Financial Services Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:52 pm on 11th June 2012.

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Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative 7:52 pm, 11th June 2012

My Lords, before I begin my speech I wish to offer an apology to the House in general and in particular to my noble friend on the Front Bench. Regretfully, due to the vagaries of public transport, I was not in my place as I should have been at the start of the debate. However, I have heard most of the speeches subsequently.

I wanted to take part in this debate because, as we all know, the financial sector is absolutely vital to the success of this country. It does not matter whether you are a small shopkeeper, a SME or any other form of business, a major or minor saver, the success of our country stems from the success of the financial sector. The Bill, huge as it is, has the potential to create the right conditions providing not only that the structure is there but that we can find the men and women to use, work with competence and understand the culture behind it.

I do not have the skills or the competence to make a judgment on the major financial dimensions and controls of the Bill. Others who do have such competence have spoken today and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will listen to and take on board what they have said today and what will arise in discussion in Committee.

However, there is a certain area where I can claim some competence and skill. It straddles the area that my noble friend-I do treat him as a friend-Lord Borrie has half discussed this evening and I would like to add to that. He and the House will know that I have asked a number of questions about the Office of Fair Trading. Much of the work that it does is good, but there have been a number of examples, particularly in the recent past, where extensive inquiries have been undertaken over months and, indeed, years, costing millions of pounds to both the public sector and the companies or organisations that were under investigation and where it has been subsequently found that there was no wrongdoing.

It has been mentioned by a couple of noble Lords that we are now in a transition period. It is very important in a transition period, if I may use a cricket metaphor, that the ball is not dropped in the slips. One of the areas that deeply concerns me at the moment is that of payday lenders. I asked Citizens Advice whether there was a current short example that I could quote to your Lordships. In November 2011, a citizens advice bureau in the West Midlands saw a woman who was earning £880 a month. This did not prevent her taking out 19 payday loans. She was granted these short-term loans. By the time she came to the citizens advice bureau her entire wages were being taken up in debt repayments. As a result, she was having to use payday loans to replace her income, not to supplement it for short periods as payday lenders suggest in their advertisements.

I was in the world of advertising and I listen to the advertisements and it has come over in the past few days that there are a number of companies in this area. The new authority which is to take over has to have a competence not only to license particular companies in the payday loan area-there is a function there that is required-but has to have an ability to take action early before matters escalate out of control. We are in a transition period and I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that I hope we will not allow this problem to escalate out of control.

There is a second area in which I have some competence. In the past I had the privilege of being chairman of a friendly society. I took through the House the Building Societies (Amendment) Bill, which was started in another place by a former Member of Parliament, John Butterfill. The provisions of that Bill, which came into effect just before the financial crisis in 2008, gave some flexibility to building societies in what they could or could not do and allowed them to develop as good mutuals. Yes, I am one of those who regrets the demutualisation of so much of what was the mutual movement.

When I was chairman of a friendly society we tried very hard to extend niche areas. We were a small operation with assets of only £1 billion at the time. We looked at the niche markets we could provide that were not available or on offer from the banks. Every time we tried the FSA put the claw of scrutiny upon us-which was fair enough-and it was very difficult to find new markets to move into and develop. The same applied to the credit unions. The child trust fund came forward and the friendly society movement received 25 per cent of that market. Indeed, without the drive and enthusiasm of the friendly society movement, the child trust fund would not have developed as it did. Sadly, the knife went in from the Liberal Benches. Whoever was to blame, the scheme could have been modified and need not have cost the Exchequer the money it was costing. The point I wish to make today is that the regulator has to look at the extent of the risk to smaller operations, which often tend to be community based, and not decide that just because they are small they are ultra risky.

There needs to be a change in attitude in a number of other areas. One in particular is the alleged pension mis-selling situation. There is no doubt that there was some pensions mis-selling in the late 1990s. Equally, though, by the time we had gone through the FSA's requirements, we and many other small pension providers soon found out that, on a generous estimate, up to 25% of pensions might have been mis-sold. There is a requirement in life for a bit of caveat emptor, but the early claims companies got on the back of this and made it into a business of its own, almost regardless of the validity of the claims. Basically, the providers would say, "It is easier to settle than it is to contest this".

The banks have also had to face challenges in relation to the selling of PPI and some other products. While a person who has genuinely been mis-sold a product should be properly compensated, with the new regulator we must not allow a situation to arise where it is far more troublesome to deal with a tidal wave of claims from the claims houses. They have very persistent people working in them, and it is cheaper to settle than to look at the validity of the claim.

I shall finish by saying that my noble friend Lord Lawson, who has been in his place for almost the whole debate, mentioned the word "cost". Cost is a crucial feature in relation to anything in financial services, and particularly in relation to the controls and requirements being put on the industry. The new FCA will need to keep abreast of the comparative costs between what is proposed for the UK and what is happening in other major financial centres around the world. We need to remain cost competitive as well as control competitive.