Clause 21 - Digital settlement assets

Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at on 27 October 2022.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 11:30, 27 October 2022

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

That schedule 6 be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.

Clause 22 stand part.

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

Good morning, Dame Maria. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again. I thank all hon. Members who are with us again today.

The Government believe that certain cryptoassets and distributed ledger technology could drive transformational changes in financial markets, offering consumers new ways to transact and invest, and that such technology could pose risks to consumers and financial stability. The Bill therefore allows the Government to bring digital settlement assets inside the regulatory perimeter.

In the first instance, the Government are focusing on fiat currency-backed stablecoins used primarily for payment. These are a type of digital settlement asset that could develop into a widespread means of payment and potentially deliver efficiencies in payments. Clause 21 extends the scope of payment systems legislation so that digital settlement asset payment systems and service providers are subject to regulation by the Bank of England and the Payment Systems Regulator.

Today, the Bank of England regulates systemic payment systems and service providers to those systems, where the Treasury makes an order recognising a particular payment system. That is subject to a high bar. Among other criteria, the Treasury must be satisfied that a system’s potential failure may cause disruption to the stability of the financial system.

Clause 21 also extends the scope of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 to ensure that relevant digital settlement asset payment systems are subject to regulation by the Payment Systems Regulator. That will help to protect user interests, promote competition and encourage innovation.

The changes made by clause 21 and schedule 6 will ensure that digital settlement asset payment systems and service providers are regulated to the same high standards as traditional payment systems.

Clause 22 allows the Government to bring digital settlement assets into the UK regulatory perimeter where they are used for payments. Secondary legislation under this clause could give the regulators powers over payment systems and service providers in order to mitigate conduct, prudential and market integrity risks. It could also allow the regulators to place requirements on firms in relation to appropriate backing assets and capital requirements to manage potential stability risks.

Given the nascent and rapidly evolving nature of the cryptoasset market, these provisions give the Treasury powers to amend the definition of “digital settlement asset” through secondary legislation. That is necessary to ensure that regulation can keep pace with the fast-moving nature of the market. The affirmative procedure will apply to any statutory instrument that seeks to amend the definition.

Clause 22 will also allow the Government to apply existing administration or insolvency regimes to digital settlement asset systemic payment systems and service providers to manage potential failures. The clause therefore provides the Government with the necessary powers to ensure that our legislative approach to digital settlement assets is flexible and responsive, and fosters competition and innovation in this fast-evolving sector. I recommend that the clauses and schedule stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is a pleasure to see the Minister still in his place. I speak to clauses 21 and 22 and schedule 6 together.

Properly regulated innovations that have emerged in the crypto space, such as distributed ledger technology, have the potential to transform our economy and the financial services sector. As the Minister will know, many innovative companies are embracing different forms of blockchain to improve transparency in finance and create high-skilled, high-productivity jobs across the UK. However, I draw his attention to the recent collapse in the value of cryptoassets, including several stablecoins, which has put millions of pounds of UK consumer savings at risk. I am sure he is aware that the crypto trading platform Gemini estimated that as many as one in five people in the UK could have lost money in the crash. Do the Government agree with Gemini’s estimate? If so, does the Minister agree that the recent crisis in crypto markets demonstrates that so-called stablecoins are not necessarily stable, and that their instability can pose a significant risk to the public? How did the recent collapse in the value of cryptocurrencies inform the Treasury’s approach to clauses 21 and 22?

The Opposition have yet to be convinced that Ministers have acknowledged the scale of the threat that cryptoassets can pose to consumers and our constituents. In our Public Bill Committee evidence session, Adam Jackson of Innovate Finance, which is the trade body for UK fintech businesses, pointed out that the Bill has failed to set out how regulated stablecoins will interact with a future central bank digital currency. Can the Minister shed some light on that interaction? I also hope he can explain why the Government have opted to bring only stablecoins within the regulation. I am sure he is aware that the EU has just agreed to a comprehensive regime for regulating crypto exchanges and cryptoassets more broadly, and Joe Biden has said that he is looking to do something similar, but the UK will not even be consulting on a comprehensive regime until later this year. Does the Minister agree that this risks leaving our country behind in the fintech and blockchain race?

Even more importantly, does the Minister agree that in the absence of a comprehensive regulatory regime, the UK risks becoming a centre for illicit finance and crypto activity? I looked at the analysis from Chainalysis—a global leader in blockchain research—which pointed out that cryptocurrency-based crime, such as terrorist financing, money laundering, fraud and scams, hit an all-time high in 2021, with illicit finance in the UK estimated to be worth more than £500 million. In the absence of a comprehensive regulatory regime, how do the Government think they are going to protect our consumers from such threats?

Will the Minister shed a bit more light on his strategy? Does he believe that the definition of “digital settlement assets” in clauses 21 and 22 is broad enough for regulations on a wide range of cryptocurrencies, other cryptoassets and crypto exchanges? Finally, on pacing this work, I want to know his intention. How long will the public and the fintech sector have to wait until the regulators are given the power that they need to regulate the types of cryptoassets that I have referred to?

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. In truth, I agree with the assessment that she has set out. The approach taken in the Bill is to start with stablecoins and those that are most likely to be used as a means of settlement. That is what the Government are taking powers for in the Bill. As she says, we have committed to come back and consult on the issue before the end of the year. The nights are getting darker, so she will not have long to wait.

I am mindful of the opportunities and threats that the hon. Lady set out well when citing the evidence that the Committee heard, and it is my intention that the Government now move at a greater pace than is currently provided for in the Bill, which has been in gestation for some time. We will come forward with the consultation, which will happen before Parliament rises for Christmas. It will be a really good opportunity for us to continue to discuss how we can address some of the issues.

The reason we have started with stablecoins is that there are challenges in bringing them into regulation for the first time. The hon. Lady would not want us to rush, because by bringing them into the regulatory perimeter, we confer a status on them that may lead to some of the consumer harms she mentioned. The Government’s position is to start with the most stable, least volatile coins, which are likely to be used by intermediaries as settlement currencies, and then to go forward and consult from there.

I think I have addressed most of the hon. Lady’s comments. I do not disagree with her about the scale of the threat. There are other measures, including those that regulate the online promotion of cryptoassets, that will help to protect consumers who suffer harm.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Will the Minister give us a little more flavour on how he sees the evolution of this area? Does the clause give him enough powers to go with that evolution, or will we need to legislate again as the landscape changes? It is clear that we have to avoid the potential harm of allowing consumers to think that all digital coins are somehow the same. We know what Bitcoin is, and do not need to spend much time talking about it. We would not want to give people the impression that it is safe to indulge in investing in it.

At the same time, both sides of the Committee realise that digital payment systems and coins are a huge and rapidly developing area that national Governments must get a grip on. That is why we all welcome the fact that the Bank of England is looking at launching its own non-fungible token, or whatever we want to call it. We have to keep a very close eye and watch this space to see how it evolves. Will the Minister give us an impression of whether the clause is evolutionary enough for his purposes in that rapidly changing environment? Might he want to change it through some later piece of legislation?

Finally, we all know how much energy is used in the creation of Bitcoin. I confess myself ignorant about whether the creation of other non-fungible tokens is as energy intensive as the creation of Bitcoin. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. There is a green side to the issue as well.

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

My point is further to those made by my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Kilburn, and for Wallasey. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey asked whether the definition was evolutionary enough, and I want to pin down the Minister’s response. Does he believe that the definition of “digital settlement assets” is broad enough to allow for regulation to cover the wide range of cryptocurrency, other cryptoassets and exchanges?

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

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. As currently envisaged, the definition successfully encompasses what it intends to today. The definition starts with the most safe, least volatile domain, which is the use of digital settlement assets. The Bill confers secondary powers, which are subject to the affirmative procedure, that allow the definition to change elastically over time. It is right that Parliament should have the opportunity to look at such changes. That achieves the balance that Members on both sides of the Committee seek. It does not rush headlong to confer legitimacy.

The hon. Member for Wallasey rightly raised the point about the energy used. The truth is that we do not know, but we all suspect that the activity is highly energy intensive. Partly due to the lack of regulation, there is no real data other than anecdotes that one hears that suggest the process is very intensive—even getting into whole percentages of world energy consumption, according to some anecdotes. That is the process of mining that things like Bitcoin and Ethereum are associated with.

A stablecoin issued by a central bank or another asset-backed vehicle would not necessarily have the attribute of mining, but I think both sides of the Committee should approach the issue with humility, because we are at the start of a potentially profound journey of change. On both sides, we wish tentatively to seize those opportunities and not, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn said, fall behind the markets, but also to proceed cautiously. I think the clause and this aspect of the Bill achieve that purpose.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury) 11:45, 27 October 2022

The Minister has talked about regulated stablecoins, but I did not get an answer to my question about how they will interact with the central bank digital currency that we know is very much on the horizon. Have the Government thought about that?

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

Stablecoins and central bank currencies are both new forms of money. They differ in the issuer: a central bank versus a private issuer. It is likely that a central bank digital currency would simply exist and be regulated alongside that. This is an area where the Government’s thinking continues to evolve. It is something that we will do in conjunction with the Bank of England, and therefore the hon. Lady will appreciate that I would not make commitments unilaterally, but we have committed to publishing a consultation later this year. The Government’s stance can fairly be described as forward leaning in this space, but there is more work to do. It is not a trivial exercise to create a new central bank digital currency. My own hope is that it is a “when”, not an “if”, but the hon. Lady will indulge me if I say, “Let’s wait for the joint Government and Bank of England consultation,” which she will not have to wait that many weeks for.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.