Mr. Newmark: The abolition of a dedicated complaints service for national savings and its placing under the voluntary jurisdiction of a financial ombudsman causes me great concern for two reasons. First and foremost, I am concerned about consumer protection and public confidence. Many investors in national savings are, in effect, widows and orphansin other words, the most vulnerable investors in our communityyet the Government propose to get rid of a dedicated specialist complaints handler in exchange for some form of ombudsman who, in my opinion, does not have the same teeth. The Government are thereby diminishing public trust in a very important area of investments with the investor community.
Secondly, it once again looks likeand I believe that I am quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond)another case of the Government saying "do as I say, but not as I do". On one hand, through the auspices of the Financial Services Authority, the Government foist petty compulsory rules on everyone else, but on the other
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hand, they try to have a weaker voluntary code of conduct for themselves. I would suggest to the Minister that the Government should set the same standards of probity and the same code of conduct for themselves as they expect from everyone else in the investment industry. I therefore support the amendment.
Susan Kramer: The Minister is well aware that consumer advocacy agencies have been very pleased with the transfer of National Savings and Investments from the specialist adjudicator to the Financial Ombudsman Service, because there is a tradition at the FOS of accessibility and low-cost remedies for complaints. However, there is concern among the same communityI hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance about itthat, because of pressure from various parts of the financial services industry, new hurdles will be placed in the way of those seeking redress from the financial ombudsman in the form of greater opportunities for appeal by institutions against whom complaints had been upheld. Can the Minister give us an assurance about that matter, which is entirely material to consideration of the elimination of the special adjudicator and the transfer of National Savings and Investments under clause 69?
Will the Minister also clarify why the transfer is only to the voluntary jurisdiction of the Financial Ombudsman Service? I understand that National Savings and Investments has said that it will regard the provision as a binding commitment, but under those circumstances, it is extraordinaryand perception mattersthat the same compulsory rules that would apply to virtually any other party over which the FOS is to have jurisdiction do not apply in this instance. Why has a voluntary structure been chosen in this case?
Mr. Ivan Lewis: We have had a fascinating debate, which we started at about 3.30 this afternoon. Having already acknowledged that I failed to make adult skills sexy, I am certainly going to struggle to make Finance Bills sexy.
I note that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was struggling to get his piece of paper out of the filing system, so a bit of vocational education would really do him some good. He was talking about the black hole; I think that the Conservative party has been talking about a black hole in the economy since 2 May 1997. That reminds me of one or two of my activists, who accused me of being a class traitor at about 1 am on 6 May 1997.
If Conservative Members wish to continue with their fantasy about a black hole, I simply say to them that we have the lowest inflation, the lowest interest rates and the lowest unemployment in living memory. As the deliberations on the Bill have continued, an important part of the debate has been about the fact that the first priority is stability. That is what business and the City want more than anything else: economic stability.
In any debate about the black hole in the economy, it is interesting to see how certain Members who sit in a particular place are now talking about the essential need to advocate a combination of social justice and economic success. Where did that philosophy and that value base come from? It is interesting to see that it is now Conservative Members who are saying that that is the only way in which they can become a credible Opposition again, let alone a credible Government.
This has been an historic debate, because my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) insisted on intervening to make a loyalist point on behalf of the Government. That in itself is an important
The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I hesitate to interrupt the Minister again, but may I ask him to confine his remarks to the amendment, which is about the abolition of the statutory adjudicator for National Savings and Investments?
Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mrs. Heal. I always bow to the Chairespecially when you are in it, if you do not mind my saying so. [Hon. Members: "Get on with it."] I shall move straight on to the amendment. To respond to the debate appropriately, however, it is only right that I should refer to the contribution by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark); he is entitled to a response from me. I just want to tell him that the word is "ombudsman", not "umbudsman", as he pronounced it. If he looks at the piece of paper that the Whips wrote out for him, he will see that the word is spelt with an o, not a u. Clearly he could not read their writing as easily as he would have liked.
The amendment attempts to transfer responsibility for the resolution of disputes against National Savings and Investments to the compulsory rather than the voluntary jurisdiction of the Financial Ombudsman Service. In response to what the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) said, I shall spell out why that cannot be done. National Savings and Investments is not currently eligible to enter under the compulsory jurisdiction because it is not regulated by the Financial Services Authority. It could not join the compulsory jurisdiction alongside FSA regulated bodies without substantial amendments to both the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and subordinate legislation. This is beyond the scope of the Finance Bill.
Furthermore, National Savings and Investments cannot be directly FSA regulated under its current business model, because as the Government's retail debt financing arm, it does not hold liabilities and does not have the capital adequacy requirements of privately owned financial institutions, both of which are necessary conditions for being FSA regulated.
Under the voluntary jurisdiction of the FOS, customer complaints against National Savings and Investments will be handled in the same way as under compulsory jurisdictionthat is a direct response to a question that I have been asked. This will deliver greater simplicity for customers, who will have access to the same dispute resolution process in the case of complaints against National Savings and Investments as with those against other financial service providers.
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To give a further guarantee to hon. Members, it is important to say that National Savings and Investments is committed to voluntary jurisdiction, and that that commitment will be embodied in its framework document, which publicly states the aims of the agency, how it is managed and its relationship with Government, to ensure that it is bound not to unsubscribe at any time. A further guarantee is the fact that the rules of the voluntary jurisdiction scheme put conditions on participants withdrawing from that scheme. The transfer is being implemented so as to ensure that National Savings and Investments customers have continuous right of recourse to a single dispute resolution scheme.
Mr. Francois: Having opened for the Opposition on clause 11 at 3.30 pm, I am pleased to be the alpha and omega of this debate by winding up the debate this evening. I stress again that, despite the fact that we have had a little frivolity in the Chamber, which is no bad thing at this hour, the matter is actually very important. We are discussing some £69 billion of funds under management, and the saving products in question are held by millions of Britons. For many of them, they represent a large proportion of whatever savings they have, other than their property, if they own it. So we have sought to ensure tonight that those Britons are adequately protected as this change goes through.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) on taking the trouble to speak on this amendment[Interruption.] Well, it would have been nice if we had had some Labour Back Benchers who had thought the same. It is to my hon. Friend's credit that, as a new Member, he can tell his constituents that he was here until well past 10 pm to speak on their behalf.
I also thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) for making a contribution to the debate. We have had several debates in which the Liberal Democrats have kept their powder very dryarid, in factbut the hon. Lady finally decided to chip in. I am glad that she took the trouble to do so. It was, however, unusual not to see a single amendment from the Liberal Democrats all day. We hope that they will work a little harder in Committee.
It is possible to make the changes that we suggest. This is an important matter of public protection and we have set out why, given the Government's fiscal position, it is important that the public can be reassured on it. We have placed our views on the record and they have been heard by the House. I am sure that the debate will continue, but for the moment I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.