‘Spreadsheet Phil’ bottled his chance to protect SMEs
WHEN the Chancellor sits down to write the Budget, he normally has to contend with a chorus of competing voices.
But when it comes to the best way of protecting small firms from rogue bankers, MPs, the Financial Conduct Authority and a host of respected business organisations have been speaking with one voice for some time.
They have been demanding that the Chancellor establishes a new, independent tribunal to ensure that small business owners who have been the victims of banking misconduct gain speedy access to justice.
But ‘spreadsheet Phil’ bottled it. Instead, he took the path of least resistance. He welcomed plans to expand access to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) to small and mediumsized enterprises (SMEs) with a turnover up to £6.5m. The FOS will now take steps to ensure it has the necessary skills and processes in place to handle these new cases, the Chancellor’s Budget said.
There was no mention of the tribunal plan. Mr Hammond didn’t even acknowledge that the tribunal idea had gained wide support, although he did praise the work of Kevin Hollinrake MP in keeping the plight of the banks’ victims in the public eye.
The Chancellor’s failure to back the tribunal plan prompted a furious response on social media.
“Never forget the harm that banks have done,” said one commentator on Twitter.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking, which has led the campaign to create a tribunal, vowed to fight on.
Mr Hollinrake, the group’s cochairman said: “We maintain our long-standing position that an extended ombudsman alone is not sufficient to deal with the significant issues that business people face when accessing justice.”
The SME Alliance tweeted: “We imagine there could also be a backlash from the huge SME sector who will see this as a real betrayal given even the Treasury Select Committee (TSC) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) supported a tribunal.”
In a 64-page report, the TSC called for the establishment of a financial services tribunal to hear complex disputes between small firms and their banks.
The MPs expressed horror at the “scandalous” way the banks had been allowed to mistreat victims.
The report called on the Treasury and the FCA to introduce a regulatory regime that protects small and medium-sized firms.
“Waiting for another high-profile misconduct scandal before pursuing it would be irresponsible,” it said.
“Given the Committee’s concerns about the FOS’ capability, broadening its remit beyond the FCA’s proposals would be unwise and potentially damaging,” the report said. Earlier this year, the FCA’s Andrew Bailey, argued that a tribunal could provide a more formal, court-like approach for higher value disputes, or disputes involving complaints above the Ombudsman’s eligibility thresholds.
But what was the Chancellor’s response to these wise words of advice?
He ignored the tribunal idea and decided to add to the FOS’s already heavy workload. Establishing a tribunal would take time and effort, but it would be worth it because it would shore up confidence in the banking sector and ensure victims of misconduct gained justice.
There is a real fear that the tribunal idea will be kicked into the long grass until the next crisis. This is a betrayal of every victim of rogue bankers. It is an approach that flies in the face of extensive research from MPs.
To quote the TSC report: “The Treasury and the FCA should introduce a regulatory regime that protects SMEs. The scope of the regime must be based on an appreciation of the varying levels of financial sophistication within the SME community.
“This will require analysis of the financial sophistication of the UK’s SMEs that goes beyond blunt metrics covering headcount and turnover.”
It’s hard to understand why the Chancellor did not speak out in favour of a tribunal.
The only bankers who should fear a financial services tribunal are those who ought to have no place in a reformed banking sector.