Oversight Committee

Financial Services Bill (Money) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 10th December 2012.

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Amendment (b) proposed to Lords amendment 3 .—(Chris Leslie.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 224, Noes 293.

Division number 118

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day ).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question s necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Lords amendment 3 agreed to.

Lords amendments 4 to 23 agreed to .

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 7:12 pm, 10th December 2012

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On 29 February this year, I asked the Secretary of State for Justice whether he would name the 25 highest-paid lawyers and the amounts they received. I was told the information would be available in due course. I asked again on 19 April, and was told the information would be available later this summer—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please so do quietly? Those remaining in the Chamber should listen to the point of order and if they wish to have private conversations, they should leave the Chamber. I cannot hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I got as far as 29 February so perhaps he will pick up his point from there.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

My initial question on 29 February asked for the names of the 25 highest-paid lawyers and I was told the information would be available in due course. I asked again on 19 April and was told the information would be available later in the summer. Yesterday, the answer to my question was spread over the pages of The Sun and The Sunday Telegraph with the Justice Secretary’s inimitable spin put on it. This afternoon, I received a reply to my question from Lord McNally. Is it appropriate to wait nine months for a question to be answered, and for it to be leaked all over the Sunday press the day before that answer is received? Even by the standards of this Government that is poor. Will you give me some advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how I can avoid a repetition of that?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Clearly the Government thought long and hard about how to answer the question—a little too long, in fact—and information was released to the press before the hon. Gentleman received it in writing, although he has it now. There is not a great deal that I can do from the Chair, but I recommend that the hon. Gentleman takes the matter up with the Procedure Committee. Nine months is a little long, as I am sure most Members of the House would agree.

Let us move on to the next group of amendments.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with Lords amendment 24.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this we may take Lords amendments 25, 41, 63, 78, 86, 128 to 138, 147, 231 to 233 and 236.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The amendments in this group relate to key considerations that have underpinned the design of the new conduct regulator. The Government have been clear that regulation should focus on making financial markets work well, and on securing better outcomes for consumers.

Access is critical. Without access to a bank account, for example, it is difficult for individuals to participate fully in the economy and even in society. To support access, Lords amendment 25 adds a new “have regard” to the Financial Conduct Authority’s competition objective. Therefore, when considering whether effective competition is in the interests of consumers, the FCA must have regard to

“the ease with which consumers…including consumers in areas affected by social or economic deprivation, can access” the services they may wish to use.

That reflects discussions in the other place, and it is right to make it clear that the regulator’s duties embrace those affected by deprivation.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

The Minister gave the example of access to a bank account, but may I draw his attention to the issue of access to a bank branch in order to access one’s bank account? Already, a series of communities no longer have bank branches. Will he say how the FCA will use this new power to consider communities that lack not access to a bank account but access to a bank branch in the first place?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. However, having set up the FCA to put supervision into practice and added this concern to its objectives, it would be unreasonable for me to tell it how to exercise its powers before it has even come formally into existence. It will consider the issue of access and come to a view. That will be open to scrutiny by the Treasury Committee and, I dare say, other Committees of the House.

Where the FCA has identified a problem with access, the regulator will consider whether it could take action to close gaps in provision by promoting competition in the interests of consumers. It may also consider whether its own rules and requirements are imposing a burden on competition and restricting access.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it matters that it is not too difficult to open an account in the first place? Every bank treats anyone who wants to open an account as a first-class money launderer, but it is essential that opening an account is not too complicated.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the import of the amendment I mentioned—we have stressed its importance. The Bill has substantially improved regard for competition, including by addressing the possibility that regulators, whether inadvertently or by neglect, might impede it. An explicit requirement to have regard to competition will help in that matter.

Consumer credit is a topic of great interest. A number of provisions in the Bill enable the transfer of the regulation of consumer credit from the Office of Fair Trading to the FCA. That will take place by April 2014 and constitutes a major transformation in the regulation of consumer credit. As all hon. Members know, there was strong cross-party consensus in the House of Lords on the need for strong regulation of the payday loans market. Members on both sides of this House feel just as strongly.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

There has been a proliferation of payday loans companies setting up in Chatham high street. Hon. Members have raised the issue for some time, so I welcome the Government’s decision. When will the university of Bristol research into a cap be published? Will it be published before Christmas?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend is a real campaigner—anyone who suffers poor treatment in Chatham can count on her vigorous support in defending themselves against people who have more power. My understanding is that the research being conducted by the university of Bristol is pretty close to completion. I am not certain whether it will be published just before or just after Christmas, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend is alerted as soon as it is laid before the House.

Lords amendment 78 clarifies that the FCA will have the power to impose restrictions on the cost and duration of a regulated credit agreement. It ensures that potential loopholes that could be exploited by unscrupulous firms are addressed, for example by ensuring that the FCA’s rules under the power cover linked charges and connected agreements. The amendment provides for the agreement to be unenforceable by the lender, for any money or property secured against the loan to be returned to the borrower, and for compensation arrangements to be put in place.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

Will the Minister clarify for the House whether the rules apply to organisations such as BrightHouse, which sells furniture and white goods at very high interest rates as well as via straightforward money transactions?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Lady would not expect me to comment on a particular firm when I do not know the details, but she makes a perfectly reasonable general point. If a firm is a regulated provider of credit, the provisions apply to it in the same way.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

But it sounds as if people selling goods at exceptionally high interest rates on hire purchase agreements are not regulated credit providers. Therefore, is there not a bit of a loophole in what the Minister offers?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I do not believe there is a loophole. Firms are required to be regulated for those aspects of their business that provide credit to consumers. They therefore fall squarely under the FCA’s powers.

The Government tabled a number of amendments in the Lords to ensure a smooth transfer of consumer credit regulation from the OFT to the FCA, and to ensure that the FCA regime is proportionate and gives the right protection to consumers. We also introduced amendments in response to concerns raised by the House of Lords Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. For example, Lords amendment 136 requires the Treasury to have regard to the importance of securing an appropriate degree of protection for consumers and for the principle of proportionality.

Lords amendment 130 responds to the Committee’s concern about double jeopardy. It provides that when criminal sanctions under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and regulatory sanctions under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 are available to the FCA in relation to the same act or omission, a person may not be convicted if he has already been subject to sanctions under FSMA.

Lords amendment 233 and associated technical amendments address a possible loophole that might otherwise emerge as a result of moving from a CCA-based regime to a FSMA-based regime. Under FSMA, it is an offence to carry on a regulated activity without authorisation, whereas under the CCA, it is an offence to lend money or collect debts without the right category of licence. The Government tabled amendments in the Lords to make it a criminal offence to lend or collect money without the correct permission. That addresses the risk of sophisticated illegal money lenders seeking authorisation for a lower-risk activity, only to use that as cover to engage in lending or debt collection, to the potential detriment of consumers. Lords amendment 233 also ensures that any agreements entered into or being enforced by a person without the necessary permission become unenforceable, meaning that important protections in the CCA for victims of illegal money lenders or debt collectors are replicated in the new regime.

Lords amendments 63 and 232 make changes to how the appointed representatives regime under FSMA will operate when firms carry out a credit-related activity—for example, by acting as ancillary credit brokers. The amendments create a limited carve-out from the provision in FSMA that firms cannot be both an appointed representative and authorised at the same time. They provide that if a firm is authorised for a particular category of consumer credit activity, it would also be able to become an appointed representative.

Consistent with CCA provisions, the Bill allows the Treasury to enable trading standards to prosecute offences under FSMA. Government amendments enable the Treasury to confer similar powers on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. They enable the Treasury to confer powers on trading standards and DETI to investigate offences under FSMA.

The amendments to which I have spoken so far have been concerned with the new regime, but the transfer to the FCA will not take place until April 2014, and it is clear that there are problems in the sector that the OFT needs to address in the meantime. The findings of the recent OFT report into compliance standards in the payday lending market show that compliance levels are low and that a number of practices that clearly cause consumer detriment are rife in the sector. To empower the OFT to operate as effectively as possible in the interim period, Lords amendments 138 and 147 give the OFT a new power to suspend consumer credit licences with immediate effect if it considers that necessary urgently to protect consumers.

Finally, on social investment, the Government tabled Lords amendments 24 and 41 to ensure that the particular needs of different sectors and the consumers that use them are taken into account—they are not specific to social investment but apply to alternative and innovative business models more generally. Lords amendment 24 requires that, when the FCA is considering its consumer protection objective in future, it will be required to have regard to the different expectations of consumers in relation to different types of financial service. In other words, if people with their eyes open go into a social investment model, it will be entirely appropriate for advisers to advise on such products.

Lords amendment 41 adds a new regulatory principle to clause 3B—the principle applies to both the Prudential Regulation Authority and the FCA. The measure requires them to have regard to the different nature and objectives of different financial services businesses. It is intended to make clear that there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation, because sectors such as social investment have an important part to play.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I apologise for interrupting the Minister’s strand of thinking on the social investment measures, but may I take him back to payday lenders? The noble Lord in the other place introduced a series of Government amendments designed to deal with the problem. Will the Minister offer the House a definition of payday lenders, so that we have a sense of who the Government seek to tackle with the amendments?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I will not do that for much the same reasons I gave in response to the previous intervention. The Lords amendment clarifies that across all regulated lenders the FCA has broad and powerful powers, if I can put it that way, to intervene to protect consumers, including on the price or rates of interest they are charged, according to its assessment of the detriment faced by consumers. It is right to frame it in that way, and to empower the regulator to pursue sometimes even novel forms of credit that might be operating to the detriment of consumers, rather than to risk specifying in the Bill detail that might be overtaken by time or the ingenuity of people seeking to cause damage to our constituents.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 7:30 pm, 10th December 2012

Will the Minister reflect on that answer? It would be helpful, in the context of the debate and understanding whether the amendments he supports today are effective enough to deal with the problem of payday lenders, for him to consider providing a definition of what the Government see as being the problem with payday lenders. The Opposition might have different views on what constitutes a payday lender. It would be good to hear the Minister’s views, so we might determine whether the amendments will achieve the objectives he has set out.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Gentleman knows that the term, “payday lender” is relatively informal and loose. It is important for the FCA to have the powers it needs to protect consumers. Its focus should be on the consumer, rather than on a current definition of a practice pursued by a supplier. That is the way it is cast and it is the right power. From the discussions in the House of Lords last week—as he might imagine, I paid close attention to them—it was apparent that everyone who has taken a close interest in the past weeks, months and, in some cases years, was content that the powers vested in the FCA, which are clarified in the amendment, address all the concerns shared on both sides of the House.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I encourage the Minister to broaden his comments to encompass all our concerns about high-cost credit companies. Having seen the wonderful damascene conversion to the need to tackle these companies, many of us want to ensure that we do not inadvertently miss out on not just those payday or short-term lenders, but doorstep lenders, logbook loans and hire purchase agreements. High-cost credit encapsulates all those issues, and I think it would be welcome to the regulator to know that the intention of Parliament is precisely to tackle the whole industry.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point, which makes the point I was making to Mr Thomas. To use the term “payday lenders” exclusively is to miss a broader range of potential practices that may cause detriment to consumers, and that is why this approach is about the powers vested in the regulator.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the FCA be able to look at other concerns such as the misuse of continuous payment authority by both high-cost lenders and fee-charging debt management companies? The unrestrained use of continuous payment authority causes one of the biggest detriments to consumers that I have seen.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The short answer to that is yes. The FCA’s powers will be broad, and defined by practice rather than activity. We have been clear that it might not be just the level of interest charged, but other practices associated with the lenders that come within the ambit of the regulator. It is clear that it will use those powers vigorously to promote the interests of all our constituents.

I will leave my introductory remarks on that point. I am sure that Members wish to contribute and I will seek to respond to any points raised when I make my winding-up speech.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

There are a large number of amendments in this group, and they focus on consumer credit and the best interests of consumers. I want to concentrate on two in particular—Lords amendments 25 and 78.

Lords amendment 25 was extracted from the Government and we are glad that they gave way on it. The amendment will henceforth make it clear that the new Financial Conduct Authority will have a requirement to ensure basic access to financial services particularly in deprived areas and neighbourhoods where some of our banks and financial institutions do not necessarily think that they can make millions and millions of pounds. That is the hope placed on the shoulders of the FCA. The key question is whether the regulator will roll up its sleeves and use the full extent of the powers that the Bill should provide. I, for one, will be seeking a very early meeting with the new chief executive of the FCA to extract commitments on how it intends to use the new powers.

It should not have taken months of persuading and cajoling Treasury Ministers for them to accede to the changes. Perhaps it was the fresh air provided by the new broom, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, sweeping clean with perhaps more of an open mind than his predecessor on some of these issues. If that is the case, I commend him for it. We need to begin to look at the detail, so I have a series of questions for him, starting with Lords amendment 25.

There are already what some people call lending deserts. In some communities, bank branches are not as readily available as they are in other, more affluent areas. In some deprived areas of the country, it is hard for consumers to access affordable credit. The key word—affordability—is of course now well known. If people want to be completely ripped off, they can pay for high-cost credit, often on a very short-term basis, with immense interest rate charges that can accumulate and get them into severe jeopardy. That will lead to further financial exclusion if they cannot keep up with the repayments, and to them being trapped in a spiral of poverty.

It is important to hold the big five banks to account. As large institutions, they are not just private companies with no obligations beyond and above those that rest on the shoulders of any other private company. In this day and age, they are a social utility and have a duty to the community to ensure that all parts of the country have access to basic banking facilities. The work of the financial inclusion taskforce, under the previous Administration, sought to ensure that basic bank account facilities were available. With the onset of universal credit in April 2014, it will be even more important for everybody to understand and have access to those facilities. However, I am increasingly worried about the fragile deal put together under the previous Administration to support and extend those basic services. There are signs of a creeping onset of charges. As banks come out from the era where the taxpayer was essentially keeping them going, they are now starting to look to the consumer to extract more charges. I do not want a situation where banks get together and think about introducing basic charges on current accounts, especially for those who are taking care to ensure that they are in credit. There are worrying signs that that might be in the air. Even the regulators have started to say, “Well, let’s start charging a little bit for in-credit current accounts. It might be a way of ensuring we don’t have to charge such high costs for unauthorised overdrafts.”

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

My hon. Friend talks about regulating to ensure that these bank accounts remain available. Sometimes, if people find themselves being charged for an account, they simply give up, because it is too expensive, and sometimes they cannot open another account, because they have got into difficulty. That has been the experience in the past few years. I hope that the regulators will be alive to those issues.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Indeed, that is the case. Anxiety is spreading and rumours are circulating that people with credit impairments or county court judgments against them are finding it increasingly difficult to access basic bank account services. One of the most shocking changes has been the way some of the big banks have started gradually to pull out of the LINK cash machine network. That network depends on all the banks taking part, because, if some big banks withdraw, as has happened, more of the cost of maintaining the network falls on a minority of banks, which, as a result, are more likely to walk away. I have worries, therefore, not just about the basic bank account networks, but about the LINK cash machine system, and I would be grateful if the Minister could set out to those banks in no uncertain terms that, given their social duties and responsibilities as a utility, we expect—as a de minimis requirement—that they maintain those basic, fundamental activities.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Labour, Wirral South

Will my hon. Friend slightly broaden his comments about the LINK system? In too many of our towns and cities, cash machines in the most deprived areas are the ones that charge. Unfortunately, the principle that those with the least pay the most is creeping back into financial services. If we do nothing else this evening, let us send the message to the financial services industry that such a principle is wholly unacceptable.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is true. The Opposition take the view that the financial services sector needs to move away from the old model of essentially extracting profit on the basis either of the ignorance or lack of awareness of customers—basically taking advantage of the inertia in the system—or of the fact that the consumer has no other choice. We need to support a financial services sector that genuinely adds professional value and acumen to products fairly and transparently. That is the modern sort of financial services sector that this country deserves and can have. We need to get away from that old era, in which the banking system essentially raked in multiples of small penny packets of income and profit off the backs of people who were not necessarily aware they were being charged 25p or 50p for cash withdrawals. That is the sort of bad practice we need to move away from.

The Opposition have called for action to ensure that pockets of the country are not left isolated and on their own. In the United States, they have clear safeguards requiring banks to reinvest in communities and provide basic coverage. That counts not only for consumers, but for small businesses, which, as we know, also struggle to access affordable loans.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. He will be aware that President Obama, in backing stimulus legislation in Congress, ensured that it required banks to disclose their lending to businesses across the USA, allowing us to see the lending deserts not only for individual financial consumers, but for individual business financial consumers. Surely that is something the FCA might usefully consider requiring of our banks.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury) 7:45 pm, 10th December 2012

In Labour’s view, amendment 25 ought to allow that. If we are talking about ease of access to affordable financial services, it should be a responsibility of the FCA to think of new ways to map what is happening across the country and to ensure that there are not these deserts or vacuums of poor availability or no availability. That is why there should be a requirement for a map to be drawn up of where and what lending is available, perhaps on a postcode-by-postcode basis. It would provide transparency and enable hon. Members to find out what is happening in their constituencies. Anecdote is not adequate; we need a more rigorous system of regulation and monitoring. That is how it is often done in other developed countries, such as the US, as my hon. Friend said.

In the past, Ministers have said that they are opposed to that level of transparency. I am not sure about this Minister—I know he will want to take a fresh perspective—but previous Ministers said: “It’s too burdensome to require transparency in respect of lending patterns, and there might be anti-competitive issues as well.” It would be entirely feasible to collect anonymised data in the way suggested, however, and I hope that Lords amendment 25 could be so interpreted.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Like my hon. Friend, I welcome amendment 25, which, I note, was something he laboured on valiantly when we spent our Lent in Committee. Does he recognise, however, that in one part of the UKNorthern Ireland—the five high street banks he referred to are not part of the banking profile? In Northern Ireland, we are facing a twilight zone of banking, with changes happening almost by default squared—as a result of changes here and in Dublin—and that will change further in the context of banking union. That is why we need to question how the FCA would use the powers being given to it under amendment 25.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Exactly. I imagine that what my hon. Friend describes is absolutely correct. Incidentally, I pay tribute to him for his endeavours in trying to improve the legislation, month after month after month, as we proceeded through Committee and on Report. The situation in Northern Ireland will be compounded by different factors, so how much more useful would it be if he and his neighbouring parliamentary colleagues had access to data about lending availability in a more rigorous form? That is how we want to interpret amendment 25 and how we will press the FCA to interpret it.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

Is there not a danger that the Minister might see amendments 25 and 78 as a “Get out of Jail” card when it comes to taking real action to tackle the problem of payday lenders and the lack of access to financial services in many of our most deprived communities? Might he not say, “Well, 2014, when the FCA comes in, will be the time to act”? Does he not need to adopt the same initiative as my hon. Friend mentions by having a meeting with the chief executive of the FCA and saying, “We want action on these issues. We want you to set out clearly before you take office what you’re going to do about the problem of payday lenders and what steps you’re going to take to require better access to financial services in the most deprived communities”?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is correct. The Minister ought to be meeting the FCA regularly, and clearly those are the questions the House expects Treasury Ministers to put to the new regulators.

Lords amendment 78 was another concession that had to be dragged from the Government at great effort. I do not expect too much sympathy from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is quite difficult for the Opposition to win votes in this House. Occasionally we have the odd success, such as on the EU budget—I do not want to talk about these things too much, as I know the Minister is a bit raw on that point—but by and large we try our best, we make our suggestions and we do not get very far. However, on this issue the Government were faced not just with the weight of argument by many hon. Members—including, of course, my hon. Friend Stella Creasy—but with the spiritual hand of assistance from the new Archbishop of Canterbury-designate in the other place, the Cross-Bench Bishop of Durham, as is. The Government had no choice but to make that historic concession when faced with the overwhelming moral and political case and the breadth of cross-party agreement.

The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury admitted that amendment 78 would not be a silver bullet for the problem of high-cost credit—payday lending or however we characterise these things. Although we are slightly disappointed that the new expanded Lords amendment 78 does not refer to “consumer detriment”, we hope that some of the provisions will open the door to enabling the Financial Conduct Authority to take urgent action to clamp down on some of the high costs involved, as well as the duration and rolling over of some payday loans or high-cost credit arrangements again and again, getting people into a spiral of dependency with massive credit costs, which are severely damaging to very many people.

My questions for the Minister are these. If the legislation no longer contains the “consumer detriment” litmus test, what will trigger intervention by the regulator? What will be the test? We are keen on many of the ideas in the amendment. The power to recover funds for consumers, the power to strike down enforcement action by an unreasonable lender and the power to insist on compensation for customers are all good, but we need the Minister to explain in slightly more detail how the Financial Conduct Authority will trigger those powers. Will individual complainants ring up the FCA hotline? Will litigation or a set of class-action cases be needed to get the FCA to take note, or might it send mystery shoppers around the country to undertake proactive investigations and say, “This is not good enough; we will see action”?

We are glad that Lords amendment 78 also makes changes on unlawful communications. That is welcome. Hon. Members will be looking at the clock and thinking, “Well, usually about now”—some time between 7.30 pm and 8 o’clock—“we get text messages from companies trying to convince us that all our debts can be written off in a voluntary arrangement under new Government legislation.” We might get spam or a cold caller saying, “Did you realise you’ve got £2,500 overdue, if only you put in your PPI claim before Christmas?” It is around this time in the evening that people will be getting these sorts of automated calls. There are all sorts of advertising, text and cold-call arrangements proliferating across the country.

Many of our constituents are totally baffled about what is being done and what can be done by the relevant authorities to stop such exploitative behaviour. Apparently, some of the companies trying to exploit vulnerable individuals use mechanised arrangement to poll thousands and thousands of people, and even if only 1% pick up the phone and say, “Oh well, I’d like more information,” the volume of calls means that they can make significant profits. A lot of these automated telephone arrangements are routed through foreign jurisdictions—often not even in the European Union—as a way of skating around advertising regulations.

We want amendment 78 to get a grip on some of those questions. I know that financial services companies are not always the ones directly involved—it could be what are known as claims managements companies. There are also organisations peddling debt management plans that have high fees associated with them. People are sold a product by a company that says, “Let’s consolidate all your expensive loans and we’ll take a single payment instead.” People think, “That sounds rather good,” and they start making payments. Perhaps months go by, during which they pay, thinking that they are defraying their debts, but when the company goes bust, they find that they have paid down absolutely none of their debts. All they have been doing is paying for the profits taken by a fee-charging DMP provider. Those are the sorts of services we want the Financial Conduct Authority to tackle.

We have had a lot of shilly-shallying on these issues. Quite frankly, it should not have taken nine months of hard effort to extract this concession from the Government since we first tabled an equivalent amendment in Committee back in March. We are glad for small mercies—this is a step in the right direction—but it is now for the Minister to explain how Lords amendments 25 and 78 will bite and how they will help people in their daily lives. I look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I want to speak to Lords amendment 25. The Minister was not terribly clear in his opening remarks about whether it concerned consumers as individuals or whether it would be interpreted more widely, to address the branch networks that the main clearing banks operate. When he winds up, I urge him to say something about the significance of having a nationwide branch network to ensure that all communities can be financially included.

This issue came to my attention in July, when I received a letter from HSBC, which wanted to close its branch in Shildon in my constituency. Shildon is a town of slightly more than 10,000 people, many of whom have been banking with HSBC for a long time. Many local businesses—600 of them—bank at the Shildon branch. It is much cheaper for everybody to have a local branch than to get on the bus, go down to Bishop Auckland, put money into the bank or take it out, and then come back again. The round trip on the bus costs £4. It is absolutely ridiculous that people should face such barriers. We mounted a great campaign and a huge petition, but of course HSBC has paid no attention whatever to the needs of the people of Shildon. I happened to come across a man at the Labour party conference who revelled in the title of “Director for wealth management”, and who was apparently the person responsible for the branch network. It is true that there is not a lot of wealth to manage in Shildon; none the less, people in Shildon need a proper banking service, just like those in other parts of the country.

As well as thinking about that need, we need to think about the impact on the rest of us. Let us suppose that somebody who lives in a perfectly well-banked part of Durham wishes to make payments in Shildon, belong to an organisation there or make transactions with people there. It is far easier and better for everybody if they know that there is a proper national network of bank branches. I urge the Minister to comment on the branch network in his closing speech.

I remind the Minister that over the last four years taxpayers have given the major banks a considerable amount of support through subsidies and guarantees, yet although they are too big to fail, they are not too big to fail their customers, which is exactly what they are doing. HSBC claims in its slogan to be “the world’s local bank”, but it is not very local in my constituency.

We were fortunate to have the divine intervention of the Bishop of Durham, who seems to have succeeded in reaching parts of the Government that we were unable to reach, but I want the Minister to understand that if we are to build a successful economy in the north of England, we need to support small businesses and the communities that are currently being marginalised. If we do not do that, and if we simply concentrate on investing in high-tech, high-success areas, we will end up with pockets of success in a sea of deprivation. That is not the kind of country that we want to live in.

We want to see one-nation banking that will provide an opportunity for everybody to avail themselves of banking services. In a modern economy, people simply cannot function without a proper bank account. Without one, they cannot have a job, get a good deal from the utility companies or receive money from other people. A bank account is now an essential part of modern life, and I hope that the Minister will take this matter to heart, talk to the FCA about it and say more to us about it this evening.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 8:00 pm, 10th December 2012

I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in the debate tonight. I echo some of the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie). I hope that the Minister will see his response to the debate as an opportunity to convince the House that Lords amendments 25 and 78 are not part of an attempt to put off action on payday lenders or on lending deserts.

I want to offer the House the example of the community of Thamesmead and Abbey Wood. It is a community of about 55,000 people in south-east London. The houses there were built in the 1960s in response to what was then seen as London’s housing crisis. There is no bank branch in the whole of that community. Not one of the big five banks has a branch there. The nearest branch is 30 to 45 minutes away by public transport. This is not for want of trying by a whole series of people to convince the big five banks to establish themselves in the area. An excellent organisation, the Thamesmead Trust, has tried to persuade the banks to set up there. The former Member of Parliament for Erith and Thamesmead, John Austin, has also tried many times, and the present Member, my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce, has made a number of efforts as well, but there is still no bank in the area.

The community of Thamesmead and Abbey Wood is clearly not the only area without a bank, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland illustrated, but I worry that many of the lending deserts in this country are not yet out of the closet, if I can use that term. We do not have the necessary information to chronicle by postcode the lending that is taking place to businesses and to individual consumers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East said, many of the banks in question are established in the United States, where they have to provide those data. As I said in an earlier intervention, President Obama supported calls for business lending to be publicised, on a postcode basis, so that people could see where lending was taking place and where it was not. That provision has now been written into American law.

We have called not only for the publication of lending data by postcode but for an obligation to be placed on banks to lend into every community. If they are not prepared to do that themselves, there should be an expectation that they will do so through community development finance institutions, through charity banks or through credit unions, but the obligation should be on the banks to demonstrate that they were providing lending into communities through those alternative sources if they were not prepared to do so directly themselves.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend reminds me that I asked HSBC, when it was closing its branch in my constituency, if it would instead put £10,000 into the local credit union. I received a letter from the bank today saying that it would not.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

My hon. Friend gives a good example of the lack of joined-up thinking in our financial services markets. It would be good to see the big beasts of the financial services jungle supporting the newer players that want to address the problem of lending deserts.

Numerous websites offer comparisons between banking products, but the Centre for Responsible Credit has highlighted how, in practice, the banks release very little information about their lending at community level, either for businesses or for personal customers. Data on lending to and deposits from small businesses and third sector organisations, by postcode or at neighbourhood level, are not routinely available in the UK, even though much of that information is held by the banks and could be released.

The last time I spoke to representatives of the British Bankers Association, they told me that they were looking at this issue. It would be good to hear what the Financial Secretary thinks about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East clearly thinks that the Minister will be a new broom sweeping through the fusty ways of the Treasury, and I hope that he will use his considerable influence to maintain the pressure on the British Bankers Association to step up the release of those data. I also hope that he will use his meetings with the chief executive and board members of the Financial Conduct Authority to require them to initiate similar pressure, in private before the FCA is properly established, and in public thereafter.

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend has been talking about bank deserts. Would he also accept that there is also a problem when small branches in rural communities close? We accept that some of those communities are very small, but there is a sense that once a bank has deserted a community, almost nothing can be done to support the businesses there. That is also something that we need to look at.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The situation is particularly stark in rural communities, but it is increasingly stark in many urban areas. North Harrow, in my constituency, no longer has a bank, and businesses in that area are extremely disappointed by the lack of easy access to banking services and the inability to have a proper discussion with a local bank manager about their finance needs.

I hesitate to suggest that the Minister might enjoy and benefit from a foreign trip, but should he find time in his diary, he might like to go to Washington and spend a little time with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. He would find a considerable amount of expertise there on the disclosure of lending data by banks to businesses and individual consumers. He might like to bring back to the House, and to his conversations with those in the financial services industry, the benefits of the US legislation, the most recent update of which has happened since 2010.

Let me return briefly to the definition of payday lenders. If I may say so, I thought the Minister quite skilfully used an intervention made by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy to avoid defining payday lenders. I gently encourage the Minister to look again, not necessarily in the context of this debate, but separately, at how payday lenders should be defined. Even with the power proposed by the Lords, the question of definition is still ducked. If there is to be the interest rate cap for which so many Members, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, have campaigned, we must have clearer definitions of which financial services businesses are included within the term “payday lenders” or the high-cost credit definition that was just mentioned, so that proper action can be taken.

I fear that many of the payday lenders who have looked at the amendment that the new archbishop has helped to force over the line, perhaps, in the House of Lords will recognise that there is no definition as yet, and so will not feel sufficiently worried to change their practices.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I rise briefly to talk about Lords amendment 78. I want to speak partly so that I can place on the record my recognition of the hard work done by Stella Creasy on this issue. She has been recognised already across the House in winning many awards for her campaigning. It is true to say that she has been tireless on this issue, on which she has achieved a huge success—at the early stages of what will no doubt be a long and distinguished career in the House.

I want to thank the Lords for the work they did the week before last on this issue, and to congratulate the Government on listening to the concerns across the House. This issue concerns many of us on both sides of the House, even though there may be an urban myth that those of us who represent south-east Conservative seats do not face many of the concerns about deprivation and the impact that the high-cost credit industry is having on our constituents.

Chatham has two significantly deprived areas. One problem seen by the local citizens advice bureau is an increase in the number of people from the more affluent wards in the area coming in to talk to their debt advisers. In Medway we now have average personal debt levels of nearly £43,000, which I think is incredibly high. We in Medway have therefore joined up, across all the parties, to try to provide a solution to some of the problems. First and foremost, I joined the local citizens bureau to chair an inquiry to try to establish precisely what is driving people into increased personal debt. We have done so by, rather controversially, partnering up with Wonga to do a proper survey across all the wards in the Medway authority, looking into what is causing people to increase their levels of debt. However, let there be no hesitation about the fact that, as I have already made clear, if it is payday loan companies that are driving people, particularly the more vulnerable members of society, towards debt, we shall make strong representations to ensure stricter regulation of these companies.

Chris Leslie raised what I thought were interesting issues about the definition of high-cost credit lending. One of the organisations that has not yet been debated here is the pawnbroking industry. I recently saw an advert placed outside both a pawnbrokers and a payday loan company, inviting people to take out loans of up to £50,000. It turned out that this was for businesses. I have real concerns about businesses taking out payday loans where they are securing the entire company against such credit. I recognise an asset is being secured in pawnbroking, but entire businesses could suddenly be lost if they are unable to meet their repayments.

I have some concerns about whether this regulation will cover pawnbroking companies, as there is a bit of a loophole in the credit regulations when it comes to pawnbrokers. I would like to see us take a proper look at how pawnbroking companies are offering increasing amounts to help with short-term cash supply. Although there are some limitations and I do not think it is recommended that businesses take a loan of more than £25,000, the fact is that pawnbroker loans can go up to £100,000. It is incredibly irresponsible for companies to be lending that to businesses, particularly when it is unlikely that the businesses are going to be able to meet their repayment plans.

I welcome the Government’s concession on this issue, which is hugely important for many vulnerable people across my constituency. I look forward to the Minister’s response to some of the questions raised, particularly on issues such as advertising and the definition of high- cost credit. I also look forward to the publication of the university of Bristol research, which I think will play an incredibly important part in how we take this issue forward for the future.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 8:15 pm, 10th December 2012

I rise to speak to amendments 78, 137 and 148, which deal with the role of the Office of Fair Trading. Before I do, I want to place on record my gratitude to Members in the other place who, along with Tracey Crouch have been so supportive of the sharkstoppers campaign. I mention Lord Mitchell, Lord Kennedy, the Right Reverend Welby—I think that is the appropriate term; apologies if it is not—Baroness Howe and Baroness Grey-Thompson. They have all been fantastic in championing a measure that I know has widespread support across the country.

I also put on record my gratitude to many organisations that have been helping make the case for action on high-cost credit, whether it be R3, the insolvency practitioners, the co-operative movement and co-operative party, Unite, Community and the thousands of concerned citizens who been involved in part of the campaign. I thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford for her kind words and for using the term “tirelessly” rather than “tiresome”, which is how some people might have interpreted the doggedness with which we have persisted in campaigning on this issue. In that sense, this amendment and the Damascene conversion of the Government to the need to act on the cost of credit is very welcome. Throughout this campaign, we have all said that when the Government accepted that we were right all along, we would be grateful and would take it within the spirit of cross-party agreement that something needs to be done about these companies and about the impact of debt on our constituents.

With that in mind and in genuine appreciation of the fact that this moment has happened, I now want to press the Minister, as have many others, about the nature of the amendment and what will happen in the next year. Many of us are concerned that there is still a window of opportunity driven both by the delay in the implementation of these powers for the Financial Conduct Authority until April 2014 and by the continuing pressures that many in our constituencies will face, which might mean a bonzer Christmas for many of the legal loan sharks.

We started to campaign on this issue because we could see that toxic mix in Britain of a crisis in the cost of living, of families struggling, having lost jobs or facing wage freezes in Britain and, indeed, of the lax regulation in the UK of the cost of credit. We know that those pressures have got worse, not better, for British families over the last couple of years, so we know that one in three of those families in Britain have suffered a pay freeze over the last 12 months at the same time as they have seen the cost of basics rise and continue to rise. We know that many consumers have borrowed about £2,000 on top of their secured debts—their mortgages—to try to make ends meet in the last year, but only a quarter of them have managed to pay that money back.

The concern I bring to the House tonight is that when we look ahead to 2013, many of those pressures will not just increase, but explode over the course of the next year. The consequences for many, particularly those in the poorest communities, will be severe. We know that the pressures on the cost of living are not evenly distributed in British society. We know that the poorest 10% spend up to a quarter of their incomes on basics such as housing, fuel and energy, and we know that the prices of those commodities will become higher, not lower, in the coming year. Today we heard from E.ON—the last of the big six companies to announce it—about the increase in the cost of energy that consumers will face in the new year. The companies’ average increase of between 6% and 11% means that the average annual household energy bill will reach an all-time high of £1,300 next year.

I started to campaign on this issue because I could see the impact of debt on my community in Walthamstow, in north-east London. It gives me no pleasure to say that over the past 18 months many Members on both sides of the House, representing a range of communities, have approached me to discuss cost-of living issues, but I also know that London is a harbinger of the pressures that are to come. I know, because I have seen research-based predictions that London rents will increase by 26% over the next five years, that unless we do something about the cost of credit—unless we do something to help those who are struggling with the everyday cost of living—we shall face a society in which debt is just a way of life, with all the consequences that that will have for people.

However, this is not just about the cost of housing or, indeed, the cost of energy. It is also about the everyday cost of getting to work, which is having a great impact in my local community. I have talked to people in Walthamstow who have managed to secure apprenticeships but are forced to travel around London because there are so few apprenticeships in my area. A travelcard covering zones 1 to 3 costs £35 a week. Only people who are able to live at home can afford to take the opportunity to become an apprentice earning £100 a week, and we now learn that rail fares are to rise next year.

Those are pressures on the working poor in our community, but so are changes in the benefits system. Given that there is no spare supply of housing, it does not take a genius to recognise that the 1,000 families in my community who have been told that their housing benefit will be capped in April will have to borrow to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads. The pressures that the legal loan sharks have decided to increase are the pressures that the amendment seeks to address.

It is clear that these companies are stubbornly resisting what are now widespread concerns about them and the profits they are making. Last year the industry was worth £1.7 billion in the UK; it is predicted that next year one company alone, Wonga, will be worth £1 billion, and it is just one of more than 200 companies that are now operating here. Moreover, the companies are clearly targeting young people, including students, and they have begun to change the terms of their loans. We became aware this week that Wonga is now offering what are supposed to be short-term loans on a 60-day basis. As the Office of Fair Trading has pointed out, the companies are abusing even the most basic consumer protections in the industry. That is why we need the amendment as a starting point, but it is also why we need to look at what else the OFT can do in the year ahead.

If we allow the pressures on consumers and their cost of living to continue and do nothing to curb the legal loan sharks now, we shall see another year in which millions of people are pushed into debt by them. We already know that a third of payday loan users take out loans that they know they cannot repay, and that 50% of people who have taken out loans have missed a payment. Given the additional pressure that those people will face next year, it will be a disaster for Britain if we do not act, and that means that we should think about what the OFT itself can do. I hope that the Minister will tell us tonight whether he will support measures enabling action to be taken now.

We know that the OFT will present new proposals in the new year, and that will present an opportunity for change that could set the tone for the new Financial Conduct Authority. I agree with my hon. Friend Chris Leslie and my hon. Friend Mr Thomas—who is not in the Chamber now—that there should be regular meetings with the FCA to consider the industry now, but let us use the OFT to put down those markers.

First, as was pointed out by Tracey Crouch, we must pin down the question of irresponsibility in lending. What is an irresponsible rate at which to lend to people? The irresponsible lending guidance should be redrafted to make clear precisely what the cap should be and precisely what constitutes consumer detriment, in terms of both duration and the amount lent and including the total cost of a loan. Secondly, it should be made clear that it is irresponsible for lenders not to use a real-time credit register and ensure that every loan is recorded.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

The hon. Lady is delivering a categorical and passionate speech about a very important subject, and she has just made one of the most important points that can be made about that subject. Does she agree that the sharing of credit information in the UK car industry has, to an extent, transformed what was a very murky market, and that lessons can be learnt from that?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in raising issues about debt and credit, and about the way in which companies such as this operate. We know that many of them use a get-out clause, arguing that they could not possibly have known that someone had eight or nine loans at the same time. That is partly because there is no register specifying rates of interest and the number of loans that people are taking out. The OFT should make it clear that that constitutes irresponsible lending, and that loans should be made on a real-time basis. It is no good for supposedly short-term credit to be provided on a monthly basis. I also agree with all those who have expressed concern about continuous payment authorities. I hope that, in the new year, the OFT will make it clear that we must end both the fraud and the debt that they cause.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Opposition Whip (Commons)

Continuous payment authorities also militate against affordability checks. As was established by the OFT’s last review, once companies know that they can dip into someone’s bank ad infinitum, they simply do not bother to carry out the checks .

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to the work that she has done in this regard, and also in regard to debt management plans.

Bad practice is widespread in this industry. The Financial Conduct Authority will have an opportunity to set the tone when it comes to the sort of consumer credit industry that we want in the future, but let us use the opportunity presented by the OFT to do something about the problems now, and to prevent 2013 from being boom time for the legal loan sharks.

The Minister must be aware that three quarters of consumers are looking towards Christmas with severe financial concerns, and that 10 million of us in Britain feel financially squeezed. Will he state explicitly whether he will support my proposals and take them to the OFT, so that we can be certain that 2013 will be a time for legal loan sharks rather than consumers to be worried? I urge him to read the Bristol research findings—which are already in the pocket of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—in order to understand how measures such as this, and total cost-capping, can work, so that we can finally say that Britain is a legal loan shark-free zone.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

It is an honour to follow Stella Creasy, and to speak in favour of the spirit of Lords amendment 78.

The problems of high-cost sub-prime debt are widely acknowledged. Although they have come much more to the fore through opinion-formers of late because of payday lenders, they are not, of course, new, and by extension—this is somewhat at variance with what the hon. Lady said—it is not new that Government are not capping the cost of problem credit. It worries me slightly that we use the term “payday” as a catch-all shorthand for all these problems, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us that we are not just talking about payday lenders.

Dealing with problems of this kind requires an integrated approach involving financial capability and the provision of alternatives for people who need access to credit, but it also requires regulation. Disclosure is not enough in this market, especially as it often involves very vulnerable consumers and the ready, easy availability of credit. It could be said that supply sometimes creates its own demand. Some people tend not to opt for the solution that best suits their needs, but to opt for the most recent that they have seen. In seeking to address these costs, however, we need to look at costs in the broadest sense. This is not just about interest rate charges.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

On the question of percentage charges, if we displayed everything in cash terms it would be far easier for even the most vulnerable consumer to make an informed decision.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

Yes, total cost of credit information is a good way forward—although, ironically, that would please a lot of payday lenders because, relatively speaking, they would not look quite so bad.

This is not only about interest rates; it is also about ensuring that credit is eventually paid down, and about behavioural charges, which can be difficult to pin down under the annual percentage rate as they apply to some consumers, but not others. An APR cap on its own might seem like a panacea, but, as Members on both sides of the House realise, it is not. Unfortunately, there are ways around caps. The experience of some states in the United States where there has been a 30% cap on payday loans is that the rent-to-own sector gets a great boost, because money can be made in another way: by whacking up the base price of the goods.

If there is to be a cap—and I think there can be a place for a cap—we must talk about what sort of cap it will be. I have always argued that a blunt general cap is a bad idea, because it can only be set either so high as to make no difference or so low as to put some parts of the market out of existence entirely and thereby run the risk of driving more people into the unlicensed part of the market, where someone’s idea of a late payment penalty is a cigarette burn to the forearm.

Some people say, “Well, let’s go for a product-specific cap”, under which there would be a different cap for payday loans, home credit and so forth. That is sensible in some respects, as it acknowledges the fundamental cost drivers in the market, such as that it costs more to make a short-term loan, that it costs more in percentage terms to make a small loan, and that it costs more to loan to riskier customers. The danger is that we then get cliff edges, however, and all sorts of distortions in the market, with operators shifting around between different categories in search of the most favourable regime.

My preference is to have a more flexible type of cap that is, in fact, more like a curve, and which can operate effectively in all parts of the market without putting any of them entirely out of business. I discussed one version of that in a debate instigated by Stella Creasy in February 2011. I called it a twin-cap approach, with a cap on interest rates—30%, perhaps—and also an arrangement fee cap, perhaps of 15%. Under such a regime, it would be possible to make money in very short-term loans—what we today call payday loans—but only in a responsible manner and at a decent level, and where operators were making longer term loans, the amounts they would be able to charge would fall.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 8:30 pm, 10th December 2012

It is wonderful to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about the positive aspects of capping. I suggest he look at total cost capping, because arrangement fees is not the only issue; there are also issues to do with late payment fees and the incentive they give lenders to push people to keep rolling loans over. Like the hon. Gentleman, I want this to be a future-proof—that is a dreadful term—proposal. We must also ensure lenders cannot get around it, however, which is why we need to cover all the costs involved.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Conservative, East Hampshire

The hon. Lady is entirely right, and I alluded to that point when I talked about behavioural charges. It is wrong to think we can legislate perfectly for all eventualities in advance, however. This market has an amazing ability to shapeshift and find its way around any regulation we might put in place, as has been seen in the United States.

I would like to hear an assurance from the Minister that under the new regime it will be possible to have a flexible capping regime that allows for all parts of the market to operate while also insisting that they do so in a responsible way. I also seek an assurance that we will not just address “payday” loans, which are a relatively new phenomenon in this country. Home credit is massive, and it has been with us since Victorian times, and has been a problem for quite a long time. There is also pawnbroking, as my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch mentioned. Logbook loans are a big market in the United States; they have not appeared in a major way here, but we can bet our bottom dollar that they would get a big boost if other parts of the market were capped. Rent-to-own is another area.

On the basis of the Minister’s conversations across Government, can he assure us that the Government will continue with an integrated approach that addresses not just regulation, but boosting financial capability, starting with children’s capability with mathematics in school? Will they also continue to support operators that provide responsible credit, in particular credit unions? I pay tribute to the work the Government are doing in supporting that sector, and would like them to go further in modernising it and making credit union services more widely available, such as through the post office network.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I want to speak briefly on Lords amendments 25 and 36, both of which deal with the issue of competition in respect of the new regulators: the Prudential Regulation Authority that will supervise the banking sector and the Financial Conduct Authority that will supervise business conduct in the banking sector. I seek reassurance from the Minister that having regard to the quality and level of competition in the marketplace will be sufficient to drive a radical improvement in respect of the new challenger banks.

As the Minister knows, the five oligopoly banks in the UK currently have over 80% of all small and medium-sized enterprise bank accounts and personal current accounts. That means access to finance is very limited in respect of choice and types of finance, and as bank balance sheets are currently in a difficult position, it is extraordinarily hard for small businesses to get hold of the financing they need to grow, which in turn will help our economy to recover. So the Bill gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that the regulators are, in future, incentivised to ensure not only that banks do not fail, but that we encourage new entrants to the market. At the moment, many would-be bankers find that they are set enormous hurdles, such as having to set up a dealing room just to provide evidence of their ability to do so, yet at the end of an enormous obstacle course the FSA tells them that they cannot have a banking licence. What we cannot have in the future is the PRA and the FCA combining to make it as difficult or more difficult to encourage new entrants into the market. So I hope that the Minister will set out how the regulators of the future will not only tolerate, but encourage new competition.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

This excellent debate has covered a number of issues that colleagues from all parts of the House feel passionately about, and correctly so because they are of huge importance to all our constituents, especially the most vulnerable in our society.

In the short time available, I wish to address some of the points that have been made directly by hon. Members. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Nottingham

East (Chris Leslie), asked how the powers would be exercised by the Financial Conduct Authority. The powers come directly from the FCA’s remit, and he will be aware that the Bill establishes a far-reaching consumer protection objective. The overall objective is

“securing an appropriate degree of protection for consumers.”

The Bill goes into detail to require the FCA to consider the following: the different degree of risk to be tolerated by different types of consumers; the different needs of different types of consumers for the provision of information; and the general principle that those providing financial services should be expected to provide consumers with a level of care appropriate to their needs. I think that colleagues would recognise that this is a far-reaching objective which gives quite general powers to protect consumers, and it is right that that should be so.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned basic bank accounts, on which some progress continues to be made. There is no universal legal right to a basic bank account, but the industry guidance still stands. It states that if a consumer asks to open a basic bank account and meets the qualifying criteria, the firm should offer them an account and that banks can refuse to open an account for a customer only where the customer has a history of fraud or is an undischarged bankrupt. Those provisions continue.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

The previous Government had proposed creating exactly such an obligation, but the Minister’s predecessor, in a debate I had with him in Westminster Hall, refused to contemplate any such provision. Has there been any change of mind on the part of the Government?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I did not have the privilege of participating in that debate, but I can tell the hon. Lady our policy. I also wanted to talk about the very important matter that the hon. Member for Nottingham East and several others raised about the transparency of the information that should be provided, as is the case in the United States, on the actual practice rather than just the intentions of lenders. This is a particularly important point, and what we have said in public—I mentioned this to the Chairman of the Treasury Committee earlier—is that the Government are working with the industry to get a commitment from the banks that they will publish granular data on their lending, particularly in deprived communities. We are meeting the British Bankers Association shortly on that. We have been absolutely clear that if we are not satisfied with that information we will use the forthcoming banking reform Bill to legislate to that effect. That will concentrate minds and I think everyone will be aware of the importance of that question.

It is important to address the context in which we are operating. The Financial Conduct Authority must not regard itself simply as a regulator of incumbents, although it has important responsibilities in that regard. It also has the important objective that my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom mentioned, which is to promote competition. I regard the degree of competition in retail banking as unacceptable. I would like to see more new entrants and I would like them to concentrate, in particular, on reaching those parts of the market that existing incumbents find it difficult to reach. I have made it absolutely clear in the meetings I have had with the shadow Financial Conduct Authority that the competition objective is to be taken extremely seriously, and I and my colleagues in the Treasury will be looking for progress on that.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman Conservative, Mid Norfolk

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I want to endorse his sentiments and those of my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. Constituents in my area have come to wonder whether there is a danger of our regulating after the horse has bolted. They look to America, where there are more than 20,000 high street banks, and wonder whether we could be doing more to encourage an insurgency, as it were, of new banks to provide the high-street banking service that we need at a time when the old banks are locked up, dealing with the legacies of their mistakes. I echo the Minister’s remarks and wonder whether we can look to the Government to do anything—perhaps not in this Bill but in the coming years—to make that a reality.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill has a role to play, because it is very important that the authorities do not put insuperable barriers in the way of new banking bodies and entrants to the market that are seeking approval, because such prospective competitors could offer new services to consumers who are not well served at the moment.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East raised questions about the scope of the FCA’s rule making. That relates to a point made by my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch too, so let me confirm that the FCA will be able to make rules on the cost of credit from payday lenders, as well as pawnbrokers and any other provider of consumer credit. It is important that the FCA’s discretion allows it to protect the consumer and the consumer’s interest in all these matters.

Helen Goodman is not in her place, but she was concerned about the branch network, as were certain others. It is not possible or right for the Government to require particular branches to be kept open and I am sure that no hon. Member would expect that. Lords amendment 25 will require the FCA to have regard to

“the ease with which consumers…including consumers in areas affected by social or economic deprivation, can access” the services they wish to use. The FCA might wish to consider that.

Mr Thomas is also not in his place, but I think I have addressed his concern about whether the information provided by the banks on their practice in lending will be sufficient. I have commented on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, and Lords amendment 78 also applies to the lenders about whom she was concerned.

I join the tributes paid to Stella Creasy, who has been energetic in pursuing this issue. She was slightly unfair to refer to a damascene conversion, as some of us on the Government Benches have always regarded the powers that were going to be invested in the FCA as necessary. We have been pleased to clarify that. She will understand that the transition to the new regime will take some time during the next year. The Chairman of the Select Committee chided me earlier for introducing these provisions in a hurry. It is necessary to have a degree of pace. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that during its remaining supervision of these matters the OFT in particular will have the opportunity and the power, given the amendments, to suspend a credit licence if it thinks it is necessary. The discussions that we will have, and I am sure she will have with it, will cause it to be forward-looking rather than simply regulate what has been in place so far. My hon. Friend—

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 24.

Question agreed to.

Lords amendment 24 accordingly agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Lords amendments 25 to 58 agreed to.