Clause 22 - Regulated activities and Gibraltar

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 26 November 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

Clause 22 delivers the Government’s commitment to enable Gibraltar-based firms to have continued access to the UK’s financial markets. We move on, finally, from benchmarks and LIBOR; I cannot say that I am too disappointed by that.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I recognise that I missed a lot of exciting things this morning, but I do not think the Minister is really moving on from that, as he now has to do the work to put it into effect.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

It was projected that we would get up to clause 20 by the end of this morning, in fact.

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

I allowed myself a moment of light-heartedness, but I can see that that was not appropriate.

In financial services, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 allows for several categories of authorised persons to carry on regulated activities in the UK, such as firms with domestic part 4A permission or, until the end of the transition period, EEA passporting firms. The clause provides a regime through which firms authorised for activities in Gibraltar can be recognised as authorised persons in the UK.

When significant areas of financial services regulation were set at EU level, that meant that the UK and Gibraltar followed the same rules. Now that the UK and Gibraltar have left the European Union together, the legal framework that provides for mutual market access and aligned standards needs amending. Without new permanent arrangements, Gibraltar will lose its current breadth and depth of access to the UK market, which not only would damage Gibraltar’s economy and our special and historic relationship but could lead to disruption and more limited choice for UK consumers.

The detailed application of the regime is set out in two schedules, which in turn insert two new schedules into the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000: schedule 2A, as inserted by schedule 6, governing the operation of the arrangements for Gibraltar-based firms; and schedule 2B, as inserted by schedule 7, which provides for the requirements that outgoing UK-based firms must meet before accessing the Gibraltarian market.

I should clarify that we are not legislating for Gibraltar. The measure is primarily about Gibraltar-based firms’ access to the UK. The Government have a responsibility to ensure financial stability and the correct operation of the UK financial services system, particularly when we open our markets to other jurisdictions. The clause therefore also requires the Treasury to lay a report before Parliament about the operation of the regime every two years.

The report will explain the Treasury’s assessment of whether the three conditions in the clause—that is, compatibility with the objectives in the clause, the alignment of law and practice, and co-operation—have been met during any reporting period, and whether the Treasury therefore proposes to enable market access for particular activities. That will give Parliament confidence that regulatory and supervisory standards are being applied in a consistent manner by UK and Gibraltarian institutions, so that UK consumers can benefit from products from a wide range of providers without additional risks.

Given that clause 22 is central to the creation of permanent market access arrangements between the UK and Gibraltar, I recommend that it stand part of the Bill.

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

Like the Minister, I too bid a fond farewell to LIBOR. Clauses 22 and 23 and schedules 6 and 7 establish the Gibraltar authorisation regime, which could be described as a sort of mini-single market in financial services between the UK and Gibraltar. The Government have set out many detailed pages in the schedules in particular about how that mini-single market should work.

Up until now, Gibraltar has been regarded as a European territory that was a member of the EU through its status as a British overseas territory. That meant that Gibraltar had full access to single market rights, including those in financial services. Given that Gibraltar, as well as the UK, has now left the EU and is coming towards the end of the transition period, the Government clearly felt that they had to put a regime in place to be the basis of future trade in financial services between Gibraltar and the UK.

Such a regime was, to some extent, necessary, because of the volume of trade in financial services that already exists between the UK and Gibraltar. We heard during last week’s oral evidence that roughly one in five car insurance policies in the UK is held by Gibraltar-based insurance companies. As I said during an oral evidence session last week, there is great good will towards Gibraltar on both sides of the House. The people of Gibraltar voted to remain in the EU by an overwhelming margin—I think it was about 95%—so we could describe the clauses and the accompanying schedules as the consolation prize to Gibraltar for having to depart the EU at the same time as the UK.

I know that under clause 22 the Treasury will report every two years on how the regime is operating. I cannot fail to reflect that that is precisely the kind of regular reporting mechanism that the Minister so stoutly rejected about four times on Tuesday when we were trying to insert it into the clauses on capital requirements. Why is it right and necessary for the Treasury to review this regime every two years but not to review the impact of change in the capital requirements on major parts of our financial system?

According to schedule 6, the report must have particular regard to paragraphs 7, 8 and 9 of that schedule, which set out the details of the new regime. Paragraph 7 tries to instil protections for the UK into this process, including for the soundness and stability of our own system, and, according to paragraph 7(c),

“to prevent the use of the UK financial system for a purpose connected with financial crime”.

It goes on to talk about ensuring markets work well, the protection of consumers and, interestingly, according to paragraph 7(h), about the need

“to maintain and improve relations between the United Kingdom and other countries and territories with…significant markets for financial services.”

I would like to ask the Minister a few questions about the significance of the review mechanism against these criteria. Does the rolling two-year commitment mean that Gibraltar should not necessarily view these arrangements as permanent? Is the right way to think of this, rather than as the establishment of a permanent mini-single market between the UK and Gibraltar in financial services, as something akin to a renewable two-year licence to operate in the UK under this regime? Or does that overstate the importance of this two-year Treasury review mechanism?

With regard to financial crime and money laundering —we will talk about this later—has the Minister read and considered the Financial Action Task Force and Council of Europe report into “Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures” in Gibraltar? That report, which was published about a year ago, found that while the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission and the Gibraltar Gambling Commissioner had a “robust”—that word again—

“understanding of risks at sectoral level”,

there were shortcomings because of

“underestimating the cross-border threat which Gibraltar faces as an international financial centre.”

It also says that

“the assessment and understanding of the FT risk are affected by insufficient consideration of data available on transactions to/from conflict zones and high-risk jurisdictions. The risk related to cross-border transportation of cash is also” misunderstood, and goes on to say that the financing terrorism risk is “not properly understood” by the financial institutions, particularly banks and e-money providers, and that banks do not properly consider “transactions to high-risk countries”. The picture painted here is of regulators trying to do the right thing and operate to UK standards, but of financial institutions operating in the territory that are sometimes not fully aware of the risks outlined in the report. What is the Minister’s response?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 2:45, 26 November 2020

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful and important case about the importance of ensuring that we do not inadvertently support money laundering or standards that could enable that by accident. It is worth reflecting that in February this year, the EU anti-money laundering watchdog, MONEYVAL, called for Gibraltar to do more. One question for us in this legislation is whether there are things we can do to ensure that we are not inadvertently creating access that would enable such behaviour, now that we are leaving the European Union, which might have been offering that level of scrutiny. Does my right hon. Friend have a view on joining up those dots?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.  In fairness, I do not think that the UK system on money laundering and financial crime is perfect—we have our own issues, which we have debated before and will debate later in our consideration of the Bill—but these findings should be taken seriously, particularly as we are creating a new situation. In the past, both the UK and Gibraltar were part of the EU and we operated under the single market rules, including those on financial services. I do not know whether what we are creating is unique—I will ask the Minister about uniqueness—but it is certainly a new concept: a mini-single market in financial services between two territories.

What is the Minister’s response to the report’s findings? In particular, given that protection from financial crime has been written into the Bill through the Government’s two-year review process, what contact has there been between the Treasury, the relevant regulators and the financial institutions in Gibraltar since the report was published a year ago? What actions do the authorities propose to take? I certainly believe that the Gibraltar authorities will want to act in good faith and try to uphold proper standards, but some of the report’s findings are concerning.

Another issue raised last week was the difference in corporation tax between Gibraltar and the UK: Gibraltar’s main corporation tax rate of 10% is significantly lower than our own. The Minister from Gibraltar said in his evidence, with some charm, that corporation tax would not be a factor in location—that, if anything, quality of life was more important. I have no doubt that the quality of life in Gibraltar is very good; looking out on a slightly gloomy London autumn afternoon, I have no doubt that the weather and climate is a big attraction, too. I am sure that he was right about that, but it is a big tax difference. He also pointed out—again, quite fairly—that the corporation tax differential predates our departure from the EU and has been in place for some time. However, this is a new situation, with a new, specially designed market access regime for Gibraltar being enshrined in UK law. Has the Treasury made any assessment of the likelihood of corporate relocations from the UK to Gibraltar as a result of the new measures under discussion?

I also ask the Minister about the condition, which I have described as interesting, about relationships with other territories with significant financial services markets. Why has it been written into schedule 6 as something that the Government should consider in their biennial review? Is it considered that this mini-single market will create some sort of vulnerability in those other relationships? Why is it thought possible that the arrangement might affect our relationships with other territories?

Finally, how unique and specific to the Gibraltar situation is the new regime? Could it conceivably be extended to other territories such as Jersey and the other Channel Islands? As the Minister will know, some Crown dependencies have been accused of being tax havens or of being susceptible to money laundering. Is it possible that such a regime could, in effect, be used to extend the reach of UK regulators to territories other than Gibraltar? This is a very big topic that has been debated quite a lot over recent years. I suppose I am asking about the Treasury’s thinking, rather than just about the Bill: might the arrangement with Gibraltar be a model for the treatment of other Crown dependencies or overseas territories, or should we view it as specific and purely a consequence of Gibraltar having to leave the European Union? I would be grateful if the Minister considered and responded to some of those points.

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

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I just have a few quick questions, mainly coming from the evidence we heard last week. During the fourth sitting, at column 125, the Minister, Albert Isola, said that the Bill is akin to enabling legislation, and that other things would need to be worked through in relation to other aspects of the financial services that are currently dealt with. If the Minister could clarify what would happen about those other areas, that would be useful.

Secondly, perhaps the Minister could give further assurances about access to the Financial Ombudsman Service. It is important that consumers here should have adequate protections in the new arrangements, and that those should be made clear. That is the kind of scenario that would not be found out until a consumer needed to make a complaint. Something would have to go wrong for it to be addressed, and I would not want to be such a consumer, feeling in those circumstances that I did not have recourse to the protection that I would have had if I had chosen an insurance policy not based in Gibraltar. It would be useful to hear about that.

Lastly, it would be helpful to have any further clarity that the Minister can give about what would happen to UK businesses and customers if market access were suddenly withdrawn, and where that would leave consumers in the UK. Would they be left without policies and protection? What would happen as a reaction to that, should market access be withdrawn for a period of time? Would it mean that businesses would dry up, withdraw their UK services and go somewhere else, or does the Minister envisage other scenarios happening in that case? I appreciate that it is a scenario that he would want to avoid at all costs, but it could well arise, and I want to ask what state the Government’s preparations for such a scenario are in.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I suppose I want the Minister to reassure me about the fact that financial markets are rapid and regulation—if there is an equivalence regime, or mini-single market as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East put it—allows the Gibraltarian authorities to do the regulation and then have immediate access to the UK. That may be done in a way that gives us some benefit; perhaps the Minister will say what the benefits of the regime are, particularly for UK consumers, given that Gibraltar does 90% of its business with the UK anyway. Perhaps he will also say what the risks would be.

My right hon. Friend spent a little time raising some of the risks and I suppose they can be characterised by the view that in a very liquid and rapid global money market, if there are vulnerabilities or back doors into regimes that are interconnected, that causes risks. We saw some of those risks playing out during the global financial crisis. To what extent does the Minister believe that the Gibraltar regime for which the clauses legislate will be—I am going to use that word—robust enough to prevent the opening of back doors to vulnerabilities for all sorts of money that is sloshing round the world? My right hon. Friend mentioned some of that—money used for money laundering, drugs and terrorism. It is important that the defences that we have against coming under that kind of influence should be maintained and strengthened, rather than weakened.

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

My hon. Friend is giving the speech that I wanted to give, so I thought I would intervene. One example, to express some of the concerns we might have, is the fact that in the Gibraltar regime there is currently no legal requirement to refuse registration to someone with a criminal record. In practice that does happen. It is something that the FATF report flags, but it is not inevitable. One thing we might want to think about for our regulatory regime—and I take the point made by the shadow Minister about not suggesting that the UK regime is perfect—is looking at whether there are lessons in the report that should be put into the Bill to make sure we do not create such a back door. That seems an eminently practical example of the sorts of things that might happen if people with criminal convictions, who may still be able to access financial regulations as a result of the Gibraltar regime, are now able to operate in the UK.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey 3:00, 26 November 2020

My hon. Friend gives an example of exactly the kind of point I was trying to make more generally about ensuring that these regimes are correct. Given that Gibraltar governs itself, the Bill makes it clear that Gibraltarian regulators will continue to do that job in Gibraltar and supervise the companies based there after this arrangement has been legislated for. That is quite proper in many ways, but it does give our regulators in a small number of narrowly-defined circumstances—I think this is the phrase—the duty or the right to leap in and do some regulation or enforcement presumably. Will the Minister say a bit more about that? He did mention it in passing in his introduction to the clause, in which he talked about financial stability. We clearly had some recent examples during the 2008 crash, where some robust enforcement had to take place with offshore island countries or territories that were trying to take money out of our jurisdiction in ways that were unacceptable at the time.

There is therefore a financial stability issue, but there is surely something about consumer protection, fraud and money laundering here as well. Perhaps he could talk in more detail about what those narrow circumstances are. Our regulators will be reluctant to romp and stomp all over Gibraltarian institutions and their regulators. Yet, by definition, Gibraltar is a small territory, and it will have less capacity to deal with some of the sophisticated fraudsters and international terrorist, money-laundering types than we do here. I am not saying that our regime is perfect, if we are honest, and we will get on to that later in the Bill.

My worry is that this might inadvertently create some vulnerabilities. I suppose what I am seeking from the Minister is some reassurance that the regulators have got a handle on this, that they will not allow the wish not to infantilise the Gibraltarian regulators to be a reason for not paying close attention to this, and that there will be some close supervision of what is happening, particularly once the regime is established. Once these things settle down, it is then that things start to happen. If a door is opened inadvertently somewhere, this money swilling around tends to find it, and then things can start changing very rapidly.

What warning flags does this regime put up to ensure that if that dynamic begins to happen, we can close it down rapidly? Does the Bill expect some kind of relationship between the Gibraltarian regulators and the Treasury? How does the Minister expect that relationship to work out? Obviously, I do not want to spend all my time being so negative about these things, so will the Minister also say a little more about what the benefits might be?

Will the Minister also talk about consumer protection in his response? Motor insurance is one of the largest components of the financial services that Gibraltar currently sells into the UK, and clearly there is a big retail consumer protection angle to such financial services.

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

While we are considering the variations for companies based in Gibraltar as opposed to the UK, it would be helpful if the Minister answered the question that the insurance bodies could not: about VAT benefits for companies based in Gibraltar and the likelihood, now that we have left the European Union, of companies moving more industry to Gibraltar because of that benefit, which could also affect consumers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Minister set out those figures? The industry seemed slightly coy when we spoke to it about those matters.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Clearly, the potential situation is there now. In evidence, the response—reasonably—was that that has not happened to date, even though there have been close connections between Gibraltar and the UK. However, these things tend to be dynamic and, once the agreement with Gibraltar is established, our tax regimes may diverge even further. If the Chancellor has his way after yesterday’s statement, I suspect they might have to.

Will that create more of a temptation for financial service companies to offshore to Gibraltar outside of the UK? Is the Minister convinced that that will not happen as a result of the Bill? I want reassurance from him about those potential weaknesses or risks and about consumer protections. He might even want to say a bit about benefits, if he feels up to it.

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

I counted several questions in those four contributions and I will do my best to address them. First, I will reiterate what we are trying to do: to create the market access regime for Gibraltar-based financial services wishing to operate in the UK, and to make provision for outbound UK-based firms wishing to operate in Gibraltar.

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East made a number of points, which I will start to address. He asked about the two-year reporting mechanism. The Gibraltar authorisation regime provides a broader and deeper market access into the UK market—including to the retail market—than other market access regimes, so the Treasury needs to be satisfied continuously that all conditions are met. We will therefore work carefully with the Minister we spoke to last week from the Government of Gibraltar to ensure that those conditions can be satisfied on an ongoing basis.

It is important to contextualise the nature of the relationship with Gibraltar. There has been a lot of dialogue, visits—not latterly—and evaluation of each other’s situation with respect to market access. In the lead up to the new regime, the Treasury will assess Gibraltar against the relevant market conditions for the sub-sectors to which it seeks access, and we will work closely with the Government of Gibraltar. The most significant area is the Gibraltarian insurance market, and 90% of that is UK facing.

The right hon. Gentleman compared the two-year review to our refusal to review the prudential regimes. As we have already discussed, the prudential measures include an accountability framework; we had a different view on the suitability of the one we suggested versus the amendment. The regulators have the expertise to set rules in the complex and technical areas of financial regulation and can do so in an agile way.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the FATF report. I have not read it in full, but I am aware of its broad indications of the challenges that exist. I am also aware that, while we had a good report, there are some challenges that we need to address in the UK. I will not hold back on admitting that. I will write to him specifically on those measures that pertain to Gibraltar, because I ought to do justice to his proper scrutiny.

There is an issue with the extension of the Gibraltarian regime to other countries. That is a bespoke regime that has been specifically designed for Gibraltar, recognising what the right hon. Gentleman and others will acknowledge is a special historical relationship, and our past common membership of the EU. These circumstances do not apply to any other jurisdictions, so that is not designed as a model or, as he said, a mini-single market to be extended elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central asked about the scope of the FOS jurisdiction over products sold by Gibraltarian firms. Our intention is that all Gibraltar-based firms with a schedule 2A commission will be covered by the FOS’s compulsory jurisdiction. That ensures that individuals and small businesses can seek appropriate redress. However, the extension of the FOS’s jurisdiction to schedule 2A firms does not require express wording in this Bill. The Bill makes schedule 2A firms a type of authorised person, so the FCA be able to make rules about them, bringing them inside the FOS’s remit. The FCA will be reflecting that change in the rules governing the FOS’s jurisdiction. Firms already under the FOS’s voluntary jurisdiction will transfer to the compulsory jurisdiction, with no loss of eligibility for their consumers in respect of actions occurring before they entered the compulsory jurisdiction.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central also asked about the withdrawal of equivalence. If market access were to be withdrawn, schedule 2A puts in place winding down arrangements that enable the Government to pass secondary legislation providing for Gibraltar-based firms to exit the market in an orderly fashion, with appropriate protections for UK consumers. That is what would happen in market failure.

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

The Minister was just talking about the Financial Ombudsman Service being extended. One of the things that we might be concerned about is that our constituents might experience fraud from companies based in Gibraltar, perhaps in relation to insurance. Many of us can think of some famous Brexit backers who run insurance companies in Gibraltar and might have concerns about these issues. The FAFT report tells us that at the moment the supervision is only for new companies. There is a historical legacy of companies that have not previously been registered that might, therefore, under new supervision, be companies that we would not want to see operating in the UK. The Minister talked about the FOS’s requirements being retrospective, but that will be the same with the FCA. Can he clarify that if there are companies that are historically registered in Gibraltar, which we would not want to see registered here, perhaps because the people running them have criminal records, will they retrospectively be denied a licence, or is it only those from new registrations onwards, as with the current Gibraltarian regime?

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

I wish to examine that matter carefully on the basis of the FATF report. I totally understand the clear point the hon. Lady is making about the retrospective nature of this and what could we essentially onshore, in terms of access to UK consumers, and the inherent and apparent risks in that. If the hon. Lady will permit me, I would like to examine that and get back to her.

The hon. Member for Wallasey asked about the independent Gibraltarian regulator and whether it will remain the supervisor of Gibraltar-based firms. The explicit intention for the UK regulators, contained in proposed schedule 2A, is to guarantee the protection of UK consumers, but that will be exercisable only on specific grounds, for example where a situation is urgent or if a Gibraltar-based firm is contravening a rule. We are not trying to take over their regulator.

The hon. Lady asked if the parties will co-operate sufficiently. There has been close and frequent co-operation over the past three years, between both Governments and regulators. They are developing their regime, and I am confident that will continue. The Minister in Gibraltar —effectively, my opposite number there—was positive about that last week. Schedule 2A will create a framework for this effective co-operation. That also means that the UK and Gibraltar Governments, the respective regulators and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme will put in place effective procedures to carry out any dialogue and co-ordinated action for the good functioning of the regime.

The hon. Members for Walthamstow and for Wallasey asked about consumer protection. It is obviously of the upmost importance that we provide the right level of protection for UK customers of Gibraltarian products, and that the level of protection afforded is communicated to them. Under this regime, most UK-based consumers purchasing products from Gibraltarian providers will receive a similar level of compensation as those purchasing their products from UK firms, whether through the FSCS or through the equivalent Gibraltarian schemes.

Schedule 8 will amend the Financial Services and Markets Act in relation to the FSCS to adapt the provisions to the new framework, and I can confirm that, under the GAR, UK consumers of Gibraltarian products will receive a similarly high level of compensation as consumers of UK-based firms, either through the FSCS or through the equivalent Gibraltarian scheme.

The other point that was made on Second Reading, and possibly in some of the questions last week—the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East referred to it—was the risk of relocation, notwithstanding the different climates. While we were members of the EU together, financial services firms were already able to base themselves in Gibraltar and access the UK market. Reflecting on what the witnesses said last week, a wide range of issues will have played a role in firms choosing Gibraltar as a base, including the availability of specialised personnel. Given the geography of the Rock, obviously there are some constraints there.

The hon. Member for Wallasey referenced the differential tax regimes, but there is a wide range of factors that would clearly provide some meaningful checks on rapid movement over there to access that regime. There are also significant costs involved in relocating to another jurisdiction. Obviously, Gibraltar is fiscally autonomous; it has its own democratically elected Government, who will continue to set the rates of taxation. The interaction between ourselves is a matter of speculation. I do not think that I can say much else on that point. I hope that has given some satisfaction to Opposition colleagues.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.