors. It is on the last that I wish to focus my remarks, because it would be a great mistake if we were to conclude from this that private investors cannot be trusted to know where to put their money and that they should be further protected and restricted in the opportunities available to them. To take one example, over the last 12 months, literally billions of pounds have gone into Premium Bonds and National Savings products—sums totally dwarfing what was invested in London Capital & Finance—showing that private and retail investors can and do make very sensible choices.
However, it is not surprising that some private investors end up investing in dodgy minibonds, given that we have removed from them the opportunity to make respectable investments. When I refer to private investors, I am not talking about just comfortable rentiers but perfectly ordinary people, some of them called Sid. What has happened in the last 10 or 20 years to the opportunities available to them for investment in respectable securities? In the case of equities, it is true that they can invest in the secondary market, but the new issues of equity securities which it was possible for them to invest in have almost completely dried up. The IPOs no longer reach the public markets; they are all now private placements because it suits finance directors to cut the private investor out and the regulators are compliant in that: no more Sids.
What then about government bonds or gilts? These used to be available for purchase at the Post Office. If you wanted to invest in a new issue of gilts, you could literally cut a coupon out of a newspaper and send it in, making a non-competitive bid. This hardly happens anymore. Let us take, for example, the Government’s recent green gilt. It was not marketed at private investors at all. Instead, private investors will in due course be offered an opportunity to invest in the “green bond”, but, if you look at it, this is not a bond at all; it is another national savings fixed-term deposit product. The Debt Management Office says, “Why should we reach out to private investors beyond what we do? We get all the money we want from them through the existing national savings products.” But that is the attitude of the bean counter, not the nation builder.
I come finally to corporate bonds—highly rated bonds issued by large companies. The effect of European Union regulation and, particularly, the prospectus directive, which is still in force, is that a bond with a denomination of less than €100,000 requires much more elaborate regulation. When I worked in bonds 30 or 40 years ago, the private investor was the backbone of the market. The denomination of most bonds was closer to a thousand dollars or pounds than 100,000, so they were available—you could invest in them. Now, you need €100,000 just to buy one, so, of course, private investors are effectively cut out of that market, and there are other reasons why these securities are no longer available.
This is not just about where people put their money. In my view, it is about the democratisation of financial markets, or rather about their de-democratisation over the past 10 to 15 years. It is also to some extent about levelling up, and it should be on the Government’s agenda that ordinary people have access to reputable financial investment in the way that large institutional investors do, and they no longer have it. It is also about winning and maintaining popular support for the financial services markets, which are important to us and our economy. They are more fragile if they are totally disconnected from ordinary investors. This is about giving investors an opportunity to avoid having to invest in alternative, dodgy mini-bonds that in some cases need to be rescued at the expense of the Treasury.
This is a big subject and I do not expect a comprehensive answer from my noble friend this afternoon, but I hope that he will be willing to meet me and one or two City experts, and will possibly even rope in the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, because this is too important a subject for changes to be made through a whittling of regulation and other administrative changes, as we have seen over the past 15 years, without occasionally, as today perhaps, stopping to take stock of the cumulative effects.
My Lords, I rise to make two fairly brief points in this short debate with a limited number of participants, which is disappointing given the importance of the issues behind the Bill. I go back to a much larger Bill that had a little more participation, the then Financial Services Bill, and to the Second Reading speech of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew of Oulton, who said:
“we remain committed to ensuring that the UK maintains the highest regulatory standards and remains an open and dynamic global financial centre. This is even more important now that we have left the European Union … the UK must assume full responsibility for its financial services regulation ... this will be underpinned by an unwavering commitment to high-quality, agile and responsive regulation, with a focus on safe and stable markets”.—[Official Report, 28/1/21; col. 1810.]
Does the Minister acknowledge that the need for this Bill points out that our regulatory standards are not the highest they could be, that in fact they are disastrously poor, and that this is a threat to the security of us all? Further, will he acknowledge that words such as “competitive”, “dynamic”, “agile” and “responsive” are not compatible with the desire expressed for a safe and stable financial market?
As we heard very often from the Government during the passage of the Financial Services Bill, the financial sector is regarded as a source of great profits, but we see the cost of those profits in not just the financial suffering of the people being compensated under this Bill but in the human impact. We are talking about people who have seen large chunks of their pensions savings and their entire future life disappear, with years of uncertainty ahead of them. We think about the mental and physical health impact that has on people and the threat that the financial sector is presenting.
I will move very briefly to the specifics of the Bill, and say that I look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, who I have no doubt will address regulatory failure in much greater detail. A couple of questions need to be asked. The Government have acknowledged that the LCF investors were innocent, duped and failed by the regulator, yet there is a cap on compensation of £68,000. This is a government failure; should we not be saying, as we have heard in other debates in your Lordships’ House, as with the building safety scandal, that government failure should be met by full government compensation, not people forced to lose out through no fault of their own? What about investors in Blackmore Bond, in Basset & Gold, in secured energy bonds and, indeed, in Connaught, where it was acknowledged that regulatory supervision was “not appropriate or effective”? The Government have said that this particular scheme—this Bill—has come about as a result of unique and exceptional circumstances, but does the Minister acknowledge that there is nothing unique or exceptional about this: this is business as usual in our financial sector far too often?
I turn, very briefly, to the pension liberation fraud. We have seen pensions treated as a market. It is clearly not a safe or stable market, as the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, was saying in debates on the Financial Services Bill. Should it really be a market at all?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. The London Capital & Finance scandal tells the familiar story of privatising profits, socialising losses, frauds, fiddles, mis-selling, negligent regulators and ineffective auditors, while innocent people have to pick up the tab. The much-maligned state has to come and somehow clear up the mess made by the City of London once again. I welcome the compensation for the London Capital & Finance investors, but I have a number of questions for the Minister.
There are mini-bond scandals, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, at Blackmore Bond, Basset & Gold, the Mexican food chain Chilango and many others, but no compensation has been offered, even though the FCA failed to regulate them properly. The collapse of LCF was investigated by Dame Elizabeth Gloster, but why is there no independent investigation of other mini-bond scandals? The other scandals may be smaller, but that does not mean that the pain is any less for people who have been defrauded, cheated or misled. The Government claim to have looked at 30 mini-bond firms that have failed over the last six to seven years, but have failed to elaborate whether there was any mis-selling or fraud and have certainly offered no compensation to other investors. When will the others be compensated? If the FCA’s negligence is a defining factor, as the Minister indicated, then many others also need to be compensated. For example, Neil Woodford’s Equity Income Fund collapse in the summer of 2019 left a lot of investors out of pocket. The FCA was negligent, but there has been no compensation. The independent report on the collapse of Connaught stated that the FCA supervision was “not appropriate or effective”. It could have done more to protect consumers, the report said. The investors lost over £100 million but have so far recovered only £18.5 million through litigation. Why was there no compensation for them? Again, the FCA failed.
The FCA and its predecessor bodies also failed to properly regulate RBS and HBOS, and those frauds are part of a long-running saga of pass the parcel—nobody wants to deal with it and, again, no compensation was offered. Surely, in the interests of equity and consistency, all those negatively affected by the FCA should be offered compensation. The Minister referred to the earlier precedents of Equitable Life and Barlow Clowes. In both cases, the regulators were negligent, and that is common to all the cases to which I have referred. So once again I ask, why is the LCF, which was founded by a former Conservative donor, being privileged but the others are not?
In spite of the compensation scheme, many LCF investors face huge losses because the compensation is capped at £68,000. This is not equitable. The burden of the cap is uneven and those who have less wealth stand to lose a greater proportion of it. Women are also hit particularly hard because they generally tend to have lower wealth. Some people have also invested more than the benchmark of £85,000 and they stand to lose an even bigger amount. They may well be relying on these savings for their retirement income. Again, can the Minister explain why investors are not being fully compensated? Does justice not really demand that?
Mini-bonds are just the latest instalment of the fraud and mis-selling that has been rife in the City. The FCA is always playing catch-up. After a long list of mini-bond scandals, in January 2020 it introduced a temporary ban on the sale of mini-bonds, which then became permanent in June 2020. The FCA rationale was that
“speculative mini-bonds were being promoted to retail investors who neither understood the risks involved, nor could afford the potential financial losses.”
That occurred to the FCA in only 2020—where on earth had it been while mini-bonds were openly being marketed and sold? Why the delay in recognising the danger? Even now, the FCA does not road-test any of the financial products to see under which circumstances they wreak havoc and what damage they do. The alarm bells should have been ringing long before. For example, as early as October 2015 investors on the MoneySavingExpert site were saying that LCF’s investment “sounds dodgy”. People were being warned as early as that but the FCA took no notice of those warning signs.
In April 2021, the Government issued a consultation paper on the possibility of bringing the issuance of non-transferable debt securities—that is, mini-bonds—within the scope of financial services regulation. That consultation ended on 21 July 2021. Can the Minister update us on the current position?
In the middle of 2020, the outstanding amount in the UK invested in so-called speculative illiquid securities, which includes mini-bonds, was £1.4 billion. More than 63,500 bondholders may well be holding mini-bonds so the scandal could be much bigger than the amounts currently being assigned to LCF. Can the Minister please enlighten us as to what the ultimate cost of the mini-bond scandal will be? What retribution may be levied on the FCA for its continuing failures? The LCF compensation is being paid and indeed the word “fraud” was used earlier but when was there actually a fraud conviction in connection with LCF? A number of individuals have been arrested and released but I think nobody has been convicted so far. Can the Minister update us on the progress being made by the Serious Fraud Office on this?
Regarding compensation, paragraph 35 of the Explanatory Notes says:
“The Bill confers a new power on the Secretary of State, specifically to provide a loan to the Board of the PPF … expenditure in relation to this Bill will be repaid by the income received from the FCF levy on eligible occupational pension schemes.”
In other words, those who have behaved and are honourable will be hit by the fraudulent activities of some businesses in the City.
Eventually, a loan of some £200 million to £250 million may be given, but how will it be repaid? I looked at the Pension Protection Fund’s accounts. The FCF levy for the year to 31 March 2019 was £4.8 million and for the year to 2020 it was £6.9 million. We are talking about repaying loans of up to £250 million. Will the levy double or triple? How many years will it be before these loans can be repaid? What interest rates will be charged by the Treasury or will these be interest-free loans? I look forward to some clarification from the Minister.
The FCA has been negligent, but what is the penalty? The chief executive who presided over the FCA’s negligence has subsequently been promoted and become the Governor of the Bank of England. There is no retribution against the executives who collected vast salaries and bonuses. No action has been taken against the lawyers who advised the company on particular matters. LCF collapsed some time ago. Have any of its directors been disqualified so far? What is the Insolvency Service up to? Again, I seek an update from the Minister.
I would like to raise some questions about auditors. I sought to table a probing amendment to explore this, but the Table Office told me that that cannot be done, because this is a money Bill. That was a lesson for a newcomer such as me who is learning about the various protocols and procedures of this House, so I hope the Minister will not mind if I provide some details on the issue I have in mind.
LCF was audited by three separate accounting firms. The accounts for the year to April 2015 were audited by a small company called Oliver Clive + Co Ltd. At that point, LCF had a turnover of only £14,072, profit of only £782 and share capital of just £1,000. That is hardly enough for a company entering financial services, but that is how it was doing.
The financial statements for the year to April 2016 show a turnover of £948,201, profits of £166,916 and share capital of £50,000. The company had net assets of only £25,592. That meant that the business had little capacity to absorb any financial shocks, which you will certainly experience if you dabble in the financial markets. These accounts were audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which raised absolutely no concerns about the business model or the company’s legal status. These accounts probably persuaded the FCA to give authorisation to London Capital & Finance.
The 2017 accounts were audited by Ernst & Young—the auditors seemed to change every year—which raised no concerns about the business model of the company, its legal status or its ability to recover loans of £48 million or redeem bonds of £44.5 million. The equity, or share capital, of £50,000 provided no buffer against any losses. LCF was extremely highly leveraged, with a leverage ratio of 160:1. I remind noble Lords that when Lehman Brothers collapsed, it had a leverage of 30:1. Bear Stearns had a ratio of 33:1.
This was a business with a leverage of 160:1, yet the auditors said it was a going concern and raised no red flags. The FCA did not ask any questions either. What the hell was it doing? Dame Gloster told us that the FCA had no accounting expertise. You do not need accounting expertise to realise that a leverage ratio of 160:1 will lead to disaster. However, the FCA asked absolutely no questions.
LCF had a low equity base, high leverage and low cash; that was basically its business model. It relied on the inflow of new money to redeem loans from investors, a bit like a Ponzi scheme. The LCF directors’ report claimed that
“the structure, interest profile and maturity of the company’s loan portfolio is expected to provide adequate liquidity to meet the company’s commitments to borrowers as well as providing a high degree of certainty that the company will generate revenues that will exceed the company’s expenditure base”.
The auditors showed absolutely no scepticism and simply gave it a clean bill of health.
As the Minister may recall, and if my understanding is correct, businesses authorised by the FCA must engage in a tripartite meeting between the auditor, the management and the regulator. What on earth was discussed at those meetings if high leverage was not?
The audits are currently under investigation by the Financial Reporting Council. It is extremely likely that the auditors will be fined. Noble Lords may wonder where those fines go. For the audit failure investigations before 2016, the fines went to the professional body that authorised the incompetent auditor. It is a bit like a mugger being found guilty and the judgment being that they should make the cheque payable to the muggers’ association. That is what happened.
Since that was exposed by some of us, it all changed in 2016. Now, the fines go to the Treasury. Why should the Treasury benefit from the collapse of London Capital & Finance? Will the Minister give an undertaking that, as and when the fines are levied, they will be given to investors—that they will go in the pot out of which investors will be compensated and not be kept by the Treasury?
I have one other point. The London Capital & Finance administrators are in a feeding frenzy. They have already charged fees of more than £25 million, and those fees are expected to double. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to curb the rapacious appetite of insolvency practitioners and other advisers, because they are removing money from investors who have already suffered?
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, found out the hard way, this is a money Bill. That means that we cannot amend it, but it raises a series of questions, especially about the regulator’s responsibilities. I intend to focus my time on those issues.
First, as I have done before, I congratulate Dame Elizabeth Gloster on her report on LCF and the regulator, the FCA. It pulled no punches. She and her team did a service not just to the victims of LCF but to all those working to eliminate abusive behaviour from our financial services industry. Not only should her recommendations be enforced—I await a detailed update from the Minister on that process; he promised it so I assume that it will come in his summation—but, frankly, they have pushed to the length of her remit.
They recommend that LCF and the FCA are not adequate to deal with the situation that has been exposed not just by this scandal but by the many other scandals about which other noble Lords have spoken today. This needs to be a launch pad for deeper change than what Dame Elizabeth was, within her remit, able to examine. I regret that, in what was actually a very useful report, the Commons Treasury Committee did not in the end require the Government to tackle many of the fundamentals.
I will focus on only two of the fundamentals, or we will be here all day. The first absolutely fundamental issue that I want to pursue is the failure of the FCA to act on information provided to it early in the day, when much of the abuse could have been halted in its tracks. Dame Elizabeth notes in detail the anonymous letter that the FCA received and ignored at the time of the first VOP application. That letter
“raised allegations of fraud and other irregularities in respect of LCF”—
I am quoting from the Gloster report.
Dame Elizabeth’s report also detailed further calls to the contact centre at the FCA—that is the main route for passing on information on misbehaviour—in July of 2016 and of 2017. All those calls and contacts were ignored. Action was taken only when, in October 2018, the intelligence team in the FCA, which appears to be completely divorced from the various contact mechanisms through which individuals report concerns to the FCA, “stumbled across”—that is a quote from the intelligence team—a report on another firm that happened to mention LCF. If it had not been in that report, even at that late date the LCF fraud problem would not have been identified.
As your Lordships may know, I am quite involved with the issue of whistleblowing. This pattern of ignoring information is not an exception; it is the norm at the FCA. I fear that even better training, which is one of the primary recommendations, will do little to help. The FCA treats information it receives from individuals slightly differently if it believes that they are whistleblowers under the definition of PIDA—in other words, if they are employees making a protected disclosure—or from other sources, but that difference is only to the extent of taking care to protect the identity of a whistleblower; otherwise, the information follows an almost identical parallel route.
In both cases, the contacts are handled by staff trained, in effect, to manage a complaints line, where the goal is to pacify the caller, who is typically regarded—I have had many discussions with the relevant people at the FCA—as a troubled individual with emotional and mental health problems. They are very kind to those people, but none of the staff has the financial expertise to recognise when they are tripping across a serious financial issue and piece of misbehaviour. Frankly, a few weeks’ training will not change that.
If I were to bring before this House the equivalent US regulator, your Lordships would find that information from contacts is triaged by expert and senior financial investigators. I am told that a minimum of five years’ investigative experience is required to take up that role, because in the US such information is treasured as vital to keep clean an industry in which the abuse of customers is a constant temptation. To get that same approach in the UK would mean turning the culture in our regulators on its head and changing the staffing profile. Frankly, it would require a whole new way of defining and handling whistleblowers, regarding them as a much broader source of information. As your Lordships know, actual whistleblowers under the PIDA definition not only find that their information is often ignored but typically are left to career-destroying retaliation by powerful employers.
I have a Private Member’s Bill before the House to create an office of the whistleblower, which could lead to many of the needed changes, but it needs the Government to make the decision that they need to step in and change that whole culture and the structure, and to put in place an appropriate framework to make sure that we look at those who pass on information and those who blow the whistle as key players in keeping clean a system such as financial services, which has so much power and money. It is, as they say in the States, the civil army that enables the regulator to keep the industry clean.
My second fundamental issue is the regulatory perimeter. The LCF case illuminates how few financial transactions engaged in by small businesses, and often by ordinary people, are actually regulated activities. The Minister said that nothing LCF did was actually a regulated activity. Indeed, this case demonstrates how a company that acquires an authorisation, and therefore is presumed by the public, businesses and ordinary people to be regulated, uses that FCA imprimatur as a false cover for the mis-selling of services.
To illustrate how limited the regulatory perimeter was in the LCF case, if you apply that perimeter, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme covered only £57.6 million of the £237 million in losses that arose from the collapse of LCF.
In recent years we have endured one scandal after another that has fallen outside the regulatory perimeter, including asset stripping by the global restructuring group of RBS, the mis-selling of interest rate caps to SMEs—I could go on for the next half hour. All of these have left victims, because the FCA took the position that it could not act to stop abuse because it was beyond the perimeter. In the end, in these high-profile events the FCA typically gets forced by public pressure and Parliament to do something and some compensation occurs, but that is not a satisfactory system.
The FCA also constantly falls back on the new senior management regime, which it cites as a strength. If ever a scheme proved to be a busted flush, it is the senior management regime. As others have pointed out, it has not been effective; it has not even been used, as far as I can tell, in the LCF case. It has been used with such a light touch—so mildly and with such deference—that frankly, it no longer has any credibility within the financial services industry. No one fears it and no one respects it. We really need to move to a global standard whereby one regulates organisations, not just activities. Without that, the UK will continue to be seen as a natural home for financial rogues who can exploit that perimeter.
I will finish by raising a couple of quick questions about the Bill itself. I join others in saying to the Minister, why does he believe that, in a case where the regulator was so much at fault—Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s report does not say, “On the balance of this or on the balance of that”; it is totally damning—people should receive only 80% compensation capped at £68,000? The investors did not do wrong; indeed, they were not even greedy. They were not being offered extraordinary and exceptional returns; they all looked quite moderate. That was part of the inherent effectiveness of the mis-selling.
If I have read the Bill and the explanatory notes correctly—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—members of defined benefit pension plans who invested in LCF will be compensated pretty much in full through the pension protection fund. However, the cost of that compensation will be picked up not by the Government but by levies, as the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, said, on the whole body of defined benefit pensioners. Why should the entire pension system be picking up the cost of maladministration by the regulator? I am completely confused.
I am even more confused when I look at pensioners who are in defined contribution arrangements who invested in LCF. They are not going to get all their money back; their compensation will be capped at the 80% limit and the £68,000 maximum. So, depending on whether you in a defined benefit scheme or defined contribution scheme, the outcome is completely different. People who had ISAs will get their compensation, but how can they reinvest it in ISAs when there is an annual ISA limit? These were ISAs they committed to five or more years previously. How on earth is that issue going to be handled? There may be a solution, but I could not work it out, and I apologise if it is my failure to read the detail sufficiently.
Lastly, why are LCF’s victims unable to challenge this Government’s compensation scheme through a full public consultation by the FCA? The Minister said that public consultations take time, but if people are going to get back only 80%, capped at £68,000, they may well have a case that they want to put to the FCA. I do not understand why people have been put in that position. Why do we have no impact assessment? These are always missing at critical points, and they are again with this Bill.
I have some sympathy for our financial regulators, which, frankly, are under resourced and understaffed, but I am alarmed that the Government seem intent on leaving essentially untouched a flawed system, rather than taking on the challenge of fundamental change to create a regulator that the rogues in the industry will genuinely fear. As many have said, LCF is not a one-off. Every time we turn around, it seems, we have a one-off exception. We need the Minister and the Government to take heed and to act.
My Lords, with just two substantive clauses this legislation is uncharacteristically straightforward by Treasury standards. It is also uncontentious in what it seeks to achieve. However, as we have heard, the circumstances surrounding the Bill raise important questions such as those asked by my noble friends Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Sikka. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for her contribution and for setting out how the senior management regime, in respect of which so much was promised, has failed succeed.
I will not provide another account of the events leading up to the drafting of Clause 1, but it is right that bondholders be compensated for the numerous regulatory failings in respect of London Capital & Finance. We all want to see this compensation paid out, and the sooner Royal Assent is granted, the quicker that process can get under way. I am glad that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed in the Commons that the Government intend to complete payments within six months of the Bill being passed. Is the Minister confident that the preparatory work has been completed to the requisite standard to allow this to happen? Are any claims likely to be settled before Christmas?
The behaviour of LCF, which, among other things, ran multiple promotions wrongly implying that its minibond products were fully regulated, was wrong. There is no doubt about it and we must not forget it. As colleagues have noted, the Financial Conduct Authority’s response, whether to early warnings or later in the process, was unacceptable, as was recognised in Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s review. The compensation burden now faced by taxpayers is arguably higher than it needed to be. Both the Government and parliamentarians should, of course, hold the FCA to account and challenge it to do better.
A variety of concerns, some specific and others more general, have rightly been raised during today’s debate, building on others voiced during the Bill’s Commons stages. For once we have little doubt that the Government agree with our discomfort. The Minister, Guy Opperman, did not mince his words when, at the beginning of the Second Reading debate in the other place, he urged the FCA to
“take a good long, hard look at itself”.—[Official Report, Commons 8/6/21; col. 905.]
The body has accepted the findings of Dame Elizabeth’s report in full and is under new leadership.
Concerns about the FCA’s willingness to hold bad actors to account are not new, nor will they go away overnight. However, during lengthy discussions on parliamentary scrutiny of the regulator during the passage of the Financial Services Bill, all sides agreed that it was for those independent bodies to determine how they ran their affairs. None of us should be happy about the events of the past, but we must allow the FCA to implement its reform programme and demonstrate an ability to do better in the future. It might be easier for concerned colleagues to trust the FCA if the Minister could confirm that, in the words of Mr Opperman, there has been “suitable input from Government”. Has the Treasury, as part of this legislative process, reiterated its views on the matter to the FCA? Does the Minister believe that the message has been heard loud and clear?
As the Minister outlined at the start of the debate, Clause 2 amends the Pensions Act 2004 and grants the Secretary of State a new power to lend money to the board of the Pension Protection Fund. It is a response to the November 2020 ruling of the High Court, which determined that claims arising from so-called pension liberation fraud fall within the remit of the Fraud Compensation Fund. We welcome the speed at which the Government are legislating on this matter, although there are questions about how the levy on pension schemes will function and what Ministers are doing to crack down on frauds and scams. My colleague Pat McFadden MP asked a series of questions that did not receive satisfactory responses. I will ask the Minister some of those questions and, if he is unable to answer them today, I hope he will commit to writing.
The levy on pension schemes, which funds compensation arising from such cases, is a flat rate. This means that schemes with a large number of members but where individual pension pots are relatively modest could end up paying a significant proportion of the overall sum. Why have the Government not formulated a more proportionate means of collecting the funds? Is that one of the trade-offs of legislating on this matter as quickly as we are?
Pat McFadden also asked whether Ministers believed that there was a causal link between the greater pension freedoms introduced in recent years and the increased incidence of scams and financial fraud. Does the Treasury believe that there is such a link and, if so, what steps are being taken to crack down on such behaviour? In so far as some scams are carried out online, will the Treasury commit to work with DCMS to ensure that the upcoming online safety Bill contains relevant safeguards?
It is unfortunate that so many people have been caught up in these cases. This Bill, however, provides a means of closing the door on some unsavoury events within the financial sector. Once compensation has been delivered, in the coming months, the key objective will be to ensure that the risk of such incidents occurring again is significantly reduced. I hope that the Minister’s response will reassure the House in this regard.
My Lords, I thank all those who have contributed to this afternoon’s short but important debate, and I will address as many of the issues raised as possible. A considerable number of questions were put, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. I doubt that all will be answered, but I promise that I will do my best and will write to him and others who have participated as necessary. I particularly appreciate, however, the depth of his speech.
At the core of this Bill lies the need to ensure adequate protection for ordinary people who are saving and investing for their future: individuals who, in seeking a better return for their nest egg, have suffered a financial loss which in some cases amounts to almost all their savings. As was mentioned earlier, these are not in general wealthy individuals: the average loss, for example, for a London Capital & Finance bondholder is between £15,000 and £20,000. The impacts serve to highlight the need for a regulatory system that includes the proper protections for consumers, as has been made clear in this afternoon’s debate.
I start with the issues about the failures and regulation of the Financial Conduct Authority raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Moylan, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Kramer. Quite understandably there is concern over the egregious failures in relation to LCF that have been identified and described in great detail in Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s comprehensive report. I echo the favourable comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, at the beginning of her speech, about the thoroughness of the report—that much, I think, we can agree on. In particular, the FCA failed to properly enforce the financial promotions regime, which seeks to ensure, among other things, that communications with customers are clear, fair and not misleading—a key theme emerging from this debate. The report also raised issues about the FCA’s ability to join the dots between different pieces of supervisory intelligence to build an accurate and comprehensive picture of what was happening at LCF. In what follows I will give what I hope will be some reassurance, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka.
The FCA has now put in place a comprehensive plan to address all Dame Elizabeth’s recommendations, including through its transformation programme. I will give a bit of detail about this. It includes strengthening the senior leadership team, recruiting more staff, providing better training, and, crucially, introducing new systems to build better intelligence on firms. The FCA’s process for authorising firms has also been strengthened considerably and, following the improvements, the percentage of applications that are withdrawn has doubled. This reflects the FCA’s desire to ensure that firms start with high standards and maintain them, with the aim of reducing the time, cost and burden of dealing with firms that fail to meet its standards.
Furthermore, the FCA has committed to reporting every six months on the progress of its transformation programme. In response to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I say that my colleague in the other place the Economic Secretary continues his close dialogue with the chief executive, so that the Government are fully apprised of the progress and can hold the regulator properly to account.
I would like to touch on an interesting debate on competitiveness initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, but there is not much time to expand on it. I understand her views but I do not agree with them. There is a balance to be struck between consumer protection and competitiveness. The UK has a world-leading financial services sector, employing more than a million people nationwide. These jobs are spread across all regions of the country, with two-thirds of those working outside London. The sector also supports British businesses to expand, manage cash flow, invest in themselves and ultimately create more jobs. In 2019 alone, the UK exported £60-billion worth of financial and insurance services, with a trade surplus of £41 billion.
There has been a great deal of debate about the need to improve the competitive standing of our financial services sector. However, episodes such as the collapse of LCF serve to illustrate that our world-leading sector can succeed only if it is supported by a regulator that consumers and businesses can trust, underlying the importance of the reforms already under way at the FCA. I hope this provides a more expansive answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.
My noble friend Lord Moylan also raises some important points about regulation and about incentives in the retail investment market. I am of course happy to meet to discuss these matters further, and I will pass on this request for a meeting to my honourable friend the Economic Secretary. I would like to say a bit more to my noble friend, because more than a decade of rock-bottom interest rates has led some investors to seek alternative investments to generate returns. The high interest rates on offer from LCF should have prompted questions from potential bondholders about the risks. While some may have understood those risks and invested anyway, it appears that LCF’s disclosure materials and marketing strategy—back to communication —led others to believe that they were investing in a product far safer than it was.
In September, the FCA published the latest on its strategy for dealing with the problems and harms in the consumer investments market. The FCA’s goal is to see more people investing in mainstream investment products, and it has committed to explore regulatory changes to enable firms to provide more sales and support services to mass-market consumers investing in straightforward products, such as stocks and shares ISA wrappers.
The FCA has set up a dedicated team to help firms to develop mass-market automated advice models—or so-called robo advice—in its continued efforts to ensure that consumers can access high-quality, affordable and suitable financial advice, as well as free-to-access financial guidance, when they need it. The FCA is also taking action to address issues relating to inappropriate high-risk investments such as those mentioned by my noble friend Lord Moylan. For example, it is using data and technology to spot harms faster, continuing its campaign to help consumers to make better-informed investment decisions, and removing out-of-date permissions to reduce the risk of firms misleading consumers about the level of protection offered or giving credibility to unregulated activities.
We must also ensure that regulation targets the correct activities. On the specific issue of mini-bonds, the FCA introduced a ban on the sale of the most speculative and opaque instruments to retail investors in January 2020. The Treasury is also considering proposals to introduce further regulation of so-called non-transferable debt securities, following a consultation earlier this year. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked for an update on the consultation. As he may know, the consultation closed on 21 July. The Treasury is considering responses and should be in a position to decide how to proceed in the autumn—later on in the autumn, it is fair to say.
I turn to the compensation matters for LCF. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kramer and Lady Bennett, asked: why LCF and not other firms? LCF is not the only firm to have failed and, within any healthy regulatory environment, it is inevitable that firms fail from time to time. However, this implies no complacency whatever. I have made it clear already, I hope, that we must never drop our guard on regulation but it is an important point of principle that the Government do not step in to pay compensation in respect of failed financial services firms that fall outside the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. As I have explained, this would create a moral hazard for investors and potentially lead to individuals choosing unsuitable investments, believing the Government will step in if things go wrong.
Inevitably, there will be some individuals seeking compensation in relation to other failed companies and investments. But it is important to emphasise that the situation regarding LCF is exceptional. It is the only failed firm issuing this type of opaque instrument that was authorised by the FCA. To answer the points raised, this is why LCF alone is covered by this compensation, and not the other unregulated minibonds. Let me be clear also that the fact that LCF was authorised was central to many of Dame Elizabeth’s findings. In comparison, other minibond firms such as Blackmore Bond and Basset & Gold were not authorised by the FCA. Indeed, the FCA cannot be said to have the same set of responsibilities towards failed minibond issuers that were not authorised, since the issuance of minibonds is not a regulated activity.
I turn further to the London Capital & Finance clause. The first part of the Bill will provide parliamentary authority for the Government to pay compensation to LCF bondholders. I recognise that this has been an exceptionally difficult time for bondholders, and I hope the compensation via the government scheme will offer some relief of the distress and hardship they have suffered and provide some closure on this difficult matter. The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked about consultation. A consultation and impact assessment would slow down this process and create unnecessary delays to compensation payments, hence the reason for bringing into the Bill the matter of not needing that.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about preparations to launch the scheme. The Treasury has been working closely with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which will administer the scheme on the Government’s behalf to ensure it can launch and begin making payments swiftly after Royal Assent. This will ensure all payments can be made within six months, and I have confidence that they will succeed in that aim.
I hope this helps with the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka: the Government expect to pay out around £120 million in compensation to approximately 8,800 bondholders in total. My maths is not too good, but I make that around £12,000 to £13,000 each. As noble Lords are aware, the purpose of the second clause of this Bill is simple: to ensure the Fraud Compensation Fund has the funds necessary to continue to pay compensation to eligible schemes that make a claim.
I turn to future pensions scams and how the Government can be sure that scams of this nature do not happen again. This was a key point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Davies. I would like to give some reassurance to noble Lords about the several measures being taken to look at this. To answer a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, about how the pensions regulator, TPR, should be strengthened: when scam cases started to emerge over a decade ago, the Pensions Regulator was faced with a very high volume of potential investigations. To target finite resources most effectively, The Pensions Regulator prioritised resources to the highest-risk cases and took steps to liaise with other agencies to disrupt this activity. There were several reasons why the Pensions Regulator may not have taken direct action on a particular case: often, another agency was already acting or best placed to act; or, the scam was no longer actively operating, and the Pensions Regulator had to consider whether the risks to savers would be mitigated by appointing a trustee. That was then; we need to look to now.
Crucially, HMRC has tightened its schemes registration process. It now carries out a detailed risk assessment of a scheme administrator before deciding whether to register the scheme and has power to deregister a scheme where it has reason to believe the pension scheme administrator is not fit and proper. Those who have defrauded through pension liberation fraud have been deregistered and the schemes transferred to independent trustees. Companies and their directors have been referred to the Pensions Regulator for enforcement action. Some cases are also being actively considered by the Pensions Ombudsman through its pensions dishonesty unit. The Pensions Ombudsman currently has 32 pensions dishonesty complaints relating to 19 different schemes. These cases are in varying stages of the pensions dishonesty unit process. The House will know that the Pensions Regulator and the Pensions Ombudsman are independent bodies, and the Government cannot comment otherwise on individual cases.
Furthermore, the Pension Schemes Act 2021 gives the Pensions Regulator stronger powers so that savers can be confident that their pensions are protected, and the regulator can act if pensions are put at risk. DWP is now planning the secondary legislation relating to Section 125 of the Act. These measures make it significantly harder for fraudsters to successfully set up pension liberation schemes with the intention of committing fraud.
We have heard about the loan in contributions today from noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, who raised the point about the expectation of cost recovery. The expectation is that costs will be recovered over a 10 to 15-year period to spread the costs for the schemes through the proposed levy. The reason a loan is required is that the Fraud Compensation Fund is currently funded by a levy on eligible occupational pension schemes which, as I said earlier, will not be sufficient to fund these additional pension liberation claims in the short term. It is a widely accepted principle that the pensions industry should meet the cost of protecting the pensions sector, rather than the taxpayer, which perhaps addresses some points raised by the noble Baroness. However, I understand that the costs must also be tolerable and manageable for the industry. The Government will therefore consult by the end of the autumn about the fraud compensation levy ceiling for all eligible occupational pension schemes.
Focusing on the levy, in particular the flat rate of the compensation levy, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, it is important to note that it is for the Pension Protection Fund to set the levy within the ceiling set in legislation, not the Government. I am told that for the 2021-22 financial year master trust schemes, to reflect their particular characteristics, are being charged an annual levy rate of 30p per member, with other eligible pension schemes being charged 75p per member.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, raised some points about the Pension Protection Fund. Briefly, both the PPF and the Fraud Compensation Fund were established by the Pensions Act 2004. Since coming into operation in 2005, the Pension Protection Fund has taken responsibility for more than 1,000 defined benefit pension schemes, comprising more than 260,000 members. It paid out £860 million in benefits in 2019-20, the last year for which statistics are available.
I would also like to address pension freedoms, as raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. As the House will know, pension freedoms are different from pension liberation fraud, which involves members being persuaded to transfer their pension savings from legitimate to fraudulent schemes, with promises of high investment returns or access to a loan from the pension scheme before age 55. Pension liberation fraud and pension freedoms are entirely separate issues. Pension freedoms were introduced in 2015, after these pension fraud cases. The purpose of pension freedoms is to give individuals the choice as to how to access their own hard-earned savings, as the Government believe it is right that individuals are trusted to choose how to access their pension income.
In response to the criticisms made of pensions freedoms today, I highlight that Financial Conduct Authority research has found no significant evidence of consumers drawing down their savings too quickly. The extensive retirement outcome review in June 2018 found that those withdrawing defined contribution savings had other forms of retirement income or wealth.
I turn now to points raised about the online safety matters. We heard reference to this from the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Davies. I remind noble Lords that this measure is specifically to provide a loan to the Fraud Compensation Fund, to ensure that it can compensate those who have suffered pension fraud. So, online fraud is out of scope, but I understand that the online safety Bill will not tackle fraud facilitated through paid-for advertising—a point raised, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Davies—such as advertisements on search engines. I am aware that DCMS is considering how online advertising is regulated through its online advertising programme. I have my noble friend Lord Parkinson here, who I am sure will nod his head.
In the brief time available, I will try to answer a few final questions before concluding. One point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, was on Woodford. There are important differences that distinguish LCF from the Woodford Equity Income Fund, because Woodford operated an authorised fund, which, unlike many bonds, was regulated by the FCA and was within the remit of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. This means that where individuals have a legitimate claim to compensation—for example, because products have been mis-sold—they are able to make a claim to the FSCS. As the noble Lord will know, the FCA is investigating what went wrong at the Woodford Equity Income Fund and considering what rule changes may be necessary to help prevent such issues arising in the future. It would be improper for me or the Government to intervene or comment before this investigation is complete.
Another point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, on the SFO investigation. Very briefly, as he will know, the SFO launched its investigation in March 2019 and he will understand that I am not able to comment on the ongoing investigation, except to say that it is a highly complex case which the SFO is working hard to unravel. I hope that provides some reassurance.
There are some other questions but I want to address the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on why compensation is set at 80% and the cap at £68,000. I answer that by saying that the government scheme appropriately balances the interests of bondholders and the taxpayer and will ensure that all LCF bondholders receive a fair level of compensation in respect of the financial loss they have suffered. With any investment, there is a risk that sometimes investors will lose money but, to answer the question, to avoid creating any misconception of moral hazard for investors and leading investors down the line that choosing unsuitable investments will lead them to receive compensation in full, a wide range of factors needs to be taken into account. These losses would not ordinarily be compensated for at 100%, and 80% is a level that has been set in terms of the LCF bondholders’ initial investment, taking it up to a maximum of £68,000.
Bearing in mind the time, I will certainly read Hansard and write a letter to answer any questions that I have not managed to address, if I feel that that is the case. I thank all noble Lords who have engaged in this debate and I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.