TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001 _________ Members present: Mr Giles Radice, in the Chair Mr Jim Cousins Mr Edward Davey Mr Michael Fallon Mr David Kidney Judy Mallaber Mr James Plaskitt Mr David Ruffley Sir Michael Spicer _________ MEMORANDUM BY HM TREASURY EXAMINATION OF WITNESSES MISS MELANIE JOHNSON, a Member of the House, Economic Secretary, and MR WILLIAM LEA, Adviser, Financial Services Regulation Team, HM Treasury, examined. Chairman 450. Economic Secretary, we are sorry to have kept you waiting. You have just sent us this consultative document on Standards for Retail Financial Products. It is quite long, and it seems to me, as we have not read it, it is not worth asking questions on, but if we have any questions, we would like you to come back, please. (Miss Johnson) No problem at all. Mr Fallon 451. The Cruickshank Report, Minister, is nearly a year old now. Is the banking system more competitive? (Miss Johnson) We are in the process of actually taking forward the Cruickshank Report. Perhaps if I could start off by making a few opening remarks about where we are on things in general, it might help to answer your question but also set the scene. We commissioned the report, as you know, because we had concerns about the levels of innovation, competition and efficiency. Following the publication of that report, it is clear that these concerns are justified. The Government has moved swiftly to tackle those problems. Indeed, there were beneficial effects before the report was even published. For example, the public pressure in the light of the emerging conclusions from Cruickshank and the publicity around the double charging for ATM transactions led to the withdrawal of the double charging for ATMs, and we are now in a situation where consumers no longer have to pay ATM charges for the vast majority of their transactions. We sought to implement very quickly two of the key recommendations in the report, and on the day of publication we referred the small business banking services to the Competition Commission, and on the day of the Budget, the following day, the Chancellor announced we would legislate to open up access to payment systems and overseas access charges. We have made considerable progress since then to come on to Mr Fallon's question. We have established an independent review chaired by Dr DeAnne Julius on whether consumer codes such as the Banking Code are sufficiently delivering benefits to consumers or not, and I am sure the Committee are aware of the concerns expressed about the low level of compliance with the Code. Just before Christmas we published our proposals to give the OFT robust new powers to tackle the competition problems associated with payment systems. I regret the short notice, but we had the option of either publishing before the Committee, which at least gave you the chance to see things, or after the Committee, which would have looked as if we were trying to do something different, but today we published a consultation document on the CAT standards and how we propose to extend those to credit cards and basic bank accounts. I am pleased to say in addition to all of that that the banks have responded to the challenge by me to them to tackle financial exclusion by introducing basic bank accounts which are accessible at post offices. So I believe overall that we have effected a sea change in the competitive environment for banking, and we will be delivering real benefits to consumers, ensuring that they have innovative services, better prices and a greater choice than ever before. 452. If there has been a sea change, why do the Big Four still have the 70 per cent of the market that they had a year ago? (Miss Johnson) I think that is an indication that the problem has to be addressed through the measures that we are taking. We are only now putting into effect some of the things that will change that. I think it is important to recognise that what we are doing is making sure that there is greater transparency in the system, that there is more competition driving things, and that there is going to be less hassle in the future, hopefully, for people switching accounts. All of those problems are being addressed by the various measures I have already outlined in different ways, and as those roll through the system, we will expect to see that percentage come down. We think the fact that it is holding up at that 68 or 70 per cent - I think it was 68 per cent at the time that Cruickshank reported; it is now 70 per cent - is an indication that there is a problem there, and that exactly validates the purpose of having the report and tackling it in the way that we are. 453. If it is holding up or increasing, there has not been a sea change, has there? (Miss Johnson) Obviously now we are in the process of implementing these things. We have made the reference of small business services to the Competition Commission, and they are still looking at that and have not yet reported, so they are not in a position to act yet, and neither are we, because that is still being looked at in more detail. We have announced the arrangements for PayCom with the OFT, and those arrangements will make sure that a lot of the issues about the costs for consumers will be addressed. In terms of the ease of switching accounts, we have the Banking Code's review under way, and DeAnne Julius is looking at the evidence. Indeed, I believe she has written to the Select Committee asking for the Select Committee's comments, which I am sure would be helpful in this process, and she will take evidence. If we find that one of the issues is a difficulty for people in changing accounts, we will expect to see additional competition, and compliance with the codes will address those issues. 454. You yourself referred to innovation, but one of Cruickshank's most damning conclusions was that "all customers get the same slow service from the banking system." When are customers going to see faster service? (Miss Johnson) They will see a faster service speeding up as from now. We already have the ATM charges to demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach that we have been taking. There are no ATM charges now, except for those few ATMs in convenience-type locations. The vast majority, 90 per cent or so, of the network does not carry any ATM charges, and where there are charges, they are advised to the customer on the screen at the time of use so they have the option of not using the ATM. That is evidence that we are already effecting major changes. That was a big issue for consumers, rightly so. We have achieved a change through this process, and we expect to see further changes taking place as the rest of the provision is put into place. Mr Plaskitt 455. Can I turn to the Universal Banking Service and ask if the Treasury is satisfied on the progress being made so far in setting the service up? (Miss Johnson) We have, I think, had a good response from the banks in terms of providing basic bank accounts, as I said earlier on, and all the main banks now provide a form of basic bank account in response to the challenge that I issued to them following the PAT14 financial exclusion issue. We welcome the fact that on 20 December six of the major banks announced that they would in principle contribute towards Universal Banking Services. Obviously, the basis of the Universal Banking Service is going to be the basic bank account, and we think that is the right way forward. They are going to make their own basic bank accounts available via the Post Office, across post office counters, which will meet our needs for greater accessibility for banking products, particularly for the financially excluded, but also obviously it provides a vehicle for them to get the basic bank accounts out to a wider range of the public, and it meets our desire to have a Post Office- based approach to this issue. So we feel that we have made good progress so far on this. 456. When do you expect accounts to be available through the Post Office-based Universal Banking Service? (Miss Johnson) The whole aim of this is that, obviously, the changes need to be fully in place before the ACT changes in 2003-2005, which is the timetable that has been set on the DSS and benefits side of things. A lot of the basic bank accounts are available now. Some are available via the Post Office. We would expect to see that accelerating fairly rapidly. We are not looking to wait until 2003 to see that in place. That process is already under way. 457. We understand that the banks that signed up in December have agreed to support it for a period of time. Do we know how long that is? (Miss Johnson) Discussions are still going on between the banks and the Post Office, and obviously there is an element of commercial sensitivity and confidentiality about those discussions. I am not aware of any particular issues about the timetable, but I do not think I have anything else to add to what you have said on that. 458. Do you anticipate ongoing support from these companies, or do you see a point where their support comes out of the system and the Universal Bank and the Post Office itself sustains it? (Miss Johnson) I think it would be very nice, and ideally we will get to the position where nobody is financially excluded, that everybody is using a range of at least basic financial services products, including bank accounts, and where this is not really an issue which is of moment for discussion by ourselves, by government, by the public or the press and it becomes a non- issue because it is universally adopted. Obviously we have some way to go on that because we are talking about a significant proportion of the adult population, some 8-10 per cent, who currently do not have access to financial services in this way. It is an issue at the moment, but one that I hope we move away from in time. 459. What do you think was the main incentive for companies to sign up in support of this service? What is in it for them, in your view? (Miss Johnson) The banks have undertaken to meet the issue of financial exclusion and to deliver wider accessibility of basic banking products. It was in recognition of that that they have all made the basic bank accounts available during the course of last year. In order to make them accessible as well, they need vehicles. They need places that these accounts are going to be accessible to people, and clearly the Post Office, with its very much wider network of post offices, rather than bank branches, is an ideal place for them to get those out, and of course, a lot of the communities that post offices are serving are those communities we would also want to reach, those who are less included in financial services products. 460. Would it be fair to say that these companies can see in this service an opportunity to recruit customers into their basic bank accounts? (Miss Johnson) Yes. It is not necessarily the case that basic bank account customers are of one ilk. All the evidence shows that people's circumstances change. People may only want a basic bank account at one stage in their life but may progress on to a range of other financial services products, and obviously there is potentially an interest for the banks in seeing customers brought into the banking system and brought forward. So it is not a philanthropic enterprise as far as the banking sector is concerned. Obviously it does meet our desire to see financial exclusion tackled. 461. The banks in the earlier session told us that they would not actually know who was signed up to the Universal Bank accounts and therefore they could not recruit from it. (Miss Johnson) My understanding is that their own bank accounts will be marketed through the Post Office. Perhaps I can ask if William Lea would comment further on that. (Mr Lea) I think the main emphasis, as the Minister said, was on provision of the basic bank accounts, and those basic bank accounts will be provided by banks and will be a stepping stone for people on to other financial services. There is provision also as part of the Universal Bank for a basic money transmission account. But it is envisaged that the main vehicle will be people having access to basic bank accounts that will be provided by the main high street banks, so they will be fully aware if they are providing those accounts of who has got them. 462. So they have not signed up because they are philanthropists. They see a commercial interest in this. (Miss Johnson) I think they have signed up for a variety of reasons. I think some of that is commercial interest, and that is reasonable enough. They have accepted the fact that there is an issue to be tackled on the financial exclusion front, that people are disadvantaged by not having access to some of these basic financial services, particularly having a bank account, and obviously that coincides as well with the interests that DSS have in providing more benefit payments through bank accounts because, amongst other things, it will tackle social security fraud. Mr Beard 463. Can you explain the distinction between the Universal Bank account and the basic bank account and the basic accounts that the banks are providing? (Miss Johnson) My understanding of this is that they are going to provide their own basic accounts, but via post offices as an outlet, and so there will not be any real difference, but there will obviously be more marketing, I guess, done at the Post Office about the way these accounts are put out and the availability of it via the Post Office network. But we hope the banks will also address this through their own branches and their normal business too. If people come in wanting a basic bank account and they happen to go to a bank branch rather than a post office, I hope and trust that they will get the same offer and the same service as if they went into a post office to acquire that account. 464. What is the incentive for someone to take out a Universal Bank account as opposed to a basic account with one of the main banks? (Miss Johnson) It is the same. It will be the same account. What it will do is provide the outlets. We recognise the fact that there are not branches in all the areas where there are largely financially excluded members of the population, and that those areas are probably lighter on bank branches. The Post Office will provide a number of outlets in areas where other bank branches may not be located. It provides accessibility for the accounts, and a higher profile for the accounts in those neighbourhoods where we think a lot of those people wanting basic bank accounts will be. In all cases, people will not be able to get overdrawn with a basic bank account, whether it is a Universal Bank bank account or one acquired through one of the main banks. That is the safeguard in this service, amongst other things that the basic bank accounts will do. One of the key things is that people will not be able to go into the red. 465. What is gained by having a Universal Bank over having a basic bank account of the main banks available in the Post Office? (Miss Johnson) The advantage is the number of outlets. We are talking about a massive number of post offices. Obviously, a lot of those people who are currently receiving their benefit by giro will hopefully be moving over to basic bank accounts, and in so doing they will get access to a wider range of ways of dealing with their money than they would by getting a giro, and the DSS will be able to cut the undoubted fraud that goes on on the DSS giro benefit payments, which are difficult to police. 466. I understand that, but I still do not understand the distinctive feature of the Universal Bank which makes it necessary compared with the basic bank accounts of Lloyds TSB and the HSBC and so on being marketed in Post Offices. If they are marketed in post offices, they are available to the public on just the same basis as the Universal Bank. (Miss Johnson) Yes, but there are many more branches of the Post Office available than there are bank branches, and where those branches are located is not in the same places either. So the availability of outlets, the extra marketing and the fact that quite a lot of the footfall through post offices is connected with those people, a disproportionate number, who currently do not have bank accounts at the moment means that that is a very good vehicle for getting basic accounts out, and it will have a greater marketing presence by being done through the Post Office than it will each individual bank doing it on their own, though no doubt they will be making the basic bank accounts available through their own branches too. 467. I understand that. I still do not understand what is the distinction and benefit of the Universal Bank over and above that. (Miss Johnson) Why should there be an additional advantage over and above that? 468. If you have these services, basic bank accounts marketed through post offices which are dispersed around the country, why do we need a Universal Bank as well? (Miss Johnson) The Universal Bank is a concept involving the main banks signed up to this actually making available their basic accounts through the Post Office. There is not a separate entity called the Universal Bank. The Universal Bank is the arrangement whereby the basic accounts are made available through the Post Office, and in addition to that, obviously there will be an electronic transmission account for those who do not sign up to the basic bank account. We hope and expect that the majority of those currently without a bank account will be signed up to a basic bank account. Mr Kidney 469. Minister, listening to you, when the Government made its commitment that people will be able to receive their benefits in cash at the post office free of charge, will it be compulsory upon them to have a basic bank account in order to get that commitment fulfilled? (Miss Johnson) No. It will still be possible for them to get their benefits either monthly or weekly, as they wish, and obviously we have given a commitment to that being available through the Post Office. If they do not decide to opt for a basic bank account, there will be systems put in place to enable people to get their benefit paid automatically into a much more limited form of creature which will enable them simply to draw out the payment. It will not, however, offer other facilities, as a basic bank account would, which would allow you to pay cheques and do a variety of other transactions through your bank account. It will enable automatic transfer of the money, and people will be able to go to the post office and draw that out, but they will not have a slip, as they might do at the moment, to go and get their benefit. They will not actually have a physical piece of paper to get that. It will be paid electronically into an account and be drawn out in that way -in one go, I think is the proposal. 470. It is my understanding that the "creature" you describe is a basic account offered by the Post Office as opposed to the basic accounts offered by the participating banks. (Miss Johnson) There is a difference in the sort of things that basic accounts do. You can pay cheques into basic accounts, you can draw money out in different amounts. If people do not migrate to the basic bank account, the residual arrangements, which will meet their needs, will be extremely basic, if I can put it that way, because they will simply allow the money to be electronically transferred and taken out at the post office in one go for that particular payment, and that will be the scope of the arrangements. So it will be much more limited. 471. Will the person be an account holder at the Post Office for that purpose? (Miss Johnson) They will be an account holder of the new arrangements. It is not an account in any real sense of the word, an account as you and I might understand it, because you will not be able to do anything except get your benefit out from it basically. Mr Fallon 472. It sounds a very basic account! (Miss Johnson) Yes, it is an extremely basic account. That is what I was saying. 473. Hardly an account at all. Can I return to the issue of competition. The Consumers' Association said in evidence to us that fewer than a third of the Big Four bank customers were satisfied with their service. Given that they now still have 70 per cent of the market share a year on, would you conclude that that was a market failure? (Miss Johnson) I think we conclude that there is a lack of competition in our banking sector, and it is a significant lack of competition which exists in the banking sector at the moment. The purpose of the Cruickshank review was to find out the extent of that, and what the causes were, and as you know, that report highlighted a number of recommendations. We have taken all of those recommendations forward, and I think it is important to say that the Government wants to tackle all of those concerns, and we have made important steps in doing so. There is the DeAnne Julius codes review, and the measures that we have taken to improve consumer awareness of the CAT standards generally. I appreciate the Committee has not had a chance to look at today's release, but in terms of CAT standards in the market, certainly the evidence on ISAs is that people are being significantly helped by availability of CAT standards in the ISA market. We think that this provides scope for a greater transparency for the consumer, and therefore will drive competition, and the essence of our approach is really to get that greater transparency in there, to get information available for consumers that enables them to transfer the information across from one product to another, and compare easily, where they do not have hidden surprises and charges, and where it is clear to them that if they want to move, they can move from one provider to another and are easily able to do so. The measures we are putting in place will address that, and I am confident that we will see quite a different picture, with the passage of time, but obviously there are some issues like the reference to the Competition Commission which are still in the process of being considered at the moment. We can only deal with the issues that arise out of that when we get that information back. 474. You have issued your document today and there are all these other bits of paper. Why is all this taking so long, do you think? (Miss Johnson) I do not think it is taking particularly long, but one of the issues is that we do want to tackle the root causes of things. We do not want to simply tackle the superficial symptom. We want to get underneath that, and in getting underneath that, we do need to do these things that will address greater competition and enable consumers themselves and small businesses themselves to be much more in the driving seat with their financial services providers, and with the banks in particular in this context. So obviously there is a whole lot of work going on. The Financial Services Authority is doing some of this work too, in doing things like comparative tables of financial services products, which they will be bringing out later this year. We are tackling the problems in the payment system as well as trying to reduce the profits which are being made at the moment which have been identified in the Cruickshank Report. Mr Ruffley 475. Economic Secretary, I wrote down what you said at the start of your remarks. You said of the problems that Cruickshank identified that "the Government had moved swiftly" to tackle those problems, and in the light of that statement, I would just like to see how swift you have been. On Mr Fallon's observation that 70 per cent of the current account market is where we are now, and it is roughly where we were at the time of Cruickshank, and I think you have indicated that the position may even have got worse, could you just explain to me what steps you think should be taken to reduce that market share of the Big Four? (Miss Johnson) The issue that has been clearly identified is that people basically do not choose to move their bank accounts around. There is a variety of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that there may be hassle involved in moving the account around, and that is something we need to determine the exact scale of. It is something that the DeAnne Julius review is looking at and will no doubt be reporting upon. It is one of the issues which has been flagged up, which is compliance with the Banking Code, specifically for that consultation which is going on at the moment. Secondly, it is important that people are able to make comparisons from one product to another, and actually decide therefore whether they are getting a good deal or not. I think a lot of people would be surprised if they were able to make those comparisons now on the basis of good, clear information. They will be surprised at the fact that they are not necessarily getting a good deal where they are at the moment and there may be a much better deal to be had somewhere. We need to make sure that consumers have better information, that there is more transparency about it, and that they are able to make comparisons. There are a variety of ways in which we are doing that. Obviously looking at the lack of competition in the money transmission systems through the proposals with the OFT is one way of dealing with that. The CAT standards is another way of dealing with that. Getting the small business banking services looked at by the Competition Commission is a third way of doing that, and as I say, the codes review as well. So there is a variety of approaches there, all of which are pinpointing the same purpose, which is to provide greater competition in the banking sector and to enable consumers to make better decisions for themselves. 476. That is a helpful shopping list, if I may say so, but is not the root cause - and that is another phrase you have used, that you want to get to the root cause and not have superficial solutions - the real reason that the Big Four have a stranglehold on over 70 per cent of current accounts in this country, and it is not getting better, is because they are flagrantly and deliberately and gratuitously breaking the ten-day limit within which they are meant to pass information to transfer re BACS if the customer wishes to move from one of the Big Four. We have had a year since Cruickshank identified this problem, and you are telling us that you have another inquiry or report. Is it not the case that you know what the problem is, and is it not the case that the Banking Code should actually enshrine disciplinary measures, in particular financial penalties, for banks that do not hit the ten-day transfer limit? Is that not what you should be doing, not giving us more reports? (Miss Johnson) The examination which DeAnne Julius's group is doing, which is a group with a lot of expertise in it, will hopefully gather a lot of information to help us determine exactly what needs to be done - and I think it is always better that we do things on the basis of good evidence rather than partial evidence, and at the moment we only have partial evidence on this. I agree with you; I think there is a problem about people switching accounts, but it would be good to know the exact scale of it and to see what evidence is being brought forward in this connection. Of course, that group is not reporting some time next year or the year after; it is actually reporting at the end of April, so we are not talking about more than a couple of months' examination of this. They will come back and they will be able to say just how compliance with the Banking Code is going in a lot more detail, and there are obviously other aspects to the Banking Code than this one in particular, although I appreciate your concern that this is an important one. I share that. We are watching very carefully to see how that is. There are issues for the group which they are looking at, which are things like whether the industry is fully complying with it, whether it is monitored and enforced effectively, and what the redress is if it is not, but I think it is also worthwhile pointing out that at the end of it all, if there is shown to be a problem, one of the issues is clearly whether voluntary codes are a way forward or not, and if they are, how strongly they have to be enforced in order to be effective. I am sure that is something that DeAnne Julius's group will be reporting on. 477. If I deduce correctly from your response, it is not the case that you have ruled out financial penalties for banks that miss the ten-day target. You have not ruled that out. You can tell the Committee that today. It is on the table as a potential sanction against these banks that have a stranglehold on the current account market, mainly because they cause such hassle to customers by not transferring within ten days. (Miss Johnson) I think it is a very serious issue. We are looking carefully to see what comes out of DeAnne Julius's group on this, and we will be wanting to see effective action taken. 478. Does that mean financial penalties? (Miss Johnson) I am not being drawn by your efforts to try and pin me down on specifically what the response is going to be, but what I am saying is I do entirely share your concerns about this. We do think that there is a problem here. We would like to see the exact scope of it and what DeAnne Julius's group is going to say about it, and we will want to see an effective answer from the consumers' point of view out of this after the end of April. 479. I am sorry. You have not ruled out as a Government - and you are the Minister; never mind what DeAnne Julius is saying - you have not ruled out as a Minister the possibility of financial penalties and a stricter disciplinary regime incorporating financial penalties? (Miss Johnson) We will be looking to see what is effective in tackling this. I neither rule things out nor rule them in. It is a question of what is effective. We want to have an effective answer. We think there is a problem. You think there is a problem. DeAnne Julius's group will be looking to see what the scope of that is, and reporting back to us, and when we see the nature of the problem, we will decide on an effective response to it and make sure consumers get a better deal. 480. What is the timescale within which you will make some response to DeAnne Julius? You say in April she will report. Are you going to get on with it, assuming you are still in power? (Miss Johnson) We will be getting on with it as quickly as we can, but obviously we will have to see what is in the report at the end of April. It would be foolish of me to give you a definitive timetable at this moment, because only when we see the scope of what is being suggested and any answers that may be suggested will we able to predict what the exact timescale will be. But again, we are keen to see this progress rapidly. Mr Davey 481. Minister, would you consider withdrawal from a cash machine an everyday transaction with a bank account? (Miss Johnson) Yes, I think so. 482. Could you therefore answer me why in the consultation paper on Standards for Retail Financial Products the CAT standard for basic bank accounts does not include free withdrawals from cash machines? (Miss Johnson) What we are putting out today is for discussion and consultation. We will welcome people's suggestions on ways in which they think other things might be needed in this, if that is appropriate. 483. But Minister, on page 55 of your consultation document you say about basic bank accounts on charges that there should be "no one-off or regular charges for everyday transactions." You told me that you considered a cash withdrawal from an ATM, a cash machine, an everyday transaction. I agree with you. Why then are you proposing in your consultation paper to allow banks with a CAT standard for a BBA to charge for those withdrawals? That is your proposal. You published the document. (Miss Johnson) Yes, and it is for discussion and it is for people's input, so it is not a finished piece of work. That is why we have put it out for consultation. What we have at the moment is a situation where you will only pay for using an ATM in certain limited circumstances, as I was explaining earlier on. The effect of the debate around Cruickshank, the public pressure on ATMs and the measures that we have taken has been that ATM withdrawal is free for the vast majority of consumers at the vast majority of ATMs. 484. But you are not proposing that with respect to CAT standards for basic bank accounts, are you? Am I right? (Miss Johnson) Yes, but that is an item for further discussion. We would welcome your views on it. 485. Let me give my views, most strongly, on behalf of my constituents. My constituents, as indeed do you, consider withdrawal from a cash machine, an ATM, to be an everyday transaction. But you are not proposing that a CAT BBA should include free cash withdrawals. I would suggest to you that most people would consider that that ought to be free. (Miss Johnson) They will be free from charges. 486. That is not what it says on page 54. It only says that withdrawals will have to be free over the counter. There is some discussion of buffer zones, because there is a minimum withdrawal from a cash machine of sometimes œ10, but it is not clear in the CAT standard for BBAs which you published yesterday, or maybe you gave to the press at the weekend, that cash machine withdrawals should be free. (Miss Johnson) We published it this morning, as I am sure you are aware. It says "no one-off or regular charges for everyday transactions". 487. Are you tell me now, because it does not appear to be the case when you define that on page 54, that that includes ATM withdrawals from cash machines? If that is your line, I am delighted. (Miss Johnson) It is a question, is it not, of the inter-relationship between that and the statement "Account holders must be able to use the following", cash machines, and a number of other outlets. My understanding of what we are proposing at the moment is that we should have no regular charges for everyday transactions. 488. You are looking at page 55. (Miss Johnson) I have page 53. 489. Turn to page 54. Paragraph 9 - I have read it two or three times, but I think it is phrased interestingly - does not make it clear at all that all withdrawals from a cash machine from accounts that have the CAT standard would be free. (Miss Johnson) What it says is, as you have read yourself, that account holders should be able to withdraw all their money free of charge either by free withdrawals over the counter or through access to a buffer zone, and it goes on to talk about the minimum withdrawal from a cash machine of œ10. It says, "accounts which do not provide free withdrawals over the counter should offer individuals a buffer zone, to enable them to withdraw their last penny via a cash machine." That is what the buffer zone idea is. 490. But it does not say that it would be free. The free withdrawals relates to withdrawals taken over the counter. (Miss Johnson) We are talking about the fact that they will be free from charges. Chairman 491. Maybe you can drop us a note on this. (Miss Johnson) I certainly can. I will be very happy to do so. Mr Davey 492. Can I take you on to money transmission systems. You may be aware that the British Retail Consortium in relation to your proposals that OFT should have a regulatory position over this have said that they are not convinced that the modus operandi of the OFT is appropriate for non- competitive environments such as money transmission. They are worried about the powers. Can you address these concerns? Will the OFT have sufficient powers and be able to devote sufficient time to ensuring there is competition in money transmission services? (Miss Johnson) Yes is the answer to your question, and I am very confident that it will do. I think it is important just to remember what the issues in terms of competition problems in the payment systems were that were identified and, just to run through them quickly, they were things like poor, outdated government structures; lack of effective competition between the schemes; anti-competitive restrictions on access; anti-competitive, inefficient wholesale price; lack of innovation; slow and inflexible service; poor transparency; and an ineffective framework for government intervention. What we are doing with the new regime is giving the OFT new powers which will enable them to conduct competition investigations into the provision of payment services, they will be able to investigate complaints about competition in payment services, they will be able to collect information about the way those payment systems are working, and they will be able to enforce rules. They will establish an initial set of rules which is aimed at ensuring price transparency, efficient wholesale pricing, and fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access to payment systems. We are resourcing the OFT specifically for the payment systems issue, because I think that is also something that needed to be addressed, and they will have specific duties in relation to the exercise of their new powers. 493. You said the OFT would have certain powers to collect information. Can you confirm that they will have full powers to collect full information on the cost structures of the payment systems operated by the banks? (Miss Johnson) They will be able to gain information that is necessary for them to be able to do their own job and to make sure that control of the payment systems cannot be abused. They are also going to have strong enforcement systems. That is another aspect of it. They will be able to tell providers what they have got to do to bring a breach of the rules to an end. They will be able to specify the conditions, including the price, upon which a new entrant might be granted access to a payment system. They will also be able to impose financial penalties to encourage compliance with the new rules. 494. Minister, that sounds like a long way of saying no to my question. (Miss Johnson) Far from it. 495. I asked you a very clear question about cost information, and one of the key concerns that many people have, looking at the payment system, is that a lot of the costs are hidden, and the experience of the regulators in other industries is that unless they have specific powers to go after the information on those costs, they cannot promote competition and prevent monopoly. My question to you is: can you reassure this Committee that on the specific issue of costs, the OFT will have sufficient powers to go after that information? (Miss Johnson) Yes, and I was trying to expand on the ways in which they will have the ability to go after that information and to enforce their decisions when they have gone after that information. The answer is a very categorical yes. 496. Can you just explain to the Committee then why you went for the OFT solution rather than PayCom as proposed by Cruickshank? (Miss Johnson) We have a system at the moment where we have a number of regulatory bodies already alongside the Bank of England who are dealing with payments issues. There is the FSA itself and the Financial Ombudsman as well. We felt it was probably better to give the powers to an existing body. Of course, the OFT has significant expertise in this sort of area because they have dealt with competition more widely, and competition issues, indeed, in the financial services sector explicitly as well in the past. So there are issues and experience there in common with their present role. It fits in with their remit to deal with competition in all sectors of the economy. All in all, we thought there was a very good fit, and I have to say that Don Cruickshank agreed with us on that, and said, if I can just read what he said, "The Government proposals for payment systems are the final piece in the jigsaw to deliver competition in banking markets. The introduction of new rules and new powers for the OFT should herald a new era of effective competition in payment systems, and I fully support the Government's proposals." So he is very much behind us. Mr Cousins 497. Minister, I am having great difficulties in studying your document which you put out this morning. I think it is extremely commendable of my colleague that in the time available to him he has not only been able to read it and study it, but has also consulted his constituents. It is an absolute miracle of modern communications. What I would like to ask you is this. Is it the Government's intention that consumers of banking products should readily be able to make sensible comparisons of the charges to them at their particular provider and to compare that provider's charges with other providers' charges? (Miss Johnson) Yes, you are exactly right, and obviously you have a good grip on this, even if you have not managed to consult 100 per cent of your constituents this morning on this subject. It is the case that we want to make it easier for people. They have to be able to understand what is in front of them anyway, and at the moment that is difficult. For example, on the credit cards people often do not understand that if they do not pay the balance off at the end of the month, interest is charged from the time they bought the item rather than from the end of the month when they have not met the full repayment on the balance. Issues like that we want flagged up clearly so consumers can see what is going on at the present time with their existing provision. Then they need to be able to compare it, and the advantage with the CAT standards and other clear and transparent information is that people can make a more ready comparison of one provider with another, and therefore make decisions about whether they are getting a good deal as consumers or not, and that will drive the competitive competition in the market. 498. It is your intention that the OFT - at the moment it is the OFT that will be charged with these responsibilities - will be able to compare not merely the charges between different providers, but will be able to look at the underlying cost structures within those providers to see how they compare with the charges. (Miss Johnson) We are aiming for the OFT to have access to things so that it can make a very clear diagnostic analysis of what is going on in the payment system. Obviously, if it is to analyse the payment system in this way and to come up with effective answers and identify effectively any problems that are working in it, it needs to be able to get to the root of the information in order to achieve that task. 499. Mr Sweeney of the British Bankers Association, who the Committee had the advantage of speaking to a week ago, said that, of course, costs and charges may not be in any way connected, and the particular banking service provider might well decide as a matter of deliberate policy to disconnect costs and charges in order to achieve bigger market share for a particular kind of product. Of course, one accepts that, but notwithstanding that, it is the clear intention of government that OFT will be in the position of being able to compare the underlying cost structures of banks with their charges to deliver those services to consumers. (Miss Johnson) Yes, it is. 500. I have not had the opportunity of looking at this document in detail, but it does seem to me - and I am just trying to confirm that my impression is right - that what the Government is proposing is a CAT standard for basic bank accounts, the possibility or probability perhaps of a CAT standard for credit card accounts, but the document is silent about the possibility of CAT standards on normal current accounts as most consumers now have them. Is that right? (Miss Johnson) Yes, but, just to make sure you are absolutely clear, I think the CAT standards on basic bank accounts and credit cards are on a par in the document, that is to say, we are seriously proposing that we do a CAT standard in each case. The detail is obviously something that can be discussed and is part of the consultation, but we are thinking it would probably be a good thing to do something in both cases. We are seeking views on whether there are applications elsewhere, and again, it would be very interesting to have people's views on that. We have, for example, canvassed ideas about whether travel insurance is an area where people would appreciate having a CAT standard. We think there are other areas where they may be applied. At the moment the specific proposals in here are for two areas, but we do think there is scope for further applications. 501. The Government has an open mind and is willing to listen to representations on extending the CAT standard concept to the cheque accounts, current accounts and savings accounts that are now normal? (Miss Johnson) Yes. We think there is a role for these things. The evidence on ISAs, for example, has been very good, that about half of ISA savings are actually in CAT standarded products, and there is a very much higher proportion of people buying CAT standard ISAs direct than there is of those buying non-CAT standard direct, which indicates that the consumer feels more empowered by the CAT standards for ISAs. There is good evidence that they are effective. We want to see what other areas the public think they would be effective in. At the moment the two specific proposals in the paper are on credit cards and basic bank accounts, but we would be very happy to receive suggestions about other areas, including the ones that you have mentioned. Mr Beard 502. On credit cards, Europay International have argued that, because they are already regulated at European level, there is no need for them to be regulated at UK level. How do you respond to that? (Miss Johnson) The fact is that we are in the UK here, and the evidence is that there is not sufficient competition on the credit card side of things, so we do not think there is enough evidence to suggest that there should not be a UK approach to this issue. I think all the evidence points in the direction of us being right on this. 503. Europay again have complained that if the rules for membership of the transmission system for credit cards were widened to new members, there could be a systemic risk if new members were unable to meet their obligations. Do you agree with that? What can be done to safeguard against it? (Miss Johnson) Issues of systemic risk are really matters for the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England. I do not think there is a problem there, but it is up to the FSA in particular to make sure that prudentially firms in the financial sector are viable and other parts of the financial services sector are viable, and not likely to cause systemic risk of some kind. We think this is a good proposal. It will drive competition. It may be that those who do not wish to go along with that have their own reasons for not doing so. 504. So you reject that point. (Miss Johnson) I do indeed. Chairman: Thank you very much.