I am happy to respond to that intervention by saying that it is absolutely imperative that the FCA works with all bodies to hold those individuals to account and to take the appropriate action in the light of the evidence presented to it. This is urgent; the individuals who have suffered this experience expect that of the FCA, and I believe the FCA is keenly aware of that.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent talked about the regional presence of the FCA. It has more than 3,000 employees and runs an annual programme of regional supervisory workshops under its “Live and local” banner, in which it educates firms and gathers intelligence from across the country. That has included recent workshops on DB pension transfers. Although the FCA does not have a series of regional offices, there is a clear expectation on the part of the Government and the FCA itself that it will go out into communities across the country, to ensure it has a presence among the 35,000 IFAs that operate.
The regulator is also undertaking further work on the pensions transfer advice market. The FCA is analysing responses to a recent data request from firms that undertake pensions transfer advice and is planning a programme of work, which is likely to include further engagement with stakeholders, targeted education for firms involved in providing pension transfer advice, and assessment of those firms significantly involved in the provision of DB transfer advice. The FCA has already announced a requirement for all pension transfer specialists to obtain the same qualifications as fully regulated investment advisers, alongside their existing qualifications, by October 2020. In relation to the BSPS, the FCA intervened to stop 11 firms from providing pensions transfer advice, and several firms are still under investigation.
It is important to ensure that consumers are protected from poor-quality and unsuitable advice, and there are proper mechanisms for redress when they receive poor advice. The first port of call for consumers to seek compensation is to approach the firm itself. If they cannot resolve the issue, consumers can take their complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service. The FOS is a free, independent service that provides an alternative to the courts. The maximum award it can recommend was increased at the beginning of this month from £150,000 to £350,000 per individual. If firms go into liquidation and cannot provide compensation to individuals, a second tier of protection is open through the financial services compensation scheme. The FSCS is mainly funded by an annual levy on the financial services industry. Since its founding, the FSCS has helped millions of people and paid billions of pounds in compensation.
It is important to note that in the British Steel case, only a very small minority of former steelworkers who have taken their claims through the FOS and the FSCS have not been fully compensated. That group were all clients of one firm, and the Government’s decision to make financial advice mandatory for those seeking to transfer their DB pension has therefore guaranteed a crucial layer of consumer protection to those individuals.
“Phoenixing”—firms or individuals seeking to avoid liabilities arising from poor investment advice by re-emerging as a different legal entity—can leave consumers and taxpayers out of pocket and tarnish the reputation of the industry. The FCA has a range of tools to identify and act against firms or individuals who try to avoid responsibility in that way. Those seeking to liquidate firms must provide information about outstanding complaints, and the assets of collapsed firms cannot be sold on or passed back to former directors without the prior consent of the regulator. The FCA has already used those powers to prevent several individuals and businesses from avoiding their liabilities, and other cases are under investigation. This has caused some individuals to withdraw their applications, knowing full well that they will not get through. Although I acknowledge that this will not give absolute comfort to those who have suffered, I believe that we now have in place a regime that will prevent the practice in future.