Mr Dunne: The hon. Gentleman referred to Plane Saver before, and I am not aware that it has directly approached us. We have clearly had an approach from ABCUL. It participated in meetings earlier this year and wrote again last week, perhaps prompted by sight of this debate. I am confident that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, would be willing

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to meet the hon. Gentleman and ABCUL. If he wanted to bring Plane Saver along, it would be welcome, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions about the promotion of credit unions within military publications. Were the credit union to be established with support from the military, it would be more than welcome to take space in the military publications. I cannot, however, commit to the charging basis on which that space would be available; that would be a matter for the normal procedures for each publication. He asked whether we could institute a ban on payday lenders advertising in military publications. This Government are not in the business of prohibiting freedom of speech. Payday lenders might be unethical, but they are not unlawful, so we should not ban their adverts. We should, however, look to support the credit union going forward.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked whether we could underwrite a scheme, but I have to disappoint him. The Ministry of Defence budget might appear to be large, but it appears from the inside to be somewhat constrained. We have to devote our budget to our front-line duty, which is protecting the nation. We are willingto provide opportunities to access military publications and that kind of thing, but we are not in a position to underwrite a financial offering to our personnel.

Jim Shannon: I also asked the Minister about giving advice to soldiers and serving personnel on how best to manage their money. I said that, often, those who did not have the level of income they currently have found managing their money overawing. Has offering that advice been considered?

Mr Dunne: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman raised the role of the Money Advice Service, which we established two years ago, and I am grateful that he gave it a positive endorsement. The advice is proving effective and, as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said, the number of people taking advantage of the service in its first two years demonstrates that there was a need for it. We think that it is being delivered in the right way. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for the advert he gave to Armed Forces day this summer and the celebrations that will take place in his constituency. I wish them well.[Official Report, 28 April 2014, Vol. 579, c. 7MC.]

I conclude by confirming that the Government support the notion of establishing a military credit union. We are in active discussions with the credit union trade body and the service charities. I have indicated that we are willing to commit the Minister to meet them again, with the hon. Member for Harrow West, who takes such an interest in this matter. In closing, I encourage all parties with an interest in developing this kind of financial service for our armed forces personnel to get together, to pool resources and to try to find a way of making it happen.

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Fairness in Pension Provision

3.58 pm

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): It is good to see you in your place, Mrs Riordan. You, too, have a great interest in pensions, in the fairness of the system and in applying that fairness.

Since I was a very young person, I have always accepted that pension provision is part of deferred income and should be treated by employers and Government as such. All my life, I have believed that fairness should be applied to the whole question of pensions. At the bottom of this debate in many respects, however, is the unfairness in the application of the state pension scheme over a great number of years. I commend the Government for some of the changes to the scheme, making it much simpler than it was, but there is still a long way to go in terms of how we see the future for some elements of the situation. I will cover that later.

I come before the Chamber mainly because of the many constituents who came to see me to complain about the system. None of the three I will mention is after anything for themselves. They all accept that they are at an age when nothing further can be done for them, but by making themselves available to public scrutiny they want to help and protect those who follow to have a more level playing field.

I want to talk first about Ann Aitken, a constituent of mine for some time. She, as well as the other two, has worked since she was 15. She worked for ICI locally in various jobs, and then went to a knitwear company. She took five years off employment to bring up her first child and afterwards worked in shops and factories, before going to a local computer company, Fullerton Fabrication. Since then, she has worked in Crown Paints for some 22 years. She retires this Thursday, so I congratulate her.

Ann wants to bring to the attention of the House what she sees as an anomaly. Over that whole period, she never put her hand out for any form of Government assistance, other than the credits available for the times off she took. That would be in connection with the additional state pension. She is a friendly person and, from talking to her friends, has discovered that her additional state pension is less than that of someone who has never worked. She receives something like £16.22 for the additional state pension, while others she knows receive £21. Although she took five years off, she got no tax credits, because no such thing existed, yet she is now facing the penalty. She has a simple question: what reward was there for her working? What reward has she had for all the years that she has given? She hopes that her situation will not be repeated in future. That is what Ann is concerned about and why she has raised the issue with me.

The second person I want to talk about is Jean Dickson, another constituent who has come to me about her position. She worked from the age of 15, for all her days. Sadly, she lost her husband in 1998, and was grateful for the widow’s pension she received as a consequence, but she has worked all her days, even taking five years out to improve her educational standards. Latterly, she was employed as a nurse in an acute surgical area of the hospital. She, too, says, “Look, I have a state pension, and I am very grateful for it”, and

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it will be £566 per month. In addition, because of the occupational pension, she is receiving £240 per month before tax. As a result of her husband having a pension, she receives another £300 per year. As a consequence of the unfairness that I will cover in the latter stages of my presentation, she receives £166 per annum for the state earnings-related pension scheme, SERPS. In her last job, she paid 6.5% of her pay towards superannuation, so she still feels that there is injustice in her situation. She retired in October 2012, but is being penalised for working all her days, compared with those who perhaps were not.

The third case is that of Lawrence Clark, who came to see me and whose case particularly caught my imagination. He started working at the age of 15, similarly to people such as myself and my colleagues—he is of our age group. He started as a trainee accountant at Hyster, a local company, and went on to work for various companies, including Simpson Turner as a toolmaker. He moved on to Wilson Sporting Goods, another local company, where he worked for 25-odd years. He then worked for Digital, a local company that went bust, and for Scottish Golf Cast, which again lasted a few months. He ended up at the charity Quarriers for 15 years.

After that working life, he has managed to accrue £97 a month from his Wilson Sporting Goods occupational pension and £223 as a consequence of his work at Quarriers. In addition to that, on the basis of advice he received—another point I want to address in my conclusion—he paid towards a private pension that gives him something like £14 a month. From November 2015 he is going to receive a state pension of £123 a week. He is saying that, after 47 years, as a consequence of all that, as well as of being unemployed—if that is the right terminology for him—up until that point next November, he gets £60 a week for his pension credit guarantee, whereas others are apparently receiving £140. If he had not paid something like £30,000 into a superannuation scheme, he believes that he would currently be better off per week until he retires. That seems very unfair, and it should be looked at. He thinks that, had he not taken out a private pension or been involved in superannuation, he would have been better off. That is the unfairness that those three constituents believe they face.

I have outlined three cases in which there are problems with the pension provision directly, but we can also compare other aspects of the life they have lived with those of other people. Others have had free dentistry, free prescriptions for glasses, and housing benefit has been part of their scheme. The situation may have changed in Scotland now, but some people had to pay for their prescriptions all their lives. I am not saying for a minute that it is wrong that unemployed individuals are receiving these elements, but those three constituents say that perhaps more concern should be given to how they deal with the situation and how the Government deal with their problems.

On that basis, I want to broaden the argument. That is the difficulty for each of those individuals, but the position is more general too. The problem is that the great mass of people in this country do not have a clue, when they are aged 25, 35 or 55, about what provision they are making. They do not know what the result of their contributions will be for their pension. This issue has plagued me over the years, and it still does. Even

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here in the House, there are hundreds of Members of Parliament who do not have a clue what their pension provision is, and I say that as someone responsible for trying to educate them about that. It is clear that there must be a fundamental shift—information must be provided to every individual in this country to make them aware of the provision and advice available.

I commend the Government, because at the very least, and on the basis of all-party agreement, we now have financial advisers who are independent—in every sense of the word—in the advice they are giving. It used to be that financial advisers worked for companies on commission. The same individuals now charge for their services. That, at the very least, is a bit fairer, or gives the impression of being fairer.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I certainly remember the early ’80s when people were encouraged to take out a private pension, but unless they worked for a reputable company it was not explained how a private pension could sometimes affect the state pension. There must be thousands of people in that situation in this country. Whatever my views about the Government’s pension proposals, at least they will explain them to people. When I worked at Rolls-Royce, it spent a lot of money trying to persuade us away from the state pension to a private pension scheme and to some extent we got reasonable advice, but I can think of other car companies in the Coventry area where even today there are still problems with pensions.

Mr Donohoe: My hon. Friend has focused on an issue that was dear to my heart and about which I argued forcefully when a previous Administration allowed people to contract out of their company’s superannuation scheme. I was a joint secretary of the Scottish Transport Group when, for the first time in about 1982, people were given the opportunity of opting out of its pension fund and going private. I argued forcefully with everyone and anyone that that was a big mistake, that they were leaving themselves open and that when they eventually retired they would find themselves in a different situation. We had what was recognised at the time to be the best pension scheme—perhaps not as good as that for MPs, but certainly a very good pension scheme. Some people are now in a worse position because they were pounced on by supposedly independent financial advisers who told them that they would be far better off in a private scheme, when the truth was the exact opposite.

Many years ago, I was a convener and shop steward in a shipyard where the blue-collar workers were not in a pension scheme. I argued with the employer and succeeded in persuading them to introduce a scheme. That company is still in my constituency and I still have people telling me, some 40 years later, that it was the best thing that was ever done and that they have never been better off after taking advice and voting overwhelmingly to join that scheme. I do not know whether I am an anorak in terms of pensions, but I believe that making provision for a pension is more important than anything else in life. People should understand that, and do so earlier.

I seek clarification on one or two points, but I want to make a plea to the Minister. How widely defined are “employees” and “new arrangements”? Are the self-

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employed, carers and the unemployed included? They exclude zero-hours contracts and people who may have two part-time jobs. That is unfair and should be looked at.

I have grave reservations about the new scheme because people will be able to take out money and go on a world cruise or buy a Ferrari. That worries me. It will send the signal to many people who do not understand pensions that they can draw on that money, but at the end of the day they will be a lot worse off. I want an assurance that they will be protected. Financial advice is important, and that must be stated clearly.

A business man came to me and said that every business man in the UK received a letter from No. 10 Downing street telling them about the advantages of the latest Budget proposals on national insurance from 6 April. Will the Minister have a word with No. 10 Downing street to see to it that every single person in the country is sent a letter telling them how fundamental it is for them to look after their old age, and telling them that if they were to die in service, that would be looked at as far as their families are concerned? If I get that assurance, I will go back to my constituents and tell them that the debate has been worth while. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

4.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing the debate. We have a common interest in quality pension provision, fairness and making things simpler for people. I entirely accept the premise that we have allowed the pension system to become bafflingly complicated. I entirely accept his point—not only do not all of our colleagues understand the pension system, but why should a member of the public understand contracting out, guaranteed minimum pensions and all the rest of it? A central drive of the state pension reform—I am grateful to him for his positive comments on that—is to sweep a great deal of that away and to have a single, simple, decent state pension set at a rate that people know. They will get that pension for 35 years in the system, contributions or credits, with no contracting out and no differences if they have been in a company scheme. That is the world that we are moving to.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have spent their working life in a very different world. I want to say a word about one of the reasons why some of them—without full details it is difficult to comment on individual cases—might be getting less state pension than their neighbour. They might think that that is unfair, but it may not be unfair, because there is something else going on that they are not really aware of, namely the whole business of contracting out, which is about to be abolished. A number of his constituents, whom he mentioned by name, worked for firms that had a workplace pension scheme.

Under the principle of contracting out, the operators of the scheme, not the individual, decided that the scheme would be contracted out of the state earnings-related pension scheme. As a result, the scheme would pay less national insurance and, crucially, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would pay less national insurance than their neighbours who worked at a factory that was not contracted out. Imagine there are two factories side by

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side, one of which has a company pension scheme and the other of which does not. At the factory with the company pension scheme that chooses to contract out of SERPS, all the employees in the scheme pay less national insurance than the employees at the factory that does not have a workplace pension scheme.

Mr Donohoe: I am not talking about the person who is in another scheme; I am talking about the person who is in those schemes and who has everything coming their way, but who has never contributed anything to it. It is important to stress that I am not saying that we have to reduce the amount that they live on. I would not live on £130 a week, and I doubt whether the Minister would. The fact is that the situation is seen as unfair. If the new scheme will overcome that problem, it is a great idea.

Steve Webb: It will to some extent, for reasons that I will explain. When an individual is contracted out, they will receive a smaller state pension than they would have done, because they are building up only a basic state pension, not SERPS. However, they will not get a smaller pension than they would have done, because the company promises to match the SERPS pension that they would otherwise have received. When somebody retires and says, “I am only getting 16 quid of SERPS”, what matters is not the SERPS figure—in a sense, they might be getting zero SERPS—but the SERPS figure plus the occupational pension promise together.

Mr Donohoe: But they have paid for that.

Steve Webb: They have paid for it, but they have also saved by paying less national insurance. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about people who have not worked, and I will come on to them. In a world of contracting out, if person A pays less national insurance but still gets the same pension as their neighbour who was not contracted out, that would not be fair either. Fairness has a number of dimensions. The fact that someone has a £16 SERPS pension does not tell us anything in isolation; it depends on whether they paid less national insurance than their neighbour for years and years, which is why they have got a lower SERPS pension, but they have got something else instead. That is part of the system.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the position of people who have done nothing, and I often hear from pensioners who say, “Why did I bother saving? If I had done nothing, I would have got everything.” Part of the point of the single-tier pension is to set the value of the state pension above the basic means test, not 30-odd quid below, where it is now. Automatic enrolment then takes people further above that figure. As a result, because they have saved, they are clear of the means test and they are better off than someone who has done nothing. That is a new feature of the new system, because we are trying to address that point.

The hon. Gentleman has said that people who do nothing get stuff for free. He is not saying that poor people should not get stuff for free, but we cannot have it both ways. If we think we have to look after people who have got nothing, and they get free prescriptions because they have no money to pay for them, we cannot then say, “But that is not fair to people who work, because they do not get them for free.”

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Mr Donohoe: They do in Scotland.

Steve Webb: Well, temporarily they do. Unless we give everybody everything free, we must recognise that we sometimes do things for poor people because it is right to. Inevitably there will be an element of people who work and think, “It is not fair; I do not get that free.” However, as part of a civilised society I do not want people who have no income to be unable to afford medicines. That is just the way it is. If we give everyone free prescriptions and free everything, we will just tax everyone to the hilt. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and the new state pension system will start to address that point by setting levels of pension above the basic means test.

Automatic enrolment will be a huge step towards pensions for the millions of people who may never understand them, because the firm chooses it for people, puts them in for it, and puts money in. We put tax relief in, and people are free to opt out. Nine out of 10 are staying in, which is fantastic. Just as the hon. Gentleman got the pension scheme extended to shipyard workers, as I think he said, we are extending pensions to 10 million people, many of whom are low paid or part-time—many will be women or people on the edge of the labour market, and they are just the sort of people who would not otherwise have had a pension. That is a huge step forward in the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman achieved for his constituents all those years ago, and it will bring millions more in.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the scope of auto-enrolment. It is about employment and an employment relationship. There must be an employer to pay the employer contribution. The self-employed are not in auto-enrolment, but they do well out of the new state pension scheme, because at the moment the self-employed class 2 national insurance builds up only the basic pension, not the SERPS bit. In our new world, there is no distinction—there is just the pension; so every year in which a self-employed person puts in, in future, will be more valuable than now. That person will be building up 35ths of the whole pension, not 30ths of the basic state pension. So the self-employed will get better provision.

Carers, unless they are in a contract of employment, will not be auto-enrolled, because there will be no employer to put them in a scheme. However, they will be credited into the 35 years of full single-tier pension, so a carer will build up, every year, a 35th of the £144 pension—or whatever it will end up as. There is provision for carers in the new system.

Most people on zero-hours contracts work 20-odd hours a week, and as long as, at some point, they trigger auto-enrolment—as long as they earn above the threshold, ever—they will be put in. If I am on a zero-hours contract and work zero, zero, zero, zero, and then 20 hours over a pay period and go above the trigger, my employer has a legal duty to put me in. There are complexities about waiting periods and the rest, but the basic principle is that I must be put in once I am over the trigger. Once I am in, if there is a week when I have no earnings, of course no money goes in; but if there is a week when I do have earnings, money goes in. I do not fall out of the pension. Once I am in, I am in. Auto-enrolment happens once. It is triggered by earning above the threshold once in a pay period.

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Mr Jim Cunningham: My problem with what the Minister has said about zero-hours contracts is that surely a situation is possible in which someone falls below the threshold because there is not continuity of employment. That is a “suck it and see” situation. How would the Minister deal with that, 40 years down the road?

Steve Webb: A zero-hours contract is a contract. If someone has a contract of employment, in the weeks or months—whatever the period is—when they are above the earnings threshold, money goes into the pension. We will not insist on pension contributions being made in weeks when people do not earn any money. How would they put money in?

I think the zero-hours contract argument is greatly overdone, in the sense that the typical person on a zero-hours contract does 20 hours a week, on average. It may vary—when they earn a lot in a good week, they will put a lot into the pension; when they earn less, in a bad week, less will go in. As long as they get work through the contract they will be in a pension, possibly for the first time. I think that many people on zero-hours contracts will do better, because employers would not generally have put them in a pension at all. We are making that happen.

As to people with multiple jobs, a small number of people have jobs that, taken together, would put them into the system, but, taken separately, do not. Sometimes they will have children, and if they do they are credited in the state system anyway. Only 35 years of contributions are needed for a full pension, so someone might not make contributions for a number of years and still get a full pension.

The House of Lords, in about half an hour, I think, is going to talk about the issue in the debate on the Pensions Bill. We will gather more data on it. We think the issue is small, but clearly we need to ensure that we know what is going on. The number of women, for example, doing multiple part-time jobs went down in the past 12 months, so we do not think that the assumption that the numbers are all going up and that it will all get worse is borne out by the data. However, it is a serious point and we will look into it.

The hon. Gentleman is right that people often do not have a clue. It would be lovely to think that one letter from Downing street would fix things. I have two views on the matter. We need to make sure that pensions work for people who do not get it and never will, because with the best will in the world, expecting tens of millions of people to understand all this stuff is a heck of an ask. For me, we have to make sure that the system works for people who do not understand it and do not make active choices. That is where the state pension reforms come in.

Mr Donohoe: Could a booklet be prepared for people at jobcentres?

Steve Webb: We look at lots of different ways of communicating with people. The thing that we know most of all is that if we opt people in to pensions and they have to opt out, they stay in. We could have hand-printed 1 million booklets—I could have delivered them and sat down for half an hour with each person, and I would not have persuaded them. We have used the power of inertia and what we know about how people behave to get them in as 1 million Government advertising campaigns would never have done.

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We are going to include financial education in the national curriculum. That is a good thing. Under the Budget measures that the hon. Gentleman referred to, people will have a guidance guarantee, so before they make their choices, they will have the right to a face-to-face conversation with somebody who is not trying to sell them anything, as he said. It is not independent financial advice—they can pay for that separately if they want; it is just a conversation that they have never had a right to before that will enable them to make informed choices. If they want to spend some of their pension money up-front, it is their money to spend, but we are making sure that there is a state pension system in place, so that even if they underestimate how long they will live—blow the lot, or whatever—they will have that floor of the state pension above the means test that they do not currently have.

I want to mention something else that may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who reach state pension age under the current system. We are allowing people to top up their state pension if they want to. If someone has a bit of savings and they want to pay voluntary national insurance, under a new category of national insurance for people who have already retired, or who will do shortly—we are calling it class 3A or the additional state pension top-up—they can pay national insurance and get an extra pension for the rest of their life. That will be index-linked. There will be survivors’ benefits if they die. We think that will appeal to a set of people who perhaps have very low interest on their savings currently and are getting nothing in the bank. From October 2015—there are helplines, websites and all the rest of it—they can make additional contributions and enhance their pension if they wish. That is another option that we have created for today’s pensioners.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the guarantee credit. The constituent that he mentioned, if I understood him correctly, is above women’s state pension age, so qualifies for pension credit, but has not reached men’s state pension age. Clearly, in that period, we are saying to people who have no other income, “Here is an income that we think you need to live on, but if all you have is half of it, we will top you up to the full amount.” In theory, people could have nothing at all and get the full amount, which I think was the point that he made.

However, bear in mind conditionality on benefits. We do not allow people just to get jobseeker’s allowance for doing nothing all day. In a different debate, his colleagues might be saying to me, “We are far too strict with these folk. We are sanctioning them when we should not be”—and all the rest of it. The rules are pretty tight, so the option of sitting at home all day and doing nothing, and getting credits for a state pension, is one that we are essentially eliminating. People get credits for their state pension and so on only if they are actively seeking work, applying for jobs and doing the things we expect them to do. We do not have the system whereby people can just do nothing and then cash in. There are an awful lot of conditions and requirements on people receiving benefits.

We have tried to recognise that the system has been fiendishly complicated in the past—we accept that—and to simplify it so that it is simpler and fairer, particularly to older women, many of whom have done very badly out of the system. We have tried to ensure that everyone

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is in a workplace pension as far as possible and that that is good quality and good value, and to put new freedoms and guidance alongside that. I hope that, as a result, we will have a much fairer system in the future than we have had in the past.

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Business Lending

4.29 pm

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): It is a great pleasure to have secured this important debate, Mrs Riordan. The issue has been pressing for many businesses in my constituency, and it has been raised on a number of occasions by me and by others in the House because of concern about the change of relationship between businesses and what used to be trusted advisers and supporters in banks. Now that relationship has changed—I hope not irrevocably, but many people fear that it is irrevocable—because of the way in which banks have treated small businesses in recent years.

Banks should be business-friendly, but the evidence is that they have behaved like parasites and engaged in sharp practice by mis-selling complex interest rate hedging products or hidden swaps that they will have known were massively to the detriment of the small businesses that they flogged them to. Instead of doing what small businesses do well and what the Government, those on the Government Benches and others who support the Government want businesses to do, which is to grow the economy and create jobs, thousands of small businesses have been held back and others put out of business altogether. But their being put out of business suits the banks in these circumstances, because every company that they lend to and that they can drive into administration has assets that they can sell and becomes a company that, conveniently, cannot seek redress from the bank, particularly in the current climate.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In his analysis of this problem, is he of the view that the banks were clearly targeting specific businesses—asset-rich businesses? I ask that because my experience in my constituency is that the hotel sector, people owning property, property management companies and, above all else, the farming sector were really hard hit, particularly in the sales of unregulated tailored business loans.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend makes a very acute point. It does seem to me that in the many cases that I have taken up—no doubt he has done the same in his constituency—there were these rather dodgy business loans and, of course, the swap agreements embedded in them. That is the critical thing. There do appear to be very significant assets within the businesses themselves, and no doubt that will have guided the banks as to which businesses to offer the loans to.

I gave my hon. Friend the Minister at least some notice of the areas that I would be covering. In particular, I would like to ask her how the Financial Conduct Authority can justify the exclusion of at least one third of the companies that were being looked at and that were mis-sold these products because they are deemed by the FCA to be “sophisticated”. What was the basis for that—in my view, it was an arbitrary basis—and how can it be challenged?

What view do the Government take of the reasonable claim, in my view, by companies to which the mis-selling of these products has caused detriment that they could seek redress for “consequential loss”? It is suggested that some banks are seeking to reinterpret the law in this area, so that it is difficult for those companies to pursue consequential loss.

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What happens to those businesses that were in effect forced into administration or liquidation by the mis-selling? At present, they appear to have no redress at all. Surely that cannot be right. I hope that the Government will encourage the FCA at least to have that matter looked at again.

Does the FCA review and redress process take into account or exclude the matter of “ongoing facilities” provided by the banks—the ongoing facilities that are made available through the banks?

Will the Government now authorise an inquiry into the sale of all hidden swaps—the tailored business loans, the embedded swaps and so on—sold to small and medium-sized enterprises by the banks since about 2001? That is when this pattern of activity was identified.

This is a separate but no doubt related point. What assistance is there for entrepreneurs who are trying to secure a mortgage, or even complete a rent check, for a home now that the self-certification system has been scrapped? Many small businesses and, in particular, new businesses that are starting up—we want to encourage people in those businesses—cannot secure a loan to advance their business.

I fully appreciate that the Government have made significant strides in recent years with the establishment of the business bank, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, the enterprise capital fund, funding for lending, the growth accelerator and many other initiatives, which have been significant and helpful to the business sector. I certainly hope that those will prove to be a success in the months and years ahead. My primary focus today, however, is that we still have a legacy of a problem, which ought to be erased from the business lending environment. I hope that when the FCA completes its review process, it will ensure that the banks engaged in such shoddy practices are brought to book as quickly as possible, so that the companies that have suffered detriment may resolve their redress equally quickly.

Inevitably, I come at the problem from the perspective of my constituency, so I probably need to paint a picture of the west Cornwall and Isles of Scilly constituency of St Ives. Not only is it the most attractive constituency in the country, but it has a large number of very small businesses. There are no major companies—no car plants, refineries, major manufacturers or head offices of multinational companies, as there are in many other constituencies—and there are instead about 7,000 enterprises. That figure depends on how we define a small business, but certainly includes sole traders and medium-sized enterprises. They are multifaceted and many-talented businesses; they not only throw pots and manage satellites, but engage in basket weaving and international website design, and they include hoteliers, caterers, bakers, farmers, fishermen and fishmongers.

In order to be successful, as well as having to work extremely hard, the people in those businesses often have to have many other talents, such as in marketing, customer care, bookkeeping, or IT and other skills. Few of them, however, are financially sophisticated. Most of them used to assume that they could trust the bank of which they had loyally been a customer, in many cases for decades, before they were mis-sold those products. Surely banks are there to help. Do banks not have a shared interest in businesses succeeding? Surely banks

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would not engage in sharp practice or sell a small business something that they knew it would regret. I am afraid to say, however, that I and many other Members have seen that that is simply not the case.

The banking sector seriously let down small businesses and completely demolished any of the trust that used to be fundamental to the relationship between them and their banks. Would the banks do the same to Tesco, BP or Unilever? Of course they would not, and we know that they would not; they are simply taking advantage of small businesses. The banks know that small businesses do not have the sophistication, and that they can run rings around them, bullying them into the kind of agreements that put some of the businesses out of business and left many of them struggling to survive. I have taken up many cases, as other MPs have done, and my eyes have been opened to the shady dealing.

Colin Phillips of the Coasters tea shop in St Ives, for example, was recently put out of business by that bank practice. He saw his business sold from underneath him, without any consultation, after he was mis-sold a loan by Clydesdale bank more than five years ago. There are many other examples, which I could name, as well as some I cannot name. They have been devastated and damaged by the banks in that way. One company, Seasalt Ltd, was started in Penzance in my constituency in 1981 by Don Chadwick and is now run by his three sons, Leigh, David and Neil. It is a successful UK company. It is the first business ever to have its clothing certified by the Soil Association and it has won the Queen’s award for sustainable development, making it the first fashion company to do so. It has been very successful, it has won many awards and it is growing.

However, Seasalt could have grown a great deal more. It entered into a five-year interest rate swap agreement for £805,000 in April 2008 with HSBC. I am told by Leigh Chadwick that the company did not have a choice about the swap; it was a condition of the loan that it took the “interest rate protection.” The bank failed to make proper inquiries to ascertain the company’s level of knowledge and understanding of the risk inherent in the IRSA. The company was led to believe that interest rates were going to rise. Although the company had never previously taken a fixed-rate loan, the owners wrongly thought that HSBC, its trusted banking partner for 17 years, was acting in their mutual interest; otherwise, the owners thought, why would it be making a swap agreement a condition of a loan?

At the time, there was significant equity in the business—that relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made—and the company also had access to additional external funding. The swap agreement was unnecessary and the bank’s motive for making it a condition of the loan was profit, not risk mitigation. The cost of breaking the swap was never explained or illustrated. The bank knew that there was a possibility that the loan could be repaid early, and yet it of course made it difficult for the company’s owners to do so. It confirmed in writing that there would not be any early prepayment or early termination costs, which was wrong. The bank failed to disclose that the IRSA created a contingent liability that would affect the company’s credit line. The IRSA had a detrimental effect on the company.

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The company complained in 2012, but HSBC has done its utmost to fight its claim, despite the strength of the company’s case. While the company is preoccupied with trying to get proper and just redress, it is of course not focusing on growing its business and creating jobs. It is an appalling waste of money for UK business, given that the Financial Services Authority found that 90% of the swaps had been mis-sold.

Mr Mark Williams: My hon. Friend gets to the nub of the issue affecting businesses that are within the Government’s redress scheme. The Financial Conduct Authority’s redress scheme is very welcome and it has led to resolution of some cases. However, I have constituents who have been waiting for more than a year now to have resolution. As he says, that puts a huge amount of pressure on their businesses, let alone the tailored business loans—the embedded swap products—that are not being considered yet.

Andrew George: I am sure that the Minister heard my hon. Friend’s comment and will take it into account in her response.

The fact is that Seasalt is still waiting for its interest swap issue to be resolved, more than 21 months since it lodged a complaint about it. HSBC has done its best, first, to resist the redress process and then to slow it down, although the company’s owners have been told that the matter will be reviewed by the end of next month.

This issue has unquestionably cost thousands of jobs. In the case of Seasalt alone, it has estimated that the cost to it is 20 jobs, which it could have created if it were not for the impact that this swap has had on a company of its size; we are not talking about a very large company. Not unreasonably, Leigh Chadwick asked me:

“When will criminal proceedings be brought…?”

The Tomlinson inquiry suggested that in some cases this matter should be a criminal matter. As Leigh asks:

“When will criminal proceedings be brought against the bankers who have perpetrated this fraud?”

Equally reasonably, Leigh makes the point that this issue needs to be related to the issue of bankers’ bonuses. He fails to understand how a business—particularly one that is, after all, taxpayer-funded—can continue to pay huge bonuses when it is making losses. He says that he is sure that the bank would baulk at renewing Seasalt’s facilities if it made a loss but started paying its owners huge bonuses in the process.

I fear that the process of establishing a decent relationship between businesses and banks may have changed irrevocably. Seasalt has said that instead of banks being trusted advisers to SMEs, their relationship is like that with an untrustworthy supplier. The Government, the FCA and other regulating authorities should look at whether the regulations need to be significantly stepped up. What are the Government doing to stop banks side-stepping the EU bonus caps? What steps are the Government taking to increase the FCA’s power and to ensure that it acts in the best interests of SMEs and customers, and not the service providers?

I could describe many other cases, but the Minister needs time to respond. I mentioned the difficulty that many small businesses in my constituency, particularly new businesses, face because of removal of the self-certification scheme for those seeking a mortgage. It

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seems wrong that businesses that are employing people cannot get a mortgage when their employees can. I hope that the Minister will look at that.

The relationship has clearly broken down. The banks have behaved very irresponsibly with sharp practices like parasites on small businesses. I hope that the Government will take the bull by the horns and ensure that the FCA drives the review process and that we get satisfaction for our small businesses.

4.47 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Nicky Morgan): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Riordan. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) for securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I know from previous debates that it is of great concern to hon. Members of all parties.

Towards the end of his speech, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the wider issue of the relationship between banks and customers. I hope he will understand that, if I do not tackle that broader subject, it is because I have only 12 minutes to deal with the matters he has raised. I am sure he will be able to apply for a further debate in this Chamber to explore those themes, but I have taken note of what he said.

The hon. Gentleman made a strong case on behalf of all the businesses in his constituency and others that have suffered from mis-selling. He referred to 7,000 small enterprises in his constituency, and I would like to start by assuring him that from the very beginning this Government have been clear that the mis-selling of financial products is unacceptable. We take extremely seriously the abuse that has taken place, and we are determined that any wrongs that have been inflicted on businesses should be righted.

Hon. Members will know that the Financial Conduct Authority’s review process was the subject of a Back-Bench debate on 24 October 2013 and focused on the speed of the review. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that in relation to a particular company in his constituency. My colleague, the Financial Secretary, noted that although the Government shared the disappointment at the progress that had been made then, we were confident that the review process would provide the correct level of redress for affected businesses.

I am pleased to say that considerable progress has been made during the intervening five months. All cases are now under review and almost half a billion pounds has now been paid to more than 3,400 small and medium-sized enterprises. I hope hon. Members agree that that is positive news and shows that the review is working.

It is worth noting that the majority of banks in the review will also now make an initial redress payment to businesses and then discuss consequential losses separately. I will return to consequential loss, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That will help those small businesses that have been at the wrong end of mis-selling to get back the money they badly need. I know from companies in my constituency that have approached me that cash and cash flow are tremendously important.

The FCA has published each bank’s projections for when it expects to finish the review process. All banks are expected to finish the review by June 2014, which is

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the month after next, with a number likely to finish before that date. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Treasury Ministers and officials will continue to track progress closely against those projections.

The hon. Gentleman voiced concerns about the large number of businesses that have been assessed as “sophisticated” and therefore fall outside the scheme. The Government have been absolutely clear that businesses that lacked the necessary skills and knowledge to fully understand the risks of these products should receive appropriate redress. However, as the Financial Secretary made clear last year, we do not agree that all businesses should have access to the review. There needs to be a defined cut-off point where more sophisticated businesses take responsibility for understanding the products they purchase. There will have been organisations that took one of these products with a full understanding of the risks involved if interest rates fell. It is not for the Government to perform due diligence for such large sophisticated businesses. Any such action would weaken incentives for businesses to act sensibly when purchasing financial instruments, and I would be concerned that we could open the floodgates to any businesses that lost out from a financial transaction.

Andrew George: I am grateful for the Minister’s comments on that, but will there be an opportunity for appeal for those businesses? There will be circumstances in which businesses can show that this unregulated financial product was mis-sold and that they were misled through how the banks sold the product to them.

Nicky Morgan: As I understand it, the FCA has amended the sophistication test in the past few months. It started off with a broad test under the Companies Acts, and that has been refined. From a constituency case, I know that it is possible to ask the FCA to reconsider whether a business should be deemed to be “sophisticated”, but the FCA will ultimately make the judgment. Some push-back is possible, and there needs to be a defined cut-off point so that the right businesses are within the scope of the review.

I reiterate that the Government take extremely seriously the abuse that has taken place in many cases, and we are determined that any wrongs inflicted on businesses should be put right. I want a quick solution to the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products to allow the businesses to continue to operate and to contribute to the ongoing recovery of the UK economy.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. If I do not get to the end of them, the Financial Secretary or I will write to him on them. The hon. Gentleman asked about consequential loss and some banks, as he mentioned, seeking to reinterpret the law on it. Banks are required, where there is mis-selling, to provide fair and reasonable redress, and that means putting the customer back in the position they would have been in had the regulatory failings not occurred. That includes any consequential loss. The FCA has published guidance on consequential loss.

The hon. Gentleman asked what happens to businesses that are effectively forced into administration or liquidation by mis-selling. My understanding is that the FCA has confirmed that in those cases the administrator will

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take part in the review on behalf of the business. The business directors will be given plenty of opportunity to put their case on the sale of the hedging product. He asked about ongoing facilities, and I will have to write to him on that matter, because we have to check. I will return at the end to the self-certification regime, because it is slightly outside the scope of the debate.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way once again. With those companies that go into administration, the administrator is in many cases acting on behalf of the creditors, including the bank. I cannot see how the administrator can in any sense represent the interests of the company seeking redress.

Nicky Morgan: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. At the end of the day, the administrator is there to get a fair deal for everybody. The directors of the business are given an opportunity to put their case on the sale of the hedging product to the FCA. The directors of the business, even if the business has gone into administration, will be able to put their case. In my business experience, in most cases, the administrator acts to get as much back for the business and the creditors as they can.

I turn briefly to embedded loans and hidden swaps, which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) raised. The hon. Member for St Ives mentioned the difficulty faced by his constituent Mr Phillips and the Coasters company in relation to a fixed-rate loan, and I am sorry to hear about the problems that that caused. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, the FCA does not have regulatory powers over business loans, so its supervised review can cover only interest rate hedging products that were agreed separately from a business loan. The Treasury has secured a voluntary agreement through the British Bankers Association that banks will provide the same level of disclosure for features of fixed-rate loans, such as break costs, as for regulated interest rate hedging products. Most importantly, the banks will now ensure that break costs are fully explained and that worked examples are provided.

On self-certification, the hon. Member for St Ives asked about assistance for entrepreneurs who are trying to secure a mortgage. The Financial Services Authority conducted a wholesale review of mortgage regulation in the UK, the “Mortgage Market Review”, which was published in October 2012. The rules are to be implemented by the FCA before the end of this month, and as a result, lenders will not be able to offer self-certified or fast-track mortgages from 26 April. However, the FCA recognises that lenders should have flexibility to decide what evidence of income they can accept from self-employed customers, so it will be for individual lenders to decide what evidence they require as proof of income. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the new rules are being introduced in the context of wanting to ensure that we have stronger mortgage lending practices to avoid the problems that we have encountered in the past, which were caused by people borrowing more than perhaps they should have done.

On lending to small businesses, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Government are determined to support small businesses and improve access to finance. The funding for lending scheme has provided incentives to banks and building societies to boost their lending to

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the real economy. Since the introduction of that scheme, bank funding costs have fallen to historic lows. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has to be confidence between businesses and their banks. That is why the major high street banks have put in place an independent appeals process that allows any business with a turnover of up to £25 million that is declined any form of lending to appeal against that decision, for any reason, to the participating bank concerned. Results show that, in the two years for which the appeals process has been running, in 40% of cases in which a decline was appealed against, a lending agreement with which both parties were satisfied was subsequently reached.

The Government announced in the Budget that the first results of a major new survey into how banks perform for small businesses will be published by the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce next month. Banks will be able to use the results to measure their progress towards becoming better banks for small businesses everywhere. The Government are very focused on that. We welcome that review, because we want to provide UK small businesses with a clear and credible way to judge how their bank compares with its competitors. We want Britain’s banks to do more to put Britain’s small businesses at the top of their priority list.

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Hon. Members may know that the Government announced a package of measures designed to improve competition in the SME lending market, which included consultation on proposals to require banks to share more information on their SME customers with other lenders through credit reference agencies, levelling the playing field for challenger and non-bank lenders. Finally, the Government announced in the Budget that we would consult on whether to legislate to require SME lenders to release details of businesses that they reject for loans, so that alternative providers can discuss other options with them.

I am aware of the time, so I will conclude. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives for bringing this important issue to the House. I assure him that the matter continues to receive the highest level of attention from the Treasury and from Ministers more widely.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.