Amendment 106

Financial Services and Markets Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:25 pm on 13 June 2023.

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Baroness Kramer:

Moved by Baroness Kramer

106: After Clause 71, insert the following new Clause—“Protection of banking reform: ring-fencing and SMCR(1) Parts 1 (ring-fencing) and 4 (conduct of persons working in financial services sector) of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 and amendments made by them to FSMA 2000 may not be modified or revoked except by an Act of Parliament.(2) No change or revocation may be made by secondary legislation, including by the PRA and FCA, to—(a) the requirements for ring-fenced bodies, and(b) the senior managers and certification regime, or other rules for the conduct of persons working in the financial services sector,that departs from the principles set out in the final report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.(3) For the avoidance of doubt, subsection (2) includes secondary legislation that would allow ring-fenced bodies permanently to carry out excluded activities.(4) This section may not be amended except by an Act of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would prevent the Government from making substantive changes to the policy on ring-fencing and SMCR by statutory instrument, and would prevent policy from being amended in a way that departs from the report from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

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

My Lords, in Committee the Minister reassured the House that the principles of ring-fencing and the senior managers regime which protect our banking system could be changed only by primary legislation. Then came the Silicon Valley Bank UK crisis and we discovered that breaking down the ring-fence in particular can be done by simply using statutory instruments and without the full engagement of Parliament. My Amendment 106, which is written from the two tabled in Committee, is intended to reassert the fundamental principle that change has to be driven by primary legislation and it removes the loophole which we experienced with Silicon Valley Bank.

I shall explain very briefly the Silicon Valley Bank issue. As part of their agreement with HSBC to acquire SVB UK, the Government permitted HSBC to transfer funds from its ring-fenced retail bank into SVB UK, which is outside the ring-fence. The transferred funds can now be used for activities which the HSBC retail bank would be prohibited from, including high-risk and speculative transactions.

If this was a temporary state of affairs, I could understand this awkward response to an emergency, but on Thursday the Minister will bring a statutory instrument to this House to make that breach of the ring-fence for HSBC permanent and notably with no limits on the amount of funds that can be transferred from ring-fenced to unring-fenced. Unless I misunderstand the SI, there are no conditions on the use of those funds, even though last month the Minister seemed to imply that we could expect conditions or limits. In effect, the ring-fence is now fully breached for HSBC. Its rival banks, not surprisingly, expect further government action soon to give them exemptions in order to level the playing field. We have in effect destroyed the ring- fence.

Ring-fencing and the SMCR, I would argue, are vital protections against another 2007 banking crisis. They limit the incentives and mechanisms for banks to mingle the culture and capital behind retail banking with the very different and high-risk world of investment banking, with the SMCR establishing individual responsibility for bad or abusive management. The Government have posited in discussion that these protections can be safely weakened because banks now have resolution plans to protect the taxpayer from a bank failure. But that presumption, frankly, has been blown out of the water. Both the Swiss and the US regulators in the last few months facing bank failures—one Credit Suisse and the other the three regional banks in the US—decided that, in the circumstances, resolution would be far more damaging to their economies than seeking taxpayer support to extract those banks from their predicaments and failure.

We have had an illustration that makes it clear that the resolution plans that we have in place for banks may work in certain limited circumstances but very often, particularly when there is high risk in the economy, may indeed not work and are more damaging to use than to discard. In that situation, it is absolutely crucial that we return to the protections provided by ring-fencing and the SMCR.

That is my view. If the Government disagree with me and believe this is time for weakening the ring-fence or diluting the SMCR, I argue they have to come to Parliament and do it under primary legislation, not through the backdoor that we experienced over the last couple of months through the mechanism of the purchase agreement for Silicon Valley Bank UK.

I am not asking this House to make the decision on whether we keep ring-fencing or the SMCR. What I am saying is that it is this House and the other place that need to actively understand and make the determination if that change is to happen. It is fundamental to the financial stability of our country and therefore that is the way this issue would be addressed. My Amendment 106 combines into one the two amendments from Committee and adds a clause to require primary legislation for any permanent exclusions from ring-fencing rules, closing the loophole used by the Government and reasserting the original intent of the law. I beg to move.

Photo of The Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop 6:30, 13 June 2023

My Lords, I have joined the noble Baroness in supporting her Amendment 106, as I did her two amendments on this topic in Committee. This amendment seeks to prevent change which goes against the two years of work of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which looked in detail at both issues and produced its final report, Changing Banking for Good, 10 years ago. I declare an interest: I sat on the commission along with the noble Baroness.

As I said in Committee on 21 March, the underlying motivation of this amendment is to ask us not to forget the hard lessons learned after the 2008-09 financial crash, for which the whole country, especially the poorest, paid, then and to this day. Recent events show that the memory in the markets is strong, even if it is not in the Government. Alarm spreads easily.

Both the ring-fence and the SMCR were designed to better align the incentives and risk calculations of the financial sector to avoid the privatisation of profits and the socialisation of losses, and to force the financial sector to be conscious of the cost its action has, not only on itself but on the wider economy. The SMCR enables us to make sure that those individuals who are making decisions which have significant consequences are held accountable. It goes some way to bringing individual incentives in line with high collective standards.

The electrification of the ring-fence, which the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards recommended, was designed to deter banks from the inevitable temptation to test it. The commission’s first report said:

“any ring-fence risks being tested and eroded over time” and the new framework at that time

“will need to be sufficiently robust and durable to withstand the pressures of a future banking cycle”.

SVB showed that the concept of a non-systemic bank is a very dubious one, as even banks with good resolution plans, and of very moderate size in the global context and systemically, create a sense of contagious alarm. Banking, as we know—and some noble Lords know very well indeed—is not based on logic but on confidence. There is logic there somewhere, but the confidence is that the bank is secure, despite the fact that its equity is a very small part of its total balance sheet. The contagion caused by the failure of SVB is not yet over among US regional banks, which continue to fail or need rescuing. That moment may come, but let us wait and see.

The Swiss taxpayer is on the hook for Credit Suisse and the US taxpayer for several regional banks that were meant to be non-systemic. Not to learn from the past or the present is, frankly, reckless. Reform may come—there are good arguments for it—but it should not come outside a proper parliamentary process of primary legislation. People and sectors can have short memories. I urge the Government to accept this amendment, which would go some way to making sure that we remember the hard and bitter lessons learned and do not repeat the same mistakes.

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

I will speak very briefly to offer Green support for the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the most reverend Primate. The amendment, in a way, is a smaller and lighter version of my attempt to strike out the competition clause, on setting a competitiveness objective, which has sadly remained in the Bill.

In November last year, City Minister Andrew Griffith told the Financial Times:

“The overall thrust of things is to allow more risk … you shouldn’t be risk” averse;

“we just need to manage that in an appropriate way”.

He went on to say that the aim of reducing ring-fencing was

“to release some of that trapped capital over time”.

I acknowledge that the Minister said that before the collapse of SVB and Credit Suisse, and the other crunches in the American banking system.

In an April piece in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf said:

“A shock like this should make mindless deregulation less appealing to politicians”.

As has been clearly outlined already, the amendment does not actually make anything happen; it just ensures parliamentary oversight. When we get to the dinner break business, my noble friend will seek to ensure that parliamentary oversight is included there. Surely, this is what democracy is supposed to be about.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour

My Lords, I support the amendment. We will return to these issues on Thursday, when we discuss the regulations in Grand Committee. However, it is worth mentioning to the House the clash today between this Bill and a meeting of the Economic Affairs Committee, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and I are members. By chance, the committee was interviewing the Governor of the Bank of England. The issue of this arrangement arose, and the governor was quizzed on these very issues. It will be useful on Thursday to explore further why and how this action was taken. The governor provided a justification, but, in the light of his remarks, it will be worth while exploring these issues in more detail when we get the regulations.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the most reverend Primate have retabled as a single amendment—Amendment 106 —the two amendments that were debated in Grand Committee: Amendment 241C on ring-fencing, and Amendment 241D on the senior managers and certification regime.

As my noble friend Lady Noakes said during that debate, these amendments are trying to set in stone for all time the conclusions of the report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. Times change, and I cannot support this amendment because it introduces an inappropriate degree of rigidity.

As my noble friend also pointed out, the lesson of the HSBC and Silicon Valley Bank episode was that the ring-fencing rules were not, after all, considered inviolable. It was necessary to provide HSBC with special statutory exemptions from the ring-fencing rules to enable it to acquire Silicon Valley Bank. That exemption has brought permanent changes to the ring-fencing regime for HSBC which affect it alone. Can my noble friend say whether that means it has a permanent competitive advantage over rival ring-fenced banks in the UK?

In any case, I rather doubt whether the introduction of ring-fencing has reduced the risks to which bank customers’ deposits are exposed. I disagree that it is therefore important to make it very difficult to weaken the ring-fencing regulations in any way. As I said in Committee, I worked for Kleinwort Benson for 23 years, for a further 12 years for Robert Fleming and then for Mizuho. All three banks operated both commercial and investment banking businesses. Internal Chinese walls between departments made it quite impossible for customers’ commercial banking deposits to be diverted to risky investment banking activities. As I said in Grand Committee, there is no positive correlation between the two cash flows of retail and investment banking. It follows that universal banks are in fact gaining diversification benefits. There is little global evidence that splitting up the banks has made them less likely to get into trouble.

Following the Lehman shock, is it not interesting that the US Government did not go for the reintroduction of a kind of Glass-Steagall Act? I am not convinced that ring-fencing is a good thing, and in general I am opposed to market distortions of this kind, which actually make the consumer less safe rather than safer. Ring-fencing also makes it harder for smaller banks to grow, because they must compete for a small pool of permitted assets against the capital of the larger banks. Will the Government conduct a review of the effectiveness of ring-fencing?

As for the senior managers and certification regime, I am sceptical as to whether it has been effective, because there is no hard evidence that it has been used as the stick that was originally intended. Most well-run banks operate in a collegiate manner, and I think it rather odd to attempt to attribute personal responsibility to managers and directors of banks for the decisions and actions of those banks, beyond the responsibilities that the directors carry in any event.

The SMCR has especially inconvenienced foreign banks operating in London. As an example, I refer to the Japanese megabanks. It used to be their practice to assign a very senior executive to London to take responsibility for all the bank’s activities in the UK and in most cases the whole EMIR region. Often, this might be the executive’s last major management position before retirement, and would typically be for two to three years leading up to his retirement date. Such executives have typically worked for 40 years or more for that bank and have managed regulated financial businesses in Japan for many years. However, the FCA has consistently been extraordinarily slow in approving those executives under the SMCR.

Therefore, the Japanese banks have given up on this strategy and feel compelled to appoint as head of their UK and EMIR operations not the person most appropriate for the job, but the most senior person who has already been working in London for three years or so, merely in order to meet the criteria of the SMCR regime. This has caused considerable inconvenience, because it is unreasonable to send a trusted senior executive overseas for five or six years in the last years of his active career, rather than a more reasonable stretch of two to three years. I know that the SMCR is much resented by Japanese and other foreign banks and I ask my noble friend if she will agree to conduct a review of how it is being implemented by the FCA.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, I must say that, listening to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, just now, I think he has given strong arguments in favour of this amendment—strong because what the amendment asks for is accountability to Parliament on the performance of the ring-fence and the SMCR. If that accountability existed, the noble Viscount would have the opportunity to present his views in a framework, which might then have greater effect than, I am afraid, his speech had without such a mechanism.

I simply want to argue in favour of the ring-fence because I think the competitive future of the City of London depends upon it. The reason for this is that the City of London is a financial entity that does not have its own savings hinterland, as I have argued previously. It therefore depends on attracting funds from around the world and other forms of financial business. What it does is repackage risk; it is extremely skilled, and has almost unique skills in this process. But this is a unique position which it cannot preserve if it also has the problem that, in repackaging risk, it deals with instability that could be imported into the domestic economy. If that instability is imported into the domestic economy, there is natural resistance to the continued internationally competitive performance of the City of London.

The great virtue of the ring-fence, as proposed by the Independent Commission on Banking, is that it provides some insulation from the instability that is inherent in the successful operation of the City of London and for the domestic economy—households and small and medium-sized firms, which are targeted by the banking structure, as set out by the Independent Commission on Banking.

The ring-fence is not a restriction; it is both a benefit to the performance of the investment banking activities so ably performed in the City of London and a protection for commercial banking that is necessary for families and small and medium-sized firms.

This amendment, requiring that any changes in the ring-fencing system should be a matter of parliamentary discussion, seems to me to place the importance of the ring-fence and the accountability of the regulatory management of the ring-fence exactly where they should be, which is in Parliament.

Photo of Lord Livermore Lord Livermore Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 6:45, 13 June 2023

My Lords, we fully support the steps taken by the Treasury, the Bank and the regulators in relation to Silicon Valley Bank UK. The system worked at pace to ensure SVB UK could continue its operations. However, while we endorse the outcomes, legitimate questions have been asked about the ring-fencing exemption granted to HSBC and the potential long-term implications.

The arguments have been excellently outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and my noble friend Lord Eatwell, and I will not repeat them now. The financial system has experienced much volatility in recent months, so preventing major changes to ring- fencing being made by secondary legislation is a sensible step and one that we believe the Commons ought to consider before this Bill goes on to the statute book.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, it has been over 10 years since the Independent Commission on Banking recommended important structural changes, including the introduction of ring-fencing for the largest UK banks, and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards recommended the introduction of the senior managers and certification regime, or SMCR, to embed a culture of greater accountability and personal responsibility in banking. I pay tribute to the important work of these commissions and their lasting legacy in improving the safety and soundness of the UK’s financial system. Amendment 106 from the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, covers the ring-fencing and SMCR reforms.

In response to my noble friend Lord Trenchard, the legislation that introduced the ring-fencing regime required the Treasury to appoint an independent panel to review the regime after it had been in operation for two years. That independent review was chaired by Sir Keith Skeoch and concluded in March 2022. The review noted that the financial regulatory landscape has changed significantly since the last financial crisis. UK banks are much better capitalised and a bank resolution regime has been introduced to ensure that bank failures can in future be managed in an orderly way, minimising risks to depositors and public funds.

In the light of these considerations, the independent review concluded that changes could be made in the short term to improve the functionality of the ring-fencing regime while maintaining financial stability safeguards. In December, as part of the Edinburgh reforms, the Chancellor announced a series of changes to the ring-fencing regime that broadly follow the recommendations made by the independent review. The Treasury will consult later this year on those near-term reforms. The panel also recommended that, over the longer term, the Government should review the practicalities of aligning the ring-fencing and resolution regimes. In response, the Government published a call for evidence in March. This closed at the beginning of May and the Government are in the process of considering responses.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and other noble Lords referenced the resolution of Silicon Valley Bank UK, which was sold to HSBC on Monday 13 March. The Government and the Bank of England acted swiftly to facilitate the sale of SVB UK to HSBC after determining that action was necessary to protect depositors and taxpayers and to ensure that the UK’s world-leading tech sector could continue to thrive. To facilitate the sale, the Government made modifications to the ring-fencing regime that apply to HSBC only in relation to its acquisition of SVB UK.

It is critical that the Government have the necessary powers to act decisively to protect financial stability, depositors and taxpayers. The power under the Banking Act 2009 enables the Treasury to amend the law in resolution scenarios. Parliament gave the Treasury this power recognising the exceptional circumstances that can arise. However, I say to the noble Baroness that the changes made to the ring-fencing requirements are specifically in relation to the acquisition of SVB UK and should not be viewed as an indication of the future direction of government policy on ring-fencing. The Chancellor has been clear that, in taking any reforms forward, the Government will learn lessons from the crisis and will not undermine financial stability.

The core features of ring-fencing are set out in primary legislation, which generally may be amended only by primary legislation, so the Government are already constrained in one of the ways that this amendment seeks to ensure. In passing that legislation, Parliament delegated certain detailed elements of the regime to the Government to deliver through secondary legislation, given its technical nature and to allow it to evolve over time, where appropriate. Parliament also included clear statutory tests and objectives within the framework, which the Treasury and the PRA must satisfy when making changes to the regime. These statutory tests continue to reflect the underlying objectives and purposes of the regime. The Government are of the view that they remain appropriate and that no further constraints are necessary.

Turning to the SMCR, I can confirm to the House once more that the framework of the SMCR is set out in primary legislation, so it is already the case that significant amendments can be made only via primary legislation.

Let me also reassure the House that the Government continue to recognise the contribution of the SMCR in helping to drive improvements in culture and standards. The principles of accountability, clarity and senior responsibility that are emphasised by the PCBS report were reflected in the SMCR. We should take confidence from the findings of separate reports by UK Finance and the PRA, which both show that these principles are now more widely embedded in financial services than before the introduction of the regime.

The Economic Secretary made it clear to the Treasury Select Committee on 10 January that the purpose of the review was to seek views on the most effective ways in which the regime can deliver its core objectives. It is important to review significant regulation from time to time to ensure that rules remain relevant, effective in meeting their aims and proportionate to those aims. The Government are grateful to those who have submitted responses to the SMCR call for evidence. This information will help the Government, alongside the regulators, build a proper evidence base for identifying what, if any, reforms to the regime should be taken forward.

I hope that I have sufficiently reassured noble Lords that the Government remain committed to high standards of regulation, and to the important reforms introduced following the global financial crisis. Therefore, I ask the noble Lady, Baroness Kramer, to withdraw her amendment.

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

I thank the Minister, but she has essentially repeated the speech she gave in Committee. At the time, I took her assurances at face value that primary legislation would be necessary to make a fundamental change to the structure of the ring-fence. I was therefore frankly shocked when, within a matter of days, the Government took a different point of view in the acquisition of Silicon Valley Bank UK by HSBC. There is no reason why HSBC should have used its ring-fenced arm to make the purchase of SVB; it chose to do so because it got, as a consequence, this opportunity to take that ring-fenced money and put in into non-ring-fenced activities, with no constraints whatever in terms of amount or activity.

The Government are bringing forward another statutory instrument to make that change permanent for HSBC. It is unconscionable that our largest bank should have a competitive advantage like that and other banks not be given it. I am extremely concerned about the way in which statutory instruments are being used to undermine the principle that changing the principles should be only by primary legislation. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 184, Noes 188.

Division number 3 Financial Services and Markets Bill - Report (3rd Day) — Amendment 106

Aye: 182 Members of the House of Lords

No: 186 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment 106 disagreed.