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Clause 6 — Extension of scope of regulation

Part of Financial Services Bill (Money) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 10th December 2012.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury) 9:00 pm, 10th December 2012

My hon. Friend makes an excellent intervention. She is right. In our debates about financial services we sometimes talk in rarefied or esoteric technical terms, but this issue is certainly of relevance to all our constituents, whose mortgage rates, the interest they pay on loans, and, in the case of oil markets, the price they pay for petrol at the petrol station and the price they pay to heat their homes, as well as prices in the gas and food markets—the price of a loaf of bread, for example—are all too often rooted in the costs of these commodities and investments, as determined by the global trading environment.

This is what it boils down to: it is a question of trust. Hitherto, people assumed that all the market benchmark arrangements were simply transparent exchanges of data and prices that showed the true value of an investment, product or commodity, and that people were buying and selling in an open and fair process. It turned out that those in the know, who were often highly paid traders in the bigger banks—incidentally, even more revelations will come out over the coming months about the banks that might have been involved in LIBOR—knew how to wangle the system and play the market in a way that helped not only the profits of their particular company, but that boosted their own personal bonus arrangements. It was a question of using other people’s money in order to shift massive volumes of trades. Even if the changes in price were fractional and seemed irrelevant, when they were multiplied by the billions of trades that were taking place they could have massive financial advantages to those traders involved.

It was alleged recently that banks rigged electricity markets in the United States and record fines have been issued. That involved British institutions, so British regulators should be explicitly equipped to tackle attempts to rig commodities trading, whether it be spot trading, forward contracts, futures contracts or hedging arrangements. Global commodities markets include a vast range of products, such as grains, fibre, other food, precious and industrial metals, energy, carbon offsets and so on.

As I have said, British households are affected by commodity market manipulation—perhaps even more than attempts to rig LIBOR. Commodity speculation has contributed to the record costs of staple foods in recent years. In fact, some people argue that the riots and social unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries were influenced by pricing issues and distortions.

Last month, after the Energy Secretary made a statement to Parliament, the Financial Services Authority and Ofgem confirmed that they were conducting an inquiry into claims that British companies manipulated the wholesale gas market on 28 September. The Government have said that it would not be appropriate to use legislation to cover pure commodities, such as gas, but that if commodities are referenced by derivatives or other financial instruments, it is covered by the definition of investments. However, a derivative instrument may essentially be a traded instrument and there is no reason for it to fall within that definition. It could be regarded as an insurance product and so does not fall clearly within the definition if investments in Lords amendment 119.

Total, the French oil company, recently made open allegations against one of the PRAs. That is not the PRA as we know and love it—the Prudential Regulatory Authority—but another acronym. Price reporting agencies are companies or organisations that essentially gather information, almost as a journalist might do, and figure out broadly what is happening in the market. However, it is not necessarily a true reflection of what is happening. Total alleged that there were erratic processes involved and that it was not a true reflection of the state of the market. There were also questions over the methodologies of the price reporting agencies. Does the Minister think that price reporting agencies need to be within the regulatory ambit? Again, they are important component players in the financial services sector, but are not familiar to all our constituents—but by goodness, they would become familiar to all our constituents if they were not trusted or were seen to be failing in some way.