Financial Services and Markets Bill: Bishop of St Albans speaks on cryptocurrency, access to cash, credit unions, and net zero

The House of Lords debated the Financial Services and Markets Bill in its second reading on 10th January 2022. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate concerning issues of access and regulation:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, theologians sometimes discuss the personal and social ethics in the teaching of Christ under the three headings of money, sex and power, those three areas which can be the most extraordinary gift and blessing when used rightly and for the common good but which, when they are an end in themselves, can become extraordinarily disruptive. Of these three areas, Christ had most to say about money, as its use reveals our values as individuals and as a society, often in a very stark way. A close reading of this Bill reveals a set of cultural assumptions and values about what is considered important and valuable. There are four areas that I want to highlight and which we need to consider if a growing and vibrant financial sector will work for the common good.

First, on crypto asset regulation, as others have said, we need to act fast both to protect our citizens and so that we do not fall behind the rest of the world. The problem at the moment is that the almost complete lack of regulation means that, for many people, crypto- currencies are just another form of gambling. The recent collapse of FTX has demonstrated the volatility of this market and its vulnerability to fraud. Some have made a fortune, while others have lost their life savings and will now be looking to the state to provide for them. Just as we need a sensible and balanced approach to the regulation of online gambling, so we need sensible, balanced regulation of crypto- currencies. The provision in this Bill to ensure that crypto is treated as a regulated activity and giving the FCA and the PSR the power and, as others have noted, the resources to do their work and to protect customers, is welcome.

Secondly, His Majesty’s Government’s laudable levelling-up agenda needs to ensure access to cash. Here I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. Over 8 million people across the UK rely on cash, primarily the elderly or those who live in rural areas or not-spots, where you cannot get online. Poorer areas are being dominated by pay-to-use cash machines, which hit poorest people the hardest. Research indicates that the most deprived areas are dominated by private operators charging those most affected by the cost of living crisis to withdraw cash. This is the poverty premium, where the poorest are forced to pay more for essential services. When the Minister sums up, can she tell us whether the FCA is under the same obligation as government departments to rural-proof the regulations that it makes about access to cash? If not, will this requirement be introduced?

Thirdly, I welcome the proposal for credit unions and urge His Majesty’s Government to explore ways in which we can encourage their growth. The Church of England has been involved in a very large project using the insights of credit unions in our secondary schools to teach financial literacy, and to teach young people how to handle cash and their money and how to plan responsibly. We need to build on this work urgently.

Fourthly, on green and zero carbon, it is more urgent than ever that we introduce mandatory net-zero transition plans, so that large companies report on how they will manage the transition to net zero. We are told that the Bill will update

“the objectives of the financial services regulators to ensure a greater focus on long-term growth and international competitiveness.”

However, if we are to fulfil our COP 26 commitments, it will also need a secondary statutory objective to protect and restore nature and deliver a net-zero economy. There is much to be welcomed here, but there is a great deal more work to be done.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con): I strongly welcome the new objectives on competitiveness and growth. Effective regulation should enable the sector to burnish its reputation for efficiency, innovation and integrity. It can also reduce costs, thereby improving access to goods and services. I hope that the necessary metrics can be crafted to provide reassurance that the regulators really do act on these new secondary objectives. I acknowledge and respect the concerns of those who feel that the commitment to growth feels a little bald and even old-fashioned in the light of climate change. I reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Hayman, that I am constantly struck by how seriously climate change is being taken by a sector that is literally, as well as figuratively, right in the eye of the storm. Financial services growth is increasingly, of necessity, green growth.

Finally, as senior independent director of LINK, I welcome the fact that for the first time ever the concept of access to cash and a right to access it will be enshrined in law. As the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, pointed out, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has just mentioned, for millions of people cash is a vital part of day-to-day life. Younger consumers may brush off credit card fraud and the panoply of pins and passwords as a necessary if tiresome aspect of modern life, but for many older citizens all that is an undiscovered country, and one that will remain undiscovered. Sadly, there is no such thing as a free cash withdrawal. The banking hubs have been slow to get moving, bank branches continue to close, and the economic situation squeezes the independent ATM providers more and more.

This Bill barely marks the end of the beginning for this task. I hope that it will be seen as an important milestone. I wish it safe passage and a successful arrival in port.

Baroness Northover (LD): As Chris Skidmore has said in relation to his net zero review for the Government, we may be committed to net zero by 2050, but are the guardrails in place to deliver that? Those guardrails must include regulation. Therefore, what do we see in this legislation? As others have pointed out, the Bill states that regulators should only “have regard” to climate goals. There are seven other principles to which the regulators must also have regard. These are subsidiary to the strategic and operational objectives, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, my noble friend Lady Sheehan, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans have all pointed out. That must be addressed as this Bill goes through.

Shortly before this Bill was announced, it was reported that the Government had removed from the Bill the expected sustainable disclosure requirements. These would have required large companies and financial institutions to disclose and justify their environmental impacts, their alignment with the UK’s green taxonomy and their net zero transition plans. With the publication of their Greening Finance road map in 2021, the Government reaffirmed their commitment to developing a green taxonomy and sustainable disclosure requirements, yet these are delayed.

In the meantime, the EU has legislated in this area. We have already fallen behind, despite the Government’s declared ambitions. HSBC has just announced that it will no longer finance new oil and gas fields. That is the future. Others need to do likewise, with the transformative effect that will have. Regulation can spur that on. This Bill, replacing EU regulation with specific UK regulation, needs to make sure that the UK and London are forward looking, leading the way, modern and drawing in green investment and jobs. I can assure the Minister that there will therefore be amendments to this Bill in this vital area, so I suggest that she starts writing round now.

Baroness Penn (Con): I turn to consumer protection and financial inclusion, an issue raised by a number of noble Lords, many of whom have done very important work in this area, and I am grateful to them for that. The noble Baronesses, Lady Twycross, Lady Bryan and Lady Tyler, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, my noble friend Lord Holmes and others highlighted the important role that cash continues to play for many. The Government are committed to ensuring through the Bill reasonable access to cash across the UK. The FCA is best placed to deliver an effective, agile and evidence-based approach to regulating access to cash that can endure over time, and the Bill will allow for that. In approaching the policy statement that will inform this, the Government will consider how effective industry schemes have been in ensuring reasonable, free access to cash for individuals, and the policy statement is the right place to consider this matter further. The Government will reflect on the views of parliamentarians when crafting that statement.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked how rurality will be considered in that process. The FCA will be obliged to consider local as well as national deficiencies in cash, which would be relevant in rural areas; even if it is not subject to the same rural-proofing guidance, it will be subject to the equality duties around protected characteristics in undertaking that work. Where closure of bank branches affects access to cash, intervening in a closure would be within the scope of the FCA’s new powers in the Bill, provided that this fulfilled the purpose of seeking to ensure reasonable provision of cash access services. More broadly, decisions on in-person banking services are made by the providers of those services. However, that is still governed by the FCA’s existing powers and recently strengthened guidance on actions that must be taken when people seek to close branches to ensure that customers are treated fairly.

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