Examination of Witnesses

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:26 am on 17th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Victoria Saporta, Sheldon Mills and Edwin Schooling Latter gave evidence.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 9:31 am, 17th November 2020

Q We now resume our public sitting. We will hear evidence from Victoria Saporta from the Prudential Regulation Authority and Sheldon Mills and Edward Schooling Latter from the Financial Conduct Authority, all remotely. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind Members that all questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee agreed. We have until 10.25 am, at which point I must cut off this session. Do any members of the Committee wish to declare any relevant interests in connection with the Bill? No. In which case I call the first witnesses. Could you please introduce yourselves for the record?

Victoria Saporta:

Good morning everyone, and good morning, Chair. I am Vicky Saporta, executive director for prudential policy in the PRA within the Bank of England.

Sheldon Mills:

Good morning. I am Sheldon Mills, interim executive director of strategy and competition at the Financial Conduct Authority.

Edwin Schooling Latter:

Good morning all. I am Edwin Schooling Latter, director of markets and wholesale policy at the Financial Conduct Authority.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Q It is good to have you before us for this first session. I have a question for each of you, but I will start with Vicky. Obviously there is a strong working relationship between the regulators and the Treasury. It would be really helpful if you could explain how your organisations worked with the Treasury on the preparation of the Bill.

Victoria Saporta:

Thank you for the question, Mr Glen. Yes, we worked closely together, as you would expect for a Bill that proposes to revoke elements of the acquis and give the regulators specific powers. Ultimately, of course, it is for the Government to introduce the Bill and for Parliament to take it forward. However, the working relationship was very close, and because of that we are content with the content of the Bill and the proposed measures.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Q Shall I move to Sheldon? One of the themes that has already come out in early observations is around the commitment, or not, to maintain our highest international standards. I just ask you to make any observations about that, in terms of that commitment and how you will ensure that that continues.

Sheldon Mills:

We have had close interaction with you and your officials throughout the drafting of this Bill, and also the preparations for a new UK financial regulatory system, as we move to exit from the EU. We think it is important that there is an agile and confident UK financial services regulatory system, which will support the UK financial services industry and, importantly, also protect consumers and ensure market stability. We feel that the Bill is a good first step in that direction, to enable us to play our role in those goals and objectives for the UK financial services industry.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Q Thank you, Sheldon. If I could move to Edwin, one of the 17 measures in the Bill deals with the wind-down of the LIBOR benchmark, which is an incredibly complex process by which we are giving the FCA power. Could you explain to the Committee how you see the FCA executing the power and using it in practice?

Edwin Schooling Latter:

Yes, of course. Committee members will be aware that LIBOR is a benchmark that has had a troubled past. It is also a benchmark that probably does not suit the needs of its users as well as some alternatives; but it is very deeply embedded in the financial system, so while we think it is the right thing to move towards the end of LIBOR and its replacement with better alternatives, we need to be able to do that in an orderly way. The provisions in front of you contain some important measures to enhance the FCA’s powers to manage an orderly wind-down—for example, to identify the point at which the benchmark is no longer sustainable and to take measures to ensure that its publication ceases in the least disruptive way possible for the many hundreds of thousands of contract holders who have mortgages or more complex financial instruments that reference the benchmark in some way.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Before I begin, can I get some sense from you, Mr Davies, about whether we can have a few questions?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Yes, absolutely. Fire away.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Q Thank you. I would like to begin with you, Vicky. The Bill goes through a process of onshoring a number of EU directives that are concerned with financial services. Can you tell us conceptually whether there is a difference between the way the UK regulators tend to go about their business or think about these things, compared with the way the various EU directives have been drawn up, debated and discussed in the EU institutions until now?

Victoria Saporta:

Yes, I am happy to do so. The way the EU tends to function in terms of regulations—particularly banking regulations, which are part of the provisions of the Bill that relate to the PRA—tends to be quite unique relative to other non-EU regulators. Essentially the Commission proposes very technical regulations, which in banking are often agreed by technocrats in the Basel environment—in the Basel committee—and then these are debated in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and become directly-applicable law. The reason for that way of doing it relates to the single market, so that every EU member state has exactly the same regulations. As I said, that is very unique. Every other member of the Basel committee, for example—all the G20 jurisdictions with the exception of Switzerland, which is another federal democracy—would have its regulators applying these technical rules that they have themselves negotiated internationally.

Pre the treaty of Lisbon and before the single market rulebook, this was the way that regulation was done in the UK through the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. Primary legislation set out the objectives, framework and constraints through which regulators would operate and the regulators would then go about implementing the rules for the purpose, so that they could achieve the objectives that Parliament would have set for them.

Traditionally, UK regulators have done that in the prudential sphere, which is my current sphere. To preserve safety and soundness and contribute to financial stability, the PRA currently has a secondary objective of facilitating competition, but with the remit that the Government give them and always with an eye to preserving responsible openness and dynamism.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Q If you are a bank that wants to lobby about the rules or a trade body representing financial institutions, do you think there is any advantage in your lobbying in one of these systems or the other—the more rule-based one or the more flexible one that you have outlined? Which is the more open to lobbying?

Victoria Saporta:

There is a considerable body of empirical research that suggests that regulatory independence is strongly correlated with stronger financial stability. Particularly in the banking system, there are lower losses under stress. One of the reasons for that is because regulators—at least in theory, but I happen to believe from my experience that that is the practice—potentially have longer horizons than Governments, and therefore regulatory independence tends to be more robust to such lobbying in the longer term, subject, of course, to accountability and objectives set by Parliament.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Q Thank you. Sheldon, I want to ask you about the accountability framework in the Bill. It asks you and the PRA to take account of various things. In going about your work in the FCA of regulating conduct, products and so on that financial bodies distribute, what account is taken of wider Government objectives? I am thinking most obviously of things such as the net zero commitment and the legislation that has been passed for that. Do you consider those things or do you say: “Look, our day job is the fairness and stability of financial products and it’s somebody else’s job to worry about that”?

Sheldon Mills:

It is a good question. The starting point is our statutory objectives. We set our priorities for the year and also over three years on the basis of our statutory objectives, which are consumer protection, competition and market integrity. We then work out whether, serving those objectives, certain types of activities will help protect consumers, and help us ensure market integrity or further competition.

If you take the example of net zero, it is quite clear, regardless of where Government’s ambitions are in relation to net zero, that the move towards net zero forms a part of the issues that we face globally in terms of climate change. Those are risks in the economy and therefore impact the firms that we regulate and in turn may impact the consumers that we seek to protect. In a sense, we have little choice but to consider and be cognisant of Government’s aims in relation to net zero, because if we are not thinking about those climate risks and challenges, which our firms face, we would not be doing our job and serving our statutory objectives.

Quite often, you find that the aims of Government are merely looking at some of the risks that are impacting markets, impacting the firms, and therefore it is right and proper that we have work in relation to those areas, and we do have work in relation to net zero and climate change.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Q Thank you very much. My final question is to Mr Latter. In the onshoring of all these EU directives, where do you see, if you like, the main opportunities not to do things that the directives currently mandate us to do? Where are the divergence opportunities for the UK financial services sector?

Edwin Schooling Latter:

In answering that question, I think that an important starting point is to recognise that the UK regulators, including the FCA, played a very large role in designing a lot of that EU regulatory framework. So the overall picture is definitely one where we support the nature of that framework and the provisions within it. There are a few areas where compromises to span 28 countries perhaps do not suit as well as they might the particular circumstances of UK markets. I think that there are some areas, for example in the MiFID regime, where we could look at an approach that was better calibrated to the UK’s capital market infrastructure, but areas where we would diverge are the exception rather than the rule.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have a couple of questions, first to the FCA. Can you explain a wee bit more why you feel that you need a change in primary legislation in order to remove companies from your registerQ ?

Sheldon Mills:

We have an obligation under FSMA such that all authorised firms will sit on our financial services register, and that allows a sense of public transparency as to who is authorised and what they are authorised to do. As the Committee may or may not know, we regulate tens of thousands of firms, upwards of 60,000 firms, so the register is quite large. The current rules allow firms that are authorised on the register to maintain their registration even though their activities are, in effect, dormant and they are not actually carrying out certain financial services. We need to give them rights to be heard in order to remove them from the register, and that takes time. Therefore, having a different regime, whereby we can give notice to firms that their removal might be pending unless they prove to us that they are active, is going to be a much more efficient and effective way of operating the register. This is important because harms are occasioned by the presence on the register of dorman firms. There is the activity of cloning, whereby firms use dormant names on the register to practise certain fraudulent and scam activity, which is a significant problem that we are seeking to tackle. We are committed, of course, to removing people from the register as swiftly as possible, but the provisions in the Bill will really help to accelerate that for us.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q Thank you. Is there a reason why you cannot just remove them now? Is that more a resourcing issue than a legality issue?

Sheldon Mills:

It is not a resourcing issue as such. The process that one needs to go through in order to remove somebody from the register is time and resource-intensive and requires quite a lot of back and forth to execute, so this will be a more efficient process, which still respects the right of the person on the register to explain to us that they are using their licence or authorisation, but which will allow us to move forward a bit more quickly.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q I think that you referred to 60,000 firms. What proportion of that 60,000 would you expect to remove from the register by using this process?

Sheldon Mills:

I will need to come back to you on that.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q Okay, thank you. Let me move on to other issues, about capacity. It is a huge amount of regulation coming back to the UK. Do you feel at the moment that you have sufficient capacity to deal with this, given the huge amount of responsibility that you are taking on, in addition to the pandemic and everything else that is happening?

Sheldon Mills:

We can always do with more resources—that is a common refrain of regulators. Naturally, we will have to reorder our priorities in order to ensure that we are able to take on the onshored rules, to provide them with the right level of attention and make the right decisions. They will fall into two categories. Some we will be able to accept quite quickly and onshore reasonably easily, but others will have areas where we will rightly need to work through how they sit within the specifics of the UK market in a post-Brexit world, and they may take a little more time. All of them will require some form of consultation with the public, so that will take some time. I feel, however, that we have the expertise, experience and knowledge that certainly help us to have the head start on onshoring.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q On the risk of a cliff edge, Nausicaa Delfas of the FCA said that financial services face a cliff-edge situation in January. She raised particular issues with derivatives trading, the transfer of personal data and offering services to customers in the UK. Are there any improvements that could be made to the Bill in order to smooth that transition and make that process a bit simpler and easier?

Sheldon Mills:

I do not think so. What Ms Delfas was referring to is the need for firms to ensure that they are making efforts to be ready for transition. We have worked with firms and the Prudential Regulation Authority to ensure that firms are ready for transition. When we describe a “cliff edge”, what one is describing is the need to ensure that we are prepared for what we know is coming. We are working closely with firms and putting the right sort of pressure on them to be ready for that point.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Okay. I will leave some questions for colleagues.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Mr Mills, I wonder whether you could say a little more about the resource implications of the Bill. An awful lot of our financial services regulation—well, all of it—used to go on in the European Union, but now that is ending and all these complex and technical issues are being onshored. That must be the cause of a huge amount of extra technical work for the FCA, and in fact for the PRA. Is the FCA getting any extra resources? Are you trying to import all the people who used to live in Brussels back into the FCAQ ?

Sheldon Mills:

As I said, we have a significant amount of expertise in the United Kingdom. The reason we have that expertise is that—I have to be careful how I put this—much of the financial services legislation that has come about in the EU, the UK has fully participated in, often leading on the legislation. If we take the investment firms prudential regime, which is in the Bill, our colleagues at the FCA were leaders in that space, setting the pace and direction in the EU. So I think we have the expertise and the experience.

When I think about resources, there are areas where we will need to consider hiring more people, in particular the area of prudential expertise—that is a specific area within the FCA where we will need to hire. We will need to consider our resourcing carefully, as more parts of the acquis are onshored, but currently, where we stand, we think we are capable of moving around our resources in order to meet the demands.

The impact that it could have is of course the speed at which we are able to turn to the different pieces of legislation. If the ask was to do everything on day one, there would be an impact on resources; if we have a sensible framework and approach, I think we can manage.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Q Mr Mills, I am glad you think you can manage but, given that this onshoring is happening, we have already seen the beginnings of some quite fierce competition—if I may put it in a non-technical way—to nick some of the financial services that we have in this country and to take them abroad. We have already seen quite a competitive and non-co-operative environment develop, seeing who can get what when we are outside the European Union. That is an entirely new form of activity that somehow you have to take account of, and that has not had to be taken account of in the past.

Are you sure that will not cause your resources to be stretched in a way that you had not anticipated? For example, if we have to approve new ways of doing things, onshore all these things and get new systems up and running, those who might wish to carry on can just shift to the internal market and carry on doing things, without having to wait for all the consultations that you and your colleagues will be doing to try to re-establish a UK-based regulatory system.

Sheldon Mills:

The starting point is that the foundations of the system are clear to all financial services markets in the UK, so there will not be a gap that means organisations will not know the type of regulatory system that they expect when they are authorised a licence to operate in the UK. We will ensure that that is maintained and is clear throughout the transition and into the future.

On what I think you are referring to as the competitive regulatory system that we might enter into, I can assure you that we are engaged internationally through all international bodies. We play leadership roles in the ESB, the Financial Stability Board and all sorts of international bodies in financial services. Therefore, we are key actors in regulatory systems and the latest approaches to regulation across the world, and that will also support our being a sensible regulatory environment in which firms wish to operate. We are clearly engaged with negotiations and discussions with the European Securities and Markets Authority in relation to a range of regulatory activity, so I am confident that we will not have any significant gaps or issues that would cause issues for the UK financial services industry or for those who wish to come and play an active role in that industry.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Q Thank you. It appears that the EU will not be in a position to offer us any equivalence, or to certify any of the things that we are doing as equivalent, until at least the middle of next year. There are noises that we will be diverging in some of the areas that we are re-onshoring. You said that would be the exception rather than the rule. Can you give us a bit more information on how divergence will work? I am concerned that the Bill has its Committee stage this side of the transition, and then its Report stage the other side of the transition, when we might be in a different situation. Are you planning for there to be big importations of new stuff into the Bill at the last minute?

Sheldon Mills:

The Bill is a matter for Government to take through Parliament. The important thing for us, as regulators, is that the Bill provides us with sufficient flexibility to meet the needs that we face as we move through the transition and into the future. In a sense, the Bill is silent on whether we are divergent or equivalent. Equivalence is a policy matter for Government, as opposed to a matter for us. All we need is sufficient flexibility to ensure that we have an appropriate regulatory system, depending on how Government policy emerges in relation to equivalence.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Q Just to make that clear, you are basically saying that you are neutral on the amount of divergence or equivalence, and that you can cope with whatever is thrown at you?

Sheldon Mills:

Neutral is too strong a word. My point of view is that we are interested in what I would call outcomes-based regulation. Equivalence can be done in one of two ways within the bounds of equivalence: it can be done line by line and letter by letter, or it can be done on the basis of seeking to meet equivalence objectives within an outcomes-based regulatory system. We are moving towards the position of the latter. Overall, equivalence is a matter for Government.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Q Finally—I am conscious that I have put questions only to you, but I am sure colleagues will put questions to other witnesses—you were saying at the beginning that part of what the FCA has to do is protect financial services in this country and create a good environment for them, as well as protect consumers and ensure market stability. There is only so much bandwidth, so will all the work relating to onshoring compromise consumer protection?

Sheldon Mills:

I do not think so at all. To give an example, it may look like it would take an army of 50 or 60 people to do the work of the investment firms prudential regime, but in reality it takes around 10 people to do that work. These are significant specialists in the technical architecture of designing prudential regulation. We would not ordinarily use those people in our consumer protection work, and they have different skills and are involved in different activities. I do not think that we will be any less vociferous in protecting consumers. During the crisis, those who watched us saw that we were at the forefront of ensuring that we tried to provide relief to consumers during the pandemic. We will continue in that vein. As the FCA’s conduct regulator, I am committed to ensuring that the consumer is at the heart of everything we do.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. I know that you are in favour of the Bill, as it will give you greater agility and flexibility to deal with things. Going back to some of the comments you made earlier about the consultation process, in which you were clearly fully engaged, one of the things I want to find out relates to the consultation discussions, and obviously you have more responsibilities. Will you shed some light on what came out of those discussions in terms of making sure that there is effective accountability and oversight in relation to the additional powers that you are likely to be given?Q

Sheldon Mills:

I will go first and then pass over to Vicky. It is useful to start with our current accountability, because the Bill and future regulatory frameworks being consulted on by the Government deal with that issue. We wish to be accountable. As an independent regulator, an important part of our process is for us to have public accountability. We serve the public and ultimately are scrutinised by Parliament. Our main form of scrutiny is that of the Treasury Select Committee, but we attend many other Committees. Explaining our activity to Parliament is an important part of our work. Below that, within the Financial Services and Markets Act for the FCA specifically, are our statutory panels. They are there to scrutinise our work in a much closer engagement with the organisation. Then we have the consumer panel, the practitioner panel and the small business practitioner panel, as well as the advisory panel on markets and listings. They are able to make public their views, and—believe me—they do very often make public their views on our activity. In addition to that, we will consult on our policies when we do policy-making work ourselves, as do other public authorities. We will also provide access to non-confidential information and data so that all interested parties can make their views known to us.

We also evaluate our work to ensure that it meets its intended outcomes. We already have an existing accountability framework that would sit well with the additional rule-making powers we may get through the Bill and as we move forward with the proposed reform to the financial services regulatory regime. The future regulatory framework is out for consultation, so I will not say much in relation to it, but we of course acknowledge that there may need to be adjustments to the accountability framework to accord with the additional powers that we are getting. We look forward to seeing the responses to the Government’s consultation in relation to that.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q Just for clarification, during the consultation period there was no analysis looking, in terms of the additional powers, at how the accountabilities need to be changed. My understanding, from what you have just told me, is that it is very much reliant on the processes you think you have got already, which I have concerns about, if I am honest, because the current processes do not appear to take into consideration the additional powers.

Sheldon Mills:

As I said, we acknowledge that we will be getting additional powers and there may need to be changes to that accountability framework. Within the Bill, you see the foundational approaches in terms of how things may change. Within each of the specific policy areas, if we take the investment firms prudential regime review, there are certain “have regards” obligations that we will need to take account of in that regime. I think that is a sensible approach to take as you bring in onshored regulation. There are specific needs that Parliament considers it is appropriate for us to consider for that onshored regulation. Then, that “have regards” mechanism of pointing that out to us and us being accountable for meeting those “have regards” in accordance with our statutory objectives is a sensible approach and adds an additional layer of accountability and scrutiny for us.

There are other mechanisms within the future regulatory framework, which is out for consultation. Again, I do not have a strong view on them. I recognise that we are getting more rule-making powers and we may need to have more strengthening of the accountability framework.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q I put the same question to the other witnesses.

Victoria Saporta:

To response to your question directly, yes, from the very beginning we had discussions with Treasury colleagues about how, within the narrow confines of this Financial Services Bill—I can talk about the related but quite distinct issue of the future regulatory framework—we could be more accountable, given that the Bill effectively gives the Government powers to revoke particular narrow areas of what will become, on 1 January, primary legislation, and then asks the regulators to fill in those particular gaps. The Government were keen that the process should be part of an enhanced accountability framework.

As Sheldon has said, within the confines of this Bill, the enhanced accountability framework applies to the updating of the rulebook to take into account the new Basel III provisions and the investment firms regulation, and three new “have regards” regulatory principles, which are set out in the relevant schedule and refer to us having to take regard of relevant standards recommended by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. That applies obviously to the PRA. We need to take the likely effect of the rules on the UK’s relative standing as a place for internationally active credit institutions and investment firms to carry on activities. Also, we need to take into account the likely effect of the rules on the ability of firms to continue to provide finance to households and businesses. This is an enhanced accountability framework, and the Bill also obliges us to publish how we have taken into account these “have regards”.

Those measures are within the proposals in the Bill to enhance our accountability publicly. There is the separate issue of the consultation that the Government are currently doing on how the future regulatory framework will look, what the enhanced accountability provisions within that are and how they should apply. I would not want to pre-empt that consultation but, clearly, the Government are interested and are trying to look at ways of keeping our feet to the fire, and that is absolutely appropriate.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

My questions are for the FCA. In terms of the impact of the Bill on the end consumer and the end user of financial services, what impact assessment has the FCA done on the potential regulatory cost and how that might affect the consumer? We hear a lot from financial services firms about the cost to them, not only of regulations, but also of the fees that they have to pay to the FCA. What business plan and cost assessment has the FCA done on the impact that the measures and the responsibilities in the Bill will have on the industry, which will then be passed on to the consumerQ , or will it be a reduction in cost?

Sheldon Mills:

We have not undertaken a cost-benefit assessment of the Bill. That would be a matter for the Government. We have considered, as we discussed in response to earlier questions, the impact on resources within the FCA. Our current intention is to keep that within our current financial envelope, so we are not predicting at this stage an increase in fees or levies to take account of the Bill. That is all I can say at this stage.

In terms of the impact of the Bill and the onshored legislation, when we review the regulations on the investment firms prudential regime and so on, we will do a cost-benefit analysis of the rules and regulations that we are proposing at that stage. At this stage, we will not be doing that—that would be a matter for the Government, not for us.

In terms of the impact on consumers more generally, as I said, there are aspects of the Bill that are very consumer enhancing. I do not think they came up very much on Second Reading, but the provisions in relation to breathing space will be very helpful for consumers facing issues around statutory debts, which we are interested in as a financial regulator. The issues in relation to the register will be extremely helpful for us in terms of tackling fraud and scams. There are many elements of the Bill that are helpful. It is complicated, but the investment firms prudential regime is also consumer enhancing; currently, the capital requirements facing investment firms are those for the systemically important banks, and they are not fit for purpose. This regime will help us have a capital and prudential regime that is fit for investment firms. So there are a whole host of aspects of the Bill that are supportive of consumer interests and will not necessarily increase costs in a way that will be inimical to their interests.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

Q The FCA has not prepared anything specific demonstrating that—it is a hunch based on what is in the Bill—but has it done any cost-benefit analysis of the breathing space measures that you mentioned?

Sheldon Mills:

All these measures are Government proposals, so the cost-benefit analysis that is required will be carried out by the Government and not by us. Once the Bill has been passed, in whatever form—we are bringing forward rules and regulations—we will undertake a cost-benefit analysis. I am giving an indicative view, as opposed to one based on a cost-benefit analysis that we are not required to carry out at this stage.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I should like to explore what you have said, particularly about how the Bill will benefit consumers—after all, we are all concerned about the regulation of financial services marketsQ . You set out your interest in the debt respite scheme. We all agree that that is very welcome, but debt prevention is an ultimate aim. How do all three of you think that this way of regulation will help businesses and households with debt prevention?

Sheldon Mills:

It is a broader question than the Bill, but I will answer by giving our approach to debt.

As a regulator, our approach is not to have a policy on whether people should be able to access credit, but we are concerned about the impact on people of firms providing credit. We want firms to be able to provide credit in a way that treats individuals fairly, takes account of their needs and circumstances and, in particular, supports vulnerable customers if they are in debt.

We work closely with debt charities. Some of the issues that we are seeing, which we all face and of which the FCA is cognisant, include the accumulation of debt among certain parts of the population, which is why it is important that rules and processes are in place to support people with debt management and why a breathing space policy forms an important part of that. I think that answers your question, but you might have more specific questions.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Q I do, but I should like to hear about one of the roles that the FCA has tacked on to the Financial Services Act 2012—investigating regulatory failure. The Bill is about how we address that regulatory regime and the things to which you have regard under that regime. Your colleagues might have a view on whether explicitly having regard to whether a product or a firm is likely to cause debt—unsustainable, unaffordable debt—should be built into the new regulatory regime, given some of the investigations that have, or have not, taken place over the past couple of years.

Sheldon Mills:

I think it is for Government to decide whether we should have that “have regard” regime, but there are current rules that firms should take account of the needs of customers. If customers are clearly displaying signals that they are taking on debt that is not affordable—and, in that sense, is not sustainable—firms should have in place mechanisms to ensure that they do not provide further credit or loans to them. There are rules in place on unaffordable lending.

It is for Government to decide whether we have “have regards”, but I do not think that we necessarily need them. I agree that there are issues with debt throughout society that we need to tackle, but I believe we have the right rules in place to ensure that firms make appropriate lending decisions.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Q Perhaps I can come at that question from another angle, because the FCA has been performing this role for several years now. Are there any examples of where the Financial Ombudsman Service has stepped in? I am thinking particularly of the high-cost credit industry, where a lack of proactive regulation in the past could be addressed by having stronger, robust, and clearer direction from us that we wish to see the FCA intervene to protect consumers from unaffordable debt, and to have regard to firms that may be promoting unaffordable debt.

Sheldon Mills:

You will have seen that we have done a significant amount of work in relation to high-cost credit and unaffordable lending. We have put caps in relation to forms of high-cost credit; we have tackled payday loan operators; we have a business priority that relates to consumer credit; we have introduced a review, which our former interim CEO, Chris Woolard, is undertaking in relation to aspects of unsecured consumer credit. We are extremely proactive in this area, and the overall system—in terms of the regulatory system—works well. The fact that consumers are able to go to the Financial Ombudsman Service, where they have had certain issues and the service is therefore enabled to give redress to those customers, is an important part of the system. However, I would not want you to think that that we are not proactively seeking to tackle the issues in this area.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Q A final question to you and colleagues. With that in mind, in moments where there has not been as strong an intervention and early in the process of new products coming to the UK, could you tell us a little bit about what you see coming ahead? We are all very aware of FinTech coming to these shores, and you will be dealing with an awful lot of legislation, as my colleagues pointed out, that you will be onshoring. When you do your horizon scanning—this is a question to all three witnesses—are there any particular products or markets that we should be aware of when thinking about how this legislation will be applied in the coming, say, five years?

Sheldon Mills:

I will let my colleagues go first, then I will come in.

Edwin Schooling Latter:

Let me raise one area where work is under way. FinTech was mentioned, but the area of crypto-assets has been popular in some quarters. That is an example of an area where we have taken a very proactive approach to putting limitations on where those can be marketed to retail investors who may not fully understand the difficulties of valuing those, the risks attached to them, or the possibilities that they would lose all of their money the more speculative end of that product range.

Sheldon Mills:

I would agree with Edwin. The main area which we will see in relation not just to financial services, but to any product, is the continued development of digital means both of accessing and of providing products and services. Our approach to that is twofold: one approach is to encourage innovation. These products and services can bring efficiency and lower cost, and they can bring different levels of access for consumers, including vulnerable consumers. However, while doing that, we ensure we are clear on the ethics and consumer protection aspects of these new forms of products and services. Those are some of the areas where we will see future opportunities and challenges within the financial services system.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Q Do you regret, then, not moving more quickly on the buy now, pay later industry, because that is not regulated by the FCA at the moment, yet that is exactly an industry which we all now recognise is causing consumer detriment to people on low incomes?

Sheldon Mills:

With respect, I cannot regret not acting on something which I do not regulate. However, what we are doing is looking at that area through the form of this review. As you know, and as is implicit in your question, that does sit outside our specific regulation.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Victoria, I think you were about to say something.

Victoria Saporta:

Sorry, I am conscious of the time. I have basically one comment to make in our particular area. I agree very much with Sheldon on digitalisation and with Edwin on crypto. Another particular area that we are looking at—

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allocated for this session. I thank our witnesses on behalf of the Committee for their evidence.