Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill — Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 26th November 2013.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Lords Spokesperson (HM Treasury) (Whip), Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 8:45 pm, 26th November 2013

My Lords, these amendments essentially aim to make three changes to the criminal offence: first, to allow defendants to be prosecuted under the offence when a number of decisions taken together cause the bank to fail; secondly, to enable the offence to be made out when the decision or decisions in question were a significant contributory factor to the failure of the bank, rather than its sole cause; and, thirdly, to include within the definition of bank failure the systematic failure of the bank to prevent liability with regards to broader criminal offences.

On the first two issues, while I understand noble Lords’ concerns, I assure them that these amendments are not necessary to deliver the effects they intend. First, I assure noble Lords that, as a matter of law, under Section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978 words in the singular include the plural unless express provision is made otherwise. The term “decision” includes “decisions”, plural. Therefore, where appropriate, it will be possible to prosecute on the basis of the implementation of a number of decisions. The Interpretation Act 1978 ensures that it is not necessary to repeat the defined terms or make express provision for the singular to include the plural in every single statute. The case for abandoning that practice seems rather minimal in this instance.

Moreover, in practice we generally expect a prosecution of the offence to focus on one individual decision in order to maximise the ability of the prosecution to make its case effectively when asking the jury to consider what are likely to be very complex events. This would enable the prosecution to focus on the causal relationship between the implementation of one decision and the failure of the bank, where that relationship seems to be most clear. In these cases, any other relevant decisions would be taken into account by the jury as the circumstances in which the key decision was taken, when the jury was deciding whether the defendant’s behaviour fell far below that which reasonably could be expected of him or her. For example, a decision to take on a risky acquisition may be more or less reasonable depending on earlier decisions to strengthen or weaken the bank’s capital position.

These amendments also include references to agreeing to the carrying on of activities by a firm. This would add nothing to the offence as currently drafted, since the reference to agreeing to the firm carrying on certain activities assumes that those activities in some way require authorisation and this must involve taking a decision, or agreeing to the taking of a decision, by or on behalf of the firm, and is therefore already included in the offence.

Moving on to Amendments 94, 95, 100 and 102, under general principles of criminal law the test for an action having “caused” an event to occur is that, had that action not been taken, the event would not have occurred. Therefore, in this specific offence the test is that, if the decision or decisions in question had not been implemented, the bank would not have failed. The implementation of the decision need not be the sole or even the main cause of the bank’s failure. In practice, because of the evidential standard that applies to criminal cases, we expect that cases will be prosecuted only where it is very clear that the implementation of the decision or decisions in question was a significant contributing factor to the failure of the bank.

In addition to these general points, the Government oppose some aspects of the amendments in principle. As well as including reference to “activity”, Amendment 97 would lower the bar of the reasonableness test for when the offence would be committed. As set out in Committee, the Government do not think this is appropriate. Referring to conduct which is far below that which would be expected has precedents in the Law Commission proposal for a statutory offence of killing by gross carelessness and in legislation creating the offence of corporate manslaughter. We have used this particular phrase knowing that it works and can be effectively interpreted by the courts. There is no precedent in UK criminal law for criminalising behaviour that is merely unreasonable. To do so would amount to an indiscriminate diffusion of criminal liability, in a way that made it hard for individuals to know with sufficient certainty when they might be committing an offence.

Amendment 118 would expand the definition of institutional failure that would trigger the offence to include occasions where there was a systematic failure of the bank to comply with a range of laws imposing criminal liability in connection with the conduct of financial services business. A similar amendment was raised in Committee, focused specifically on compliance with the Fraud Act 2006, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 or the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. The Government’s position on this remains unchanged—this offence has been introduced to plug a gap in existing legislation where there are no criminal powers available to sanction senior managers who have recklessly caused their banks to fail. By definition, criminal liability can arise where offences already exist that individuals can be convicted for and appropriately punished, depending on the seriousness of the breach. In certain cases, they can also be charged with consenting to or conniving in such activities. It is difficult to see how this amendment strengthens the offence.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, raised the question of the definition of “way”. The expression includes both the activities in the business and how those activities are carried out. This makes the offence broader. The noble Lord also suggested, if I understood him right, that in some cases the real risk is that people did not know what risk they were taking or wilfully turned a blind eye. While it might appear attractive to include incompetence by senior managers in the offence, doing so could introduce unwelcome and potentially damaging uncertainty into the sector. Further, to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, the offence must be sufficiently certain to enable individuals to know when they are at risk of committing the offence. However, this does not mean that it is possible for a senior manager to simply close their eyes to the risk the bank is taking. In some cases a court may decide that it can be inferred that a particular person had knowledge of a risk. In the case of a director, ignorance of a risk to the bank’s existence may, in some cases, be to admit to breaches of the duties under the Companies Act 2006. Accordingly, there are cases in which an argument that a defendant had no knowledge of a particular risk would carry very little credibility and could even expose the defendant to criticism for breach of duty.

We take this offence extremely seriously as a key part of the new infrastructure that we are putting in place and we believe that it meets the test we have set out. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.