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Harriett Baldwin leads Bank of England Bill debate


1st February 2016

Harriett Baldwin moves the Second Reading of the Bank of England and Financial Services Bill in the House of Commons.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Following the financial crisis, the Government fundamentally reformed the UK’s system of financial regulation, replacing the failed tripartite system with a set of regulators with clear responsibilities and objectives. We have also taken concerted action to improve conduct across the banking sector, and to deal with the abuses and unacceptable behaviour of the past. The Bank of England has rightly been put back in charge of financial stability, and the Financial Conduct Authority is a watchdog protecting consumers from sharp practices and making sure bankers comply with the rules. Quite rightly, the powers and governance of those important organisations are reviewed closely and the Bill makes some modest changes to them.

The Bill has three main aims. The first is to further strengthen the governance, transparency and accountability of the Bank of England so as to put it in the best possible position to fulfil its vital role in delivering monetary and financial stability. It allows the National Audit Office into the Bank for the first time in its centuries-old history. The second aim is to build on concerted action the Government have already taken to drive up standards in financial services by extending the senior managers and certification regime across the sector, including a tough new duty of responsibility for senior managers. The third aim is to support the creation of a secondary market for annuities, protecting consumers by extending the remit of the Pension Wise guidance service and introducing a requirement which, in effect, ensures that certain individuals who are seeking to sell their annuities have received appropriate financial advice.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the real problems in the culture of banking, which we all want to get right, is the role of auditors? Auditors should have been there, should have spotted the dangers and should have blown the whistle, but they did not. Is it not the case that the Bill still does not address the accountancy profession and auditors?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of auditors. Others in this place will consider the role of auditors in the crash, but I think what he will welcome in the Bill is the fact that the National Audit Office, for the first time, will have the ability to do value-for-money studies within the Bank of England.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Following on from my hon. Friend’s intervention, does the Minister not agree that one of the fundamental problems with auditors is that they are always employed, effectively, by the managers of banks or companies when they should be representing shareholders? If they want their contracts renewed, time and again private auditors provide a soft option for managers so they get the contract next time. As she says, the great thing about the National Audit Office is that it is independent and in the public sector.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that the Bill focuses specifically on the role of the National Audit Office, one independent arm of government, and the Bank of England, another independent agency. The Bill does not particularly focus on the role of auditors in private companies, but I am sure other parts of Parliament will consider that in this Session.

I turn first to the reforms that the Bill will make to the Bank of England. It introduces evolutionary changes to its governance, transparency and accountability to put it on the best possible footing to discharge its expanded responsibilities. These changes complement those taken by the Bank itself as part of its “One Mission, One Bank” strategic plan. The Prudential Regulation Authority will stop being a subsidiary of the Bank and instead be run by a committee of the Bank; another deputy governor will be able to join the court, the Bank’s governing body; and the Treasury will be able to send a remit letter to the Prudential Regulation Committee.

To strengthen the Bank’s transparency and accountability to Parliament and the public, we will give the National Audit Office the power to conduct value-for-money studies. Following debates in the other place and with the NAO and the Bank, we have made sure that that important change is implemented in a way that protects the independence of the Bank’s policy-making functions and of the NAO.

Kelvin Hopkins: I welcome the fact that the NAO will be looking at the Bank, but it will need extra resources to do that big job. Will the Minister guarantee that the extra people employed will represent the shareholders—us and the people we represent—and will not simply come from the banking sector and be soft on banks?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman rightly points out the importance of the NAO’s having the right resources. I have not had any representations about this particular move, but I am sure it will make its feelings known, should it require those resources.

The Bill also makes changes to the court. We will simplify and strengthen the governance of the Bank by transferring to the whole court the powers previously given to the oversight committee to oversee the Bank’s performance. Following discussions in the other place, to help guard against group-think, we have amended the Bill so that a majority of non-executive directors on the court will still be able to initiate reviews of the Bank’s performance without needing to secure the agreement of the whole court.

We will integrate prudential regulation more fully into the Bank by ending the PRA’s status as a subsidiary of the Bank. The PRA board will be replaced by a new Prudential Regulatory Committee with sole responsibility within the Bank for the PRA’s functions. That is modelled on the Monetary Policy Committee and the Financial Policy Committee. We will make these changes while still protecting the PRA’s operational independence, and we will continue to ensure transparency on the amounts raised by the levy and what the Bank spends in relation to its functions as the prudential regulator.

In order to strengthen governance and make the structures of the Bank more consistent, the Bill harmonises the legislation underpinning the Bank’s three policy committees: the MPC, the FPC and the proposed PRC. It moves the MPC to a schedule of at least eight meetings a year, from the current 12, and updates requirements for the timing of MPC publications, implementing the remaining recommendations of the Warsh review, entitled “Transparency and the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee” and published in 2014.

Alongside these changes, the Bill builds on the existing arrangements and the strong working relationship between the Bank and the Treasury by updating the formal framework for how the Bank and the Treasury should engage with each other on the public funds risks and the financial stability risks of firm failure. These changes will improve co-ordination while maintaining the existing clear and separate roles of the Bank and the Treasury in the event of a crisis.

Mr Sheerman: I am slightly concerned that the Bill moves us towards a system of less tension and a cosier relationship between the Bank and the Treasury. That would worry me and other Members. Is it true? I always thought that that tension was healthy.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of the Bank’s operational independence, which Gordon Brown introduced in 1997—it was his greatest legacy to our country—but he will note that his colleagues’ motion calls for a stronger role for both the Treasury and Parliament and arguably for less independence for the Bank. It is popularly known as the people’s quantitative easing, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not support his Front-Bench team on the reasoned amendment.

Kelvin Hopkins: Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), it would be even more worrying if there were a cosy relationship between the NAO and the Treasury. The NAO should be responsible to this House, and the Treasury should not be able to get its tentacles on the NAO.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that the NAO is completely independent of the Treasury. Although I have a nominal role on the Public Accounts Committee, the NAO is rightly accountable to Parliament.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): I very much welcome the move to turn the PRA into the PRC on a par with the MPC and the FPC. Does the Minister not have any anxiety, however, that that leaves the FCA, the consumer protection conduct of business element, out on a limb, with a different status from the other three committees?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that the FCA is set up completely differently. However, I stress that the similarity lies in the operational independence. When it comes to the FCA, the Treasury is obviously able to appoint the chief executive and the board, but the operational decisions are for the FCA board, as we have made clear in recent weeks.

Let me move on to the second element of the Bill, which will make changes to the senior managers and certification regime. As hon. Members will know, the Government are committed to driving up standards of conduct across the financial sector, and to tackling the abuses and unacceptable behaviour of the past. That is why the Government are replacing the discredited approved persons regime with a much more robust new system, the senior managers regime, legislated for by the previous Government in the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013.

I find it quite extraordinary that, in the amendment they have tabled, Opposition Members have seen fit to claim that

“the Bill reduces regulation of financial services”.

This Bill is a vital opportunity to remove what the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards described as the “complex and confused mess” of the approved persons regime for 60,000 financial services firms, all insurers, FCA-regulated investment firms and all consumer credit firms, and to replace it with the more targeted and robust senior managers and certification regime.

Let me set out the benefits of the new regime; perhaps the Opposition will then reconsider their position. The approved persons regime is a relatively broad, unfocused regime in which all individuals who were considered to hold significant influence functions in the firm, or who dealt with customers would be subject to the regulators’ pre-approval in a tick-box exercise. Crucially, clarity of responsibilities at the top of firms was woefully inadequate. Firms could pass the buck for ensuring the fitness and propriety of their staff to the regulators, and the regulators could take enforcement action only against the individuals they had pre-approved.

The senior managers and certification regime tackles those problems head on. First, it focuses regulatory pre-approval on senior managers, the key decision makers at the top of firms. It enhances the accountability of these individuals through statements of responsibilities, documents that give clarity on which senior manager is responsible for each area of the firm’s business, and through the proposed statutory duty of responsibility that requires senior managers to take reasonable steps to prevent breaches of regulations in their areas of responsibility.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the senior managers regime will cut through the accountability far more, as the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards discovered? The regulatory regime at the time had the effect of forcing senior managers to create ignorance of what was going on within their institutions. The Bill will now absolutely reverse that, so that senior managers must know what is going on within their institutions so that they can take responsibility for infringements of the rules.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend, who was a distinguished member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, is right to say that the commission highlighted the fact that the approved persons regime made it very difficult to pin down responsibility. The new regime, with its duty of responsibility clearly articulated —every organisation will have that set out when managers are first appointed and on an annual basis thereafter—is a much stronger regime. It also delivers more flexibility in the regulators’ enforcement powers, enabling them to impose high standards of conduct through rules applying to individuals, including those whom they have not approved. The expansion of the new regime to all authorised financial services firms will enhance personal responsibility for senior managers, as well as providing a more effective and proportionate means of raising the standards of conduct of key staff more broadly.

Given the improvements that the senior managers and certification regime with the statutory duty of responsibility delivers in terms of senior accountability, the reverse burden of proof is simply not necessary. In extending the new regime to all authorised financial services firms, it is important to consider whether, under these new circumstances, the application of the reverse burden of proof to any or all firms is appropriate. Most of the firms to which the regime will now apply are small, and it simply would not be proportionate to apply it to those firms. By retaining it for the banking sector alone, we would raise serious questions of fairness and competition.

George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP): Can the Minister explain what has happened in the two and a half years since the 2013 Act was passed—essentially, by a Conservative Government—to change the reverse burden of proof?

Harriett Baldwin: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the measures in the 2013 Act are due to come into force on 7 March this year. The position in relation to the reverse burden of proof is becoming increasingly clear. Andrew Bailey said in his evidence to the Treasury Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member:

“I support the change, because what the change does is it turns the process round and puts the judgment back on to us”

—that is, the regulator.

“I would rather it does that than have us heading down this tick-box regime with legal questions around it over human rights.

I do not want to come back or have one of my successors come back to you in the future and have to say, ‘I am sorry; we could not use this regime in the way that was intended, because it was always a bit doubtful that we could make it stick’. It is far better we come at this point to you and say, ‘I do not think this has a sufficient probability of being effective’.”

I could supply further quotations, from members of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards in the other place, but I must make fairly rapid progress now.

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Will the Minister give way on that point?

Harriett Baldwin: I will give way to the Chair of the Select Committee on that point.

Mr Tyrie: It surprised a number of members of the Committee when both the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority told us that they supported the removal of the reverse burden of proof. I think that many of us would be in a different place had they not given that evidence.

The Minister has just placed great emphasis on the need for the senior managers and certification regime. Has she asked the regulators for a report on progress in its implementation? If so, will she tell us what it said and put it in the public domain? I have to say, on the basis of what we have heard, that progress is inadequate.

Harriett Baldwin: I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s contribution, because he has been examining the issue for longer than most. He will know of the points that were made about this topic in the other place. The regime is due to come into force on 7 March 2016, which is pretty soon. The rolling out of the implementation will focus on the larger organisations first, but the Committee and, I am sure, the Treasury will want it to apply in particular to the large, systemically important firms by 7 March.

The third element of the Bill relates to the extension of the important new freedoms that the Government are granting to allow people to take control of their retirement savings. It will help to ensure that consumers who will be able to sell their annuity incomes through the secondary market in annuities are sufficiently supported. There are two key measures. The first will extend the Pension Wise guidance to those who, from April 2017, will be eligible to sell their annuity incomes through the secondary market in annuities. That will include the offer of guidance to those who have a right to an income under the annuity, such as any dependants and beneficiaries as well as the primary annuity holder.

The second measure will require the FCA to make rules to ensure that specified firms check that individuals with annuities above a threshold value have received appropriate financial advice. On 19 January, the Chancellor set out the Government’s intention to legislate to place a new duty on the FCA to cap excessive early exit charges. I should like to take this opportunity to announce that that new duty will be introduced as a Government amendment in Committee.

Stewart Hosie: The Minister has used the words “guidance” and “advice” almost interchangeably in her last few sentences. Many of us across the House are concerned that it is advice that will be required, particularly by those with rather modest annuities. Can she give a guarantee that what is being offered is advice and not merely guidance?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight that semantic distinction. His constituents and mine want help; they do not know whether they are asking for regulated advice or guidance. He will also be aware that we have carried out a consultation—the financial advice market review—which closed in December. We are now studying the responses to that consultation with a view to seeing whether the current distinction is linguistically, and indeed legally, appropriate. He will hear more on this interesting topic in due course.

The Bill also makes a number of smaller changes. We are legislating to give the Treasury the power to make recommendations to the PRA and the FCA about aspects of the Government’s economic policy. Those will be non-binding remit letters. We are also allowing the Treasury to make regulations implementing a more competitive framework for insurance-linked securities business. That will help to preserve London’s position as a centre for specialist insurance and reinsurance.

Following debates in the other place, we are also making a change that will support our ambitions for a diverse financial sector by putting consideration of mutuality and other types of business organisation into both regulators’ guiding principles. There will also be changes within an existing banking group to authorise a bank to issue banknotes in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Illegal moneylenders prey on the most vulnerable people in society, causing their victims immense misery. That is why we will act now in the Bill to ensure that illegal moneylending teams have the funding they need to continue to protect consumers and prosecute loan sharks. We will introduce an amendment in Committee to give the Treasury a power to provide financial assistance to persons involved in taking action against illegal moneylending. The amendment will also give a power that allows the FCA to collect a levy from consumer credit firms in order to fund their financial assistance.

In conclusion, the measures that I have outlined today build on reforms to financial regulation and contribute to the Government’s commitment to deliver a new settlement for financial services. I see that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) is now on the Opposition Front Bench. By indicating that they do not support the Bill, the Opposition have put themselves on the wrong side of the argument on a range of sensible measures. By voting against the Bill, they will be voting against stronger governance and transparency in the Bank of England and in particular against making the Bank more accountable to Parliament and the public by giving the National Audit Office the power to conduct value-for-money studies of the Bank. They will be voting against extending the benefits of greater accountability for the senior managers and certification regime to all authorised financial services firms.

By voting against the Bill, the Opposition will be voting against ensuring that consumers who can sell their annuity income through the new secondary market have access to Pension Wise guidance and, where appropriate, take financial advice to support their decision. As well as that, they will be voting against proposals to place new duties on the FCA to cap early exit charges for those eligible to access the pension freedoms and to ensure that illegal moneylending teams have the funding they need to continue to protect consumers and prosecute loan sharks. The Labour party has been wrong on financial services regulation in the past and it is wrong again today. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.39 pm

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