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Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 11th February 2019.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:41 pm, 11th February 2019

It is a pleasure to be in the big room today, rather than up in a small Committee Room, debating these important issues of financial regulation.

I would like to correct the Financial Secretary slightly. He mentioned lots of cities but not my home city of Glasgow and its contribution to financial services. It was a shocking omission, not least because I am sitting across from him and because of its importance to Glasgow and to Scotland. Scotland’s financial sector outstripped London’s last year when it came to jobs growth. It grew by 6.6%, to 161,000 employees in Scotland. Many of my constituents, as well as others across Scotland, rely on the sector for their jobs and businesses, as do many secondary businesses.

The financial sector is also important because of the increased tax base it brings to Scotland. All citizens in Scotland benefit from the funding for public services to which the financial services sector contributes. It makes up 8.9% of the Scottish economy and provides a crucial source of funding for schools, hospitals and local government. It is vital that the sector is allowed to continue to flourish and that the appropriate regulatory safeguards are upheld to ensure we do not see a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse.

It is important to understand the context in which the Bill is operating. The in-flight legislation is part of regulatory reform that resulted from the 2008 crisis and its purpose is to prevent history from repeating itself. We in the SNP cannot allow any watering down of regulation as a result of Brexit, and I am concerned that the Bill may be too broad and sweeping and could leave gaps that could be exploited by those who wish to do so.

I appreciate that we are, in effect, doomsday planning here this afternoon in the event of a no-deal Brexit but, as we see with the continuing chaos in the UK Government, that doomsday clock is getting a good deal closer to midnight every day. Applying rushed legislation to a bad scenario will not help matters. We need to get this right and, if there is not time to get it right, the Government must face the reality of the situation we face. It is within their power to avoid a no-deal Brexit by extending article 50 and ruling out a no-deal Brexit until adequate protection is in place.

There is a good deal of vagueness in the Bill—this point was made in the Lords and has been made again today—because it grants UK Government Ministers worryingly wide scope to legislate. Clause 1(1)(a) grants the Treasury the power to make provisions “corresponding, or similar, to” provisions in EU financial services legislation. Which is it—is it corresponding or similar to? The phrasing leaves space for policy changes beyond the scope of what secondary legislation should be able to do.

Clause 1(1)(b) gives the Treasury powers to make adjustments to the specified legislation it considers appropriate. What criteria are being used to scrutinise and judge the appropriateness of a policy? The wording also leaves the door open for unscrutinised discretion on the part of Ministers and organisations that they may delegate these powers to. The standard is not good enough, given the importance and impact of the Bill and what it is trying to achieve.

The Bill gives Ministers wide latitude to make policy changes using delegated legislation. That conflicts with the position laid out in the EU withdrawal Act, which prohibits such changes because they greatly reduce the opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise policy. The Government have acknowledged that passing legislation without a substantive debate in Parliament is undesirable. We cannot allow this to slip past.

There is a legitimate concern that the Bill leaves scope for regulators to diverge from European technical standards, which could ultimately contribute to the undermining of the EU principle of equivalence. Many businesses rely on meeting these requirements to access EU markets. The Financial Markets Law Committee has raised that issue directly with the Treasury, along with wider concerns about the potential market uncertainty caused by the unreliable nature of British technical standards as a result of this legislation. The Treasury has attempted to address some of those concerns in its policy note, which outlined the safeguarding mechanisms for the Bill, but sadly those still fall woefully short of what is expected.

Subjecting SIs to the affirmative resolution procedure is no substitute for bringing primary legislation before Parliament because there is no scope to amend them. The Treasury has also committed to engaging with key stakeholders, but, as the Opposition spokesperson mentioned, if previous efforts are anything to go by, this is not reassuring. We have all sat in Delegated Legislation Committees where it feels like the only stakeholder engagement is asking the opinion of a select few. We cannot ignore the needs of businesses and the wider public at such a precarious time.

More care should be taken to gather the experiences of the business community and the wider population before making decisions that could impact on them. It has been difficult throughout this process to gather evidence because statutory instrument Committees cannot take evidence, and we will not be taking evidence on the Bill either, meaning that we will lack the ability to scrutinise this in many different respects.

It has been said many times inside and outside the House that leaving the EU is the will of the people. That is definitely not the case in my constituency or the rest of Scotland, which voted 62% to remain, but even if it were, I would find it difficult to accept that people who voted for Brexit want this—there are gey few Brexiteers here today trying to defend this policy. Tory Ministers are being given unfettered power to legislate with no parliamentary scrutiny, which is way outside any mandate the Government feign to have.

The Bill makes a mockery of the leave campaign promises of taking back control, because this Parliament and each of us as MPs will have less control than we had before. It allows for the creation of new laws via statutory instruments, but these will be adjusting or augmenting primary legislation passed not by this House but by the institutions of the EU. The Chair of the Treasury Select Committee made an excellent point in her letter about the measures in the Bill that will allow the Government to choose to implement only those EU files, or parts of those files, that they deem beneficial to the UK and to make adjustments to legislation to fix deficiencies and take account of the UK’s new position outside the EU. That sounds like a policy choice—choosing to implement only those files, or parts of files, deemed beneficial to the UK. It would involve the Government deciding which files are beneficial to the UK and so allow them to do what they said they would not do.

After Brexit, the UK Government will have no seat at the European table, as these in-flight directives proceed, on issues that will impact on businesses across these islands. Weirdly, we are delegating scrutiny of these policies to the EU when we are not going to be members any longer. We have heard in delegated legislation Committees about how the UK is a great leader in financial services with great expertise, and we have heard how influential and involved our officials have been in making regulations for financial services—the Economic Secretary referred to this in his letter—but this influence is being chucked away for glib slogans on the side of a bus.

We will be losing influence on matters that will disproportionately affect financial services in this country, adopting legislation from another jurisdiction that we have chosen actively not to be a part of and then leaving it up to the Treasury to decide what we take and what we leave, and perhaps not even the Treasury—perhaps the Financial Conduct Authority or some other organisation whose work we are even less able to scrutinise. It is completely unacceptable, and I see no Brexiteers here willing to defend it—not one bit of it. Where are they now?

The UK Parliament, and our own elected representatives in this place, will not have a say in the detail. We are passing into the hands of Treasury officials the ability to determine the position at some point in the next two years. If we want to continue to operate in the EU market, we will have to comply with those rules. Nothing, absolutely nothing, that we introduce—deal or no deal—will be as good, as seamless and as hassle-free as the passporting deal that financial services have now, while the UK is a full member state of the EU. The Treasury cannot deny that fact.

Scotland has worked hard to get to where we are now. In Edinburgh, in Glasgow and in places throughout Scotland, financial services firms are working hard, investing and doing so much to promote their talents. There is no doubt in my mind, and in the minds of the hundreds of constituents who have emailed me, of their concerns about Brexit. They believe that things would be better all round if the Government acted in the best interests of the country, and revoked article 50.

I strongly agree with Jonathan Reynolds. The principled position is to oppose the Bill. The Government are taking plenty of powers unto themselves, which is outrageous in the context of “taking back control” and all the other glib utterances that we heard at the time of the EU referendum. They say, “Just trust us, and it will be fine.” I am sure I can trust them, and perhaps it will be fine, but we cannot be assured of that. We should not give up our own role as Members of Parliament, which is to scrutinise all these matters.