Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 27th October 2022.
I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 29, page 41, line 7, at end insert
‘, and also to financial inclusion.
(2A) For the purposes of this section, “financial inclusion” means the impact on those who might be prevented from accessing financial services as a result of the new rules made by either regulator, or from accessing them on the same terms as existed before the making of the new rules.’
New clause 3—FCA duty to report on financial inclusion—
‘(1) The FCA must lay before Parliament a report, as soon as practicable after the end of—
(a) the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, and
(b) every subsequent 12-month period,
on financial inclusion in the UK.
(2) A report under this section must include—
(a) an assessment of the state of financial inclusion in the UK;
(b) details of any measures the FCA has taken, or is planning to take, to improve financial inclusion in the UK;
(c) developments which the FCA considers could significantly impact on financial inclusion in the UK; and
(d) any recommendations to the Treasury which the FCA considers may promote financial inclusion in the UK.’
My amendments relate to the issue of financial inclusion, which those who serve on the Treasury Committee have heard me talk about many times before. I will start with an explanation, which is much better than the one I tend to give, that I found in the written evidence from the Financial Inclusion Commission of what financial inclusion actually is. It speaks about its vision for
“a financially inclusive UK where financial services are accessible, easy to use and meet people’s needs over their lifetime, and where everyone has the skills and motivation to use them.”
I would think that that aim and ambition would be supported by everyone. I will add that the Financial Inclusion Commission is a cross-party, cross-organisation group that recommends financial inclusion.
The commission also said in its evidence that
“over a million people in the UK do not have a bank account, one in four households lack insurance protection and one in five adults would not be able to cover more than one month of living expenses if they lost their source of income.”
Financial inclusion is a hugely important and relevant issue. Some 22% of UK adults have less than £100 in savings. The commission says that it believes the Financial Conduct Authority
“does not have the powers to adequately reflect vulnerable consumers’ interests when considering potential regulatory changes.”
That was its argument for my amendment, which is about “have regards”.
I also came across written evidence from the Phoenix Group. I was a little surprised by it, but in a happy way. The Phoenix Group is a FTSE 100 company, and it also argues for the FCA to have regard to financial inclusion. It says in its evidence:
“Financial exclusion is one of the biggest drivers of poor consumer outcomes in the UK – it is a clear oversight that there is no specific statutory requirement for the FCA to address, or even consider, financial inclusion issues across its work.”
It goes on to talk about this in relation to pensions, in particular. It said one of the problems it encounters in the
“long-term savings and pensions space” is what it calls the “guidance gap” when it comes to making decisions about pensions. It believes that requiring the FCA to have regard to financial inclusion could start to address some of these issues. I have to say that before I read all of the evidence, I had not heard a FTSE 100 company arguing for that.
In oral evidence, the FCA pushed back on the need for a “have regard” for financial inclusion. We might have expected that; people tend to push back on having things added to their workload, even when the evidence says something else. The push-back tends to suggest that the FCA has a consumer duty and therefore does not need a “have regard” for financial inclusion. However, there is a big difference between the consumer duty and the “have regard” that I am talking about.
The consumer duty deals with people who are able to access products, but I am talking about the people who cannot access products at all because they are excluded from the financial market. The clients I am referring to are the ones the market does not want. That is happening more and more as we face the cost of living crisis. In real life, the people we are talking about end up being disadvantaged by paying more for credit, more for insurance and more for services, as we heard in evidence from Martin Coppack of Fair By Design.
The financial inclusion forum, chaired by HMT and the Department for Work and Pensions, addresses some issues, but it has been criticised as a closed talking shop. There are no selection criteria for who is invited and very little is published on what it does, what it discusses, or its actions and outcomes. Many of the organisations that back the “have regard” requirement for the FCA sit on that group already, and they recognise that what we have done is not enough, which is why they are calling for the requirement. In addition, we cannot get the toughest issues talked about at the financial inclusion forum—many allies have asked for the poverty premium to be on the agenda, but with no luck—and it does not seem to have many positive outcomes.
The “have regard” for financial inclusion is also supported by the Finance Innovation Lab and the Finance for our Future coalition, which think the Bill is a real opportunity to deliver financial inclusion.
I will stop here because of time, but I refer back to the evidence from the Financial Inclusion Commission, which put it so much better than I could:
“Such a principle would allow the UK economy to grow and compete on the international stage in an inclusive manner, for the benefit of all members of society.”
That is surely something we would all support, so I will press the amendment to a vote.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, whose comments I wholeheartedly support. I suspect there will be widespread support among Committee members for the objectives of her amendment. Perhaps the Minister will argue that a “have regard” to financial inclusion is the wrong way to go about it, but I would argue that not having these things in mind when an industry is being regulated can make a situation worse.
We know the level of financial exclusion because my hon. Friend mentioned the figures. I do not intend to go over all that, but essentially what we have—this has developed because of the way the market works—is a retail financial services sector that is very focused on a set of quite complex products. It is also very focused on its distribution networks and not so much on the customer. Retail financial products have often focused on the relationship between those who introduce products and those who sell them on to the ultimate customer, often with quite rewarding levels of sales commission. The bad end of that kind of financial services model is that we get a structure that is not focused enough on consumers, and a range of ever-increasing complexity that costs more and excludes more people who might be on basic incomes.
Over time, the dynamic of that structure means that the financial services sector gets more and more complex, more and more focused on the distribution networks, and less and less focused on the end customer. One understands that when the industry starts complaining about the lack of financial education. There is some truth in that, but there is also truth in the fact that the opacity of the price mechanisms and the complexity of the products that the industry comes up with make it confusing, and of course that increases the cost base, which excludes more low-paid people.
A previous Administration that I might have been a member of tried to address the issue with stakeholder products that were meant to be much simpler with very up-front but capped pricing that everybody would understand. Those were throttled out of existence because the industry did not really want them to succeed, and what has happened since—not by anyone’s design but by the dynamics of the way the market works—means that there is less and less available for those who have small amounts of income because the products are simply not profitable in the current structure of our retail financial services.
This is a systemic issue that needs to be solved, because we need a financial services retail sector that serves everybody. We do not have one, and we are getting to a stage where market dynamics make it less and less likely that we will have one; they are actually excluding more people. I think that a “have regard” that prompts thought about structures and, perhaps, about the regulation of some simpler products that could be made available is a really important part of addressing that market failure.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, I am worried that the Minister will say that we have consumer protections in place. This is not about those who are currently consuming the products; it is about those who cannot even afford to have basic bank accounts, those who have to go to money lenders because they are in such precarious circumstances, and those who pay the poverty premium because accessing financial services costs so much more as a percentage of their overall income than it costs someone on a higher income. I can tell the Minister—I am sure he has come across this in his own constituency—that many people who exist on very tight incomes, and who really have to budget, shy away from having basic accounts because they cannot afford to go into deficit and be charged a fee. That would destroy all their very careful balancing.
This issue is particularly important for people who are on benefits and have them paid into a bank account at a set time, but who have bill payments coming out at a different time. I would really appreciate it if the Minister would think profoundly about how the problem can be solved, so that our financial services sector can get to a stage where it can make profit—a modest profit perhaps, but some profit—out of dealing with people on much more modest incomes. After all, there are millions of them, and the dynamic of the market structures we have at the moment is moving provision away from people on lower incomes.
On my hon. Friend’s point about consumer duty, the evidence suggests that one of the unintended consequences is that it can make some currently marginally profitable products unprofitable, thereby excluding more people from them, so one of the things that the consumer duty is trying to address is actually making it more difficult for some people in society to have anything.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I will wrap up. Given that this is a systemic issue, a “have regard” is the best way of dealing with it. I hope that the Minister will think carefully about that and about how it might help us arrest the dynamic that is taking financial services away from people on modest incomes, and making it less and less profitable for the industry to serve them, leaving them much diminished in their attempts to engage appropriately in our society in ways that many people take for granted, such as by having a credit card and bank account, or being able to conduct electronic cash transfers and so forth.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. Like her, I am on the Treasury Committee, and I have to say to this Committee: please pass the amendment, so she can stop talking about it in our meetings! [Laughter.] To be fair to her, it is something that she repeats and that bears repeating, because I fear that if the FCA is not responsible for having regard to financial inclusion, the responsibility continues to sit with us as MPs. Who became aware that closing bank branches in town centres was getting to be a problem? Who was concerned about access to ATMs, especially free ATMs? It was MPs, through their constituents raising the issue with us. This is a cross-party effort. It is not the sole responsibility or the sole campaign issue of one side of the House.
More and more of our hard-working, respectable constituents are being excluded from financial products. They desperately want to insure their cars, but if they pay their car insurance monthly, they pay more. They desperately want to contribute to their pensions and life insurance policies to give comfort to their families. They want to do all those things, but an increasing proportion of them are being excluded from those products. If the FCA had regard to how the issue affects an ever growing part of our society, we would at least have a different way of looking at it.
An issue that I know is close to your heart, Dame Maria, is women’s exclusion from many financial products, given the nature of their work, including part-time work and periods off work for raising children. In the end, the taxpayer picks up the bill if those products are not available. It is in the interests of all of us—our constituents and our parties—to support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.
When I was first elected, I was told by another MP here that I should pick an issue, stick to it and talk about it constantly. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle for following that advice to a tee. I follow in the steps of my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, for Wallasey and for Mitcham and Morden, who spoke about financial inclusion and how it affects us all. Later, we will debate essential face-to-face banking services. For now, I want to focus on the poverty premium, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned: the extra costs that poorer people have to pay for essential services such as insurance, loans or credit cards.
We believe that everyone should have access to financial services—whether it is savings schemes or insurance—when they need them, regardless of their income and circumstances. If the Government are serious about building a strong future for our financial services outside the EU, they should recognise that the Bill is an opportunity to rethink how financial resilience, inclusion and wellbeing are tackled in the UK.
We support amendment 1 and new clauses 2 and 3, which would give the FCA a new cross-cutting “must have regard” to financial inclusion measure as part of its regulatory framework. As the Minister knows, that would mean that the FCA would have to consider financial inclusion across all its activities and report on its progress.
In our evidence session, Fair by Design talked about the higher costs that poorer people have to pay for insurance products. Research from the Social Market Foundation, with which the Minister will be familiar, has shown that those who are unable to pay for their car insurance in annual instalments face an average extra cost of £160. Surely the Minister agrees that that is unjust, and that regulation must play a role in tackling the poverty premium. If he accepts that principle, what is the argument against introducing a new “have regard” provision to empower the FCA to monitor how well financial services are meeting the needs of low-income consumers? For example, a “must have regard” for financial inclusion could allow the regulator to review practices such as insurers charging more to customers who pay for their insurance in monthly instalments.
Does the Minister recognise that exclusion from financial services is a growing problem in the UK? If he rejects the arguments for a “have regard”, what solution does he propose instead? It is something we all see in our casework as constituency MPs.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I appreciate the work of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. I have been to Hull, but I think that everyone has constituents who face precisely the problem of which she speaks, so I will depart from my text.
The Government oppose the new clauses and the amendment. However, we have heard from the FCA its opposition to this measure and its contention that it is not required. It would say that—I understand that point. I would be happy to consider how the Government respond. That is the most worthy response I can make; I am not inclined to dismiss any of the hon. Lady’s arguments.
Indeed, we are not neutral actors, because as we raise the level of the regulatory burden, one of the unintended consequences, which the hon. Member for Wallasey precisely spoke about, is that we often raise the cost of accessing products, or exclude parts of society, because that increased regulatory burden means that providers sometimes withdraw from the sector.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way; I do not propose to speak for very long on this point, anyway.
I am very much in favour of financial inclusion, but we have to be careful about how we achieve it. I was an insurance broker before coming here. The reason I left was that the cost of regulation on our business meant that we disappeared from the high street. That meant that vulnerable people had less access to insurance. We see more and more access points moving out, and having to go online, so people are losing out. Does the Minister agree that, although we must ensure that we are looking after the most vulnerable people, more regulatory burdens will put up the cost and affect the availability of products?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He put it far better than I did, bringing to bear his personal experience, but that was precisely the point that I was making.
Does the Minister agree, though, that unless we know what is happening and somebody keeps the figures, there can be unintended consequences? Martin Coppack from Fair by Design made the point that he has been trying to get this thing done for years and what he has found is that when he goes to the internal Treasury committee that considers financial exclusion, it says, “It’s not our job to keep the numbers. Go to the FCA.” The FCA says, “It’s not our job to keep the numbers. Let’s go back to the Treasury.” Surely it needs to be somebody’s responsibility, so that we understand and know the direction of travel.
Once again, the Government will not oppose those points for the sake of opposing them. I would like to take this matter away. Powerful arguments have been made and the FCA has made its contention. I think it is entirely appropriate that the Government consider the matter further.
I will take Members back to the evidence given by the Phoenix Group as to why the FCA should “have regard”. I think there is broad consensus that financial inclusion is important. The difference of opinion is regarding what we do to achieve it. This point relates to that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden. Phoenix said that the “have regard” responsibility should lie with the FCA because it is
“the single UK body with the clearest ability and access to information”.
That is the main point. We heard evidence from a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions and a Minister from the Treasury, because there is a question around where financial inclusion fits into social policy and financial policy; there is a bit of a mush over who is responsible. Sometimes when we find that lots of people are responsible for something, in reality no one is responsible, because everyone can always say that it is the other person who is responsible and not them. That evidence from Phoenix Group was powerful.
The organisation also said:
“With many of the most pressing issues falling in between the remits of government and regulators, this makes addressing financial inclusion problems more difficult.”
We need the FCA to “have regard” for this matter, to act as that single body to gather the information and look at the issue more seriously, otherwise, we will be failing, as we have done for years, to achieve any real outcomes. I will therefore be pushing the amendment to a vote.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 30 to 32 stand part.
Under the FSMA model, the detailed rules that apply to firms are generally set by the regulators, acting within a framework set by Government and Parliament.
FSMA requires the regulators to act in a way that advances their statutory objectives when discharging their general functions, including those of making rules, setting technical standards and, in the case of the FCA, issuing guidance. It is generally up to the regulators to determine which rules are necessary, and, when they make rules, to do so in a way that advances, and is compatible with, their objectives. They must also have regard to their regulatory principles. Clauses 29 to 32 ensure that relevant regulator actions, including rule making, are proportionate and reflect important matters of public policy as appropriate.
The objectives and regulatory principles in FSMA are cross-cutting and apply to everything the regulators do. They have not been designed to suit particular policy areas. That is why Parliament, through the Financial Services Act 2021, introduced a limited number of factors that the PRA and FCA must consider when making rules in certain areas—for example, when implementing the latest Basel standards.
Clause 29 therefore provides the Treasury with the ability to specify, by way of regulations, matters that the FCA and PRA must “have regard” to when making rules in a particular area. The regulators will be required to outline how they have considered these “have regards” in their public consultations, just as they do already for objectives and regulatory principles. The power for the Treasury to specify matters in regulations will always be subject to the affirmative procedure. That means that Parliament will be able to consider and debate any “have regards” introduced using the new power.
Clause 30 contains a mechanism to manage the interaction between the regulators’ rule-making and supervisory responsibilities and the Treasury’s deference decisions, including equivalence decisions. Deference is a process endorsed by the G20, in which jurisdictions and regulators defer to each other on relevant matters when it is justified by the quality of their respective regulatory, supervisory and enforcement regimes.
It is the responsibility of the Government to determine whether overseas regulatory and supervisory standards are equivalent to our own, and therefore whether to defer to an overseas jurisdiction. The rules that the regulators make will have a direct bearing on the criteria against which the Treasury assesses overseas jurisdictions for that purpose.
To manage that interaction, clause 30 creates a requirement for the FCA and PRA, when proposing changes to rules or supervisory practices, to consider the impact on deference afforded by the Treasury to overseas jurisdictions, and to consult the Treasury should they determine that the proposed action may lead the Government to review their deference decisions. That consultation process will allow the Treasury to provide regulators with its views on how their actions will impact existing deference decisions, and ensures that the regulators holistically consider deference when considering a change to their rules or supervisory practices.
Clause 31 has a similar purpose. It contains a mechanism to manage the interaction between the regulators’ rule-making and supervisory responsibilities, and the Treasury’s responsibilities in upholding the UK’s international trade obligations. The Government are responsible for ensuring that the UK complies with commitments arising from international trade agreements that the UK has agreed.
The clause supports the existing FSMA model by creating a statutory requirement for the regulators when making changes to rules or supervisory practices to consider whether there is a material risk that these changes are incompatible with an international trade obligation. They must give written notice to the Treasury before proceeding if such a risk arises. Clauses 30 and 31 are necessary and proportionate measures to manage the respective responsibilities of the Treasury and the regulators in these areas.
Clause 32 inserts new section 138BA into FSMA to enable the Treasury to allow the FCA and the PRA to waive or modify their rules where appropriate. Setting the same rules for everyone can sometimes come with unintended consequences. Recognising this, existing section 138A of FSMA already gives the regulators some discretion; however, the existing provisions require the relevant regulator to have determined that a rule is “unduly burdensome”, or would not achieve the purpose for which the rules were made, before modifying or disapplying rules.
We want our regulators to be more proportionate and more agile. The new power in clause 32 will therefore give the Treasury the ability to enable the FCA and the PRA to waive or modify their rules in a wider range of circumstances, which will make it easier for regulator rules to reflect different business models and practices where appropriate. Importantly, it will also ensure that some existing waiver regimes in retained EU law can be maintained. I therefore commend clauses 29 to 32 to the Committee.