Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
My Lords, the co-pilot is in charge for this leg of the journey. I take this opportunity to address the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on the common theme of financial inclusion, and welcome the contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and my noble friend Lord Trenchard, who anticipated in part some of my response.
Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I would not disagree with what he said about the challenges that confront the Government in this area: the problems of financial numeracy and the serious issues, to use his words, that he identified as needing to be addressed. I will come to that in a moment.
As I said in Committee, we take the issue of financial exclusion very seriously and are grateful for the important work of the Financial Exclusion Select Committee in highlighting this important issue. We have considered the committee’s wide-reaching report, including its recommendations concerning government leadership and the welfare system.
In answer to the two questions about timing, the Government aim to respond to the committee’s report—here I use an option not mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie—before Third Reading. I understand noble Lords’ impatience that we did not have our response to the report available for Report, but I hope that there will be adequate time to consider it before Third Reading. I reassure noble Lords that the Government’s response will address the committee’s recommendations and will bring forward new proposals on how better to co-ordinate across government, the regulators and the wider sector on the key issue of tackling the significant issue of financial exclusion.
As was mentioned in our debate, this area has been given new prominence within the DWP ministerial team by the appointment of my honourable friend Guy Opperman. At the same time, it is important that this change is seen in the context of HM Treasury’s ongoing, government-wide policy responsibility for financial inclusion and exclusion. A key part of the Government’s approach to tackling these issues will be to require the relevant departments to work collaboratively, and the response may say something about that.
I stressed in Committee the Government’s understanding of the terms “financial inclusion” and “capability”, and I thought that we had established an element of agreement on this point. At the risk of reopening a theological discussion, financial inclusion refers to ensuring that members of the public have access to financial services. Financial capability is ensuring that the public are best able to make use of the financial services to which they have access. These terms are widely accepted by, for example, the World Bank. It is important that we build on this shared understanding of the terms so that there is clarity about the intentions for the body, which is to build financial capability among members of the public. To put this another way, the new body should not have a role to regulate the supply of financial services and products by the industry. It should, however, play a key role in helping people engage with or consume these products and services.
This does not mean that the supply of these products is not important. The point is that it is the role of the Financial Conduct Authority—not the SFGB—to ensure that appropriate action is taken when the market fails to supply useful and affordable services and products. So the omission of financial inclusion in the Bill is not an oversight; it is deliberately omitted from the body’s functions and objectives which refer to the supply of useful services such as savings, credit and insurance products. The proposed amendments would greatly expand the body’s statutory remit and are also likely to create confusion over the roles of the Treasury and the FCA, both of which have the relevant responsibilities and powers and are better placed to influence the supply of financial services and products.
In terms of financial exclusion, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, rightly observed in Committee, even more important than these definitions is the question: what will the Government do to act in a more co-ordinated way to tackle financial exclusion? I want to assure noble Lords that, following the Select Committee’s work in this area, the Government will propose, in their response, more appropriate and effective ways to address this issue than through the functions and objectives of the SFGB.
With regards to the particular issue of improving access to financial services for vulnerable people—which comes under Amendment 17—we consider that the FCA, and not the SFGB, is more appropriate to deliver that role. The FCA has already carried out a great deal of work in this area. Many Peers had a helpful meeting with the FCA last week. I hope it reassured noble Lords that the FCA takes its responsibility on consumer protection very seriously. The FCA published two pieces of in-depth research, carried out in 2015 and 2016, which supported the development of current initiatives to address access issues for vulnerable people. I came away from that meeting with a slightly different impression from that of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer.
As discussed in the meeting, issues regarding access and vulnerability are at the core of the FCA’s mission and business plan, published in April this year. To quote from the mission:
“Understanding vulnerability is central to how we make decisions. Consumers in vulnerable circumstances are more susceptible to harm and generally less able to advance their own interests”.
The FCA is due to undertake a number of further projects to understand better the concerns of vulnerable groups, not least through its forthcoming work to develop a consumer strategy by means of its consumer approach paper to be published in the next few weeks. This will provide a means for the FCA to measure outcomes for vulnerable consumers. It will work to develop vulnerability mapping so as to ensure that it has captured the needs of vulnerable consumers when finalising its business priorities.
In Committee, I mentioned the FCA’s TechSprints, so I do not need to do so again. It is also exploring issues for those living with cancer and the problems they face in gaining affordable access to travel insurance. In due course, the FCA will publish a feedback statement with its findings and the next steps in the light of responses to its call for input.
More recently, in September, the FCA published an occasional paper outlining the findings of its ageing population project. This paper reviews the policy implications of an ageing population and the resulting impact on financial services. The FCA highlights risks to older consumers who are more likely than other groups to be vulnerable—an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. To try and minimise harm, it has suggested areas where financial services firms could give greater consideration to how they treat older consumers.
Finally, even more recently, the FCA published its inaugural, annual financial lives survey—its largest tracking survey of consumers and their use of financial services. This is a huge undertaking, drawing on responses from just under 13,000 UK consumers aged 18 and over. The report tells the financial story of six different age groups to show key themes at each life stage, from those aged 18 to 24 to those aged 60 and over. The survey shows that 50% of UK adults—25 million—display one or more characteristics that signal their potential vulnerability. The FCA will use the results of the survey to prioritise its work. I hope the description of some of what the FCA is doing reassures noble Lords that it takes seriously its responsibility towards those who are vulnerable.
As a result of the FCA's work and its engagement with firms, there have been tangible developments from the industry in this area. This includes work led by the Financial Services Vulnerability Taskforce. In addition, the FCA has also seen increasing evidence that firms identify and then improve outcomes for vulnerable consumers.
To reiterate, as my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, the current amendments would greatly expand the remit of the body and could cause confusion over the role of different public institutions. I hope that, having heard this explanation, the noble Lord might be willing to withdraw his amendment.