Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:27 am on 19th October 2022.
Before we start hearing from the witnesses, do any Members wish to make any declarations of interest in connection with the Bill?
I guide the Committee and witnesses to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I chair the insurance and financial services all-party parliamentary group and am a former insurance broker.
I have money saved and invested with Nationwide building society, which has submitted evidence on its own account. I am also with a credit union that I believe is affiliated to the association of one of the witnesses.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain.
I am a vice-chair of the APPGs on environmental, social, and governance and on financial markets and services. I also spent 14 years in financial services and my wife works in financial services.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on financial resilience.
Anybody else? No.
We will now hear oral evidence from Sheldon Mills, interim executive director of strategy and competition at the Financial Conduct Authority; Sarah Pritchard, executive director of markets at the Financial Conduct Authority; and Victoria Saporta, executive director of prudential policy at the Prudential Regulation Authority. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order that the Committee agreed. For this panel, we have until 10.10 am. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?
I am Sarah Pritchard, the executive director of markets at the Financial Conduct Authority.
I am Sheldon Mills, the executive director for consumers and competition at the Financial Conduct Authority.
I am Vicky Saporta, the executive director of prudential policy at the Prudential Regulation Authority.
Q Good morning. Thank you for appearing before the Committee. I have a general framing question to open up the conversation. I suspect that the Chair would like you to keep your answers short, because I know many colleagues on both sides of the Committee want to come in.
The opportunity of the Bill, which will be the first piece of ab initio legislation for 23 years in the financial services domain, is to help the effective functioning of financial markets in society and to help the economic prosperity on which we all depend. Will you talk a little about how you see the opportunities in the Bill? How do you think about the competitiveness of the UK regulatory corpus? How would you advise the Committee on making the best advantage of changes in technology—such as digital ledger technology, but that is just one—and of the opportunity to pare back the corpus of inherited European legislation to those purposes?
Thank you, Minister. I very much agree with your comment that the Bill presents a unique opportunity to set a framework for financial services that is world leading and the best in practice internationally. In my view, the Bill as introduced on First and Second Reading achieves that.
I will pull out a couple of things that I think are particularly important. Best international practice, as set out by international standards setters and the IMF, is for operationally independent regulators to pursue technical rule making based on the framework and objectives set by Government. That is because there is plenty of empirical evidence that the operational independence of regulators is associated with better financial stability and economic stability outcomes. That is very much recognised among the financial regulatory community internationally, and it supports competitiveness.
That is important, particularly for a global financial centre, which we have the pleasure to have here in London and the UK, because, as the IMF said in its recent FSAP of the UK, financial stability is a global public good within the UK. Our actions over here, as we have seen in recent events, can spill over to other markets. It is therefore very important that we have this high international standing so that regulators who allow firms to come to London to be regulated by us can have trust in that.
The Bill achieves all of that, but it gives us greater powers, and with greater powers must come greater accountability. We at the PRA and the Bank really welcome that greater accountability. We always have seen our policy frameworks as being supported by accountability to Parliament, and the various provisions and amendments support that.
On competitiveness, there is a new secondary objective that did not exist before, which says that we must pursue competitiveness and growth in the medium and long term as a secondary objective. That is, as long as we are advancing safety, soundness and financial stability within the PRA’s remit, we should look at the options that advance competitiveness and growth in the medium and long term.
We think that is the correct balance. It will allow us to take a very proactive approach to competitiveness. The PRA issued our approach to the Bill, as it currently stands, to aid accountability to you. In that discussion paper, we set out some thoughts about how we would go about doing that. The Bill also has certain areas that would help fintech in the UK.
Q Does anyone want to more directly address my question on competitiveness and opportunity?
I will be brief, in the interests of time. Clearly, the Bill represents a significant opportunity—almost a once-in-a-generation opportunity—to transform financial services regulation. There are a few components to that. The first is the fact that the regulators will be given the powers to transpose the retained EU law into UK law. That provides an opportunity for us to think in terms of the UK financial services system and what we need to support UK financial services and ensure that we are a leading centre, worldwide, for financial services.
We welcome the other opportunity in the Bill—the secondary competitiveness objective—on the basis that it provides a spur to us to think about growth and competitiveness as we pursue our primary objectives of competition, consumer protection and market integrity.
The final point, which goes to your point about the corpus of rules, is that I think some of the powers, and some of the exhortations in the Bill for us to review our rules, are important. It is important for us always to have an efficient rule book and system so that we do not place as much burden on business as we otherwise would, and so that the system is certain, consistent and effective. There are genuine opportunities in the Bill.
I thank the panel for coming today. The Government announced on Second Reading that they intend to introduce an intervention power enabling the Treasury to direct a regulator to make, amend or revoke rules in matters of significant public interest. Do you think such a move would represent a significant departure from the UK’s model of regulatory independence, and would such a power affect your regulatory decision making process? Sheldon Mills, you touched briefly on that, so may I ask you firstQ ?
Of course. It is a matter for Government as to what amendments they put to Parliament, and it is then a matter for Parliament as to what you do with them. You always have to be careful as a regulator not to tell Parliament what to do, but I will put some thoughts forward.
Independence needs to be at the heart of the regulatory system, so I think it will be important, if and when that amendment is put forward, to think about how the independence of the regulators is sustained. I understand from Government pronouncements that there is a commitment to the independence of the regulators, and that the proposed amendment, which I have not seen, is meant to ensure that where a public interest mechanism is needed—where the Government wish to think about the public interest—there is one to bring forward.
I have worked in regimes with public interest tests. I ran the mergers division at the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition and Markets Authority, and my learning from that is that, if put in place, such a test should be used exceptionally and with care, and that there should be specificity about the matters of public interest—in this case, financial services—on which it would be used.
We are working constructively with HMT in relation to this, and we would do so if such a power were introduced. The only point I would make—Vicky may come to this—is that the standing of the UK financial system is also built on its independence and its consistency of regulation, and it is important that we think through that as we design this regime.
I very much agree with what Sheldon said. We have not yet seen the amendment, so we have to reserve judgment on it, but it will depend on the formulation.
A formulation whereby the Government can force or direct us to make or amend rules that we have already made, and that fall squarely within the statutory objectives that Parliament has given us, may be perceived as undermining operational independence and all the benefits that I talked about earlier. That could have adverse implications for our international standing and, ultimately, our competitiveness.
A formulation that is squarely outside our objectives—for matters of national security, for example—and does not have to do with safety and soundness, or the other objectives and “have regards”, could be a different matter if it is tightly done.
Finally, sometimes I have read in the press and in previous ministerial comments that it makes sense in a parliamentary democracy to ask the regulators to take another look. I just want to say that in clause 27 there is a review power that gives the Treasury powers to force us—to direct us—to take another look and, indeed, to appoint a third party to do so.
Of course we have had discussions with HMT in relation to the proposed amendment. I personally have not seen it.
Q Thank you. When you appeared before the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year about the British Steel pensions scandal, you and your colleague indicated that many of the things that MPs might have expected you to do to protect British Steel pension holders, you did not have the power to do at that time. Does the Bill, as it currently stands, give you sufficient powers to intervene in the way that we would have liked in the event of another pension scheme getting into difficulty?
That was some months ago, but I recall that in the context of the British Steel pension scheme we have a power that allows us to do some particular things that provide redress en masse for British Steel pension holders. That is what we are using. We have most of the powers that we need to support British Steel pension scheme holders. The Bill does not interfere with any of our existing powers. I do not think it gives us any additional powers that are relevant to the British Steel pension scheme holders issue.
Q I was thinking particularly about the powers to stop the damage from being done, rather than simply the power to pay financial redress, which usually takes a long time, is very stressful for victims and sometimes comes too late for victims who do not live long enough to see the compensation. The gross misbehaviour of a large number of financial advisers led to that scandal and many others. Are you telling us that, as it stands, the Bill does not give you significantly greater powers to intervene and get these people out the market as soon as you realise there is a problem?
I think that what we would have said—I would need to look at the record to see the context—is that, effectively, we have to go through due process and understand the evidence and the data that would be there to see how those independent financial advisers are behaving. Therefore, the speed and processing of that may be what we were referring to.
If I remember at the time in relation to the British Steel pension scheme, the law was changed to allow people to exit their pensions under pensions freedoms. There was a range of issues in relation to understanding how independent financial advisers were going to respond to that. The speed and pace with which they did respond led to issues such as some of the challenges that British Steel pension holders have now. To confirm: there is nothing the Bill that specifically gives us additional powers in relation to those individuals.
I want to come in on a slightly broader point, which is that in the transfer of retained EU files, which encompasses part of the Bill, there are some EU files where, at the moment, the FCA will have limited lawmaking powers. The Bill will provide a framework that, file by file, the FCA will need for rule-making and enforcement powers to be considered at that time. That does not answer your question specifically in relation to British Steel, but it provides a mechanism, so you go through that analysis and assessment file by file.
Q I thank the panel for coming this morning. I have two questions. Can we be clear that in the UK regulatory landscape and the international financial regulatory landscape there are public interest tests that are operated but do not affect the operational independence of regulators?
In the financial regulatory space, the only example I know of where there is a test whereby the Government—I am not talking about Parliament—can intervene and revoke regulatory rules is in Australia. APRA—the prudential regulatory authority in Australia—has never been exercised. Whenever the IMF has done financial sector assessments, it has been critical. There are provisions, again in Canada, but the US system does not have any. It is Congress who can revoke material pieces of regulatory standards within 60 days. This is my understanding of it in financial regulation, which is separate to how it might exist in other types of regulation.
I just wanted to ensure that was on the record. Can we talk a bit about the metrics and transparency you might use to show that you are meeting the secondary objective—that the cost-benefit panel’s analysis will be transparent—and also how you consider you will need to show that you have met the accountability tests?
Sure. I am happy to start with that. We are waiting to see the final description of the clause on competitiveness. Its current iteration talks about competitiveness and growth. It also talks in terms of the medium and long-term growth of the financial services sector and the UK economy. We have started to think about what the input measures we might see. Those are the things we can act upon ourselves.
A good example of that would be our gateway—our authorisations process. Is it as efficient as it can be? Does it place unnecessary burdens on time, pace and the application of it? That can help with the entry of firms into the UK. That is important. We are doing work on our gateway now. That is something on the input measures, but we then need to think about the outcomes. It is important to think about what data and metrics are available that have a causal chain between some of the activity we have—our authorisations activity, our policy activity and so on—and the outcomes we are seeking to achieve. One of the challenges we have is that the data on the link between financial services activity and growth and competitiveness—regulatory activity—is not significant. That said, we are looking proactively to see what measures we can find.
There are also two components to those outcomes. There is the activity that our financial services industry is providing, such as lending and support in terms of insurance and so on to UK firms and overseas. Then there is an outward form of competitiveness, thinking about how our UK plc financial services industry is doing in exporting financial services across the world. Both of those will be outcomes we will need to find measurements on.
Finally, there is the meta outcome. There is certainly Office for Budget Responsibility data that talks about sustainable growth. What is the higher level growth-type outcome you can look at and seek to link? I do not have the full gamut of that, but we are working very closely on it, so that we can provide measures and metrics that can support our use of the objective.
Good morning. Sheldon, I read a speech of yours before about financial inclusion; I know it is something you care about. On the Treasury Committee, we have had a conversation similar to the one we are about to have. You probably know what I am going to ask you.Q
The Government have opted so far to not have a “have regard” for financial inclusion in the Bill. Do you believe that such a “have regard” for the FCA would ensure financial inclusion as a greater priority for the regulator? What else could be done with the Bill to ensure that financial inclusion is given a greater prominence?
I hope we won’t have the same conversation as before. We have done some more work on financial inclusion following our conversations. Our position is still the same: we do not think we need a “have regard” on inclusion. We don’t think that that would add to our ability to act within our remit in line with our objectives. We have our consumer protection power and we have put in place our new consumer duty, which asks firms to meet a higher standard. We feel that we have sufficient powers to fix any problems that we feel we need to solve.
As we discussed last time, the regulator’s role is to support firms and the market to deliver to as many consumers as possible, including those who are vulnerable or might be excluded. However, we do not do that alone; we do that with partners such as Government, local authorities, charities and others. In relation to that, we are taking a proactive role and arranging a financial inclusion policy sprint in the autumn, working with Fair4All Finance and others. We will bring as many actors as possible into that space, using our innovation labs to work through the types of innovative activity we can put the financial services industry to in terms of tackling financial inclusion.
At the moment, we do not think we need a “have regard” given our current remit and the powers we have.
Q As we have discussed before, the current system is not working for everyone because too many people are excluded. We have also previously asked what happens to the customers who nobody wants, in terms of financial inclusion. Are there any other opportunities in the Bill to strengthen your role within financial inclusion? With respect, what has happened so far has not been altogether successful.
I have worked with HMT and supported the inclusion of a few things in the Bill that might help with this matter. One reason why the financial services sector has adopted more of a risk-based approach to the customers it serves relates to the risks it faces of follow-on redress and other damages. There is always a balance between what you pay out to consumers who might well be harmed now and what happens with future consumers.
In the Bill, we have a duty of co-operation between us, the Financial Ombudsman Service and a few other regulators. We will try to ensure that we are managing some of the extensive use of claims management companies, which puts quite a lot of pressure on firms. Firms should pay redress and compensation where that is necessary, but there is a lot of pressure on those firms. We have to have a reality as to how things work in how the commercial world. That means that boards can then become more risk averse in terms of the services they offer.
I am keen to get some of our largest and smaller institutions innovating around expanding the number of customers they serve. People are keen, but we have to have the balance of how the system works in order to support that.
Another area in the Bill, or in our proposals, that will help is in relation to credit unions. After our action against certain high-cost, short-term credit firms, we are already seeing that credit unions are taking more of a share of credit being provided to people who might be in a category that borders on exclusion. Anything that can support credit unions safely expanding—I have the PRA to my left—will be really helpful for the communities underlying this discussion.
Q Good to see you again, Sheldon. Can you confirm whether you know of any country in the world that has a competitive objective for its regulators?
Singapore has one. Its financial stability, however, is primary; it overrides the competitive objective, which is secondary. There is the Hong Kong Insurance Authority. Otherwise, it is not common, particularly for prudential authorities, which is what I know about.
Q Australia and Japan also have regulators with a competitive objective. Would you regard Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia as being robust regulatory financial centres?
We do not like to comment on other financial centres, but, yes, I would consider them to be robust financial centres.
Q You consider them to be robust financial centres. Would you consider those financial centres of Japan, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong to be competitive financial centres to the United Kingdom?
I think they are competitors to the financial services system. The UK is extremely strong, varied, and has a multiplicity of financial services. Some of the competition that comes from some of those regions is quite specific in terms of what it seeks to compete with. We have a very broad-based financial services system.
Q Thank you. Sarah, how do you believe the secondary competitiveness objective might change your behaviour and your policy making?
From an FCA perspective, it is very much as Sheldon has said. It is important to say we support the Bill as it is currently framed. We think a secondary competitiveness objective can work alongside our primary statutory objectives. It will give us another lens through which to look at the policy work and the development of the regulatory agenda that we are taking forward. Back to the points raised previously on transparency and accountability, it will give us another method by which we will be reporting and considering our outcomes against. We will take that into account. We think it can work as a secondary objective.
On the various elements that make up competitiveness that have been touched on earlier, I think that innovation and ensuring that we can stay ahead of the game with the pace of development across the financial services markets is really important. You can see the financial markets infrastructure sandbox proposals contained within the Bill. There are proposals there on critical third parties as well, so you can already see on the face of the Bill in those particular areas a real desire to make sure that the UK can stay in lockstep or stay competitive as a country enabled through the way in which the financial services regulatory framework is developed going forward.
I think the agility is important. We often hear that regulators are too slow. Sometimes we hear that regulators are too fast in terms of putting out too many consultations. Clearly there is a balance there. We have shown ourselves able to act at speed through the Russia-Ukraine conflict and introduced new rules on side pockets to enable support in that context of war. We will need to maintain that flexibility to be agile when we need to, while retaining the checks and balances that are really important in terms of transparency and accountability.
The FCA announced in June that you would be strengthening the protection of access to banking services. Some might say that this was closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, given that 50% of branches in town centres have now closed. What powers does the FCA currently have to protect banking services, and why were you not doing that beforeQ ?
Thank you very much for the question. The first framing point to this question is to understand that banking services have and are changing, and there are many, many benefits of those changes. The move towards digitalisation of banking services provides a huge amount of support to many people who are vulnerable. My mother is deaf and the change to a digital means of banking services has transformed her life completely.
The starting point must be that we have to consider the variety of ways in which people can provide banking services. That said, we know that, locally, branches can be important for communities. It is not just branches. It is a point at which people can deposit money and take out money. You can have a variety of those. They can be branches or post offices. They can be what we are trying to encourage the industry to develop when they close branches.
Q Sorry, but my question is: what powers do you have and what are you doing?
I am coming to it. In the light of that, what we have sought to do as we have seen firms decide to close their branches in the face of changing to digitalisation—there is the cost of keeping branches, which are very underutilised—is ensure that they look very closely at the alternatives to those branches when they go through those closure plans. We have had branch closure guidance in place for almost a year now. We work very closely with all the largest lenders and institutions to monitor their branch closure activity and ensure that they are providing appropriate services to those who need them in those localities as they seek to close some of those branches.
In terms of access to cash, the majority of the population—99.7% of the UK population—is within 5 km of a free-access cashpoint. We welcome the Government’s proposals on access-to-cash legislation so that we can get greater powers to ensure certain aspects of access to cash.
Q I am really pleased that your mother gets good access to banking services. Unfortunately, that does not extend to a lot of the people in my constituency who do not feel able to use online services, either because they do not have access to the internet or know how to use the internet or because they are frightened because they are worried about being scammed. As I understand the current rules, it is only when the last bank in town closes that there is there any consideration of banking hubs or other facilities. That is far too late for the vulnerable customers that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle referred to in her earlier question. What power does the FCA have to do something real to help those excluded customers, and what extra powers would you need in order to make that real?
We are using our existing “treating customers fairly” principle in order to put pressure on banks to ensure that they are looking after those customers that you talk about, who are vulnerable, in those communities and providing them with alternatives to branches if they close. Our updated guidance, which is stronger, asks for those alternatives to be in place before they close that last branch in town. It also deals with partial closures and issues such as that. I have been out to many local communities in order to see the impact of branch closures, and I have been public in terms of saying to the banks that they need to pick up the pace in relation to the alternatives for those communities: banking hubs, mobile banking and other activity. We are working very closely with LINK, which is currently helping the banks with the banking hubs, and seeking to get them to pick up that pace.
Q But you are not slowing the number of branch closures, and people are still experiencing these difficulties in Mitcham. Please: I would love you to come to Mitcham—
And I will show you around. It is a great place. I will even buy you lunch in one of the cafés.
Q In the case of the Halifax, I could not even convince the Halifax to come to a public meeting to talk to people about their experiences. The banks are just carrying on in the way they have always carried on—with hope of some service tomorrow. We are told that the post office will be great, but what if the post office is not accessible? What if people are worried about accessing cash right in the middle of other people and fearful of not being able to hang on to their money? What if they are disabled and just cannot get into their post office branch? These are the things that are really happening, whatever the current regulations are.
Yes, these are real, genuine issues for people and I do understand them. We have researched some of the ways in which people access cash but also branches. It is important that all the institutions—I will not mention individual institutions—should be willing to speak to their customers and their communities as they close branches, because that is the way to understand what alternatives they need to be providing to those services. We recently worked with a major provider and we got it to pause its branch closures while it made a significant assessment and researched the needs of the local community, and then it was able to provide for that, so we are proactive in relation to this. I would be very happy to come to Mitcham and understand what is going on there.
Q Lovely. You will be very welcome; the people there would love to meet you. Finally—I crave your indulgence, Mr Sharma—I want to ask about access to cash. For most people’s constituents, access to cash is only any good if it is access to free cash withdrawal.
If people have to pay £1.99 every time they try to access £10 from a machine to keep them going for the week, that is a huge premium on being poor. In Pollards Hill in my constituency, we have only two pay-for machines, and that is what happens on a daily basis—people have to pay £1.99 for every bit of money that they get out. People take small amounts of money to try to control their budgets. We were delighted when the Co-op came to the parade, but it could not get free cash machines because its lease prevented it from having one.
Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for this panel.
No. That is the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions.