Yes. Good afternoon, gentlemen; I see that it is all gentlemen, which might raise some interesting questions for the future. Obviously, you have been invited here this afternoon. We hope you have a generous overview of the further education sector, but you are principally here this afternoon as the lenders and, possibly, subsequently the enforcers—if I may put it that way. We are particularly interested in the parts of the Bill that have the details of the insolvency process.Q 41
Perhaps I could start by asking this genuinely open question to each of you in turn. We had some discussion on this insolvency regime this morning and its genesis may be disputed, or it may come from a number of areas, but undoubtedly one of those—I quoted this earlier—was the concerns expressed in the National Audit Office report in 2015 about the financial situation of a number of FE colleges. You will probably be familiar, in some shape or form, with that report, because I imagine it would have sat somewhere on your risk profiles. As I said this morning, I do not want to over-exaggerate that threat, because doing so would be very unfair to the FE sector. May I ask each of you to say briefly, from your own experience, whether the events of the past couple of years, including that NAO report and the inclusion in this Bill of a fairly detailed insolvency process with some novel features, have already sharpened—or are likely to—your willingness or otherwise to loan to colleges? Who would like to start on that?
I think it is fair to say that the deterioration in the financial performance of the sector over the past couple of years has led to a tightening of the terms of finance available to further education colleges.
Our experience to date has been that when colleges have got into financial difficulty, they have been helped out by one of the agencies—be that the Skills Funding Agency or the Education Funding Agency—that have provided exceptional funding support to help turn those colleges around and keep them going. I think we are going to allow colleges to become insolvent. From a creditor’s perspective, that is a worse position than the one we are in now, simply because, from our experience, we know what is going to happen. However, the proposed insolvency regime has been well thought through, and the points that we made through the consultation process have been well listened to. Our preference as a creditor is still that it is not introduced, but if it is, there are a number of things that will help creditors and most of those have been well reflected in the Bill.
I agree that, over the last couple of years, lending into the sector has become a little more difficult and challenging. Overall, from our perspective, we are still very supportive of the sector—still looking to grow our exposure to the sector and grow our lending book. On the Bill and the proposed insolvency regime, we are actually supportive of the clarity that they provide.
Q Mr Meddleton from Lloyds—with whom I have been for 43 years, so I have an active interest in Lloyds—I am not going to ask you to divulge any commercially sensitive information but I think it is an open secret that you are rather a large lender to a rather large number of colleges. Is that correct?
Q May I ask you something, then, on the basis of that long experience—almost as long as my time banking with you? Obviously, over that period, there have been high points and low points for the economy, and there have been changes in regime and Government responsibility. How would you characterise the current situation from your perspective —obviously being supportive, but at the end of the day having to be commercial lenders? How would you characterise the current situation in terms of risk for your bank, and what do you think the proposed insolvency regime does for that?
In answer to your first question, the sector is going through a number of difficulties at the moment. My colleagues have highlighted the reasons, which I would agree with, on that. From our perspective, yes, it is a sector that certainly has a number of stresses within it at the present time. Notwithstanding that, as a major lender in the sector we remain extremely committed to it.
We are, as a bank, extremely committed to the sector and we remain so. The SAR as it is proposed—if that is your second question—does give us some cause for concern, certainly in terms of continuing to lend on a long-term basis. If you look at the current area review and start going through, they are very welcome. I am not sure, going forward, that it is particularly easy for us to make a longer term lending decision based on the performance of the college as it stands now and in the short term.
Q If I could just add to that, and for the benefit of the other witnesses, who I assume were not here this morning, we had a fairly full discussion as to what the economic impact of the area reviews would be. I think it is fair to say that the FE commissioner took a slightly rosier view than I did of where some of those mergers might end up. Of course, mergers in principle run along the lines of attempting to provide greater stability, but we heard from another member of the panel this morning that that was not always his experience. Obviously, you will have to take a measured view on that. The commissioner disclosed today—of course, the area review process is not complete—that some 88 colleges are likely to be involved in merger issues. Is that something that would be a material fact when you were going to your colleagues and talking to them about the spread of risk in the FE sector and your continued loans over the next one to two years?
I am sorry. We heard this morning from the FE commissioner that there are up to 88 colleges that are potentially involved in the process of merger, from the area reviews. The implications of merger may be positive, as the FE commissioner was keen to emphasise, or negative, if they go wrong, and if the number of students declines and if there are all sorts of problems, which would include the potential for financial instability. I was asking you whether the area reviews, and the number that I have just given to you, would be a significantly material factor for you when you are presumably discussing with your colleagues the likely factors of risk for lending over the next two years.
Certainly we understand the area review process and the reasons for it. I would say that we look at each one in detail. We certainly welcome the area review process. We think it is a positive step forward. As you rightly say, not all mergers necessarily work and work well, if you draw parallels with corporate life. Nevertheless, we see a lot more good than not in what is being proposed.
Q Finally, I wonder if I could come to you, Mr Harris. You are set apart from your colleagues, but only set apart in the sense that you have been there, done that and bought several T-shirts, probably. That is why we are very pleased to have you here today, because you have been through situations where there has been a special administration regime.
You will have seen in the Bill that there are clauses that spell out the nature of what the special administration regime would be. I note your comments; I have read your comments on the Bill. You perfectly reasonably hedge your bets about the outcome. You have asked the most pertinent question that we probably all need to ask—a focus for the responsible authority creditors and the insolvency practitioner: who will foot the bill for the greater good? Perhaps the Minister will be forthcoming on that at some point in the future—I do not know. I want to ask you what you think, because we have this very technical clause about the way in which colleges can have more than one corporate identity and legal identity. Could you comment on the implications of the distribution of that, in the insolvency part of the Bill, on the way in which colleges are defined, whether as corporate entities or some other body?
I am referring to clause 22 on the general functions of the education administrator, which draws a distinction
“where the further education body is a company”.
I am interested in the extent to which that would affect all FE colleges that found themselves in this situation, as opposed to a particular number.
It might also be helpful to refer you to the explanatory notes, which prompted my question. They state:
“The education administrator must also, so far as it is consistent with the special objective, carry out the functions in a way that achieves the best result for the body’s creditors as a whole…Where the further education body is a company, subsection (4) requires the education administrator to carry out their functions in a way that achieves the best result for the company’s creditors as a whole and, subject to that, the company’s members as a whole.”
I found that rather opaque and not clear in its implications.
Thank you. I do empathise with your observation that it may be opaque. I also had to put a question mark there when I read it for the first time. This is my take on the legislation as proposed, as is writ in the draft Bill: it is very clear—this is the way I have read it, but others may differ—that the overarching or transcendental purpose is to minimise the disruption and to carry on, within certain bounds. Then there are what seem to me to be some slightly subservient points. That is not to diminish them, but an office holder would have to step back and consider those people who fall into the category of subsection (3)—people with special needs—and how that dovetails into the way he is discharging his duties. Then you get to the issue of having to carry on in the interests of the creditors. I think there is a question when you read that: is that something that clicks into place when an office holder has optionality as to the route that he might take through the maze, or is that something he has to balance with the overarching purpose itself? If you say to me that it is not exactly clear on the face of the drafting, I have to concur with you; I stalled on the very same point myself.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I used to work for Lloyds Banking Group and spent time in corporate banking, dealing for a time with education, community and government customers. I will come to Lloyds in a moment, but first, Mr Jones, you said in your written evidence to the Committee thatQ you think that this is a positive step and that lenders will have certainty. Can you explain the uncertainty that exists to you as a lender today?
From Santander’s perspective, the uncertainty has always been around the funding agencies and, when a college is struggling to make its payments, effectively where that interim funding will come from. There is also uncertainty about whether the current insolvency applies to college corporations at present. From a risk perspective, when we assess the underlying risk of a transaction, there has always been that uncertainty and we have had to make assumptions in the background. If the Bill is passed, the certainty it will provide is positive for us.
Q Despite what Mr Robinson said a moment ago about the challenges in the sector, if I understand what you said, Mr Jones, after you, as Santander, have done that analysis of the credit risk, you would like to lend more into the further education sector.
Q Mr Meddelton, given what Mr Jones said, why do you say that this proposal presents banks with such significant challenges? Surely the certainty that Mr Jones just outlined is a good thing.
Certainly to have a framework, as proposed, is a positive step. The issue for us is to do with the powers that the administration would have under a special administration regime. For example, if we were a secured creditor and the college went into an SAR, what could happen—I appreciate it is a “could”, and that it is untested—is that the administrator could run the college for what I think is an undefined period, unless I have misunderstood the drafting, and it could be at a loss, notwithstanding the fact that some very laudable principles are driving this.
As a lender, the ranking—again, it is unclear at the moment—may well sit behind a creditor. In addition, as we interpret it, even as a secured creditor the security could be transferred into a separate entity. Again, I understand the practical considerations for that, but at the same time the debt could be left in the old college, or it could be transferred. Again, there are “know you customer”—colloquially, we tend to call them KYC—considerations.
Q But you also said in your written submission that Lloyds traditionally viewed this as quasi-Government risk. That is your own internal credit rating of this sector, and that is based on your own judgment. Surely when it comes to determining whether, to use your words, there should be further long-term decisions and long-term lending in this sector, that would again be a matter of using your own credit rating and credit risk process. More certainty is provided under this proposal than you currently have. You said that you assume that that option would be for the failing college to be financed by Government funding, but there is no guarantee of that today, so surely you are better off.
There is no guarantee of that today, but under the current system if we have security, we have priority. The reality is that we have viewed it as quasi-Government because in the past—obviously the past is no prediction of the future—that money has been forthcoming, as you know, having worked in Lloyds corporate yourself. If there were greater clarity about what would actually be done in a special administration regime, that would obviously give us some comfort.
Q One final point, if I may: Lloyds has set out that it wants to “help Britain prosper”. You have challenged the SAR regime, which could lead a college to be administered in a separate regime for a period of time. You would, I am sure, agree that it is right for students to be able to finish their studies and not face disruption, because that would not be to the values that you hold dear.
Q Can I ask Mr Jones and Mr Robinson a yes/no question? Under the current system, you would not want to close down a college and sell off their assets even if you did have security today, because you would want to allow those students to continue their education. That is the right thing to do, is it not?
Q So Lloyds Banking Group, today, would sell off a college site even if people were in the middle of their A-levels and needed to complete their courses.
Q So ultimately all three of you are in agreement that a college today would continue in existence until you had unwound the whole of the financials behind it and had found a solution in the interest of the learners and that, in the future, the same would be true.
The difference is that at the moment we have experience of what happens when colleges get into difficulty. Our experience today is that we, as lenders, work with the agencies—the SFA and the EFA—to find a solution. The Government have put money into those situations. We are now saying that we will allow colleges to become insolvent, and that we will put an insolvency regime in place that rightly puts students first. We absolutely agree about that, but the difference is that we have no experience of what happens in that case. Therefore, we have to try to make lending decisions today that will apply in the future, when the regime is in place, and we do not know whether they will apply because the regime is not tried and tested.
Q Mr Harris, this question is for you, given your expertise. At the moment, the banks are saying they have no understanding of what would happen in the future but they do know what happens today. But what happens today is based on a bit of a guess, a bit of luck and a bit of Government funding coming in. Perhaps the situation will be clearer to banks in the future, but surely having this clear framework set out in law is a good thing?
I feel that very cogent points could be made in saying it is a good thing. In an insolvency environment that is unclear, because you start to add in a peppering of trusts and unusual organisations and things that are not necessarily the bread and butter of corporate insolvency, when colleges start to get into difficulty the legal bill starts to rise, as people have to seek clarity about how the matter will legally be dealt with. In the draft Bill, an element of clarity is brought to the sector as a whole, which in the long term people might appreciate. I cannot speak on behalf of the banks, but I can see that there is a lot of clarity in the Bill about what is a very specialised sector.
I will give a bit of background first. For 23 of the past 25 years I have been a governor of a sixth-form college and, before incorporation, I was chair of governors of a larger college of higher education, which was largely FE. In the sixth-form college we had internal expertise of the highest order. The previous experience was less good. I have said many times now that one of the important things for a governing body is for it to have accountancy expertise, with at least two independent qualified accountants and at least two independent legally qualified people. That makes a difference. In the college I am at now, the vice-principal in charge of finances is a chartered accountant and does a superb job.Q
Do you take an interest in the internal financial controls of colleges or do you just say, “Well, if they get into difficulty, we’ve got the security of the college assets and we’ll just take some of that”? Do you take an active interest or stipulate any kind of requirement about how finances are managed internally in the colleges?
Absolutely, yes. The quality of management and governance is one of the key criteria we look at when we are assessing the risk. We do not just lend the money and then disappear; this is a relationship for us. We go and see our college clients several times a year to talk about what is happening in their business and the challenges to the sector.
One thing we do is help management with their skill sets. For example, what has happened in the sector over the past couple of years, with the challenges it has faced, is new to a lot of managers. It has been quite difficult to manage through that process. We bring to bear the experience we have of dealing with lots of businesses to help them with that process.
We have often pointed out that maybe they do need some different experience on the board—people with different skill sets. I agree that there should be governors with a diverse set of experiences. That should definitely include accountants, as having people with financial literacy is very important.
Our approach is very much the same as Barclays, in the sense that the governance structure of the college, the key management team and our appraisals make us consider our overall lender proposal and whether we are willing to advance funds to that college. Fundamentally, it is the management who are in control of the college and their strength is strategically important to our lending decision.
Q All that being said, I know of one college in recent times that came to the brink of disaster, until the principal was effectively chased out of town. It has now been picked up and restored but it was in a parlous situation with internal financial abuses—I can speak freely because we are private in Parliament; that is what was going on. Clearly someone was lending money to the college, presumably, but it was effectively out of control. Is that a concern to you, that such a thing can still happen?
Even illegal. That is the sort of thing that would cause us quite a lot of concern. We have a close working relationship with the agencies and that is the sort of thing we would discuss with them. We do not have powers as a lender to remove people. We do have the ability to go and talk to governors, so if there were an issue with the principal, another of the things that we would do is speak to governors about that. We would also have conversations with the agencies. I do not know the college in question, but that does sound like an extreme position.
Q Both really: management and Government. Do you think there should be something specific in the Bill saying the sort of things I have said about having qualifications among governors and an inspection regime that works—as it did not in that case—to ensure that financial arrangements are not being abused?
I am not a governance expert, so I do not know if there is a clause that can be put in to help that. I do agree that the sector can always improve management and governance. No business can say it has perfect management and governance, so constant improvement in those is a good thing.
I think the insertion of a clause in the Bill along the lines you have suggested would certainly help and be welcome, although, like the other Richard, I am no legal expert.
I would answer your first question in terms of how we look at the governance and management of a college. From a Lloyds banking perspective, we take a great deal of interest in the make-up of the management of the college. That would include the expertise of the board of governors. That is an ongoing practice in what we do. We have not got down to stipulating how many accountants or lawyers need to be there, but we would certainly look for a good mix, so that they are professionally managed and so that we have a fruitful long-term relationship over many years.
It is interesting to hear your views. It seems as if there is broad support, at least at the right end of the table, for the direction of travel here. One of the proposals in the legal framework is the role of education administrator, ensuring that the quality of educational provision is continued. Could each of the panel members describe whether they are comfortable with this role as being a helpful addition and whether it should be changed or enhanced in any way?Q
Obviously we know what a normal administrator does, in a normal administration situation with companies. We do not know what the education administrator is going to do, beyond what is written in here—the legal, written thing versus the practical reality. For us, the role seems to be broadly balanced between making sure that the interests of learners are put at the front, which is the right thing to do, and making sure that creditors are not forgotten. There are probably two other things that would certainly help, and both have been touched on by other people. The first is some clarity about who funds the administration—who funds the insolvent college during insolvency—because that could be for a number of years. It is very important for us to know that when making lending decisions. The second point is the legal position of secured creditors, which Richard has mentioned. Again, further clarity about that would be helpful. Other than that, I think it is pretty clear in the draft Bill.
From an insolvency practitioner’s perspective, it is worth standing back and recognising that insolvency practitioners are not train drivers, or people who spend their life in the railway or the London Underground, when it comes to a special administration regime, nor are they specialist property developers. They come to each situation afresh. One comforting thing that insolvency practitioners bring is recognising when they need to keep in place the existing management structure in a corporate sense, or the workforce in a pastoral sense, recognising that those people have skills and qualifications that they as an office holder do not necessarily have, and also recognising that they can bring outside specialist help to continuing the duties of education administrator, should the need arise. That is all part and parcel of any trading insolvency regime, and I would imagine that any office holder stepping into the role of an education administrator would have that at the forefront of their mind. I do not think it presents a unique challenge; it is very similar to all the other special administration roles. There is an extra dynamic—there is a pastoral element.
Thank you for your candour in your response to the Bill. What are the implications for the future willingness of creditors, given the reluctance you have mentioned of lenders such as yourselves to lend now to colleges? There is a lot of excitement around this Bill because there is an opportunity for money from big business to provide apprentice opportunities. Will that be held back by a reluctance from banks and so on to lend to this communityQ ?
For the moment, for most creditors, the status quo is the preferred position just because of our experience of what happens when things go wrong. That said, I think the Bill has been carefully considered and, apart from the two points I made before, I do not think this is a sector where you are going to see lenders just disappear altogether. But it is going to be harder to support in the same way that we used to. Banks used to be able to lend for a very long period of time—30 years on an unsecured basis—but that will change. I do not think that it will result in colleges not being able to get funding at all, but the terms and conditions will probably be different from what they were in the past.
Not necessarily more expensive; it could just be that the loans have to be shorter or have to be secured versus unsecured. Cost is just one element of the terms and conditions of a piece of finance.
Q I just want to return to the issue of cost-benefit analysis, in terms of the increased risk that will come about. Given the factors that have led to this insolvency provision having to go into the Bill, it is obvious that the Government recognise that there are increased risks in the future. That is not necessarily to say that the whole edifice is going to collapse, but it does mean that you as banks have to make difficult decisions about how you calibrate that risk.
I was struck again, going through the Bill, that there is a creative tension—hopefully it is creative and not destructive—between the needs of the education administrator and the traditional needs of the creditors. I was struck particularly by a phrase in your submission, Mr Harris, where you said, “I note also that the Bill contains measures such that a creditor or appropriate national authority may apply to court if it is dissatisfied with the conduct of an education administrator.” No one is suggesting that the majority of colleges are going to go through the procedure, but if a college was going through that procedure and the sums of money were quite large, it would not necessarily be surprising if a creditor did challenge the education administrator in that fashion.
My question is twofold. First, Mr Harris, you have already expressed the big question: where is the money going to come from? Would that presumably increase the likely legal costs to which you referred in such a way that it could make it a very expensive process? Secondly, and this is for you three gentlemen generally, it seems to me that what is coming out of this afternoon’s session is that you would welcome greater clarity, whether in guidance notes or even a new clause, although Governments are reluctant to put some details into new clauses, to understand what the Government are prepared to take on board—after all, it is the Government who are introducing the proposal—and how much security, whether quantified as a financial amount or as a supporter of last resort, you would require from the Government.
May I just stand back and piggyback on your first question? I have actually been asking myself, since you asked me the question, how I got comfortable with this last Thursday afternoon. Clearly, I was; there was a holistic package of measures here, which I felt broadly work. I would like to return very briefly to the issue of clause 22 for a moment. In subsections (4) and (5) we see the crucial words placed between commas,
“so far as is consistent” with the overarching duty. Having stalled on it on the first read, when I went back and saw those words it became reasonably clear to me that the transcendental purpose—the carrying on for the education—is the thing that matters.
We therefore turn to the question of funding. We come full square to clause 25 and the suite of options set out in it:
“Grants and loans where education administration order is made.”
Then we travel further into the draft legislation—indeed quite a long way to the back. This is a bit of a technical area, but it is worth focusing on for a minute. The administrator will receive grant money from the funding body, and he will spend it on wages, salaries and the upkeep of the college. The fundamental question is: where is the deficit funding going to come from? Of course, he will have to borrow. Borrowing money in an insolvency process carries some technicalities. The overarching technicality is: where is the repayment of the loan going to rank? In conventional, vanilla administration, it is generally accepted that if the administrator borrows during an insolvency process, his obligation to repay the bank or the funder carries a very high priority unless it is agreed with the bank that it will be demoted for one reason or another. We need not explore that here.
In the suite of options that are available here, there is a technical clause that enables the lending authority to position the option for the repayment of the loan. Broadly—if I may put it this way—it can come at the front of the queue, the middle of the queue or the back of the queue. When I say the queue, I mean that if you take the general body of creditors as a whole, the repayment of the loan for the deficit funding can rank ahead of those creditors, alongside them or behind them.
Turning to your question, I think that what we see here is a recognition that one size might not necessarily fit all. There is probably a sense that it is not wise to be prescriptive at a total level, so having a suite of options that can be adjusted to specific circumstances may be an appropriate balance at the moment. There will be tension when it comes to borrowing the money, and I have little doubt that the funding authority will set out its stall on which it is prepared to make the money available.
I think the words used in the Bill are “the appropriate national authority”. An incoming office holder is going to be faced with something that ranks at the front of the queue, in the middle of the queue or behind the queue.
Q No disrespect—I think your analysis is elegant and understandable—but that is not going to make the decisions of the three gentlemen sitting beside you any easier, is it?
I cannot answer for my respected colleagues from the banks. It is an environment in which people generally try to work together to do good things for the community as a whole. We are looking here at a minority of situations—I hope it is a minority—where there will be tensions. Ultimately, lenders, taxpayers and the appropriate national authorities are all in the same country together, but I do not speak on behalf of the banks.
I think your question was about what we would like to see. All the various options that are in here are helpful; it is one of the strongest parts of the Bill. Mr Harris is right that we, as a lender, would want to work with the college and the authorities in that situation to find the most appropriate path. The issue is that it does not specify where that ranking lies. That, for us, is very important. Although it could rank at the back, it could also rank ahead of us. Obviously, being bankers, we have got to think about the worst-case scenario, and the worst-case scenario is that it is ahead of us. We are making lending decisions today for a long time in the future, and therefore we need to work on the assumption that the worst-case scenario will come to fruition.
The other point was about security. Security is important to us to ensure that we know what our rights are as a secured creditor. If the loan and the security are going to be transferred to another provider, having that option is really helpful. We would want to explore ensuring that it was in the best interests of everybody that we did that. We would also want to ensure that it was not transferred to someone we were less comfortable with. So having that legal certainty about our rights at the outset is very important to us.
I can possibly add a little more colour to this question. I was mulling this over and trying to identify in my own mind a situation in which, for totally understandable reasons, somebody might say, “I really, really want to be at the front of this queue,” in a particular situation. In some organisations you really do not know what all the liabilities are when you first approach a situation. Sometimes, when you have travelled a little way on your journey through the insolvency, you discover that there are some very unusual liabilities, which you had not really bargained for, attached to a certain site or situation.
I have some empathy with the idea that, in structuring a funding loan for an administrator early on, and not having total visibility over the level of liabilities that might rank in a particular situation, somebody might want to proceed with caution initially and perhaps take a view on things when the assignment has progressed. At moment zero you do not always know who your liabilities and your contingent creditors are. I do not know whether that is helpful context for these clauses.
Q You are talking about lending to bodies that are in theory independent incorporated bodies but are actually largely funded by Government. Sixth-form colleges are funded entirely by the Government. That must make you feel a little more comfortable; the Government do not want these colleges to go under, so your money is relatively safer than if you were investing in a burger bar—if that went under, the nation’s health might actually improve and you would just take the assets and sell them off or whatever. How much are your lending policies influenced by the fact that these are quasi-public bodies?
It is an important factor. The income they receive comes from the Government and they are doing something that is of strategic importance to UK plc, and all of those are factors. We need to put this in context. Although it is harder for us to support them in the way we used to, that does not mean that we are not supporting them or that they cannot get money; it is just on different terms from how they used to get it in the past. The relative position is an important one and it is well recognised by us, as I am sure it is by Lloyds and Santander. That relationship with Government is one of the key strengths, and that does bear out in our risk analysis of the sector.
Q This is a bit of a mischievous supplementary question: does that mean you are less concerned about how the college behaves internally, in terms of its funding and spending, compared with a private body that might go under, where you would lose all your money?
That is a fair question. Obviously I can speak only for my own bank on that. The answer is no, we are not less concerned. The reality is that we are lending very much on a relationship banking perspective. We are looking for longevity; we are not looking for any funding out from that. We certainly carry out the same rigorous credit and risk assessment and ongoing assessment as we would for a corporate.
The level of due diligence we apply for a further education college is exactly the same as the level we would apply to the burger bar—to return to your reference. Further education colleges might sit at the better end of the risk profile of Santander’s book as a whole, but actually the diligence we apply internally is exactly the same.