Amendment 4

Part of Financial Services and Markets Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 6 June 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench 6:15, 6 June 2023

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction of Amendment 4 and her willingness to engage with Peers on the topic of sustainable disclosure requirements. However, while a government amendment on this important topic is welcome, what we have heard is yet more delay. A cynic might judge the amendment to have a whiff of green- washing about it. It does not do enough and does not do what is required. The amendment seeks to give regulators and Ministers the necessary powers to bring forward rules and regulations on SDRs in fulfilment of commitments that they made in 2019, 2021 and again in the green finance strategy in March this year.

Amendment 114 is an effort to be helpful because, despite making commitments for five years, the Government still do not have the powers to make sustainable disclosure requirements happen. Amendment 4 does not confer those powers. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, submitted a Parliamentary Question on this issue on 14 November last year, and the Government’s response was that:

“The FCA has extensive powers to … impose some of the Sustainability Disclosure Requirements”.

The noble Baroness also asked about the powers available to the Department for Work and Pensions, which would legislate for sustainability reporting by occupational pension schemes. An extensive search of the powers held by the DWP in relation to public reporting and sustainable reporting has found none that is suitable.

Amendment 4 gives the Treasury the power to issue a policy statement on SDRs and to require the regulators to report against it, but it is not an obligation—the Treasury “may” prepare an SDR policy statement. As the Minister admitted in her response last year to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, the FCA does not have the powers to actually implement SDRs. It seems that we are looking at a Whitehall paper trail that keeps everyone occupied but with no meaningful legislation.

I am in favour of easing unnecessary burdens on business. However, repeatedly indicating—as they have for five years—that the Government are planning to legislate but not actually doing it creates a burden in itself for business. Should it invest in data, in systems or in strategy? After so many reassurances but so little progress, and more reassurances today, no one really seems to know the answer.

I noted with interest that the Minister’s letter to Peers ahead of tabling this amendment said that

“the Financial Conduct Authority is taking forward Sustainable Disclosure Requirements (including consumer facing requirements) under its existing objectives and rulemaking powers which are sufficiently broad for the purpose”.

I would like to understand the misalignment between that statement and the earlier Answer to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. Is it because there has been a change of heart and the Treasury has discovered that the powers exist after all? I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that. Or has the Treasury limited its proposals from its original ones so, while it did not have the powers for the original proposal, it does for the new, limited proposals? Or—and it would be deeply disappointing if this were the case—is the reference in the Minister’s letter to the FCA to “taking forward” SDRs intended to mean that the FCA would be merely progressing the work but not actually implementing it? Again, I would be grateful for clarification. The FCA consultation on SDRs closed on 25 January. We are promised a policy statement in the third quarter but, without statutory powers, that would be pointless.

I hope the Minister will be able to answer those questions and now, if we are able to accept the amendment, I hope she will be able to go a little further. While the amendment sets the right tone, it does not do what is needed. It embraces the idea of SDRs but does not make them a reality. The same governmental reluctance to take real action lies behind my Amendment 7, concerning vote reporting. If investors are to make serious decisions on ensuring that their savings are put to work in a sustainable way, it is essential that they be able to see how those who manage the money choose to vote on corporate issues. That is a crucial part of being an engaged investor. The FCA itself acknowledges that. Earlier this year, its vote reporting group stated:

“Improving transparency of how asset managers vote on behalf of their clients will mean investors can better hold them to account on their stewardship”.

We would all want that, but currently it is not possible for investors always to learn how their investments are being voted. Yes, there is now an FCA requirement under the shareholder rights directive that fund managers and insurers produce an annual report on how they have voted, but it is only that they must comply or explain; and even then, the requirement is only that they should report on significant votes. The FCA gives no guidelines as to what should be deemed significant, and what one investor feels is significant may not concur with what a fund manager deems so.

The fund manager is required to report only at group level, so, in terms of the individual funds in which investors and pension funds might be invested, how their votes have been voted in the individual funds cannot be seen; it is only possible to see across the group, which is effectively meaningless for many people who want to find out how their money is being used. A report is required to be made only annually—a hopeless timescale in an industry that moves as fast as this one. Nor is there any standard form for vote reporting. It is not a lot to ask in a digital age. The SEC in the US certainly demands it.

For all those reasons, the current situation does not serve investors as well as it should. Amendment 7 would require FCA-regulated investment managers and insurers to provide clients and those investing with them with voting information that they requested in a standard format and within 30 days. In Committee the amendment on this topic included pension funds in the requirement to report but, mindful of the DWP review of pension fund reporting, the current amendment is much narrower and does not prejudge the review. However, in the meantime it should help pension funds to monitor the way their investments are being voted. It is true that the FCA vote reporting group has yet to reach conclusions, but there is no reason to wait for that. Parliament has the power to put demands on the FCA, and this is a case where it should.

The Government accept the need for good stewardship by investors, and transparency on voting aids that. It is important, indeed crucial, for good corporate governance that decisions taken on behalf of investors should be clear and easily ascertainable. Making voting records available speedily in a machine-readable way would be a service to investors that, thanks to digital innovation, should be easy and relatively cheap to implement. Why would the Government resist that? I beg to move.