Appointments relating to Part 1

Part of Bank of England and Financial Services Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 19th April 2016.

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Photo of George Kerevan George Kerevan Scottish National Party, East Lothian 6:21 pm, 19th April 2016

We, too, will oppose the Bill on Third Reading. During Treasury questions today, the Chancellor said—I wrote the phrase down, because I was rather taken with it—that he was quite certain that we now have “better and tougher regulation of the financial system.” That is a good test, and it is a good test for this Bill. Do we have tougher regulation? As the law stands this evening, if a senior named manager in a major financial institution discovers that there has been major corruption, wrongdoing and regulatory failure at their bank on their watch, they are culpable unless they can prove to the FCA that they took reasonable steps to stop that happening. As we speak, they would be responsible, and that has been the case for a month and a half.

If we pass the Bill tonight, the situation will change. That manager will no longer be personally responsible. They will be able to argue, “Actually, I ticked all the boxes, signed all the forms, went to all the group therapy sessions with those on my trading floor and told them all to be good boys and girls, but do you know what? They weren’t, and they hid it from me.” And so we will go through the whole cycle again. The law as it stands, as passed by this Government and this Chancellor, makes each individual senior named manager responsible, like the captain of a ship or ferry; if something goes wrong, they are responsible and they cannot claim otherwise. If we pass the Bill, far from toughening the law, we will weaken it.

The only explanation we have heard from the Government is that it is a bit more complicated now because the Bill widens to tens of thousands the number of people who will be designated as responsible people when it comes to identifying who is in charge when something goes wrong. I understand that, but it is perfectly possible, as we tried in Committee, to ring-fence and say that the very senior people in the major banks—the systemically dangerous banks—should be held personally responsible, unless they can prove that they took proper steps. But no, the Government are using the widening of the designated persons regime to weaken and water down the current legislation. That tells me that they are not really serious about being tougher; they are more concerned with getting by.

There was an interesting debate in Committee about transfer vehicles. Those are a bit technical, but they are to do with how the insurance market reinsures itself to spread risk. There are clauses in the Bill—this is a good thing to put into it—that give the Treasury powers to regulate the use of transfer vehicles in the reinsurance market in a tougher fashion, to use the Chancellor’s key word.

I do not have time to go into detail about what is happening, but insurers can offset some of their risk in the reinsurance market, and they usually do that by selling some of it to specialist wholesale houses, which buy into the risk, but whose capital covers the risk if something goes wrong. Now, the insurance market is instead moving towards reinsuring through specialist vehicles of the kind that got us into trouble in the mortgage market in the lead-up to 2007.

When the issue was discussed in Committee, it was interesting that Ministers argued that we needed to put in place a regulatory framework that made it easier to shift the burden in the reinsurance market away from wholesalers that are capitalised and towards special vehicles using all the financial markets’ tricks of the trade, which led to the disaster in 2007. That said to me that, deep down in the Bill, the Government are up to their old tricks—they want to deregulate and to have less tough regulation, rather than more regulation. On those grounds, the Bill fails the Chancellor’s test, and we should vote against it.

There are good things in the Bill. In particular, we can pride ourselves on the fact that, through the Committee stage and leading up to Report stage today, the Government have been persuaded—I use that word in inverted commas—to take the Treasury Committee’s advice and to set a precedent, in that the FCA’s chief executive will in future be subject, de facto, to having their appointment approved by the Committee and, therefore, by this House rather than the Executive.

That does two things. First, it makes the FCA more accountable, because it is accountable to the House rather than the Executive. Secondly, it protects the FCA from interference by the Executive. That is a good precedent. If it is extended, we will be able to ensure that all the key regulatory bodies and their senior staff are approved by the House and, in particular, that the Governor of the Bank of England is subject to scrutiny and approval by the House, rather than simply appointed by the Executive. That is important because of the large powers that have been transferred to the Bank of England since the crisis of 2007.

However, there are still loose ends, and so I come to the word “better” in the Chancellor’s little homily. Have things got better? They have got a little better, given the ability of the House to protect the FCA and to have a role in appointing its head, and we can take that further into other regulatory bodies. However, there are loose ends at the FCA. Much of the Bill and much of the debate has been about the FCA. In the last instance, the FCA is the consumer’s champion: it regulates how the banks sell. Many of the problems we have had in the last 10 years have been about mis-selling by the banks. Every Member in the House will know we have a number of legacy organisations and legacy campaigns because we have still not put right the mis-selling that has taken place across a range of banks and products since the turn of the millennium.

The FCA is important, and protecting it is important, because, in the last instance, it is the consumer’s champion. A few weeks ago I went to FCA headquarters and had a meeting with Mr John Griffith-Jones, who is the chairman of the FCA. I put it to him, “You are the consumer champion,” but he demurred. He does not feel that the FCA is the consumer champion. He thinks that that would go too far and that it would be partisan and take up the consumer’s choice. At present, the FCA is still too much the creature of the Treasury. If we want a tougher and better regulatory regime, we have to make the FCA truly independent.

The FCA is getting a new chief executive, but I am not going to offer platitudes and pleasantries. When the new chief executive starts, I think that the chairman of the FCA should consider his position, because I think it also needs a new chairman. We are only starting on the road of making sure that our regulatory bodies are fit for purpose; we have not got there yet.

Finally, many people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are disappointed that the Government stood on ceremony and decided not to widen the remit of the membership of the core bodies of the Bank of England, starting with its court, to allow proper representation of all of the regions and nations, including the north of England. Most people in this country, and certainly those in the Celtic regions, are long of the view that the Bank of England, the banks and the key regulatory authorities are far too focused on the square mile of the City of London and its needs. We will never have a tougher, better regulatory system unless we widen the remit until the whole of the UK—the individual nations and the regions of England—are represented. Until we do that, the Bank of England is still suspect. That has not been delivered, so there is still a suspicion across the UK that the banking regulatory system operates ultimately in the interests of the bankers, rather than the people. Until that changes, we will not have a better or tougher regulatory system; we will simply have the same old regulatory system dressed up under a different name, and the same old banking crisis will be around the corner yet again.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House divided:

Ayes 298, Noes 237.