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Harriett Baldwin responds in FCA debate

12th January 2016

Harriett Baldwin responds to a debate on the Connaught income funds which went into liquidation losing investors considerable sums of money.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing this debate, chairing the all-party group and raising the serious issues concerning the Connaught Income Fund. His constituents and, clearly, those of many other colleagues have been seriously affected by this event and have written to me many times.

Many investors have lost substantial sums and, indeed, sometimes their life savings as a result of the events involving the Connaught funds. I am very much aware that that has caused real hardship for people across the country. It is important that the FCA and the all-party group get to the bottom of this matter and try to secure the best outcome for investors in these funds. Those who are responsible should face justice for their actions. It is equally important that steps are taken to ensure that this situation does not arise again in the future.

I reassure my hon. Friend and all other Members that the Financial Conduct Authority takes this matter extremely seriously.

Kirsten Oswald rose—

Harriett Baldwin: Given the shortness of time, I will make a bit of progress. If I have time, I will come back to the hon. Lady.

The FCA also knows that what happened with the Connaught funds has caused serious distress to many investors and continues to work closely on this case to secure the best possible outcome. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy said, the Connaught funds comprised three separate funds, income series 1, series 2 and series 3. In total, approximately £147 million was invested in the funds, which, as we know, were unregulated collective investment schemes. By definition, such schemes are not subject to direct regulation by the FCA or, previously, by the Financial Services Authority.

In the case of Connaught investment funds, many of the usual protections and safeguards that protect investors in regulated funds were absent, owing to the unregulated nature of some of the entities involved. On this point, I want to touch on two main issues. The first concerns the actions taken by the FCA to try to protect consumers, despite most of the entities involved being unregulated. That includes the ongoing work to secure a fair and proper outcome for investors. The second involves the steps that can be taken to ensure that this sort of situation does not happen again.

First, despite the schemes’ being unregulated, the FCA has taken a number of significant steps to try to protect customers right from when the first problems arose. In May 2011, the FCA, which was at the time the FSA, altered Tiuta’s permissions on issuing new regulated mortgage lending. Shortly thereafter, it wrote to investors who might have been mis-sold the fund and all financial advisers who sold the fund, asking them to review the sales and to contact customers where there may have been the risk of unsuitable advice. The FCA has continued to provide updates on the situation via its website. Once the funds were suspended and steps were taken to wind them down, the FCA announced on 16 July 2014 that it would support a negotiated settlement to address investor losses.

As hon. Members may know, the FCA initially supported the negotiations between the parties involved, as it believed that doing so was in the best interests of investors. However, having extended the negotiations more than once, in March 2015 the FCA announced its decision to withdraw from them. The FCA decided that a further extension to the negotiation period was not in the best interests of investors. I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that as the negotiations were voluntary and confidential, the FCA cannot provide specific details on what happened during the negotiations.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin: I have so little time.

The FCA is now conducting formal investigations into the activities of the two operators of the fund, Capita Financial Managers Ltd and Blue Gate Capital Ltd. My hon. Friend questions the length of time that the FCA is likely to take in order to conduct and conclude its investigations. Although it is too early to give a reliable estimate of the likely time frame for their conclusion, the FCA has assured me that it intends to progress the investigations efficiently and effectively. The length of time it will take to complete the investigations is affected by, among other things, the level of co-operation received from those under investigation and any related third parties.

As the FCA is in the process of carrying out its investigations it is, of course, not possible to comment on their likely outcome. The FCA is unable to provide any comment on what the level or form of compensation to investors may be if it is found that the operators have contravened any regulatory principles or rules.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Will my hon. Friend please give way?

Harriett Baldwin: I have so little time, but I will try to make progress and then give way.

The FCA is an independent, non-governmental body, so I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy will agree that for me to interfere in its investigations in any way would not be appropriate.

My hon. Friend raised the question of whether the Financial Ombudsman Service has indicated a pre-determination to find against independent financial advisers, regardless of the allegations of fraudulent behaviour within the fund. It is important to note that like the FCA, the Financial Ombudsman Service is an independent, non-governmental body. It provides an independent dispute resolution service for consumers with individual complaints against financial services companies. In view of this independence, it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment or intervene in the Financial Ombudsman Service’s work on complaints against advisers who sold the Connaught Income Fund.

However, although I cannot provide comment on these details of these investigations, I am assured that the FCA has put considerable resources, time and effort into trying to achieve a good outcome for the investors affected by the failure of the fund, and that it continues to act in the best interests of the investors.

Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Harriett Baldwin: I shall give way to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) first.

Kirsten Oswald: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. In response to a written question I was referred to the record of ministerial meetings to find out when a Treasury Minister last met representatives of the FCA. Does the Minister understand my astonishment at finding not a single bilateral meeting between the Treasury at ministerial level and the FCA in the two years from October 2013 to September 2015? Does she appreciate that her Government seem to be asleep at the wheel as the FCA fails to clean up the financial services sector?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady has been assiduous in tabling a number of parliamentary questions. I think I am right in saying that they have been put on the record in the Library. I encourage other hon. Members to have a look and see the record that she has managed to get from the FCA in writing.

I am sure that other hon. Members who have constituents who have suffered losses in the Connaught Income Fund will welcome the reassurance that the FCA is doing its utmost to secure the best possible outcome for investors, and that they will support the FCA in its current investigations.

Mr Nuttall: I appreciate that the Minister does not want to comment, but given the strength of feeling this evening, will she please pick up the phone in the morning to Tracey McDermott, the interim head of the FCA, and make it absolutely clear that we want some action on behalf of our constituents and we want this matter sorted out now?

Harriett Baldwin: I am sure my hon. Friend would not want me to interfere in a number of different FCA matters, but I am quite sure that the FCA will have seen the strength of feeling in the Chamber this evening.

I have one minute left so I will take a quick intervention.

Mary Robinson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that at the heart of this are many elderly people who have done the right thing all their lives, saved for their retirement and gone, like my constituents, to an IFA, and now it is time for the FCA to do the right thing for them?

Harriett Baldwin: There clearly is a lot to investigate in this case. As I said, the FCA is doing its utmost to secure the best possible outcome for investors.

I would like to reassure hon. Members about the steps that have been taken to ensure that this situation does not occur again. The FCA has brought in new rules banning the promotion of unregulated collective investment schemes to ordinary retail investors. Independent financial advisers should not be selling unregulated investment schemes to retail investors. The circumstances in which unregulated schemes can be promoted to consumers are generally restricted to certain types of qualifying investors, such as those who have a high level of understanding about investments, or high net worth individuals, for whom those products are likely to be more suitable. That is an important step to take in ensuring that such a situation does not occur in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy once again for raising these important issues. His all-party group plays an incredibly important role in the parliamentary scrutiny of what the FCA is investigating, and I hope we can move forward and secure redress for his constituents and others.

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