Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies (Environmentally Sustainable Investment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:02 pm on 11th September 2020.

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Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 1:02 pm, 11th September 2020

It does show the considerable potential, but we must be clear about the different legal traditions and frameworks that exist in those different jurisdictions. Right now, we are looking at where we can examine ways of moving forward constructively from the basis that we have in this country.

I would like to move on and examine some of the other elements where the Treasury has made contributions to assist this broad agenda. Where we have identified barriers holding mutuals back, we have acted to remove them. This year, we worked with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ensure that companies converting to co-operatives are treated on a level playing field. At the Budget, the Government announced that the tax burden on housing co-operatives would be reduced. Most recently, the Treasury has worked closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that co-operatives can benefit from the Government’s covid-19 business support offer, including through the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020.

I am conscious that the interest of the hon. Member for Cardiff North is not just about the development of the co-operative sector. In our discussions, her passion for taking action to address climate change and her considerable experience in Wales prior to coming to this place have been abundantly clear to me. The Government share that ambition. As the House will be aware, we legislated to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, becoming the first major economy to do so. In the Budget earlier this year, the Chancellor also announced a series of real, tangible measures to support green growth and tackle climate change. They were wide-ranging and included: committing to the carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund; fulfilling the manifesto commitment to tree planting and peatland restoration through a £640 million Nature for Climate fund; delivering on our commitment to increase the proportion of green gas in the grid by consulting on introducing a Great Britain-wide green gas levy to support biomethane production, alongside other measures to decarbonise heat; doubling the size of our energy innovation programme; and, at the summer economic update in July, the Government announced a further ambitious £3.05 billion package for housing decarbonisation designed to cut carbon, save people money and create jobs.

In my own area of responsibility at the Treasury, green finance is a priority. We published our green finance strategy in July last year. It sets out very clear objectives to align private sector financial flows with clean environmentally sustainable and resilient growth, and to strengthen the competitiveness of the UK financial sector. The tone of the debate and the content of colleagues’ speeches today has shown that there has to be an almost limitless ambition in terms of the dimensions of interventions. A number of contributions focused on the issue of green bonds and mobilising green finance. That means accelerating investments to support clean growth and our environmental ambitions. I think I would want to say that the issuance of green bonds will be an important part of the pathway to delivering the transition to net zero by 2050. It is something that the Treasury keeps under active and ongoing review as we approach fiscal events in the future.

I would like to turn now to the reasons the Government cannot support this Bill, despite sharing the ambitions of the hon. Member for Cardiff North. For the benefit of the House, it may be worth restating that societies can currently issue shares to raise capital and may also issue debt in much the same way as companies, as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, Mr McFadden correctly set out. The current arrangement allows for a considerable amount of flexibility for co-operatives seeking to raise capital, while safeguarding their status as genuinely mutual member-owned and controlled entities.

The Government believe that the UK should have a strong and robust regulatory system which provides strong protection for consumers. Investment in mutuals, like any other investment, is not risk-free—a point that has been made by several hon. Members. Although it is for investors to make their own choices about risk—as has been pointed out, investments can go up and down—it is crucial that the Government ensure that appropriate protections are in place, particularly where a new type of investment instrument or product is being created.

The recent public and regulatory attention, following the failure of London Capital and Finance, to retail investments such as those that are often referred to as mini bonds highlights that care is needed when developing investment products for retail investors. From the beginning of this year, the Financial Conduct Authority took action to limit the promotion of a certain type of mini bond to certain retail investors, citing concerns about the high risk that capital invested would not be repaid and the illiquid nature of the investment. The FCA is now consulting on making those temporary rules permanent and extending them to some similar securities.

Unfortunately, we believe that the type of share proposed in the Bill may unintentionally—I do accept that it would be unintentional—create a capital instrument with characteristics similar to those of a mini bond, without ensuring that adequate protections for consumers were in place. Some of the significant issues with mini bonds arose as a result of their illiquid nature—the fact that they cannot easily be transferred—limiting investors’ ability to access their funds. Although the share proposed in the Bill is transferable, we believe that, in practice, it is likely that it would be highly illiquid. Mutual shares can ordinarily only be transferred at par value, which in turn limits the potential for the emergence of any secondary market for the shares, because the incentive to purchase existing shares is limited. In the case of the share proposed in the Bill, the opportunities for retail investors to recover their funds before the term attached to the share has expired, should they need to do so, may be extremely limited. That limitation could pose risks to retail investors with relatively low net worth who may need to access their capital.

Investment in mutuals is not risk-free. Many investors in mini bonds were motivated by the opportunity to support a brand or product that they had some relationship with, so they may not have fully considered the risks posed to their capital. That issue should be considered carefully in this case, because it is likely that individual socially minded investors may see investment in a green co-operative as an ethical use of their funds and may underestimate the associated risk.

That issue may be compounded by two further considerations. First, although the FCA is the registering authority for co-operatives, where they are not undertaking regulated activity they are not supervised by the FCA in the manner in which financial services firms are. We believe, therefore, that there is a significant risk of mistaking registration with the FCA to suggest a level of scrutiny that does not exist, and that may cause investors to underestimate the risk. Furthermore, as the investments are unlikely to be covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, there would be no compensation available to consumers if the issuing co-operative were unable to repay the original investment. That has been a particularly contentious area with mini bonds.

More broadly, the Treasury’s review of the current regulatory arrangements for the issuance and marketing of non-transferable debt securities, such as some mini bonds, is ongoing. It is right that we consider carefully the outcome of that review before consideration is given to the creation of any capital instrument with similar characteristics. We do not want to have to do another review when we have not concluded this one yet. I hope I have made it clear to the House that the Government have significant concerns about the potential consumer detriment that may unintentionally arise as a result of the type of share proposed in this Bill.