Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 25th October 2022.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 19 stand part.
Financial services firms increasingly rely on a small number of critical third parties to provide services, such as cloud computing providers. Although outsourcing can have many benefits, the growing dependence of financial services firms on this small pool of critical third parties also carries risks. A failure or disruption at a critical third party could have systemic impacts affecting market confidence and threatening the stability of our financial system. To mitigate that risk, the Bill grants the financial regulators powers to oversee the services that critical third parties supply to the financial sector.
Clause 18 gives the Treasury the power to designate a third party to the finance sector as critical, bringing the services provided by that third party into the regulator’s oversight. Only third parties whose failure could have a systemic impact on the sector can be designated in that way. Designations will be done in consultation with the regulators, taking into account a clear set of criteria. The first is materiality—that is, how important the services are to the delivery of essential services, such as making payments. The second is concentration—the number and type of firms that rely on that provider. The clause provides the FCA, the PRA and the Bank of England with new rule-making powers to ensure the resilience of services provided by critical third parties. The regulators have published a discussion paper setting out how they may use the powers.
Clause 18 also grants the regulators a power of direction and targeted enforcement powers. As an ultimate sanction, the financial regulators may prevent or limit a critical third party from providing services to the financial services sector. Clause 19 then makes the necessary consequential changes to FSMA to ensure that the regime functions properly, in particular in relation to the Bank of England’s ability to make rules. This approach is flexible and proportionate, addressing the systemic risk posed by outsourcing to keep the UK’s financial system safe, while targeting only the services that critical third parties provide to the finance sector. I therefore recommend that clauses 18 and 19 stand part of the Bill.
On clause 18, could the Minister set out the range of disciplinary powers that the Bank of England, the FCA and the PRA have at their disposal short of preventing a critical third party from providing new or current services to the financial services sectors? I want some reassurance from him that the clause will not produce an all or nothing approach.
Again, I do not oppose the clauses, but I do have a couple of questions. First, the Minister pointed out that the ultimate sanction that the regulator can take is to prevent somebody from carrying out the actions of a critical third party. However, given that it becomes a critical third party because the system would collapse without it, is that not the nuclear button that can never be used? Simply trying to enforce the protective regulation could cause more damage than allowing the issue to continue. I understand that it is a difficult issue to square, but is there any proposal to, for example, introduce new criminal offences? Rather than being placed in a position where we would have to damage a system in order to protect it, are there proposals at least to give the option of taking criminal action against the individuals concerned?
I understand why the Bill does not go into detail about the kind of directions and requirements that might be appropriate, but will the Minister reassure us that there is no intention to use the powers to restrict the rights of people working for critical third parties to take industrial action, should they consider it to be important? That would take us into a completely different area of legislation, but the Bill does not say that the Government cannot do that. I would appreciate an assurance from the Minister that that will not happen as a result of the Bill.
Finally, proposed new section 312N refers to immunity. Certainly we must ensure that, if an organisation acts in accordance with the requirements of the regulator, they cannot be sued simply for doing what they were required to do. Is there a potential issue that they could be sued by an overseas party in an overseas court? Has the Minister considered how we might prevent that from becoming an issue? Clearly, this Parliament cannot legislate to give anybody immunity from being sued elsewhere, and there are people who will tout around the jurisdictions all over the world to find somewhere they can lodge a legal action. Is the Minister concerned that the inability to give international immunity might mean that some of the provisions become less effective than we might have hoped?
Let me try to answer hon. Members’ questions. Nothing in the clause restricts people’s ability to take industrial action. That is not in scope. The powers are not anticipated as analogous to existing ones elsewhere, and the provision is not intended to be all or nothing. The powers are in essence an extension of scope into this domain and would relate to activities such as reviewing the senior manager regime, the ability to compel the requirement of information and looking at things such as resilience. They are not designed to be binary in that respect.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes made a point about the fact that the functions have been designated as critical, but that does not necessarily mean that they are monopolistic. With respect, while that is an important consideration, which we would expect the Bank, in this case, to take into consideration, it is also perfectly possible that, in the case of cloud providers, for example, a number of providers offer identical services. If one was not able to demonstrate a degree of resilience but another was, it would be possible to direct that one ceases to be used without causing the sort of systemic risk that the Bill seeks to prevent. I will write to the hon. Member in respect of what is a complex question about international immunity in law. I hope that he will respect the fact that I should not answer that on my feet this afternoon.