New Clause 14 — Store cards and consumer credit agreements

Part of Financial Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:37 pm on 25th January 2010.

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Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Treasury) 9:37 pm, 25th January 2010

I echo the Minister in commending all those who have participated in the scrutiny of the Bill, both on Report and in Committee. One of the strengths of the Public Bill Committee-I referred to this at the conclusion of its proceedings-was that it was assisted by the presence of several hon. Members from both sides of the House who were able to bring their expertise from serving on the Treasury Committee to bear on the matters in the Bill.

Those Members were not the only people who contributed to the Public Bill Committee, however, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends who served on it for the time that they put into developing their ideas. Rob Marris, of course, was a prodigious commentator on the Bill. I was sorry that Dr. Cable did not join us in the Public Bill Committee, even though he was a member, but his colleague, Mr. Breed, did a good job of setting out several of the arguments.

It would be remiss of me if I did not say a few words about the Minister. This is our fifth Bill since October 2008, and among his hallmarks are his willingness to engage in debates and to give good answers to questions that are posed, and his understanding of the content of Bills, which goes beyond that occasionally displayed by Members on both sides of the House. I understand that he has decided to step down after the next election, whenever that comes, and I wish him well in whatever he chooses to do.

The Bill is a strange combination. We did not oppose its Second Reading, and when I glanced just now at its contents, I realised how much of it we support. I would divide the measures into three categories: the welcome, the cosmetic and the misconceived. There are more measures in the welcome category than in the other two and important proposals will enhance consumer protection, but one challenge that the financial services sector faces as it seeks to rebuild confidence in it following the financial crisis of the past two or three years is how to encourage consumers to engage with the Bill.

Many measures that focus on the consumer will help to encourage consumers to engage. Three distinct areas are involved in that, the first of which is the establishment of the consumer finance education body. One challenge that we all recognise is the need to increase people's confidence in discussing financial products with independent financial advisers, banks and insurance companies. A huge deficit in people's financial understanding needs to be dealt with.

We will not necessarily all agree exactly about how that deficit should be repaired-Mr. Todd has his own views on how effective those measures will be and how best to target the work of the new consumer finance education body-but we are all clear that the work that the FSA has already established in the pilot projects needs to continue. On a visit to Gateshead, I saw for myself the importance of the work done by Age Concern and Help the Aged as part of the pilot project.

The second group of measures aimed at improving the lot of consumers is the action taken on banning credit card cheques. Sending out unsolicited credit card cheques has been one of the most indefensible practices in the consumer credit industry over a long period. In Committee, I told hon. Members that my wife had received some credit card cheques before Christmas. The industry, knowing that such cheques were to be banned, was still sending them out. I had rather hoped that the pre-Christmas mailshot would be the last that she received including such cheques, but I was disappointed, as in the past 10 days or so they have been offered to her in another mailshot from her credit card company. Clearly, the consumer credit sector is having a last hurrah.

The next batch of measures that protects consumers, which we welcome, is the arrangements on collective proceedings orders and consumer redress schemes. The point of contention, perhaps, between me and the Minister is straightforward: the measures have been included in the Bill, but they came as a surprise to the industry despite the fact that they were trailed in the consumer White Paper.

The industry was not clear about how the measures would work in practice. The scrutiny process achieved some clarity on the fact that generic court rules would be designed, then Treasury regulations introduced to modify those rules to ensure that they were appropriate for financial services claims. That process is now understood and welcomed, but the industry will want to engage with it in some detail over the coming months, as the Minister might expect.

Another important area, which we touched on occasionally in Committee, is what we do when a number of people have experience of buying a particular product involving a systemic case of mis-selling-for example, when a number of products with the same fault have been put on the market.

Currently, such cases are dealt with by the Financial Ombudsman Service. I think that the procedure is unsatisfactory, both for FOS and the industry. The reforms set out in the Bill will insert a new section 404 in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to create consumer redress schemes, which is an important move forward. I am sure that there is more we can do on safeguards to ensure that they work properly, especially where there is some doubt about the application of law or of FSA regulations. Improvements can be made to ensure that the proposals are welcomed not only by consumer groups, but by the industry.

We also welcome measures on remuneration, the framework for short selling, which we debated earlier, and living wills. Our financial regulation White Paper, issued last year, outlined our support for living wills. That is an important part of the resolution regime introduced in the Banking Act 2009.

There are cosmetic changes on financial stability and the Bank of England. When Angela Eagle was Exchequer Secretary, she was keen to point out that the FSA already had the implicit objective of financial stability. The Minister believes that by making that objective explicit it has greater salience, but we shall see what happens and how behaviour changes as a consequence. The duty to co-operate with international bodies was a matter of interest for my hon. Friend Mr. Cash. The FSA already does so much of that that it is difficult to see what more can be achieved.

Some measures in the Bill are misconceived. The Minister referred to the well-trodden path in the first four clauses. We trod it well in Committee, both in our evidence sessions and in our debates. Indeed, the issues were reprised this evening, and they are the source of fundamental disagreement between the Minister and me. We set out clearly in our White Paper our plans to give increased powers to the Bank of England on micro and macro-prudential stability, and what we are going to do to give new powers to the Consumer Protection Agency. If I go on for too long, Mr. Speaker, you will rule me out of order for a Third Reading speech, so I shall save my remarks for another occasion, if the opportunity presents itself.

There are important lessons to be learned from the financial crisis, and the Bill deals with some of them. However, the financial services sector must recognise that it is not just policy makers and legislators who need to make reforms, but that it, too, must engage. I am sure that we will return to these issues again, because as the financial crisis unfolds-the Bill is good at future-proofing, with measures on living wills, for example, on which we are creating a framework for the FSA, and measures on remuneration, which create another framework for it-there will be opportunities to identify new issues, which may require legislation, as a result of the duty to co-operate with international financial institutions.

This is a helpful Bill that improves the opportunities for consumer protection and education. It makes important changes to the framework to help to ensure that if there is another banking crisis a proper resolution is in place. There are things in it that we support; there are some things that we think are purely cosmetic; and there are some things that are misconceived. However, the process that it has undergone over the past couple of months has helped to illuminate its workings and set out the challenges to which we all need to rise.

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