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Harriett Baldwin responds on backbench FCA debate

1st February 2016

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the Financial Conduct Authority.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I am left with very little time to cover such a wide-ranging debate. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing this debate.

I think we can all agree that it is important that in the Financial Conduct Authority we have an organisation to keep financial markets honest for our constituents and for markets, which play a crucial role in our economy.

We all want financial services to be on the side of our constituents—the people who want to work hard, do the right thing and get on in life. It is therefore vital that financial services display and uphold the highest standards of behaviour and treat their customers fairly.

The House will no doubt be aware that most small business lending is not regulated. Obviously, when an independent regulator is involved, we need to ensure that the right people are doing the job. Last week the Chancellor announced a number of new appointments to the FCA board, including an excellent new chief executive. As the Chancellor said, Andrew Bailey was the outstanding candidate to be the next chief executive. He brings with him a wealth of experience of financial services regulation in the United Kingdom. He is simply the most respected, most experienced and most qualified person in the world to do the job. However, I want to put on record the Government’s gratitude to Tracey McDermott, the acting chief executive, for all her hard work over the past four months.

Last week we also appointed four new non-executive directors: Bradley Fried, Baroness Hogg, Ruth Kelly and Tom Wright. The new directors provide a balanced mix, on the gender front and in terms of their public and private sector experience and their experience of politics, as well as a wealth of knowledge of consumer issues and the financial services sector more generally, adding an invaluable independent challenge to the board. We believe that the new appointments will strengthen the organisation, and, by ensuring that it has the best possible leadership, will help the FCA to remain a strong, tough regulator that protects consumers and ensures that financial markets work for the benefit of the whole economy.

There are clearly still challenges ahead for the FCA, but it is worth remembering the positive steps that it has already taken. It is in the process of implementing the new senior managers and certification regime, which includes applying enforceable conduct rules to anyone who is involved in the financial services activity of a bank. It has introduced improved whistleblowing requirements, and a new remuneration code that will ensure that individuals are not rewarded for taking excessive risks. It has taken action to protect consumers, such as the regulation of consumer credit, which has included capping the cost of payday lending to protect consumers from unfair costs.

FCA regulation is already having a dramatic impact on the payday market. Indeed, the FCA found that the volume of payday loans had fallen by 35% in the first six months since it took over regulation in April 2014. There has been a new focus on competition in banking and other markets, such as excellent work on Fintech and the innovation hub. Last year the Treasury and the FCA jointly launched a financial advice market review, which is designed to make financial help more accessible and affordable for all our constituents. It is also worth highlighting the role of the Financial Ombudsman Service, to which Members may wish to refer their constituents when they have problems with financial services firms.

The Government are as keen as those who are present tonight to resolve the matters that have been raised by a range of Members. We heard from not only my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, but from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), as well as the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey).

A number of points have been raised, and I shall deal with them in turn. The issue of the banking culture review was raised by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. The first time I personally heard about the FCA’s decision to discontinue the review was when the story broke in the media on new year’s eve. We have made it abundantly clear to the House that no Treasury Minister or official was involved in the FCA’s decision, and the FCA has made it clear that it did not inform the Treasury before the decision was made public.

Kirsten Oswald: Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin: I would love to, but I do not have time.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Harriett Baldwin: No, because the hon. Gentleman was not even present for the debate.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, the hon. Member for Ceredigion, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth also mentioned interest rate hedging products and businesses that were suffering as a result of interest rates that were lower than expected. The Government have made it clear from the beginning that mis-selling of financial products is unacceptable, and that businesses affected by it should be compensated. The FCA has established a redress scheme for small businesses that were mis-sold interest rate hedging products to ensure that eligible businesses are compensated. So far the scheme has paid out on 18,000 cases, and more than £2 billion has been paid in redress, including £464 million to deal with consequential losses.

As we have heard tonight, there are still some cases outstanding. As at year end, these include 700 cases in which full refunds have yet to be accepted. Businesses that are considered larger and more sophisticated are not covered by the redress scheme, but they can of course take advantage of the first-class brains in our legal profession. The FCA considers that there is merit in holding a review of how the scheme has worked when these legal cases have been concluded.

The question of Connaught was raised by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk. The Government and the FCA understand the serious financial difficulty and distress that this issue has caused to many investors. As hon. Members might be aware, the FCA published an update to investors on its website this week on Connaught Income Fund, series 1. The update highlights that a settlement agreement has been reached between the liquidators of the fund and Capita Financial Managers Ltd. The FCA has asked the liquidators of the fund to distribute the settlement sum to investors as soon as possible. The investigation that the FCA is pursuing will continue independently of the settlement.

The Global Restructuring Group was mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove. Let me reassure the House that I expect to see the conclusions of the FCA’s investigation into this matter in the first quarter of the year. On the point made by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest on Treasury Select Committee scrutiny of FCA appointments, we have agreed that the Committee will be able to carry out a pre-commencement hearing before the new CEO starts at the FCA.

A number of questions have been raised about FCA independence. The FCA is of course operationally independent of the Government. We appoint the chief executive and the board, and the FCA’s objectives and duties were voted into statute during the last Parliament. I firmly believe in the independence of the FCA. It is vital that consumers and firms know that regulatory decisions are being taken in an objective and impartial way. Contrary to what the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire seems to think, I have met the acting chief executive of the FCA and her predecessor from time to time. I regret the fact that the hon. Lady has formed a different impression.

The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles raised the question of operational matters. I am afraid that she cannot have this both ways. If she wants the Treasury to interfere in operational decisions at the FCA, she is asking for something that completely contradicts the spirit of independent regulation that I have supported this evening. No one is denying that the FCA has a tough job ahead. That is why it is essential that it is well prepared, well staffed and well equipped to do that job, and that it has the best leadership possible. I am confident that the FCA has the right mandate and team.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I believe that today’s motion is neither well founded nor well timed, given that a new chief executive and a new team are in place. I strongly urge hon. Members to ignore the motion before us tonight.

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