Examination of Witness

Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 19 October 2022.

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Paddy Greene gave evidence.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 2:26, 19 October 2022

We will now hear oral evidence from Paddy Greene, head of money policy at Which?. For this panel, we have until 2.45 pm. Will the witness please introduce himself for the record?

Paddy Greene:

Good afternoon. I am Paddy Greene, the head of money policy at Which?. I welcome the opportunity to speak today. What is probably pertinent is that we have had some long-standing campaigns on access to cash and authorised push payment fraud.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Q Good afternoon, Paddy, and thank you. I commend the work that you do on behalf of consumers to protect them in this domain and others. I am starting each panel by asking a general question as the Minister, and we then throw it open. Could you just tell us this, starting from first principles? I am familiar with your work, but there is, I hope you would accept, always a balance to be struck—it is for this Committee to try to ensure we get the right balance in the Bill—between consumer protection and putting obligations on firms that are operating in the sector. There are sometimes firms lifting away and creating pockets where people go unbanked or unprovided for, because we have put burdens on them. I wonder whether you acknowledge that and whether you could talk about where you think the right balance lies between a vibrant, competitive sector and a sector that fulfils its social obligations.

Paddy Greene:

I do accept there is a balance to be struck, so thank you very much. The simple thing is that we need to make sure, when we are talking about the financial services sector and consumer protection, that we have the appropriate consumer protection baked in, so that we have a basic level that means all consumers can participate with confidence and they know that whatever they are transacting in they are looked after and they have a form of redress. Then, once we acknowledge that we have that basic consumer protection, we obviously have some judgment to make on how far the other regulations go. I must add that when we are talking about consumer protections we mean that a protected consumer is confident, has trust in markets and will participate well, and that can lead to a competitive market, an innovative market and a market that can help with growth.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Q Let me invite you to bring that to life a little more. There is a lively debate with others— I am not sure it is the point that you will be drawn on—about consumer credit, for example. Consumer credit can be life changing. It can give people opportunities. It allows them to access capital that lets them make better lives for themselves and their families. Consumer protection can also—the more forms, checks, tests and hurdles that people have to overcome to access that provision—leave people unbanked, because providers withdraw entirely and then people are left with something that none of us would want, which is the unregulated credit sector. Can you bring that to life a little bit for the Committee with some examples of where you see that trade-off?

Paddy Greene:

The trade-off between protections and consumer credit?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Between putting in place—I am not making a point; I am just trying to open this up for the Committee—good, valuable seatbelts and protections versus over-protecting consumers to the degree that large numbers of participants exit the market and then consumers are left with door-to-door, unregulated providers of credit.

Paddy Greene:

Affordable credit is absolutely essential for consumers, but we need to make sure that, first of all, access to credit is regulated. We do have a particular form of credit that people are accessing now with buy now, pay later, which is not regulated at all, but consumers presume that it is. There are some basic protections we need to build in. One is to ensure that the parts of credit that people access are regulated themselves and that it is clear that consumers understand what is regulated and what is not. Then there is some basic information, such as key terms and conditions.

I am aware that some of the details in the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which is exceptionally old, are onerous, and there will be a chance to review that—I think later this year. It is about making sure we have efficient information presented to consumers. There is a balance there, but there is key information that we must provide them and there are key protections that must be baked in.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Q The Bill does have provisions for access to cash, but not many provisions for free access to cash. Do you think that is a cause for concern?

Paddy Greene:

Yes, it is a cause for concern. When we are talking about consumers, for the objective in the Bill on access to cash to be met, consumers must have free access to cash. Without that, I think the objective may be undermined. It is the case that we have paid-for provision—it is in theory available now—but it does not serve the market. We must ensure there is free access to cash. A huge raft of people rely on cash. It is massive numbers, but it is also the case that they tend to be vulnerable and on lower incomes. If it is the case that it is not free, when somebody goes to take out £10, they are paying £2 to get it. That is just an example, but that doesn’t seem right. The fact is, we need to have a minimum, base level of free access to cash. We are delighted that the provisions have been brought forward and that we will have this in legislation, but for it to work effectively, it has to be free access.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

I do not know whether your responsibilities at Which? include consumer protection, particularly in relation to the financial services market, but from your perspective do the millions of small-scale retail consumers of financial services have confidence in the current regulatory framework of the United KingdomQ ?

Paddy Greene:

I cannot speak for small and medium-sized enterprises—I am here to represent consumers—but fundamentally I do think that the regulatory framework in this country provides confidence. I think it has been robust, relatively speaking, over the years. If we compare it to some other international sectors, I think it is a framework that can provide people with confidence. We would be remiss to weaken that in any way.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Q Does the Bill as it stands strengthen or weaken that regulatory framework? Or does it leave it as is?

Paddy Greene:

We have some concerns about the current wording around competitiveness. I think we need to be mindful of that. I want to get across that whatever changes are brought in, the primary objectives of the FCA must not be inadvertently undermined. The FCA has a challenging time to balance those objectives at the moment. We would seek amendments that ensure that, from the consumer perspective, if we are going to see changes brought in, in no way shape or form do they undermine the consumer protections that are in place.

On the argument for competitiveness for consumer protection, I would add, similar to my earlier remarks, that a confident, well-protected consumer will lead to a competitive environment. It will lead to innovation and confident consumers interacting in that market.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Q I was interested that the Minister in his question used the metaphor of a good seatbelt. Some of us think that the regulatory environment for road traffic should ensure that nobody needs to rely on a seatbelt, but that is perhaps a discussion for later.

I have had a number of representations, as I think other members of the Committee have, from individuals or groups of people who have been victims of financial services scams on a colossal scale. One of their common comments is that they do not think it is justifiable for the regulators to have such a strong degree of immunity from civil liability, even in cases where it is clear that the regulator has failed and that that failure has contributed to members of the public losing what for them are significant amounts of money. Do you have a view as to whether it is time to revisit that very broad immunity that so many of the regulators have?

Paddy Greene:

I am struggling to hear your questions.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

I am sorry. I will try to speak into the microphone, so forgive me for not looking at you. Do you have a view on the numerous representations we have had from victims of financial scams who think it is time to revisit the very broad immunity from civil liability that the regulators have?

Paddy Greene:

I will talk specifically to parts of the Bill. This is essential, but I am thankful for the provisions that have been brought forward to introduce a mandatory requirement for people who have been the victims of push payment scams to get their money back. In terms of a first step, that is crucial. On changing the regulatory framework, that is a first step and we welcome it.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Q Is there a need to specify in the Bill, or to enable in later regulation, a widening of the mandatory compensation scheme to types of scams that we do not yet know about?

Paddy Greene:

Yes, I believe there is. It is right that the Bill starts with faster payments—I think 87% of APP scams are run through faster payments. We do not want to delay action. It has taken too long: it has been six years since our super complaint to get to this point, so we must not slow that down. The revisions—the two-month and the six-month provision in the Bill—are ones that we absolutely endorse. As I said, we do not want to slow that down.

We need to make sure, though, that there is an obligation for further action—for example, to look at CHAPS payments. UK Finance figures show that 79 million on CHAPS and on-us payments are already there. We know that scammers and fraudsters are very good at adapting to change, so they will move. I know there have been some debates about what the Bill does or could allow, but we need to make sure there is an obligation so that we know what will happen next. Just because there is provision for the regulator possibly to act in the future, that does not mean the regulator will—there is a lot of pressure on regulatory time and resources—so we would really like to see some clarity on what happens after the changes to faster payments are made. As I said, this is the opportunity to look at the future. We know that change is happening, so we should set out a timeframe for what happens next.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

Good afternoon. We were just talking about access to cash and the proposals in the Bill to safeguard access to cash and free ATMs. As an MP who represents a rural constituency, I am concerned about my residents being able to access cash. How far do you think people should be expected to travel to access free cash, or cash? Is it geographically dependent? Would you treat regions separately, on density of populationQ ?

Paddy Greene:

I think we need community-based solutions. The fact is that it will not be one-size-fits-all. We need to recognise that communities have different challenges. When we look at the voluntary solution that the industry has put in place, it accepts that, first, we need not only a geographical spread but a community access point. We need the ability for communities to request a review of access in their areas.

Secondly, we need a raft of delivery channels. That again gets to the point of what is fit for purpose. An ATM might well be suitable in one town, but it might not be suitable for another town for a variety of reasons, be that geographical or the demographics of that part of that society. I do not think it is one-size-fits-all. It is very important that we get the policy statement from the Treasury soon, so that we and you can scrutinise properly what the close details will be, but it should be a basic geographical spread, with the option to interrogate further those who are not captured by the geographical spread and to ensure that we do not inadvertently leave people behind.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

Q So you are not necessarily specifying a mileage.

Paddy Greene:

We need to acknowledge that if, let’s say, you came down to a certain kilometre base that might sound reasonable in broad terms, it would under-serve some communities, so we need to be alive to that.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I thank Which? for all the work it has done about the imperative of free access to cash. I do not think any of us are surprised that the Post Office announced that it had £3.45 billion taken out in cash in August, which is the highest figure since its records began. Does the Bill ensure that people will have free access to cash, or is there a need for an amendment to be very specific about thatQ ?

Paddy Greene:

I think we need to be specific about the need for consumers to have free access to cash. I have concerns that the Bill could be interpreted in a way that undermines those objectives. We absolutely welcome the provision of cash legislation and I am very happy to see it here, but this is our opportunity to get it right. Consumers need confidence that they will have free access.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q I will be super quick. Do you think we need to see regulation of buy now, pay later firms?

Paddy Greene:

Absolutely. We need to see it and we need to see it very quickly. We are in the situation where a lot of people use such buy now, pay later. I acknowledge that a lot of people use it safely, but a growing number of people are struggling with repayments. It gets to the point where people presume that it is regulated. It is an unfortunate reality that lots of consumers do not really differentiate between types of financial products when it comes to the payments and credits that they use, but we need to have buy now, pay later regulated and we need to have it regulated very quickly.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Q The Bill provides reimbursement only for fraud victims who send money using the faster payments system. Do you think other payment systems should be included? Will you tell us a bit about that?

Paddy Greene:

Yes. Similar to the comments that were made before, it is right to start with faster payments. We need to move to a model where we are absolutely confident—I heard the tail end of the previous evidence about different payment mechanisms and those that are emerging. We must have consumer protection baked in. We want consumers to have confidence and we know people are going to use such systems but, as we have said previously, they do not necessarily understand what is backed and the type of payment mechanism that is used.

In terms of what we want to see next, we are delighted with faster payments, but £79 million is already lost on CHAPS, on-us items and international payments. First, we need to make sure that the PSR and the Bank are talking properly about CHAPS, because when we are talking about CHAPS, we are talking about house purchases. For the people who are scammed during such a payment, there is a huge detriment, not financially but emotionally, and we know that fraudsters will adapt.

Our next steps, after we have got faster payments, are CHAPS and on-us, and we need to look at international payments. We need to make sure the regulator is looking at all the other designated payments and those that will come down the line, because we are seeing innovation, in order to make sure that the appropriate consumer protections are built in from the very start.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

If there are no further questions from Members, I thank the witness for his evidence and we will move on to the next panel.

Paddy Greene:

Thank you very much.