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Oversight Committee

Part of Financial Services Bill (Money) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 10th December 2012.

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

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.