Clause 2 — Restriction on voting rights

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:45 am on 6th March 2015.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry The Second Church Estates Commissioner 9:45 am, 6th March 2015

I should make it clear at the outset that the Bill is an extremely valuable and useful one. The House is grateful to my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans for promoting it here. The Bill started in the other place, where there was a comparatively short debate on Second Reading and no Committee stage. I believe that, because time was short, the Government Minister said to the Bill’s promoter, Lord Naseby, “If you agree to certain amendments, we will support the Bill. If you do not, we will not support it.” Lord Naseby, being a very wise former Deputy Speaker of the Commons, agreed to the amendments and came to a sensible compromise. The Bill came to the House of Commons and was debated in Committee, which was skilfully navigated by my hon. Friend, because he managed to persuade the Chair to have one debate on all the clauses. There was no reference whatever to clause 2 during the debate.

The reason I tabled amendment 1 as a probing amendment is that there is potentially a conflict in the Bill. The Bill seeks to help mutuals to raise further money, funds and solvency. On the other hand, it says that however much anyone invests in a mutual, they will get only a single vote. I will describe this in more detail in a second, but the European Union Commission has proposed a statute for European mutuals. Under that proposed European law, members of a mutual would have more than one vote, and decisions would be made by a majority vote. The potential conflict is this: how do we encourage people to invest in mutuals but at the same time tell them that, however much they put in, they will get only a single vote?

Mutuals are an important part of what is known more broadly as the social economy, which staggeringly accounts for 10% of all European undertakings—the amount undertaken by mutuals in the UK is less than the amount undertaken by mutuals in other EU member states. Mutuals have been described as voluntary groups of persons whose purpose is primarily to meet the needs of their members rather than to achieve a return on investment. All hon. Members will recall mutuals in their constituencies that go back to the 18th or 19th centuries—they would have been set up in workplaces or neighbourhoods to provide sickness help, funeral cover and various reliefs of that kind, some of which were overtaken by the Beveridge report and the welfare state. There has always been a sense of each person making a contribution and getting something out.

Mutuals were put into difficulty because of the so-called solvency II directive, which called for increased solvency margins, but there are differences between different financial services providers. Smaller and medium-sized mutuals are often focused on one risk or cover one homogenous group. As a consequence, they have more difficulties in acquiring risk capital compliance with the solvency II rules. That has significant consequences for them and can result in their dissolution. As I understand it, the Bill seeks to deal with that conundrum in the solvency rules.

The basic principles behind the solvency II directive, which was adopted in 2009 and came into force in 2013, are that insurance institutions in Europe should be based on a better risk assessment, better spreading of risks and better financial foundations so as to improve the stability of the market and reinforce consumer protection—all sensible stuff. The main innovation introduced by the directive is that in establishing an improved foundation for the insurance sector, the directive concerns more than only the capital solvency requirements as they existed at the time, and it also lays down rules on the whole organisation of insurance takings in Europe. Within the European Union, it also concerns the taking up and pursuit of self-employment activities—the direct insurance and reinsurance, the supervision of insurance and reinsurance groups and the reorganisation and winding up of direct insurance undertakings.