Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party in this afternoon’s debate, and I find myself in a strange position: after welcoming the new SNP leader last night, it is quite possible that, having stood up from the Front Bench, I might be sitting down on the Back Benches. It is a strange experience for me, but it has been quite common on the Conservative Benches for most of this year.
Colleagues who served on the Bill Committee will know that I had to miss most of its considerations for family reasons, and I want to place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes, who unhesitatingly took on my share of the work on the Committee as well as his own. By all accounts, from what I have heard from Members of all parties, he did so very well. None of them said that he did it better than I would have done, although quite possibly he did.
We have well over 60 new clauses and amendments in front of us today, and we are not going to do justice to 10% of them—that is the nature of the way this place operates. I am also well aware that since we started the Committee deliberations, only three parties have had the chance to contribute, and I think it is only fair—I hope it is possible—that that balance be addressed later today. Other parties have voices and constituents, and the voters and constituents who do not like the governing party have a right to have their voices heard in the debate, which will be the only chance that they get.
I intend to simply restate the SNP’s position on the main themes of the Bill, as an indication of where we stand on most of the amendments. I will mention some specific amendments, but I hope that my comments will give an indication of which ones we support.
We recognise that there is a need for a complete overhaul of the UK’s financial services regulatory framework, although possibly in a slightly different direction from where the Government want to take it. For example, I have long argued that the Financial Conduct Authority does not have enough powers or resources. It has to be said that sometimes it does not seem to have the desire to take swift and effective action to stop frauds before they happen, and sometimes it does not have the power to compensate victims afterwards.
The SNP continues to have severe reservations about forcing regulators to put international competitiveness on an equal and sometimes higher footing than their actual regulatory responsibilities. There is a potential and very clear conflict of interests between being responsible for regulating the conduct of organisations and being responsible for helping them to become profitable. There are ways that companies can become more competitive that are quite clearly helpful to the public interest, and there are ways they can do it that are neutral to the public interest. There are also ways that a company can become more competitive that are extremely damaging to the public interest—for example, look at the way P&O treated its workers a few months ago. That made the company more competitive, but it was clearly against the wider public interest.
The regulators should have clear responsibilities on matters such as financial stability, consumer protection, fraud prevention and climate change objectives. On climate change objectives, I will not shilly-shally and make excuses; I will support new clause 25 if the House divides on it.
The Government have missed the chance—although from the Minister’s comments, I think we can assume that they have deliberately ignored the chance—to put financial inclusion at the heart of the Bill, so we will support amendments that address that. My understanding is that the official Opposition will press new clauses 2 and 7 to a Division today and we will certainly support them. As has been mentioned, free access for people to get their cash out of the bank is important and has to be available as a legal right, not simply as a by-your-leave on behalf of the banks and other financial institutions. I share the suspicion that if the amendments had not been tabled and if the banks had not known that those were coming, they would not have been nearly so keen to adopt voluntary codes of practice, and so on. We will also support new clause 23, which will force the FCA to give much more recognition and priority to the requirement for greater financial inclusion.
As I mentioned, we welcome the Bill’s anti-fraud measures, but they do not go nearly far enough. The Bill is hardly even present-proof, never mind future-proof. It is almost as though we are finally catching up to legislate, at the end of this year, for last year’s scams, and we are failing to notice that the bad guys and gals have designed new scams for this year and are already working on next year’s. For example, I welcome the fact that the Bill will give the Payment Systems Regulator a duty to improve the reimbursement of authorised push payment scams, but the same provision will not be carried over to the victims of crypto-scams, pension scams, investment scams or various others.
We will support new clause 1, as well as new clause 36, if that is pushed to a vote. New clause 36 emerged from a conversation between Public Accounts Committee members after we took evidence recently on the Government’s record on tackling fraud. A lot of us were struck by the fact that we knew, but had never really thought about, the fact that nobody has any idea of what the real level of fraud is in the United Kingdom, because, too often, financial institutions have a self-interest in choosing to cover it up rather than to report it. We know that 40% of reported crime in the United Kingdom is fraud, and the proportion is probably higher than that because a lot of the frauds against individual institutions are covered up rather than reported.
I am grateful to Olivia Blake for taking the time and trouble to introduce that new clause. If, as I strongly suspect will happen, the Government say that they are not against the principle but that they do not like the way in which it has been drafted, I hope that they commit to introducing a similar amendment in the other place in due course.
I remember—I think a lot of Opposition Members do—that not that long ago, the Tories were very enthusiastic about the idea of forcing people, including Members of Parliament, to report cases of suspected illegal immigration. It will be a real test and give a real indication of how seriously the Government take the damage that fraud causes to all our constituents if they refuse to even consider a similar requirement to report cases of suspected fraud.
The final serious concern that we have about the Bill, as with several other Bills that we have seen being rammed through this place, is the relentless drive to become as different as possible from the European Union, just for the sake of it. Although I do not know whether amendments 8 to 11 will be voted on tonight, had the Government submitted those as new clauses in Committee, or had they been part of the Bill as published, it is almost certain that we would have opposed them.
It will come as no surprise that, on behalf of the people of Scotland, the SNP will resist any attempt to drag us further from our European friends and neighbours than we already are. We make no secret of our intention to keep our country in a position where the restoration of our independence will be followed as swiftly as possible by our restoration to our rightful place as a sovereign nation in the EU. We want the transition back into EU membership to be as easy as possible, so we want that to be from the starting point of being as close to alignment with the EU as we can be.
This morning, an opinion poll showed support for Scottish independence at 56%—by jings! The new leader of the SNP group has fairly made his mark, has he not? Fifty-one per cent. would vote SNP in a Westminster election; that is even more than the landslide that we had in 2015. That increases to 53% if, as the SNP intends, the Westminster election becomes a de facto referendum.
The prospect of Scotland applying to rejoin the European Union as an independent nation within the next few years is not just a fanciful idea, nor is it just likely; it is now highly probable and is rapidly becoming a certainty. We have to act in the best interests of the people of Scotland by making sure that after independence we remain as close as possible to our friends and neighbours in the European Union so that our transition back to European Union membership can be as swift and smooth as possible.
When we rejoin the European Union, it is very likely that central Scotland will immediately become its second biggest financial services centre. It matters to our economy to be able to get back into the European Union with as little fuss and disruption as possible. For that reason, the future of our financial services sector lies not in isolationism from the Government, but in internationalism through membership of the European Union.