Separating the Wheatley from the chaff

Martin Wheatley is to head the FCA.

On Wednesday Martin Wheatley, who will head up the FCA (the new incarnation of the FSA), made a stirring speech championing the consumer.  At last there appears to be someone with the guts to challenge the "weeds" that have propagated at the FSA.  The biblical reference "to separate the wheat from the chaff" from Matthew 3, means to separate things of value from things of no value; and the serial failings of the FSA has proven they have no value when it comes to consumer protection.

But let us not rejoice just yet, for while Mr Wheatley's speech is excellent news, the FCA will be judged on its actions, not just its words. We have now seen years of procrastination and dithering from various regulators, including the IMA and the FSA and we urgently need statutory guidelines to ensure full transparency that will lead to vastly improved investor and saver outcomes.

Whilst his comments suggest he intends to show strong leadership and tackle hidden charges and fund fund fees at the FCA, Martin Wheatley is not going to have an easy job and is going to be heavily interventionist if he is to succeed. The industry is only just beginning to step reluctantly in the direction of giving greater transparency.  There are very mixed messages still circulating in the industry, causing yet more confusion for savers and investors. The most recent example being the IMA’s Annual Asset Management Report, issued this month, which stated that “investment clients are paying fund fees of a fraction over 0.3 per cent across the board”. This completely ludicrous claim puts efforts to regain consumer trust in financial products and the financial services sector back several years.

In my view, strong, clear leadership, a single industry standard on transparency of fees and charging, and a standardised method of reporting all costs and fees via one single total cost of investing number are essential steps to ensure consumers know the full price they will pay for investment products prior to purchase. 

However we also need to address other anti-consumer practices (which we have been highlighted by the True and Fair Campaign) including the failure to give full disclosure to consumers on where their money is invested; closet index tracking by active funds; fund mislabelling and mis-classification and conflicts of interest in stock lending.

There is much to do to improve the shockingly low standards of investor and saver protection in the UK.  Change is long overdue and must come soon, otherwise we risk further alienating savers and investors and damaging the financial services industry, and the UK economy. Martin Wheatley’s comments are extremely welcomed but we urge stakeholders to keep a watchful eye out for early action from the FCA to honour this pledge to give genuine transparency.

Gina Miller is the founding partner of SCM Private LLP and spearhead of the True and Fair Campaign. www.trueandfaircampaign.com

 

Martin Wheatley. Photograph: Getty Images

Gina Miller is the founding partner of SCM Direct and spearhead of the True and Fair Campaign. www.trueandfaircampaign.com

Getty Images.
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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.