Amendment 4

Financial Services Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 24th March 2021.

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Baroness Noakes:

Moved by Baroness Noakes

4: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—“Continuity of contractIf the FCA exercises one or more of the powers under Article 23D of the Benchmarks Regulation in respect of a benchmark, any reference to or description of that benchmark in a contract, security or instrument must be, with effect from the date of such exercise, interpreted as a reference to or description of the benchmark as modified by the FCA under its powers under Article 23D.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would ensure that if the FCA revised a benchmark under Article 23D (inserted by Clause 15) there would be continuity of contract by replacing references to the earlier benchmark with the revised one.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment 4, I shall speak to the other two amendments in this group in my name. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, and the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, for adding their names to Amendment 6.

I spoke at length in Committee about the problems of tough legacy contracts, and I shall not repeat all of that. To summarise, when Libor ceases to be available at the end of this year there will be a number of contracts which reference Libor but which have not been renegotiated to substitute an alternative rate. We do not know exactly how many contracts are involved, but it is thought to be a significant number. It is not a niche problem; it arises in both the capital market and retail markets and in many different kinds of contract. While sustained efforts by financial services providers have reduced the scale of the problem, it cannot be fully resolved for various reasons, and I think that that has been accepted by all parties.

The Bill helpfully provides for the FCA to ensure that what is known as synthetic Libor will be available for use in those contracts which have not been renegotiated, but two problems remain. First, while the FCA has made synthetic Libor available for use, the FCA cannot change the contracts itself; it requires separate provision in law. Amendment 4 would provide for continuity of contract so that any contract, loan or security referencing Libor will be taken to reference synthetic Libor instead. Secondly, even if references to Libor are regarded as meaning synthetic Libor, there remains a risk of litigation if one or more parties object to the substitution of synthetic Libor and believes that some other fallback is more appropriate. Amendment 5 says that no claim or cause of action can arise due to the use of synthetic Libor. This is a safe harbour provision.

I recognise that the exact drafting of continuity of contract and safe harbour is not straightforward, though I emphasise that my amendments have been drafted with the help of lawyers who are specialists in capital markets, and that they mirror the draft legislation which has been drawn up for New York law by the Alternative Reference Rates Committee. Nevertheless, I have also tabled Amendment 6, which takes a slightly different approach by giving the Treasury the power to make regulations dealing with contract continuity and/ or safe harbour. It does not require the Treasury to do either or both of those things but offers a straightforward method of dealing with the problem in secondary legislation if, for some reason, the Government feel unable to legislate directly at this stage.

I tabled Amendments 4 and 5 in Committee and was met with the expected response that the Government had recently issued a consultation on contract continuity and safe harbour, and that the consultation period had not concluded. The Government would decide what to do once they had considered the consultation responses. The consultation has now concluded, so it is time for the Government to decide what to do. As I understand it, there were only a relatively small number of responses to the consultation, and they are overwhelmingly in favour of proceeding with continuity of contract and safe harbour. I hope that my noble friend the Minster will confirm that.

I had hoped that the Government would table amendments of their own on Report, but life is full of disappointments. The clock is counting down to 31 December this year and those areas of the financial services market which are impacted by tough legacy contracts desperately need some certainty about the way forward. I therefore call on the Government to either accept one of my amendment variants—Amendments 4 and 5 or, alternatively, Amendment 6—or commit to bringing their own amendment forward at Third Reading. If the opportunity of this Bill is missed, it is by no means clear whether there will be a later opportunity in time for the cessation of Libor, which is only nine months from now. I hope that the Government will want to avoid creating a long period of uncertainty and will not let this Bill pass into law without fully dealing with tough legacy contracts. I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for forgetting to declare my interest as a director of two financial services regulated companies.

I support Amendments 4, 5 and 6, ably moved by my noble friend Lady Noakes, whose long experience and mastery of the detail of financial markets and regulation is an invaluable asset to your Lordships’ House. As far as Amendments 4 and 5 are concerned, she presented the arguments very well in Committee and today. I was also impressed by the arguments deployed by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, who quoted the FCA’s view that in cases where parties to contracts referencing Libor cannot reach agreement on how those contracts would operate in the event of Libor’s cessation, discontinuation could cause uncertainty, litigation, or loss of value because contracts no longer function as intended.

The Minister recognised that we must reduce contracts referencing Libor as much as possible by the end of this year. Given the vast number of outstanding contracts, clearly that will not be possible, and rightly the Government have initiated a consultation process on this subject. However, does he not agree that the risk of uncertainty and litigation is significant and that there is unlikely to be a better opportunity to legislate in time to mitigate such risks than that which this Bill provides?

In Amendment 6, my noble friend Lady Noakes, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, and the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, has offered an alternative method of mitigating these risks. As a rule, I do not like the trend towards taking excessive Henry VIII powers, which greatly reduce the transparency and accountability of the Government. However, if my noble friend the Minister cannot accept Amendments 4 and 5, the alternative—Amendment 6—would in that case be acceptable as being much better than the situation that will otherwise quite possibly evolve with great damage to market integrity and much expensive litigation.

I hope that the Minister has thought more about these issues since our last debate and I look forward to hearing how her thinking has evolved to meet the very sensible points that my noble friend’s amendments would address.

Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat 6:45 pm, 24th March 2021

My Lords, in Committee, I supported the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, as something that had to be done. It seemed to be a reasonable, if simple, concept that a flawed benchmark reference in a contract, if changed to a closely corresponding but not flawed benchmark—a change required by the regulator—should not give rise to litigation, not least because the contracts should still largely perform as originally intended.

Some contracts may have had termination clauses in the event of no benchmark, which could give rise to premature terminations and winners and losers. However, this is not really a no-benchmark situation. While not everyone has sympathy with banks and industry should they be the losers, this is not a matter on which they would be at fault. I am sure that everyone would have sympathy if consumers were losers but what if it goes the other way and banks want to pursue consumers if they are the winners? I am sure that that would be seen as unacceptable.

This is not mis-selling but, as far as contracts are concerned, it is a blameless matter and it seems to me that continuity is the closest to honouring original intents. If there were a way in which to make simple compensatory adjustments, we would not be facing these problems. I therefore still feel that something has to be done and doing the same as the US also seems to be good in terms of the UK’s reputation for giving certainty to markets.

However, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has now come up with a third amendment, Amendment 6, which empowers the Treasury to address matters further down the track and gives more flexibility in what may be determined. It is a bit of kicking the can down the road and a bit of Henry VIII, but one hopes that it will encourage more solutions to be found. I have therefore added my name to that amendment and hope that at least, if the Minister cannot accept the other amendments, it can be accepted as a way forward.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to speak to this group of amendments and declare my interests as set out in the register.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Noakes not just on the eloquence that she demonstrated in introducing these three amendments but on the quality of their drafting. As an ex-City solicitor, I look on that with awe. I also congratulate my noble friend on offering options. We had a thorough and in-depth debate in Committee on these issues. My noble friend has done the House a great service in bringing a buffet approach for the Government to consider. If they are not partial to Amendments 4 or 5, Amendment 6 will work just as satisfactorily.

These amendments need to be seriously considered. For the want of certainty and for ensuring that litigation does not result if we do nothing, I ask my noble friend the Minister on Amendments 4, 5 or 6, as I have in the past and will do on forthcoming amendments: if not this Financial Services Bill, which financial services Bill? If not now, when?

Photo of Lord Blackwell Lord Blackwell Conservative

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I support these amendments, which have been so well explained by my noble friend Lady Noakes. In Grand Committee, the Minister accepted that there were concerns that a residual risk of disruption and potential litigation would remain even once the FCA had exercised its powers under the Bill. This is really important, given the amount of money and the number of contracts at stake, and the timescale of the changes in the benchmark at the end of 2021.

My noble friend the Minister said that the Government would prefer to wait for the results of the consultation, but these are not new issues. The Treasury and regulators have been aware of them for many months. The argument was made that the reason for waiting for the consultation is that there might be areas where there was legitimate reason for civil litigation and that those legitimate legal claims might be blocked. I am not persuaded that there are legitimate legal claims where the benchmark is being replaced with a synthetic benchmark at the direction of the regulator. There has to be a change and I cannot think of situations where those claims might be appropriate and fair. I would welcome it if the Minister can explain where those concerns come from and what situations might be blocked unfairly by these amendments.

Other than that, we should move to deal with these concerns now, as noble Lords have said. If the Minister does not like the specificity of Amendments 4 and 5, I would certainly be prepared to accept Amendment 6. I hope my noble friend the Minister will come back at Third Reading with government amendments to address these issues. If she does not feel able to do that and my noble friend Lady Noakes were to bring back her amendments at Third Reading, I would be compelled to support her.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for bringing forward these amendments. I have to confess that I am not keen on Amendment 5 because it seems that it would create an opportunity for various institutions to use the change in the benchmark in a way that would be abusive to a customer, who would then have no redress.

Amendment 5 goes too far, but Amendment 6 makes perfect sense to me. Frankly, I find it extraordinary to think that the Government have not seized it and put “government” in front of it. We will face tough legacy contracts and there needs to be a sensible and appropriate way to deal with them. Amendment 6 captures that exactly as it should. I hope very much that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, will get a positive reply on Amendment 6 from the Government, otherwise there will be litigation and a mess, and I am not sure that that helps anybody.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for her persistence in this vital area. She is quite right that the clock is ticking: with nine months to go, we really need to do something about this issue; to do otherwise would be irresponsible.

Amendment 4 is valuable in defining continuity of contract, but there remains a problem that it does not and cannot solve: if the foundation of a contract is changed, its value can change. That leads on to Amendment 5. Here, I regret to say that I differ with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and with the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. It is surely the responsibility of Parliament in this case primarily to protect the retail investor, as it is the retail investor who is not the professional, who typically does not have the same information as the professional and who is likely to be more financially vulnerable, not least because retail investment is dominated by pension savings. I therefore conclude that the provision of a safe harbour is inappropriate in this case and would be looking instead for some mechanism of reconciliation rather than prevention of claim.

However, I am delighted to express my support for Amendment 6—which is not surprising as my name is on it. Here the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has actually saved the Government from considerable embarrassment by presenting an amendment which succinctly encapsulates, without being prescriptive, the issues the FCA must address in facing the difficulties created by the replacement of Libor: continuity of contract and reconciling the damages. Unlike Amendments 4 and 5, Amendment 6 incorporates those. I express strong support for Amendment 6 and recommend it wholeheartedly to the Government. In terms of the buffet approach, it is the healthy option.

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

Noble Lords will remember from previous stages that the Bill provides the FCA with the powers to manage an orderly wind-down of a critical benchmark such as the Libor benchmark.

In 2015, the Financial Stability Board recommended a transition away from certain interest rate benchmarks, including Libor, to alternative rates based on active and liquid underlying markets. In 2017, the FCA secured agreement from the panel banks that contribute to Libor that they would continue submissions until the end of 2021, providing time for firms to move away from use of the Libor wherever possible.

However, it has been clear for some time that there will be certain “tough legacy” contracts that will be unable to transition away from Libor in time. It is for the benefit of these contracts that the Bill grants the FCA the power under Article 23D of the Benchmarks Regulation to direct a change in how a benchmark is calculated, so that the benchmark can continue for a limited time after banks stop providing their contributions. The Bill therefore represents a critical step in providing for a smooth transition away from Libor, mitigating the risk of the financial instability and market disruption that could be caused by a disorderly transition or end to Libor. It has been widely welcomed by the financial services industry and internationally.

The proposed amendments seek to supplement the Bill’s provisions, reducing further the scope for uncertainty, contractual disputes or litigation between parties over the reference to a benchmark within a contract where the FCA has directed a change in the methodology on which the benchmark is calculated. Amendment 4 seeks to provide for contract continuity where the FCA uses its Article 23D power to impose a change in the methodology of a critical benchmark, providing that parties must interpret references to that benchmark in their contracts as references to the revised benchmark. Amendment 5 seeks to reduce the scope for litigation where the FCA has exercised its Article 23D power on a critical benchmark, providing a safe harbour for the use of that benchmark.

As stated in Committee and in the other place, the Government are committed to ensuring that an appropriate framework is in place for the orderly wind-down of Libor. We take this matter very seriously. As my noble friend Lady Noakes noted, the Government’s consultation on this issue has only recently closed, on 15 March. The consultation responses have underscored that there are complex and wide-ranging policy and legal considerations that must be fully understood before taking any further action on this issue. That range of considerations and views has been illustrated by the range of views expressed in this evening’s debate, but my noble friend Lady Noakes is correct to say that the industry has indicated, including through its responses to the consultation, that it is supportive of the approach set by the Government in the consultation.

While I am sympathetic to the objective that these amendments seek to support—an orderly wind-down of the Libor benchmark—they raise complex issues that our consultation was designed to explore further. For example, Amendment 5 would provide wide legal protection to parties using the revised benchmark against all forms of claims or causes of legal action associated with the exercise of the FCA’s power in Article 23D(2) of the regulation. I have not been convinced that such wide-ranging legal protection is appropriate, and it could have serious and significant unintended consequences.

It would also provide legal protections for such consequential changes that are,

“in the opinion of any party to such contract, security or instrument, reasonably necessary”.

I am concerned that this does not remove the potential for dispute but instead risks introducing an element of uncertainty as parties dispute what is or is not a “reasonably necessary” change. It is therefore at risk of causing the sorts of disputes surrounding the wind-down of a benchmark which a safe harbour amendment seeks to avoid. I raise these points simply to illustrate the complexity of the issues, as I appreciate that my noble friend is seeking to ensure that they have been fully thought through and addressed as appropriate.

Amendment 6 may seem to solve those problems by seeking to give the Treasury powers to make regulations providing for contract continuity and safe harbour through secondary legislation, having had more time to consider these matters. The Government are of the view that, if legislation were needed to address this, it should be in the form of primary legislation. Further legislation providing for safe harbour, as proposed by these amendments, while consistent with the provisions already in the Bill, may be considered by some parties to represent a significant intervention in the contractual rights of parties using critical benchmarks. Primary legislation would therefore be preferable, to provide all parties with an appropriate level of transparency. Crucially, given the volume and value of contracts impacted, making such a provision in secondary legislation would carry a risk of legal challenge to the Government’s exercise of their powers. Any such challenge could bring further uncertainty and disruption, which is precisely what these amendments are seeking to mitigate.

However, I reiterate that the Government take the issues raised by my noble friend and others in this debate very seriously and will consider carefully the full range of issues raised through the consultation responses before deciding on an appropriate next step. I am afraid to say to my noble friend Lord Blackwell and others that I do not think that this will be in time for Third Reading, and nor can I, at this stage, point my noble friend Lord Holmes to a subsequent specific Bill in future. What I can say is that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is fully apprised of the need quickly to ensure clarity on this important issue. He has been leading on this matter for the Government, and has agreed to meet my noble friend Lady Noakes and update the House as appropriate, as soon as he is in a position to provide a substantive update on the outcome of the consultation. On that basis, although my noble friend will perhaps not be happy to withdraw her amendment, I nevertheless ask if she would consider doing so.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 7:00 pm, 24th March 2021

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I even include my noble friend the Minister, although she will know that much of what she said was very disappointing—not only to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate but to the financial services industry, which was hoping for a more definitive outcome.

Letting the opportunity for legislating in this Bill go by, even if only by way of a regulation-making power, is a major loss. I am struggling to understand how the Treasury could have got itself into this position. The need to deal with tough legacy contracts is most certainly not a new issue. The fact that both contract continuity and safe-harbour provisions were an issue for the financial services sector has been known for more than a year. In the US, there is already draft legislation for New York law, and even the EU has brought forward a partial solution. But the Treasury seems like a rabbit staring into the headlights, too frightened to move. This does not auger well for the UK’s ability to build and maintain our financial services sector as world-leading, which I thought was one of the aims of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

We cannot blame the suffocating bureaucracy of the EU any more if our financial services sector is held back or harmed. Taking back control requires that the Government take responsibility for their role in making the UK a good place for financial services firms. Their inability to deal with the issue of tough legacy Libor contracts in the Bill is not a good look.

The Government and, in particular, the Treasury need to take a long, hard look at themselves and work out if they are yet up to the task of supporting this sector, which is so important to the UK as a whole. Their ability to act at pace and decisively is important; I do not yet detect that they are showing those characteristics. Having said that, I was grateful that my noble friend confirmed that the Government remained committed to a framework for an orderly transition from Libor next year, and that they are taking this seriously and will find a way forward. She did not, however, indicate what timeframe it would be decided in. She ought to be aware that the financial services sector is watching and expects the Government to take this forward.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss progress with the Economic Secretary in due course, but discussion with me is not the most important thing. I think it is telling Parliament what is to be done, when and how it is to be done, and telling the financial services sector, which needs certainty for the way forward. It is with considerable regret that I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we move to the group consisting of—

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Yes, I needed the correction. I am so sorry.

Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now move, after my error, to the group consisting of Amendment 7. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has withdrawn, so I call on the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, who has added his name to the amendment, to move it.

Clause 22: Regulated activities and Gibraltar