The single financial guidance body

Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 1st February 2018.

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Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 11:30 am, 1st February 2018

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert ‘and the devolved authorities.’

This amendment, together with amendment 18, will enable transfer schemes under Schedule 2 to transfer staff, property, rights and liabilities from the consumer financial education body to the devolved authorities. This may be necessary in view of the fact that the devolved authorities will be responsible for the provision of debt advice in their areas (see clause 15).

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Government amendment 18.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I welcome all colleagues to the Committee. I am grateful to those Members of the House of Lords who contributed to the Bill—it started in the other place—expanding and improving it in a significant and important way.

The Bill builds on a Government commitment to ensure that members of the public can access good-quality, free-to-clients and impartial financial guidance and debt advice. Those services are currently provided by a number of different organisations, including financial services firms, utilities and those in the charity sector. Government-sponsored pensions guidance, money guidance and debt advice is provided by the Money Advice Service, the Pensions Advisory Service and the Department for Work and Pensions under the Pension Wise banner.

There have been a multitude of reviews, Select Committee assessments, consultations and calls for evidence since 2015, by which we reached the state in 2017 when the Bill was introduced in this Parliament. Consequently, clause 1 establishes a new non-departmental public body, to be referred to in legislation as the single financial guidance body. The clause introduces schedule 1, which provides details of the proposed governance and accountability of the new body. The provisions within the schedule deal with, for example, the appointment of the chair, non-executive members, executive members and staff, the delegation of duties within the body, the constitution of the committees, and the statutory reporting and accounting procedures.

Clause 1 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to replace the phrase “single financial guidance body” in legislation with the actual name of the body—the body will be named nearer to the time it becomes operational. The regulations that name the body will be created through a statutory instrument under the negative procedure, which is subject to annulment by either House of Parliament.

Clause 1 dissolves the consumer financial education body now known as the Money Advice Service. Schedule 2 allows the transfer of staff, property, rights and liabilities from the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise—in effect from the Secretary of State to the new body. The schedule allows similar transfers from the Money Advice Service to the new body. I have met all three organisations and discussed the proposed merger with them. I can assure the House that all three are keen to merge, which is rare in Government mergers and should be applauded.

Amendments 1 and 18 are technical in nature and extend the power to make transfer schemes under schedule 2 to the devolved authority. Schedule 2 already allows the Secretary of State to transfer staff, property, rights and liabilities from the Money Advice Service to the new single financial guidance body. This is required to ensure continuity of provision, including on contracts held, and avoid disruption to services in the creation of the body. The devolved authorities will have responsibility for the provision of debt advice in their areas once the new body is established. Devolved authorities have been consulted on this and are very much in agreement. Amendment 1 therefore helps to avoid similar disruption to debt advice provision in the devolved authorities when the new body is established.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Let me start by paying tribute to the three organisations that are being merged into one—the Money Advice Service, the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise—for the work they have done over many years. The Minister is right that all three agree about the good sense of bringing them together into one body. Why? Because all three know from experience, and have advocated, that high-quality advice—independent, trustworthy and there when it is needed—is of the highest importance, particularly in circumstances of redundancy, death or divorce, when the financial consequences for the citizen can be very serious.

I will give some examples. In Port Talbot, the staff supervisor told Michelle Cracknell, the chief executive of the Pensions Advisory Service, that he was distraught that he had been badly advised on pensions and that the 20 others on his shift had followed his lead. He burst into tears when he said, “It’s not just the mistake that I’ve made; it’s the mistake that others have made following my example.” I remember a victim of domestic violence in my constituency saying, “I borrow to pay the debt, because I borrow to pay the debt, because I borrow to pay the debt.” That is the downward spiral into which citizens all too often fall at a time of crisis in their lives. A Kingstanding dustman said to me, “I’m an agency worker on a zero-hours contract and I would love to buy a house, because my wife is pregnant and we’re paying a fortune in rent.” He went on to say, “It’s not just that: because I’m on a zero-hours contract, I can’t plan. I keep getting into debt. I’ve had bad advice.”—he used stronger words than those—“Where do I turn?”

That is why we made it clear on Second Reading that this is a welcome Bill and a strong step in the right direction, and it has been strengthened by constructive debate in the other place. Our intention is to make a good Bill better still and to inject a sense of urgency into some of its proposals, because the dignity and financial wellbeing of our citizens, in opportunity or adversity, is of the highest importance.

We agree to the concept of the new organisation and support the direction of travel. We will seek to amend the Bill in certain key areas in order to strengthen it further, so that it delivers, particularly for those in desperate need and in circumstances in which there are still too many rogues taking advantage of the vulnerable. There is a joint determination across the House to ensure that nothing but the best is provided in the future for the British people. I am talking about high-quality advice that they can count on in all circumstances.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs)

I echo much of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington has just said. I am very grateful, on a Thursday morning, that the Bill is not contentious—I do not know about anyone else here, but I am not in the mood for arguing. We have proper concerns about only three areas of the Bill. The first relates to how young people are involved and educated through it. The second question is whether we can clear up some of the difficulties between guidance and advice. The third and most important issue is dealing with clause 5, because what we have from the Government now is wholly inadequate. With that said, I look forward to having genuine discussions in Committee.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to colleagues for their comments, which I endorse. I look forward to responding to the specific points. I accept and anticipate that there will be a legitimate discussion as to the appropriate way forward in respect of default pensions guidance, on which I know both Opposition Front Benchers wish to address the Committee. I thank them for their comments.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

We now come to amendment 23 to schedule 1, with which we will consider the question that schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

No.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No, it is your amendment 23, to schedule 1, in relation to the independence of the single financial guidance body.

Schedule 1