I beg to move amendment 23, in schedule 1, page 27, line 9, at end insert—
“(3) The Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the single financial guidance body is as independent from Government as reasonably possible in determining its activities.”
This amendment will ensure that the single financial guidance body has the autonomy to fulfil its functions.
My apologies, Mr Stringer, for getting things in the wrong order—having been dealing this week with the issue of Carillion, the problems at Jaguar Land Rover, and GKN, I have to say that it has been a rather hectic few days.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the single financial guidance body has the autonomy to fulfil its functions. The new body will be a publicly funded, non-departmental public body, answerable to the Secretary of State. As such, it is imperative that it have the correct amount of autonomy from Government to ensure that it can fulfil all its functions effectively. The new body will be tasked with carrying out a number of very important and critical functions, including starting a new era of enhanced financial guidance and education. Those will best be fulfilled by an independent, autonomous body, free from Government interference. It should be free to make decisions that let it do the job for which Parliament has voted. It should not be subject to the whims of whichever Government are in power, and the political winds those whims can bring. It should be free, as is often said, to speak truth unto power, and all too often the uncomfortable needs to be said and done. The new body should not feel constrained in so doing.
The new body’s important functions include providing guidance to those who are making important financial decisions. The take-up of the services offered by Pension Wise, for instance, is extremely low. Of the 772,000 people who transferred some or all of their pension in 2017, only 66,000 had an appointment with Pension Wise, and an FCA survey found that only one in eight 55 to 64-year-olds who planned to retire in the next two years and who have a defined-contribution pension had used the Pension Wise service in a 12-month period.
The intention of all parties in the House is to have a new and effective organisation that ensures that in future we do not have that kind of problem of take-up by the citizen. We want to ensure that it is widely known that Pension Wise exists; that Pension Wise is vigorously advertising its purpose and function; and that, because we insist on independent advice being given, it is truly independent from Government.
I will just make one final point, which arises out of constructive discussions with the Minister. I am the first to recognise that there needs to be oversight and accountability. There must be oversight by, and accountability to, Parliament. Crucially, however, it would be inappropriate for the Government to interfere in the day-to-day conduct of the new organisation. It should be free to do its job and to do its job well, and therefore I hope that the Government will give the necessary assurances about it.
Has my hon. Friend read Peter Wyman’s recent independent report on the debt advice landscape? He advocates that there should be somebody in charge of the whole debt landscape—almost a debt Tsar. That seems to be a really good idea, to maintain the independence of the debt landscape. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend, who is part of an honourable tradition of giving high-quality advice to people in times of need, particularly through citizens advice bureaux, is absolutely right. The evidence is damning; the need is apparent. It is now a question of how best that need is met. The new body is a step in the right direction, but it should not be the last word; it is the first “next step,” but it is an important step in the right direction.
I am grateful to colleagues for their comments. The Bill sets out absolutely clearly that the single financial guidance body will be at arm’s length from Government. That distance from Government means that the day-to-day decisions the new body makes will be independent, as they will be removed from Ministers and civil servants. Nevertheless, there is a sponsoring Minister, who remains answerable to Parliament for the activities of the new body, its effectiveness and its efficiency, including any failures, especially in the case of a body that receives public funds. It is important that there is a balance—I think all of us recognise that—between enabling the Department to fulfil its responsibilities to Parliament and to be accountable, and giving the new body the desired degree of independence.
Conferring functions on the new body involves a recognition that operational independence from Ministers in carrying out its functions is appropriate, and the new body will support delivery of the objectives of both the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, to create a more effective system of publicly funded financial guidance and to give savers the confidence to save and access money in the future. The new body’s activities will be funded by a levy on the financial services industry and on pension schemes.
On Second Reading the hon. Member for Makerfield addressed one of the criticisms levelled at the Money Advice Service. All of us support what MAS is trying to do, its broad objective and the efforts it is making. However, one of the strong criticisms of it in its early years, which came from both the independent Farnish review and the Treasury Committee, which obviously operates on a cross-party basis, was that MAS lacked accountability and that the activities it delivered, and the money it was spending, could not be held to account by Parliament and the respective Minister.
The Farnish review, which is one of the reasons we are creating this body in the way we are, suggested that the Money Advice Service accountability regime was weak, and recommended that it be strengthened. The Treasury Committee expressed concerns that the Money Advice Service had moved its service away from its intended focus. I am certain that the hon. Member for Makerfield will be directing it to have a “laser-like focus”—the expression she used on Second Reading—on commissioning services, towards direct delivery and building up its brand name.
Lord knows, all Governments like to be held to account by Oppositions, and quite rightly too, but let us imagine that the single financial guidance body chose to do something that any Member of the Opposition or of the Government felt was inappropriate. The inability to hold that body to account and to hold a Minister to account would not be something the House would want. In the circumstances, it is appropriate that the responsible Minister is able to make representations, but it is very much a partnership system that needs to work well between the body and the Government, and there must be clarity about expectations and the approaches to accountability.
The correct way forward is to have a framework document setting out that particular method of working. That framework document approach, setting out the partnership so that there is due accountability to Parliament, while at the same time allowing the body to get on with the job that we all agree it should be doing, is well established and has been under successive Governments. In the circumstances, I believe that placing the requirement in legislation, as set out in amendment 23, is both unnecessary and undesirable, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister has said some helpful things, and he is absolutely right that it is about getting the right balance between accountability and operational independence. The proposal for a framework document is welcome. I simply ask that there is consultation on the nature of that framework document, including with stakeholders, at the appropriate stage.
On the establishment of the new body, the governance of it and precisely how that will be structured, we have heard what has been said thus far, but it will be important that we have high-quality and independent individuals engaged in the governance, including on a day-to-day basis.
On the basis of what I and the Minister have said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.