Bank of England and Financial Services Bill – Bishop of Southwark speaks against amendment on ‘reverse burden of proof’

On 11th November 2015 the House of Lords considered amendments in committee to the Government’s Bank of England and Financial Services Bill. Lord Sharkey moved amendment 21 to Clause 18: ‘Extension of relevant authorised persons regime to all authorised persons’:

Moved by Lord Sharkey

21: Clause 18, page 15, line 19, at end insert—

“(2) The terms of the extension under subsection (1) shall not apply to those persons who fall within the definition of “relevant authorised person” in section 33 of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013.”

The Bishop of Southwark, Rt Rev Christopher Chessun spoke against the amendment, citing the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had served on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. The amendment was withdrawn after debate.

BishSouthwarktaxcreditsThe Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I shall speak against Amendment 21. I confess that my expertise does not rival that of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who justly won plaudits for the seriousness and skill with which he served on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. Regrettably, he cannot be in his place today, but I am at one with him in supporting the Government’s intentions on the reverse burden of proof.

One of the important functions of the parliamentary commission was to consider the change of culture of banks and the standards of conduct of those working in them, particularly its senior managers. Anger, disbelief and misery was felt by so many following the crisis that engulfed the British economy in 2007-08, much of it directed at the banking industry. That anger and disbelief were compounded when those best remunerated within the banks seemed to demonstrate little or no accountability for their actions. Rather, the burden was borne by society as a whole and it was the poorest who suffered most and, arguably, continue to do so. The ability of well-funded senior managers in the banking sector to evade responsibility was considerable. My assessment is that the commission saw sufficient evidence that there was a balance to be redressed. Small wonder that the commission sought to protect the public, including the taxpayer, with a robust regulatory regime and suitable civil and criminal penalties. This included several provisions with a reverse burden of proof.

A reverse burden of proof would mean that senior managers would have individual responsibility for proving that they had fulfilled their regulatory obligations, rather than regulators having to prove that they had not. This goes against the ancient common-law principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. The proposed reverse burden of proof seems to require senior managers in the sector to do something required in no other sphere of work, and which, from a philosophical perspective, causes concern. It is absolutely right that the individual is obligated to ensure that they take reasonable steps to prevent regulatory breaches in their financial institution but, as with other parts of society, it is right that the burden of proof should sit with the regulator to prove such breaches beyond reasonable doubt.

Secondly, I want to express my anxiety at the creation of a two-tier system of regulation in which deposit-taking institutions, including credit unions and building societies, are obligated to operate under the reverse burden of proof but other financial institutions are not. The need to ensure financial stability in the sector is vital, particularly among the largest institutions, but there seems to be a certain arbitrariness regarding who would be covered by the reverse burden of proof. I fear that a two-tier system would risk confusion or a loss of focus both within the banks and other financial institutions, and on the part of the regulators.

Well-funded individuals and corporations are capable of all manner of misdemeanours across our society, in all sectors of the economy. To introduce a reverse burden of proof only for senior managers in the financial services sector would set a grave precedent. What of those accused of pollution, negligence or failure to care? Where would it be extended next, further eroding the fundamental rights upon which our society is properly based? For the sake of all, not least those without the backing of considerable funds, we should continue to insist that the burden of proof must fall on regulators, prosecutors and those in authority who affirm that wrong is done. Better, as in the published Bill, to have a provision that contains a presumption to act reasonably and for regulators to prove that an individual has done otherwise. In view of these concerns, I humbly urge your Lordships’ House to reject the amendment.

Lord McFall of Alcluith (Lab): [extract] My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. I bring to the attention of the Committee my position as deputy chairman of the Banking Standards Board, but I speak here in a personal capacity.

This measure abandons a key element of the recommendation of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards—a decision that was unanimous among its members, including the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. We all signed up to the recommendation to hold senior bankers to account. The essence of the recommendation is that, if misconduct or prudential failings take place, in order to avoid sanction senior managers have to demonstrate that they did all they could to prevent them happening….

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I do not wish to interrupt the noble Lord in full flight but I should like to put on the record that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury signed up to the reverse burden of proof, having lost the argument in the PCBS that the reverse burden of proof was unjustifiable. I think that slightly puts in context the phraseology he used.

Lord McFall of Alcluith: The commission valued enormously the contribution of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, if we feel strongly about something, it can be a matter of record. I take the point about the unanimity of the commission, and will come to an area where I disagreed with it. I did not get my way, but signed up to it. So it is a case of tit for tat and one for one with the most reverend Primate….


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