I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Twenty-ninth Report of the Treasury Committee, Consumers’
access to financial services, HC 1642.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. The Treasury Committee’s report “Consumers’ access to financial services” was published last month, its conclusions having been agreed by the Committee unanimously. The inquiry was launched in November 2018 to assess whether certain groups of consumers were excluded from getting a basic level of service from financial services providers, whether the regulatory landscape provided sufficient enforcement to ensure that customers could access financial services, and, if not, which remedies were needed.
Our report covered a lot of ground, so I will focus on four of its main conclusions. First, financial exclusion or vulnerability can affect us all at some point in our lives. Secondly, the Post Office alone is not a solution to banks closing their branches. Thirdly, a legal duty of care for financial services providers towards their customers is needed if the Financial Conduct Authority cannot make firms act in their customers’ interests at all times. Fourthly, at present the Equalities and Human Rights Commission does not have the resources to enforce financial services firms to comply with the Equality Act 2010, and therefore the Financial Conduct Authority should be given the power to do so.
Before I go into more detail on those four main conclusions, I will give a brief outline of the inquiry’s scope. We received almost 80 written evidence submissions, and we held five oral evidence sessions and two outreach events with members of the public and local charities—one in Waterloo, London, and one in Newcastle. I put on record the Committee’s thanks to everybody who sent us evidence and took part in those events. When I was elected by the House as Chair of the Treasury Committee, I was determined that our inquiries would not just talk about things that affect the City of London and our large financial institutions, but would concentrate on issues that make a real difference to consumers’, and our constituents’, lives. I hope that we have been able to do that in this inquiry.
The oral evidence sessions were held with advice groups and charities representing different groups in society, Members of the House of Lords who had previously carried out work on financial exclusion, representatives from banks and the Post Office, and the regulators with the power to make the changes needed—the Financial Conduct Authority, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and the Equality Advisory Support Service, which offers support to individuals with a disability dispute.
It is worth stopping to think about why financial inclusion matters. It is something that many of us will take for granted, perhaps until a time in our lives when we are excluded or suffering, or until we come across a constituency case of somebody struggling. Eleanor Southwood, the chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said in her evidence:
“People experience enormous frustration. But it is also about financial literacy. It is about financial independence. It is about not being more vulnerable to any kind of financial abuse, because you are entirely on top of and aware of your own financial arrangements and situations.”
She went on to say that it
“comes back to the fundamental issues about confidence, the loss of confidence, the loss of confidence in yourself to understand the information.”
I remember the oral evidence that I heard from one of the charities at our roundtable in Waterloo, not very far from here. In this Chamber, we probably take financial inclusion for granted, but an inability to be in charge of one’s finances is sometimes a precursor to an inability to participate fully in society. That is something that we should all be concerned about.
There are many different elements to how consumers access financial services and, as the Committee heard, there are many ways in which people can be excluded. We started by trying to establish which customers we were most concerned about, but the reality is that access to financial services or financial exclusion is not limited to those we might naturally associate with being vulnerable, because vulnerability can happen to any of us at any stage of our lives. The FCA told us that its definition of vulnerability as
“someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care” could include up to half the population at any one time.