HBOS Reading: Independent Review

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:50 pm on 18th December 2018.

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Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 4:50 pm, 18th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Kevin Hollinrake for securing the debate. I echo his concerns about the failure of the Griggs review and whether it really provides an outcome for the victims of this terrible fraud, many of whom have suffered far more losses than just financial ones.

The Griggs review was established to offer fast and fair compensation to the victims, but its reality is very different. The all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance has received many representations, as have I, that have described it as a farce, a cynical whitewash and, above all, not fit for purpose, because it is an internal scheme with complete control held by the bank.

We have seen that tactic time and time again in the financial industry. It establishes an internal compensation scheme and conducts an internal investigation to give an illusion of accountability, when the reality is that it can maintain significant control with minimal independent oversight. That is evident from the Dobbs review, which was intended to establish whether issues relating to the HBOS Reading fraud were properly investigated and appropriately reported to the authorities, and whether individuals in the Lloyds Banking Group deliberately tried to conceal or cover up information relating to the fraud. Although we are not questioning the integrity of Dame Linda and her team, the fact remains that they operate within the scope and parameters set by the bank, and they do not have the statutory powers required for a robust and thorough investigation of the matters.

Worryingly, as has been mentioned, the review will consider events only between 2009 and 2017, thereby ignoring the damning conclusions of the Turnbull report, which states that the cover-up of the fraud commenced as early as 2005. There will also be no interim report and the findings might not even be published. Lloyds bank must ensure that the findings are made public, otherwise the public and Parliament will simply not have confidence in the review.

That still leaves some important questions. Where are the regulators and the investigative agencies in that? The Financial Conduct Authority, the Serious Fraud Office and others seem comfortable to simply outsource their regulatory responsibilities to the organisations being investigated. In a recent letter to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, the director of the SFO, Lisa Osofsky, stated that it would not be appropriate for the SFO to comment on those matters, given the work that is currently being undertaken by the National Crime Agency and the Dobbs review. It cannot be acceptable that the organisations responsible for investigating fraud at the highest level are content to allow the bank that is under investigation to set the parameters and scope of their investigations. That cannot be right.

UK Finance has recently announced that the industry has agreed to establish a new ombudsman scheme for larger small and medium-sized enterprises with a turnover between £6.5 million and £10 million and a balance sheet up to £10 million. The APPG has written to the Minister with several concerns about the proposals. Crucially, there will still be a gap in accessing justice for those businesses with larger claims above £600,000. The FCA’s consultation on SME access to the Financial Ombudsman Service clearly shows that an award limit of £600,000 would exclude 41% of complainants because their claims would be above that level. The activities of the Global Restructuring Group were upwards of £1.7 million, so the limit would mean that a lot of people would not gain access to justice. Other people watching and experiencing that are questioning the responsibility of our banking system.

We require an independent mechanism for resolving such disputes that can decide cases on a fair and reasonable basis, capture unregulated entities, force the disclosure of information and the attendance of witnesses, and make those decisions in the public domain. That is what a financial services tribunal could do. I am afraid that I believe that is the only mechanism that would give businesses the confidence they require to borrow, that would give justice to those people who have come here today and who are watching outside this place, and that would put the banks back where they belong—as cornerstones of our communities.