Amendment 1

Financial Services Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:34 pm on 24 March 2021.

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara:

Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—“Duty of care for financial service providers(1) The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 is amended as follows.(2) In section 1C, after subsection (2)(e) insert—“(ea) the general principle that firms should not profit from exploiting a consumer’s vulnerability, behavioural biases or constrained choices;”.(3) After section 137C insert—“137CA FCA general rules: duty of care (1) The power of the FCA to make general rules includes power to introduce a duty of care owed by authorised persons to consumers in carrying out regulated activities under this Act.(2) The FCA must make rules in accordance with subsection (1) which come into force no later than 6 April 2022.””Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would strengthen the FCA’s consumer protection objective and introduce requirements for the FCA to make rules for financial services firms that amount to a statutory duty of care.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Labour

My Lords, Amendment 1 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Eatwell. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for adding their cross-party support on this important issue and look forward to their contributions to the debate. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, the Deputy Leader of the House, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the noble Lord, Lord True, and their officials for making time to discuss this issue after Committee, which has helped us considerably and shed some light on the complex set of consultations that the FCA and the Treasury itself are conducting over the next few months, all of which are happening, of course, during the pandemic and at a time of significant change in duties and responsibilities in all quarters.

In his excellent speech in Committee, my noble friend Lord Eatwell set out the case for the introduction of a duty of consumer care to be placed on financial services providers, which he argued would strengthen the FCA’s consumer protection objective and introduce requirements to ensure that firms operating in the financial sector should not profit from exploiting a consumer’s vulnerability, behavioural biases or constrained choices. I can do little better than rehearse his main points again. Markets in financial products sold to individuals, households and small businesses are seriously inefficient, mainly because of asymmetric information, as the seller of the product typically knows much more about the risks involved in making a particular investment or other financial transaction than does the consumer.

Secondly, given that the FCA’s strategic objective is about promoting competition in the market, thereby improving consumer outcomes, it can either regulate each individual financial product to ensure that the consumer is probably informed, or it could adopt the principle enshrined in Amendment 1 and make general rules, including the power to introduce a duty of care owed by authorised persons to their consumers. The case for a duty of care for consumers was argued very strongly at the time the current regulatory structure was set up; indeed, I was present in many of those debates. But, absent primary legislation or changes to it, the FCA has, perforce, adopted the first option and attempted to deal with each consumer detriment issue as it arises. However, by its own admission, this has not gone very well. From its consultation entitled, Our Future Approach to Consumers in 2017, through to the feedback statement published in April 2019, the FCA has wrestled with the issue of duty of care and is still wrestling today, with a review scheduled to start, we understand, in May 2021.

My noble friend’s case was that the status quo is failing and a new approach is urgently required for two main reasons. First, new products are always coming on to the market, which means that the FCA is always playing catch-up to introduce new rules and has to take time for appropriate consultation and so on to deal with the new threats to consumers. The rush to get a handle on “buy now, pay later” products in this legislation speaks volumes about that approach. Secondly, financial products are now available with one click via the internet, with all that that implies about the failure of the conventional approaches of “know your customer” and the need for careful concern about going through the paperwork and understanding the terms and conditions of what you may be signing up to. In short, fintech, with all the benefits it can bring—well argued by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes— signals the end of the current FCA regulation as we know it. The case for a duty of care approach is unanswerable.

Amendment 1 provides the FCA with the means to end its failure to meet its consumer protection duty through dogged adherence to a failing competition objective. The enactment of the power to introduce a duty of care for consumers would rightly place responsibility for ensuring that markets function well firmly on the shoulders of those who have the information required to attain that goal. If the FCA has the power to introduce a duty of care for consumers, it could finally begin to live up to its strategic objective.

Far too many consumers are being treated inappropriately, whether by the mis-selling of products, by the denial of rights or by obstruction of responses to complaints and so on. If the Government wish to improve on the consumer protections previously enshrined in EU legislation, the introduction of a duty of care on consumers is a safe and sure way forward. It is a way to ensure that markets function well for the benefit of the consumer, as it should be.

I am sure that, in responding to this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, will try to persuade us that there is no need for this amendment, as future consultations to be carried out by the FCA and the Treasury will cover all these points in detail and so all will be well. Indeed, either or both of these exercises may require primary legislation—that is quite likely—and we will be back again in a few months’ time debating the same issues all over again, when the Treasury has decided on its responses to the consultations and brings forward legislation to implement another generation of regulatory frameworks. I put it to the Government that, while the wording of the amendment may not be perfect, the intent—particularly the wording of subsection (2),

“that firms should not be profiting from exploiting a consumer’s vulnerability, behavioural biases or constrained choices”— is worth holding on to and action should be taken now. I give notice that, in the absence of a positive response today, I am minded to test the opinion of the House on the amendment. However, if the Minister is prepared to commit to bring this back at Third Reading, with an agreed wording, we could work with her to settle this issue. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and to support this amendment. The noble Lord has made a strong and compelling case for both parts of the amendment. The case for and against a duty of care was discussed extensively in Grand Committee and I do not propose to revisit the arguments in detail.

In his speech in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, made a simple but important point:

“The truth is that the industry has a systemic tendency to malfeasance.”—[Official Report, 22/2/21; col. GC 112.]

I listed in Committee some of the many serious instances of malfeasance over the last couple of decades—I am sure that they are familiar to us all—which amply demonstrate the truth of the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. There can be no doubt that the temptation to malfeasance and the opportunities for malfeasance grow, and are deeply rooted, in the huge inequality of arms. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, emphasised that in Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has just noted. There can be no doubt either that the culture within parts of the financial services industry is, to say the least, not oriented to serving the best interests of consumers. John Lanchester has graphically described the industry as treating its customers as “an extractive resource”. All this is true in an industry that is highly regulated. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the regulatory regime is obviously and severely deficient.

The FCA has consulted on the duty of care at least eight times in the last five years and is about to do so again, starting in May, apparently. It is not clear, given the Treasury’s current consultation on the FSFRF, why we need two consultations covering the same ground. I know that some respondents to the HMT consultation have already proposed a new duty of best interest or duty of care. There is no reason to suppose that this new, and much delayed, FCA consultation will come up with anything more than equivocation, fence-sitting or long grass, if its previous efforts are anything to go by. Last time round, the FCA found that most respondents considered levels of consumer harm to be high and that change was needed to protect consumers. None of the financial services respondents wanted a duty of care, but 92% of consumers did, in a popular survey commissioned by the FCA’s own consumer panel.

The industry resists a duty of care for obvious reasons of self-interest, sometimes presented as a concern that such a duty would increase costs ultimately to the consumer. This does not say much for our financial services’ belief in competition, nor does it acknowledge the fact that, for example, PPI was sold at a commission rate of 87% or that the industry has had to find the funds to pay over £50 billion in redress for PPI alone.

The Government have argued that a duty of care is not necessary because, to quote the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, they

“believe that the FCA already has the necessary powers to ensure that sufficient protections are in place for consumers, and has the will to act, without the need for a statutory duty of care”.—[Official Report, 22/2/21; col. GC 117.]

Not even the FCA agrees with the first bit of that. In evidence to our Liaison Committee last Tuesday, Sheldon Mills of the FCA was reported as agreeing that the concept of treating customers fairly needed more development if it was to protect them. He confirmed that the FCA would be consulting on options to deliver a higher level of consumer protection in markets. It would be hard to look at the disasters, catastrophes, rip-offs and assorted scams that litter our financial services landscape and justify those two ministerial assertions. Where is the evidence of sufficient protection? Where is the evidence of the will to act in any timely fashion?

If the Government really believe in sufficient protection and the will to act, how do they explain the FOS data? In 2019-20, the FOS dealt with 250,000 cases, one-third of which were judged in the consumer’s favour—evidence of ongoing, large-scale malfeasance. The figures are even worse when it comes to products aimed at the financially vulnerable: 89% for guarantor loans, 84% for doorstep loans and 78% for logbook loans. This does not show sufficient protection or a will to act; it shows a failure to sell the right products to the right people, to explain them properly or to handle complaints properly. Customers were surely right when they told the FCA consumer panel that the customer is not at the heart of business decisions.

FiSMA 2000 does not protect consumers adequately. The FCA is always playing catch-up. Malfeasance continues to grow and to take new forms. Redress is patchy, time-consuming and stressful. A duty of care would address these problems. That is what the FCA consumer panel recommended in its submission to the Treasury’s FSFRF review last month. A duty of care would provide a strong and clear incentive for real, lasting cultural change in our financial services industry. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept our amendment or commit to bringing an equivalent to us at Third Reading. If not, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, will press this amendment to a vote.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 2:45, 24 March 2021

My Lords, I am pleased to speak to this amendment. I have worked in this industry for many years. The numerous scams, frauds and scandals that have plagued consumers are ongoing. It seems clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, said, that the Financial Services and Markets Acts 2000 does not protect consumers. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his clear explanation of why the amendment, in all its parts, is required.

A duty of care on providers to make sure that they are considering the interests of their customers would certainly help to address the asymmetry of information between the providers and the consumers. It might also assist customers in the manner that the products that are developed are offered. Too often, providers develop new products with new complexities that are clearly not user-friendly. The FCA requirements are that the risks and details of the products must be disclosed, but the disclosure documents are impenetrable to the ordinary person. Those working at the FCA and those working for the providers understand the language used—it is natural to them—but the vast majority of the public do not understand the specific product literature which the FCA has been relying on to offer this kind of protection. It is clearly not helping consumers to be faced with bamboozling jargon and many pages of legalese in the product descriptions and the terms and conditions.

The FCA consulted on this in 2017 and it released a statement in 2019, and other consultations have covered this as well. I congratulate the Government for having engaged on this issue, and my noble friends Lord True, Lady Penn and Lord Howe; I know they have all worked on this issue. But, from a practical perspective, and as someone who has worked in this industry, developed product for consumers and worked with consumers on the other side who have suffered detriment, I believe that the fears about competition are somewhat overdone. All firms, if they have a duty of care, will then have to look after customers, so the issue of competition should not really pose so much of an impediment. Markets currently function in the interests of providers rather than consumers, and regulators are reactive to problems rather than trying to pre-empt problems that have been highlighted and pointed out for two or three years before anything is actually done—by which time so many consumers have lost out.

Of course I believe that firms should not profit from exploiting the public’s lack of understanding and education when it comes to retail financial services. Successive Governments have talked about improving financial literacy, but they have not managed to achieve this. In practice, providers do not know their customers, the customers do not understand the product literature and, indeed, it seems that there is very often no requirement for the provider to even ask basic questions of the consumer before the consumer buys a particular product. There are countless examples of areas where just a basic question could have prevented a consumer buying an inappropriate product.

So I urge my noble friend on the Front Bench to take up the offer of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and work with him and other interested Peers to come up with a form of words for Third Reading that can prevent a vote on this issue and can also help accelerate the important duty of care that is required. Waiting for a consultation later this year is simply not good enough when it comes to the kinds of scandals and scams that we know are going on day in and day out.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and her powerful plea, which I hope the Government will listen to. I also speak to Amendment 1 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, Lord Sharkey and Lord Eatwell, to which I was pleased to attach my name, as I did to a very similar amendment in Committee.

Any noble Lords who have read the Second Reading debate will note that I majored on a “duty of care” in my speech. I used what you might call an expanded definition of “duty of care” to suggest that it might not be too much to put on the face of the Bill a demand that the financial sector should not engage in reckless, fraudulent, corrupt, obviously damaging systemic behaviour, including shipping off tranches of cash into tax havens, deploying complex financial instruments that they clearly do not understand and handing over control of markets to automated systems without adequate controls—things that threaten the security of all of us. But while I believe that principle remains sound, the lawyers convinced me that, in narrow legal terms, “duty of care” could not be stretched that far.

What the amendment here clearly introduces is a duty of care to individual customers. As proposed new subsection (2)(ea) says, their

“vulnerability, behavioural biases or constrained choices” should not be exploited. Once, perhaps, such a clause was not necessary. There was a not ideal, but certainly useful, constraining paternalism: your local bank manager would look after you, both in limiting borrowing and in making allowances for unexpected disasters, personal and business. That has long gone—as of course has, almost universally, the local bank manager and, all too often, the local bank branch—so we need the law to step in to protect people to constrain the behaviour of financial institutions. As noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, said, we are in a situation where malfeasance has just continued to grow, with technical developments being one cause of that and, as noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said, scandals and fraud have plagued consumers.

So that is the institutional side of where we are, but we also have to think about the state that people and our society are in today and make the law fit for our modern times, for these are times of massive insecurity. The idea of saving, or of even making the incoming funds match the essential outgoings each month, was an impossible dream for millions of people even before the arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

No one can know when sudden illness might strike—this Bill has been championed by Macmillan Cancer Support, to whose work I give credit—or it could be a redundancy or a pandemic that strikes people unexpectedly. That is one side of vulnerability and care that financial institutions should acknowledge. As Macmillan highlights, almost one in three of those severely financially impacted by their cancer diagnosis had to take out a loan or credit card debt. That is a public health issue. What we have are institutions that have been making profit from customers, sometimes for decades, and they have a duty to act compassionately and fairly in such circumstances.

But I think we also need to pay a bit of attention to the elements of the proposed new clause referring to “behavioural biases” and “constrained choices”. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, has been a rather isolated champion in this Bill on issues around the use of artificial intelligence algorithms and issues such as their potential bias, but he has also highlighted the way in which financial companies now have a historically uniquely detailed understanding of customer behaviour and the chance to exploit that through complex, opaque mechanisms.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, said in introducing an amendment, there has always been asymmetrical access to information between financial sector companies and their clients, but this has been massively magnified by technology—something that is only likely to grow. To create an assumption that this inequality of arms should not be misused should, we hope, constrain the behaviour of the financial sector—or at least, if it does not do that, provide a potential route for redress should it occur. There are already many who have need to seek redress for the behaviour of financial sector companies. I spent time with some of them this morning at a meeting of the Transparency Task Force.

As noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, the Government are likely now to say “Wait”—but why? We know that there is already an existing massive problem and a huge risk. If the Government do not acknowledge the need to act now, I offer the Green group’s strong support for the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, to test the view of the House.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield.

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 1. First, I must apologise to the House that I have been unable to participate in earlier stages of the Bill—a matter of real regret to me—but I have been following proceedings closely. I declare an interest as a member of the Financial Inclusion Commission and president of the Money Advice Trust.

I am very keen to support this amendment, which takes forward a very important recommendation from the report of the Financial Exclusion Select Committee, which I chaired, in 2017. That report recommended an expansion of the remit of the Financial Conduct Authority to include both a statutory duty to promote financial inclusion, and a statutory duty of care. In my view, the two are closely linked, but I will obviously focus now on this very important duty of care amendment.

At the Liaison Committee’s follow-up inquiry on financial exclusion, held only last week, powerful evidence was received from charities and others active in the sector that the commercial model only goes so far, and that legislation is required to put an obligation on banks and other financial service providers to provide appropriate services to customers and have proper regard to inclusion.

The regulatory principle at present that firms should treat customers fairly only, in my view, enshrines a weak duty to the consumer. This is further weakened by the principle in the Financial Services and Markets Act that consumers should take responsibility for their decisions. We have already heard examples today of how treating customers fairly does not remove conflicts of interest and or provide sufficient deterrents to firms from mis-selling products and services. Bluntly put, the consumer responsibility principle fails to take into account the imbalance in market power between firms and their customers. Overdraft charges are a good example. It was clear that these were disproportionately falling on more financially vulnerable customers, and banks could and should have known that and done something about it. They did not act by themselves so regulation was introduced. That is why I support a duty of care on firms to act in their customers’ best interests.

A similar duty already exists in other sectors—for example, for legal and medical professionals through the Solicitors Regulation Authority principles or the General Medical Council’s good practice guide, so there is clear precedent. A duty of care on all financial services providers would ensure that they took a much-needed proactive approach in their dealings with customers, acting in their best interests and reinforcing the principle that a firm cannot profit from consumers’ vulnerability, biases or constrained choices. Importantly, it would also incentivise providers to ensure that products and services are what is called fair by design, with inclusion built in from the start.

In 2019, the Treasury Select Committee concluded that it would support a legal obligation:

“While a legally enforceable duty might still require customers to take their own legal action to seek redress against a provider, its very existence would remind providers of their duty to act in their customers’ best interests at all times.”

That is the nub of the matter. I strongly support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative 3:00, 24 March 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate on the first group of amendments on the first day of Report on the Financial Services Bill. I declare my interests as set out in the register.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, on tabling this amendment and on the way in which he introduced it. These arguments have been put since at least 2017, when we debated the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill. What has happened in the interim has merely strengthened those arguments on the need for a duty of care. During the last year, as in so many other areas of life, we have seen exactly why something in this space would assist. Now that we have the excellent vaccine rollout and inoculation programme, such a duty would put a capital “B” into the “build back better” approach. It would be a real example of “better”.

I will not rehearse the arguments that I made at Second Reading and in Committee. I want to take this opportunity again to thank Macmillan Cancer Support and congratulate it for everything that it continues to do in this area. According to the testimony of a cancer patient,

“I felt I was battling my bank as well as cancer.”

Will the Minister consider what can be done between Report and Third Reading? With the Easter break in between, there is time, so this is more than timely. Can she reassure noble Lords of the potential for movement on this specific point of a duty of care?

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy)

My Lords, I shall be very brief. I spoke on this issue at length in Committee. The Government may take note that every single speaker today from across the House has supported the concept of a duty of care and non-exploitation and has urged the Government to act.

In all the speeches, both before today and referenced again today, we have heard about this chain of malfeasance, whether it has been described as scandal or fraud or an abuse of customers. Clearly, the existing legislation does not work, or we would not have this kind of history with new scandals cropping up, sadly, on a regular basis. Like it or not, treating customers fairly is interpreted by both the industry and the regulator as exceedingly light touch, to be offset by the “caveat emptor” principle—the taking of personal responsibility—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, referred. This is unacceptable. This Government often say that they focus on outcomes. The outcomes have been unacceptable. Look at the outcomes and the chain of scandals. Here is the opportunity to act.

In response, the Minister might say that there are effective tools, such as the senior managers and certification regime. Anyone who has followed the progress of this Bill and the amendments through Committee will have heard how that has broken down. It has, in effect, become something of a busted flush. The Minister might say that scandals have been picked up very early because we have working whistleblowing channels. Again, from listening to the discussion throughout Committee stage, it is clear that this scheme is not working. The analysis in the Gloster report reinforces that.

We do not need a ninth consultation. Every time there is another major scandal, the FCA’s response is to have another consultation. In the end, there is something like a freckle of movement. This issue needs to be seized by the scruff of the neck and resolved before more people suffer injury. The regulator needs to be put on the front foot. By supporting this concept and this amendment or something equivalent to it, the regulator will finally be put on the front foot and the industry will recognise that it has been duly warned and must reconsider the way in which it behaves.

I hope that we shall hear from the Minister that we shall see an equivalent proposal at Third Reading because, if not, I will not hesitate to ask all my colleagues and every Member of your Lordships’ House to support any decision by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, to move this to a Division.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, during our debates on this Bill, we have referred several times to the success of principles-based regulation in this country. We have contrasted it with the more prescriptive regulatory structures introduced within the European Union. The idea of a duty of care is a prime example of principles-based regulation because it presents a principle from which particular actions can be derived. It is now very important, given the financial stresses created by the pandemic to which several noble Lords have referred in their contributions to this debate. This is but one example of the unexpected pressures in the financial system that arise on a regular basis, not least because of the fintech innovations referred to earlier which require a flexible, principles-based approach. The strength of this approach is that is encompasses financial innovation—the changes to which many noble Lords have referred.

I understand that later in the consideration of this Bill the Government will bring forward measures to regulate the “buy now, pay later” market. This would already have been encompassed in a duty of care. It would not have slipped through the gap. If there had been a general duty of care in place, consumers would have received some degree of protection already.

One of the striking things about the issue of a duty of care and the FCA rulebook is that a number of measures that amount to a duty of care exist in the rulebook already. There are “know your customer”, “treating customers fairly” and the consumer credit rules, which require assessment of creditworthiness. What is striking is that this specific list has gaps in it.

Many noble Lords referred to the examples of malfeasance; it is this structure that creates the environment for and encourages malfeasance. It encourages testing of boundaries and of gaps. If there were instead a broad principle it would significantly discourage that persistent, competitive drive to test the gaps that exist in the current list of consumer protection measures in the FCA rulebook.

It is not simply that the lack of a duty of care creates the inability to deal with malfeasance; it actually creates it by the structure it presents for a very competitive market. We all know that this particular structure—having a specific list of something in a legal document—always raises the question of what has been left out. That is exactly the case in the FCA rulebook. It lacks the firm foundation of principle.

In Grand Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, was quite right to argue in summing up that

“the FCA is already taking steps to ensure that financial services firms exercise due care and regard when offering products, services and advice to consumers.”

She was right that there is a list, but she was quite wrong to then argue that a statutory duty of care

“does not add to the FCA’s existing powers in this area.”—[GC 116.]">Official Report, 22/2/21; col. GC 116.]

Of course it does. It must do, in one of the most dynamic industries in the United Kingdom, associated with innovation, change and competition. It is the very nature of successful principles-based regulation that actions should derive from general principles.

The FCA lacks this statutory declaration of general principle. This is why Macmillan Cancer Support’s campaign Banking on Change was necessary, and why it is so important to place a general principle of duty of care on the statute book. My noble friend Lord Stevenson has made a very specific offer to the Minister with respect to Third Reading. I strongly urge her to accept it.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have put forward this amendment, and I appreciate the strength of feeling that exists around this important issue. I also pay tribute to the arguments made in previous stages of this Bill, including in Grand Committee. Noble Lords have spoken passionately about the need to tackle issues of consumer harm that exist in the financial services industry, and I agree that it is essential that this issue is addressed effectively.

The Government are committed to ensuring that financial services consumers are protected and that steps are taken quickly to address issues when they are identified. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, argued for a principles-based approach to financial services regulation. That is what is contained in the FCA’s principles for business, which govern financial services firms’ treatment of their customers, as well as the specific requirements in the FCA’s handbook.

I hope noble Lords will not mind if I set out the principles of business, because that will help us in considering the amendment. The principles include:

“A firm must conduct its business with integrity … A firm must conduct its business with due skill, care, and diligence … A firm must pay due regard to the interests of its customers and treat them fairly … A firm must pay due regard to the information needs of its clients, and communicate information to them in a way which is clear, fair, and not misleading … A firm must manage conflicts of interest fairly, both between itself and its customers and between a customer and another client … A firm must take reasonable care to ensure the suitability of its advice and discretionary decisions for any customer who is entitled to rely upon its judgment.”

These fundamental principles aim to protect consumers who often have less knowledge and expertise than the firms providing them services.

The FCA has recourse to disciplinary action, including public censure and financial penalties, against firms that breach these principles. These are not hypothetical powers. The FCA has a long history of imposing sanctions on firms that breach the principles. For example, in September 2019 the FCA imposed a penalty of almost £24 million on the Prudential Assurance Company after it breached the principles, including the principle that firms must pay due regard to customers’ interests and treat them fairly.

While the FCA’s principles set the standards of how firms should treat their customers and its enforcement powers allow it to ensure that these are met, it recognises that the level of harm in markets is still too high and is committed to identifying and addressing this. While the coronavirus pandemic has caused the FCA to delay the next stage of this work, it has remained a priority and the FCA has announced that it will publish a consultation in May. This consultation will explore how the FCA could strengthen and clarify firms’ duties to consumers in order to reduce consumer harm. Specifically, the FCA will review its principles and how it applies them in practice, and whether the way in which firms have responded to the principles is sufficient to ensure that consumers have the right protections and get the right outcomes. The FCA expects to announce the next steps following that consultation by the end of the year.

I should also emphasise that the FCA is undertaking extensive work more broadly to ensure that all consumers, including those who are vulnerable, are protected. In February, the FCA published guidance on how firms should treat vulnerable customers to ensure that they are compliant with their obligations under “treating customers fairly”.

I reassure the House that the Government recognise the strength of feeling and agree that it is critical to ensure that consumers are protected. The Government believe that the FCA already has the necessary powers and is acting to ensure that sufficient protections are in place for consumers without the need to impose a duty of care or expand the consumer protection objective. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, quoted FCA evidence to the Liaison Committee last week on the effectiveness of the “treating customers fairly” principle of business as a point contrary to this. However, this is exactly the subject of the FCA’s forthcoming consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked the Government to look specifically at the wording of proposed new subsection (2) of his amendment and consider how they could take that sentiment forward. To address a couple of those points, the FCA is undertaking extensive work to ensure that all consumers, including those who are vulnerable, are protected. One of the key areas of focus for the FCA’s 2020-21 business plan is to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. As I said, the FCA has recently published new guidance on how firms can treat vulnerable customers fairly.

On ensuring that firms do not take advantage of behavioural biases, the FCA’s principles of business already include the principles that a firm must conduct its business with integrity and must pay due regard to the interests of customers and treat them fairly. The FCA recognises that behavioural biases and vulnerabilities can drive consumer harm. Therefore, in its 2018 publication Approach to Consumers, the FCA set out its expectation that

“all firms to frame decisions for customers based on real consumer behaviour and not to mislead them or exploit behavioural biases.”

In order to better understand this area, the FCA has undertaken extensive research to identify areas of concern. For example, a research paper published by the FCA in 2020 examines the use of online experiments to create behaviourally informed consumer policy. This has allowed the FCA to better account for how behavioural biases impact its work when introducing rules or remedies to protect consumers. This research has already been applied in numerous areas of FCA policy and has resulted in concrete action against firms which have exploited consumers’ biases and constrained choice. For example, in April 2020 the FCA introduced new rules on overdraft pricing which took into account the fact that complex charging structures and high charges had previously been used to take advantage of consumer bias. These rules include stopping firms charging higher prices for unarranged overdrafts than arranged overdrafts, and requiring banks to do more to identify customers who are showing signs of financial strain.

Let me directly address the accusation that the FCA prioritises its competition objective over consumer protection. The FCA has three operational objectives which have equal standing in legislation: to secure an appropriate degree of protection for consumers, to protect and enhance the integrity of the UK financial system and to promote effective competition in the interests of consumers. I reassure noble Lords that the FCA balances these objectives evenly and applies them in concert to achieve the best outcome for consumers. In this sense, the three objectives are interconnected and all contribute to protecting consumers from harm. The FCA’s 2017 mission statement sets out more detail on how these three objectives are applied through decision-making frameworks. It does not believe that the consumer objective can be delivered through competition alone, nor that competition should be prioritised over consumer protection.

The Government will continue to work closely with the FCA to ensure that the concerns raised by this House can be addressed. However, I am afraid that I cannot commit to returning to this issue at Third Reading, so if the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, wishes to test the will of the House, the time to do so is now. None the less, I hope he may reconsider and instead withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Labour 3:15, 24 March 2021

My Lords, thank you for a very good debate. It has been a fine example of the way in which Report brings together the arguments made in Committee and allows the House to come to a collective view about the issue in question.

In her customary way, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, gave a full and considered response, and I thank her for that. She focused more on what she called the strength of feeling in the House and did not really engage with the strength of the argument. I hope that when she reflects on that, she may recognise that that is a bit of a weakness. The arguments are not to be ignored simply because they are expressed strongly. They are to be looked at seriously, because they are trying to attack a pernicious problem that is causing huge consumer detriment, as exemplified in the many speeches we have heard today, particularly from those who have worked in the industry for a number of years. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and others gave examples that were redolent of the experience of trying to make the system work.

I think the Minister also accepted in her speech that the Government want regulatory structure to protect consumers and said that the level of harm was perhaps too high. In explaining how the FCA’s three objectives are expected to operate—which must be a logical mess, when you analyse them—she illustrated why my noble friend Lord Eatwell and others wish that we had a better, principle-based and less list-based structure for the way in which the regulators carry out their work. As the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, put it—he could not have put it more simply—FiSMA does not protect consumers, malfeasance is flourishing and may even be encouraged by the current structure, and redress is patchy, lengthy and not really available to those who need it most.

The issue before the House, therefore, is whether the existing process and procedures, the existing wording which sets them out and the existing objectives, which are constraining what the FCA can and cannot do, are the best we can get to. The arguments that have been made, particularly the devastating figures from the ombudsman’s service, suggest that we are not in a good place on this. This was picked up by many speakers, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler and Lady Kramer.

In the context of the need for better financial well-being as we recover from the pandemic and the chance to do things better, are we really saying that the best we can come up with is to wait for another consultation, which will probably just be another exercise in playing catch-up and result in a longer list of rules and requirements? Why do we not just set a very high tide mark for what we expect our regulators to do and, if the consultation proves the case, reduce the requirements where that is proportionate and appropriate?

I do not understand why the Minister felt unable to take the issue away, talk about it and come back at Third Reading. She challenged us to put our views to the House. I would therefore like to test the opinion of the House in this matter.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

I shall now put the Question. We have heard a Member taking part remotely say that they wish to divide the House in support of this amendment, and I will take that into account. The Question is that Amendment 1 be agreed to.

Ayes 296, Noes 255.

Division number 1 Financial Services Bill - Report (1st Day) — Amendment 1

Aye: 296 Members of the House of Lords

No: 255 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Amendment 1

Amendment 1 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees 3:39, 24 March 2021

We now move to the group consisting of Amendment 2. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.