Clause 28 - Part 4A permissions: variation or cancellation on initiative of FCA

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 1 December 2020.

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Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 10:00, 1 December 2020

Clause 28 introduces schedule 11, which amends the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to put in place a new process so that the FCA can more quickly cancel the authorisation of firms that it believes are no longer continuing regulated activity.

Since the existing grounds and method for cancellations were introduced, the FCA-regulated population has expanded, such that the FCA now regulates approximately 59,000 firms. Under the current cancellation process, it can take considerable time for the FCA to build its evidential case that the firm is no longer carrying out authorised activity, even when it is likely that the firm is no longer doing so. That means that there is a delay between the firms being identified as inactive by the FCA, and the FCA being able to remove or vary their authorisation.

The FCA estimates that at any point in time, the number of firms no longer carrying on FCA-regulated activities but which have not sought cancellation to their authorisation is about 300 to 400. Although that is a small proportion of the 59,000 FCA-regulated population that I mentioned, the Government nevertheless consider that it creates a risk, particularly in regard to the financial services register. Fraudsters can take advantage of inaccuracies in the register to their benefit by cloning inactive firms to scam consumers. That involves impersonating a firm that is on the register to give people the impression that they are dealing with a regulated entity.

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

What is the interaction between that register and the Companies House register? If we removed an inactive business from one register, it would make sense to remove it from the other.

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

As far as I am aware, the Companies House register is a separate entity run from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A considerable amount of work is going on at the moment to look at how the data around Companies House registration works, reflecting concerns raised in the December 2018 Financial Action Task Force report. The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point about the alignment of the two registers, and I will need to come back to her on that matter. Clearly, it would be perverse to remove an FCA-registered entity but not have a forfeit of registration from Companies House. I shall write to the Committee and to the hon. Lady on that matter.

I want to ensure that consumers can take informed financial services decisions. To achieve that, we need to ensure that the financial services register is accurate and that consumers are not exposed to unnecessary risk. This new process will sit alongside the existing process, to allow the FCA to streamline cases in which it suspects that a firm is no longer carrying on an authorised activity, enabling the FCA to more quickly cancel the firm’s authorisation and update the financial services register accordingly. In cases in which the FCA is looking to cancel a firm’s authorisation for another reason, this will continue to pass through the existing process.

I therefore recommend that this clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I suspect that I am going to follow up on the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. As the Minister has explained, the problem that this clause and schedule are intended to resolve is dormant companies that no longer do the things that they were doing when originally registered with the FCA. Regulation is sometimes described as a needle-in-a-haystack problem, because there are so many companies and there is so much going on. Okay, it is not a massive number; it is 300 or 400 among 59,000 companies, but if we can strip those out, we make the job of the regulator that little bit easier because it is monitoring fewer companies and there is less danger of the cloning activity that the Minister described.

However, this does prompt a question: if 59,000 companies are regulated by the FCA and some 4 million to 5 million are registered with Companies House—we will come on to this under other clauses shortly—surely the process that the Minister has just outlined for clause 28 and schedule 11 should apply to companies there, if we find that they are simply paper organisations that may be designed as much to deceive as to actually carry out any business. Where they are engaged in activities that they should not be, they should be taken off the register, too, but that would of course imply a change in job description for Companies House. It has traditionally regarded itself more as a register and library rather than a real regulator or what might be called a partner in law enforcement. Therefore, can the Minister at least—he will hear this more than once today—talk to colleagues in BEIS to encourage a parallel approach with Companies House? It seems to me that what is being done in clause 28 is sensible, but it is only part of the picture of clamping down on illegal activity.

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

The point here is that clearly a business could be registered at Companies House, could historically have done regulated activity under the FCA and that regulated activity could have ceased; it may have other business activities that are completely compliant with Companies House law, but it should not be registered for doing financial services regulated activity. The question would then be this: what would be the obligation on Companies House to make an interaction so that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the definition of its activities would be amended?

Obviously, there are complex legal issues here. This is associated with the review that BEIS will be coming back to, responding to. I think it is important that we acknowledge that issue about not doing a regulated activity but continuing to trade legally in other realms. But the point that I hear and recognise needs to be clarified is this: what is the interaction between the two processes? I undertake to examine that and to make clear to my colleagues in BEIS what the risks are and what the view of this Committee is.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 28 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.