Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:11 am on 19th October 2022.
We will now hear oral evidence from Chris Hemsley, managing director of the Payment Systems Regulator. For this panel we have until 10.55. Could the witness please introduce himself for the record?
Q Thank you, Chris. I think we would all agree that payment systems are an increasingly important feature of our financial system. To be fair to them, I am trying to ask all the witnesses today broadly the same open, wide question, which is this: as we think about the Bill and the importance of the United Kingdom as a location for financial services—they are a really big part of our economy and, as we have just heard, produce jobs and prosperity across the whole United Kingdom—where do you think the opportunities for us are in the Bill, not just as we diverge from European-mandated regulation, but as we embrace new technology and seek to make ourselves more competitive? I will lead you a little, because some of the witnesses have struggled to get there: who is your competitive set when you think about the corpus as well as the operation of regulation? I hope that is open enough to give you the chance to speak.
First off, I agree with your premise. The payment systems sit behind our day-to-day lives. They underpin what our businesses can do and our daily experiences as individuals paying and receiving. They genuinely underpin our productivity, economy and society. I absolutely agree.
In terms of the opportunity in the Bill, one of the key things that we will no doubt pick up is that it provides an opportunity to correct a specific problem that we have today. Some of the powers in the original financial services banking reform framework that the PSR was created under were turned off by some European legislation, and that prevents us from acting with that full suite of powers. That is really important for competitiveness, because if we can get the rules in the system right, that allows us to build trust in digital payments, which will support the economy and growth.
The other issue that I would pull out is that there are some quite important definitional clarifications in the Bill that ensure that the payment systems regulatory framework works for cryptopayments—stablecoin. We are now a regulator of the sterling finality system, which is a distributed ledger system. That bit of future-proofing, again, allows us to seize that opportunity of new technologies and new ways of payment and to make sure that they are appropriately regulated.
Q Do you think that the PSR has the expertise and resource to effectively regulate payment systems using digital assets such as stablecoins? What I am getting to is the pros or the challenges and risks that stablecoins might pose in terms of consumer access and competitiveness. I want to hear your opinion on that.
I think that the short answer to that is yes, but it is a challenge. We are always seeking to recruit and make sure that we have the right balance of skills in the organisation. We have a range of specialists who cover different technologies and payment systems, so it is not something to be complacent about.
The other observation I would make is that some of the risks and issues—and some of the opportunities—presented by things such as cryptopayment and distributed ledger are familiar problems, but with a different technology behind them. We are worried about our consumers’ money. Is it safe? Are arrangements for getting access to these systems fair and open? Are there competition problems? It is really important—the Bill does this—to make sure that that regulatory framework to tackle those familiar problems is also turned on for these new technologies, and that is the balance we need to strike.
Q I hear what you are saying, but it is not the same thing. I know those issues still exist with other forms of payment, but for stablecoin and digital assets, consumer protection levels need to be monitored more; consumers are more vulnerable, just because of the lack of knowledge. I am trying to get to whether you have specific tactics to ensure access, consumer protection and competition.
We need to continue working closely with the two other principal regulators that tackle these issues—the FCA and the Bank of England—as we do today. We do that today with other technologies. We want the full framework to be turned on. With the FCA, we for example ensure that individual payment firms protect people’s money. You are absolutely right; in a world where people might not understand what a particular asset is, and its potential to reduce or substantially change in value, there is a really important role for the FCA in ensuring that firms are dealing with their customers properly. There is then a role for us in ensuring that the systems work, and that the rules are open, transparent and protect consumers, system-wide. The Bank of England ensures there is sufficient security and resilience, so that the systems actually work when we need them to, as we increasingly rely on them.
Q Perhaps we could come back, Mr Hemsley, to the issue of stablecoin. Some countries have actually banned its use; the European Union, as we have heard from the markets in cryptoassets regulation, is going ahead, along with the United States in terms of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, both at state and federal level, with getting regulation in process.
I am glad to see that there is some regulation in the Bill, but you used terms such as “future-proofing”. With this technology, we bandy around terms such as “innovation” and “future-proofing”. What does that actually mean, in real financial terms? Frankly, it is not the type of language that I, as a legislator, would like to see used in regulation of a market. It is not just that it is unfamiliar; it does not seem like the correct kind of language or descriptives to use when we can have an impact, predominantly on consumers who might use these commodities and assets digitally. What do you mean by “future-proofing”?
That is a very good challenge. I want to ensure that the full regulatory framework that we have in the UK is turned on and applies properly, so that we can manage consumer protection and competition risks. That is what I mean in terms of that definition. That applies particularly to how payment systems regulation works. We have some relatively broad definitions of what can be covered. The Bill helpfully clarifies that those broad definitions of where regulation can apply are sufficiently broad. The way that the regulation works is that it still requires the Treasury to issue a designation—the Minister issuing a designation of a system—and our statutory duties and checks and balances then kick in. It is shorthand. If I try a slightly more precise framework, you need to ensure that the initial definition is sufficiently broad, so that those subsequent decisions on if and how something should be regulated can apply.
Q Forgive me, but you said there are similar issues. Frankly, there is nothing new under the sun. I am a fan of the technology, but it is the technology that has changed, not the issue. My concern is that these broad definitions, using terms such as “innovation” and “future-proofing”, do not give us the proper ability to scrutinise what is in front of us, because we are not talking about the reality on the ground. You face the same issues either in a fiat currency or a digital fiat currency.
I agree with what you said. There are some familiar risks, and some new ones, that we need to be alive to. The fact that for the first time we could see the use of mass payment systems that are not linked to fiat is a new issue, and one that we need to manage.
I come back to an earlier point, which may help you to take decisions on the elements around definitions of what can be regulated. There is a series of gateways, almost: before something is regulated, it needs to fall within the definition of the Bill, and the Bill helps with that. There is then a test in the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 that turns on the PSR’s powers: something needs to be designated by the Secretary of State for it to be regulated, and then our powers can apply. I want that to work. I want the definitions, the designation and our powers to work in this new context. I can see these new issues, as well as the familiar competition access issues that we have had to deal with in the past.
Q I will be super-quick. The Bill provides for the reimbursement of fraud victims who send money using the faster payment system. Could that result in a legislative barrier that prevents you from implementing mandatory reimbursement for fraud on other payment systems?
The short answer is no. There is an additional requirement for us to bring forward proposals on the faster payment system, and we have already set them out in anticipation of that. We fully support that. The Bill does something broader. It removes this unintended consequence of European law for all payment systems. We will have the ability to use our full suite of powers, including in respect of fraud prevention, for all the payment systems.
Our powers vary slightly depending on which system we are talking about. We could apply these issues to, say, the cheque system or the BACS system, not just faster payments. We take a different approach on those systems, but the Bill allows you to turn on our full suite of powers to tackle the issues across the full suite of payment systems.
Q David Postings said that anything we could do to improve fraud prevention would be welcome. Are there any other areas of the Bill that could be strengthened to improve fraud prevention?
I agree with what was said in the conversation you had earlier: it is really important to share data. I am not aware of particular barriers, but if there are any, I would of course support addressing them. The Bill gives us what we need: we need our FSBRA powers to be turned on. That allows us to move from the current approach, through which we have been indirectly tackling fraud, to being able to tackle it directly through the system rules.
Q Do you support data-sharing agreements and things like that?
Q PayPal Europe decided to exit accounts, including those of the Free Speech Union and the Daily Sceptic, and although PayPal reinstated the affected accounts, what happened raised concerns about the protection of freedom of speech in the UK. Are the regulators—you and the FCA—able to address the apparently unchecked ability of financial service operators, such as PayPal, to effect private economic sanctions and censorship in the UK through denial of service actions? Are legislative safeguards needed in the Bill, or in other relevant legislation?
This is principally a matter for the FCA, so it might be best for me to follow up on it in writing, and potentially with the FCA.
Q That would be helpful. Even though they are part of the temporary permissions regime, should operators such as PayPal be subject to the UK’s Financial Ombudsman Service, so that dissatisfied customers can seek redress?
Again, that is more for the FCA, but I can offer you a general view. It is in everyone’s interests that the same risks and regulations apply to people carrying out payments business, including payment systems and payment firms. That is my general answer, but perhaps I could pick that up in correspondence, given that it falls principally to the FCA.
That would be great; thank you. Maybe we can take that up with the FCA.
Order. I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the allotted time for this panel. On behalf of the Committee, I thank our witness.