HL Deb 22 June 2000 vol 614 cc502-17
Lord Faulkner of Worcester

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they consider to be the role of strong mutual companies in promoting a healthy and competitive market in financial services.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by thanking those of your Lordships who have put their names down to speak in this short debate, which has the virtue of being remarkably timely because the deadline for postal votes for the Standard Life demutualisation proposals is little more than four hours away. I should declare an interest at the outset as a Standard Life policy holder.

The purpose of my Unstarred Question is to make the case for consumer choice and competition in the provision of financial services. In preparing for tonight, I had meetings with the chief executives of Standard Life and the Nationwide Building Society. While there are obvious differences between building societies and insurance companies, they share a common philosophy. At the top of the list is their personal commitment to their members. Both chief executives made the point that they can devote their working day to thinking exclusively about their customers and the long-term prospects for their companies.

The chief executive of a financial PLC, on the other hand, has primarily to consider his shareholders and will be expected to spend a lot of time in the City talking to analysts, financial institutions and others who can influence the share price. There is nothing wrong with that, but surely it is sensible for both kinds of company to co-exist and for customers to have a choice, as indeed my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey indicated in answer to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on 19th April, when he said that, a variety of different kinds of governance in the insurance industry is a good thing". My noble friend went on to say: Therefore there is a place for both mutual companies and for shareholder-owned companies".—[Official Report, 19/4/00; col. 703.] I entirely agree. But I believe that more needs to be done to protect the mutuals from the unwelcome attention of carpet-bagging predators of the kind that currently circle round Standard Life and continue to stalk other mutual prey, including two recent goes at the Nationwide.

Let us remind ourselves about some of the advantages that mutual companies enjoy. For one thing, profit is not the first item on their agenda. They do not have to maximise short-term profits for the benefit of outside shareholders because they simply do not have any. On the other hand, most of the building societies which have converted to plcs pay out more than one-third of their profits in dividends to shareholders, who are made up largely of city corporations, not individuals or former members of a society.

Instead of paying dividends, the profits made by a mutual are put back into the organisation to benefit its members through interest rates which are higher for savers and lower for borrowers and through better services, such as lower charges, free ATM machines, the sustaining of branch networks and so on. A good way to judge the value that a customer gets from a financial organisation is to look at the difference between the interest rate that he receives for his savings and the interest rate that he pays on his mortgage. The narrower the margin between the two the better the deal the customer gets. Traditional banks have margins of about 3 per cent or higher and converted institutions operate on margins above 2 per cent, but for many building societies the margins are less than 1.5 per cent.

Plcs must charge customers for the use of shareholders' capital. Demutualisation gives ownership of the capital to the present generation of customers. They take for themselves the right to charge future customers for the use of capital which has been passed to them as a benefit in trust. By contrast, the board of a mutual company has a responsibility, as the Minister said in answer to a supplementary question from me on the same day in April, to a number of different stakeholders, including current policy holders, the employees and prospective policy holders". Given management of equal quality, mutuals should have an advantage over plcs in terms of superior investment returns and other financial service products. Certainly, in the case of Nationwide and Standard Life that is undoubtedly the case. Nationwide claims—I have no reason to disbelieve it— that over the past three years a customer with a £50,000 mortgage and £5,000 in an instant access branch-based savings account would be better off with it than any of the five leading former building societies which converted to plcs by amounts ranging from £739, compared with the Halifax, to £1,081, compared with Northern Rock.

There are similarly interesting comparisons in the returns on life and pension policies. The magazine Money Management has calculated that payouts by mutuals have been around 4 per cent higher on average for policies maturing over the past 15 years. Compared with the average plc, Standard Life's payout record is 9 per cent better. The record is also better when it comes to endowments and pension payouts.

As Professor David Wilkie said in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 3rd June, Demutualisation is trading future security for the quick buck". In effect it is future pensioners who ay for the dividends which go to shareholders.

In every debate about demutualisation much is made in the media about the size of possible windfalls for policy holders. That is particularly so in the current battle for Standard Life. Mr Fred Woollard, who has emerged from his home in Monaco as the leader of the pro-plc campaign, claims that flotation of Standard Life would value it at between £12 and £15 billion. He says that that would produce average payouts of between £5,000 and £6,300 for qualifying with-profits policy holders. On the other hand, the company says that, with a valuation of £12 billion, 50 per cent of policy holders would get less than £2,500, 30 per cent would get between £2,500 and £6,000 and only 20 per cent would get more than £6,000. Undoubtedly, one of those would be Mr Woollard himself. He admits to having bought up enough second-hand endowment policies to put himself in the frame for a payout of £150,000.

That is very nice for Mr Woollard, but it is important to recognise the difference between an average and a typical windfall. It is like a lottery prize fund of, say, £5 million in which one winner gets £4 million and 100,000 get just £10. Therefore, the average prize is just under £50 but £10 is the typical prize.

An interesting comment on Mr Woollard is made by a Standard Life employee, Mr Garry Morrison, in the company's document on demutualisation. Mr Morrison points out that he has worked for Standard Life for more than 20 years, helping to build a company that has delivered significant benefits to members. Unlike Mr Woollard, who by his own admission, has worked on Standard Life for at least a year—which says it all". Ninety per cent of all staff polled recently by MORI were against demutualisation, despite the promise of financial benefits made by Mr Woollard's action group.

The talk of "windfalls" is rather confusing. In this context a windfall is simply the conversion of a long-term benefit into a short-term one. What do windfalls do? They drop to the ground, bruised and often unripe. One may get the fruit earlier but it would he much better, and more tasty, if it was left on the tree to mature properly.

The Treasury Select Committee in another place carried out an examination of demutualisation in the previous Session. Its report largely supported mutuals and employed a number of the arguments that I have adduced tonight. The committee wanted to make it harder for carpet-baggers and to increase safeguards, particularly so far as concerns the 1986 Act. One of its recommendations—that, for future members, windfalls would be assigned to charity—has been followed by a number of societies. That has largely discouraged the carpet-baggers, who are interested only in short-term gains.

But there remains the problem that mutuals can face the disruptive and costly challenges of contested elections for members of boards year after year. It is, as Nationwide says, the equivalent of a government having to face a general election every year". While I understand that the Government are unwilling to find time for primary legislation to implement those of the Select Committee's recommendations with which they agree, I hope that they will bear in mind the need to reduce the uncertainty and disruption caused by potential carpet-baggers.

Finally, can the Minister inform the House whether the Treasury is yet in a position to respond to the letter which Mr Davis of the Nationwide sent to the Economic Secretary on 26th May about the relative unfairness of the new all- employee share scheme? This centres on the point that mutuals are not able to take advantage of the share-based tax incentive schemes for their staff which featured so much in the Chancellor's Budget. It puts them at a disadvantage compared with their competitors. Clearly, it is unfair and anticompetitive because plcs enjoy tax breaks which are not available to mutuals. A positive response to these points would be seen as an indication of a real commitment by the Government to ensure fair competition between mutuals and plcs. That is what I hope to hear reiterated by my noble friend when he replies to the debate.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for introducing this debate. I wonder whether it is 15 years too late. Several horses have bolted and few are left in the stable. The Trustee Savings Bank Act 1985 was perhaps the start when that cousin of the building societies was allowed to float. The Building Societies Act 1986 has seen the shedding of the mutuality of Abbey National, the Cheltenham & Gloucester, Halifax/Leeds Permanent, Woolwich, Alliance & Leicester, National & Provincial, Bristol & West, Northern Rock and Birmingham Midshires building societies. Fifteen of the top building societies in 1984, amounting to 70 per cent by asset value, have now demutualised. If Bradford & Bingley, which is in the wings, also does so, that figure will increase to 73 per cent.

We have seen the same process in insurance with Norwich Union, Scottish Amicable, Clerical Medical & General, and Scottish Widows, with Friends Provident in the wings. We have seen it happen to the AA and the RAC. We have witnessed the decimation of the mutual family.

This matter has been of some concern to me. Four years ago I arranged for Demos to publish a little booklet entitled Building Society Bounty: The Case for Member Philanthropy which hit on the notion of inter-generational equity.

The situation as regards mutuals has been rather like the parlour game of pass-the-parcel. When the music stops and the windfall drops, it is those of this generation who benefit. There is a moral case for charitable foundations to be created to honour those mutual years and to look carefully at those communities where the mutuals have been based. There is a further opportunity later: there are often substantial unclaimed or orphan shares.

What do many mutuals have in common? One of the major features of mutuals is their non-London base. Standard Life is based in Edinburgh. Unusually in this case, the directors want to retain mutuality; and I wish them well. Most directors' leadership has been to move away from mutuality. I am delighted that those directors are pro-mutuality. One of the great fears is that demutualisation means centralisation, if not in the early stages then perhaps later.

It was announced on Tuesday of this week that 250 to 300 high quality jobs will be lost with the Halifax. I regret that I have to declare an interest: my daughter is affected. That announcement came after I had put down my name to speak in this debate. It is interesting to note that although it was the main story in the Halifax Evening Courier, there was not a mention of it in the London Financial Times.

Why has there been this rush to demutualise? One of the problems has been that the relationship towards members has not been understood properly. Perhaps they have been considered as just customers. What does membership mean? The remaining mutuals may have a chance, but they need to cherish their members and to give meaning and purpose to membership. Within the past few days we hear that water companies are thinking of becoming mutuals. Does that indicate that mutuals are all right if there is no money in them? We have also seen the new mutuals, the credit unions.

I look forward to the Minister's response. I recognise the general case for the mutual: that there are no dividends to be paid out; the mutuals are not worrying every day about the share price. However, where mutuality is to cease—there may be good reason in some circumstances—will the Government encourage the creation of a charitable foundation at the time of demutualisation? Will they seriously consider "gifting" orphan shares? Will the noble Lord indicate the Government's view on regional identity in financial services provision and the role of mutuals in sustaining a regional financial presence? In particular, do the Government wish to encourage the cherishing of the members?

8.3 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Faulkner on his timing. It really is split second stuff! I support what he says. Mutual companies used to dominate the building society and insurance businesses. The purpose of mutuality was to enable low earners to own their homes and to enjoy the security of insurance. Mutual companies were more concerned with the less affluent and, indeed, the rich were charged more.

The purpose was not profit, as my noble friend pointed out. Mutuals had a social purpose. Indeed, a well-run mutual offered a better deal than a well-run shareholder company because the mutual did not pay dividends. However, along came an era of short-term market economics and there was significant change. Conversions took place and reserves built up over many years which really belonged to the past members who were no longer around to claim them. They were shared out among the current members. Plcs gave a better deal to the bigger customers and their justification of the "trickle down" effect has not taken place.

Why is demutualisation a matter for the Government? Is it not simply a matter of market forces in the private sector? I do not think so. There are occasions when the task of government is to promote the general good over the private interests of individuals or groups. In recent years, leaving decisions to the market has been a manifestation of that. However, there are occasions when market failures need to be put right. The markets in water and electricity are recent examples where the Government have had to become involved.

The gradual disappearance of mutuals is, I believe, another case of market failure. The market has failed, not because the mutuals are poorly managed or their time has run out, but because their rules are outdated and a small group with short-term interests—the carpet-baggers to whom my noble friend referred— can take advantage of that. If our mutuals disappear, our choice will be eliminated.

The argument for maintaining mutuals is one of choice and competition. After all, if members of mutuals have free use of the company's capital, this must give them some competitive advantage, and that should be available to their customers.

There are also social reasons for correcting this market failure. If the market economy becomes a market society, I believe that our society will change for the worse. We shall all be the losers. Almost every day now the Government have to decide where the market economy ends and where society begins. Mutuality is another such decision. And the decision should not wait long because as the assets of the mutuals increase, so the incentive for demutualisation becomes greater.

I welcome the battle waged by Standard Life and the Nationwide Building Society. I congratulate the managers on their principles. If nothing else, this is proven by the fact that in previous flotations of mutual companies the biggest beneficiaries have sometimes been the managers by virtue of the large salary increases and share option schemes which accompany the changing status.

More seriously, I welcome the sense of responsibility mutuals show in trying to look after the interests of future members. If future members do not have to pay the cost of capital, they must be better off. Some say that shareholder ownership is a spur to better management. This means the threat of hostile takeover. But these takeovers also have disadvantages. Few have created the so-called shareholder value which was promised. Many have done more harm than good. They destroy valuable relationships and the implicit contracts built up over many years. Just because this kind of damage is unrecorded by conventional accounting and so does not show up in the financial cost of takeovers does not mean that it has not happened. The competitive cost is there. I believe that that is an argument that mutuals must consider.

In view of those wider considerations, I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to indicate support for the continued existence of mutuals.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, on his Question. I look forward to the Minister's Answer.

Like the noble Lord, I must declare an interest as a Standard Life policy holder. I must also say that I am totally confused and have made a conscious decision not to vote either way in the current vote, not only because of this debate but also because I do not know which way to vote. I am in favour of mutuals. However, I do not understand the case for insurance companies as well as I do for building societies.

I was a board member of the Woolwich for some years. In those days, we took conscious decisions again and again to remain mutual. Times have moved on, and I now find myself a Woolwich shareholder. I am sorry to say that the value of the shares has gone down since they were handed out to me, which is rather disappointing. Based on my experience, I do know a little about building societies.

A point that I have made many times to Dr Davis of the Nationwide and to others who have come to speak to the Building Societies All-Party Group was raised in this debate by the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Shutt. It relates to reserves built up over many years, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. That is what is wrong with mutuality. The reserves that are held by building societies are too great. The pot of gold at the centre is what is attracting people. If the societies were giving a greater degree of benefit to their members all the time, no one would be carpet-bagging, because the pot of gold would not be there. That is the point on which the societies should take action.

I was pleased when the Nationwide Building Society recently introduced a good savings account yielding interest of 7 per cent. I have money in the Nationwide; however, I was just on the point of taking it all out. Interest rates had gone up and up, and the Nationwide's rates had hardly moved at all. It seemed to me that that was wrong.

I appreciate that no mutual can afford to offer savings at a loss, as has happened with Egg. A mutual must have adequate reserves. But there is no reason for the mutuals to build such enormous reserves that they cannot make use of them and they form nothing but an attraction, a honey-pot, a pot of gold. I give way to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. The existence of such reserves is what enables mutuals to give free use of their capital to new members.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that comment. It is true. That is why I make the point about sufficient reserves—but excessive reserves are a different matter. Some building societies have built up huge reserves, and the hand-outs have been huge when they have been disposed of.

I always remember Lord Houghton of Sowerby telling us in this Chamber how the building society movement started. I do not know whether he was referring to his father or his grandfather, but he said that a group of men got together and each put in a small amount of money until one man was able to buy a house. After that, they continued to put in small amounts, and the next man bought a house, and so on. It was a marvellous scheme, which grew into a huge success. The building society movement has provided housing for thousands, if not millions, in this country.

Mutuality should be the best approach. It is good that dividends do not have to be paid to shareholders and that shareholders' interests do not have be watched over. The point was made that mutuality constantly has to be defended. That is cause for concern. The fight to keep an organisation mutual is a huge expense in itself, and it is not good enough. I have in front of me a cutting from today's Evening Standard about a company wanting to "hand back" the water supply because it is no longer profitable. There is something wrong if people want to provide the benefits of mutuality only because it is unprofitable and unattractive. That is not good. In its hand-out, Standard Life said that it had been a company for 100 years before it became a mutual. That is an interesting history in itself.

I am typical of the many people who do not know where they stand on this issue. No one would refuse a nice little hand-out. Yet one does not want to lose the benefits and see these institutions destroyed. I am a supporter of mutuality and I should like to place that on record.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, this is a timely debate and we are indebted to my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester for introducing it. I share the thrust of his analysis and indeed that of the noble Lords, Lord Shutt and Lord Haskel. I shall also turn shortly to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner.

My central concern is that the financial services revolution is going too far and is destroying some of the best traditions of our institutions, which, as history shows, have made a unique contribution to the social dimension of our lives and to society as a whole.

This is not an occasion for specific legislative proposals. Already in the past year there has been some secondary legislation which has made modest improvements. The House of Commons produced an interesting report in July last year, as my noble friend Lord Faulkner mentioned—to which the Treasury made what might be described as a minimalist response in November.

Perhaps I may quote one sentence from the Treasury response which I should like to query. Paragraph 8 of the Treasury special report states: It would not be right to remove the right to demutualise enshrined in the 1986 Act or simply to increase the rights of those who want their society to remain mutual at the direct expense of the rights of those who wish to demutualise". My response to that is: well, yes, but I am not quite sure that we do not want a public policy bias in favour of protecting mutual and co-operative organisations. Even a level playing field is not always sufficient for some people—as Kevin Keegan's squad found the other night. In this context, we must decide what a level playing field is. The Government are asked to tell us about, the role of strong mutual companies in promoting a health and competitive market in financial services". I spent my working career as a trade union official. As John Monks recently pointed out, Britain's trade unions and mutual organisations, including, for example, building societies, share a long history. They began as friendly society functions. They were established by the underdog to protect and advance the interests of the underdog. That function is still necessary. There are underdogs in need of mutual self-help and protection. We need a public policy bias in that direction. Otherwise, in the next 20 years we shall go round reinventing the wheel. John Monks states that, Mutuals have always played a vital role in this country. They provide financial services to wide groups who are not well served by banks. They were set up to serve the community, and they still do. Their first loyalty is to their members, not their shareholders. And as they have no need to generate profits, over the long term they are guaranteed to beat any bank". One of the tests as to whether the Government are really committed to helping the underdog in this area is whether, in practice, they are making sufficient connection between social and financial exclusion and the problem of many of our inner cities, and indeed rural areas.

There is a further point which has not been made in this debate. Never was there a time when trust in people's motives in financial services was at more of a premium. In a pub the other day, I heard someone say, "Independent financial adviser? You must be joking". That is the kind of comment that is widely heard at the present time. There is a need for trust in the financial institutions. There is a need for decentralisation. I cite just two examples: when the Town and Country Building Society closed its head office, that had a major effect on Clacton; when the Gateway closed, the impact was felt in Worthing.

That kind of philosophy must he contrasted with the role of the carpet-bagger in investing a small amount of money in a mutual and then forcing it to distribute the assets. I echo what has been said about Standard Life. In the past few days I have heard it said on two occasions on the BBC that "today is the last chance for people to vote to get £6,000". We really must be careful about the media projection of some of these issues.

I could say much more but time does not permit. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will give us a rather philosophical overview of where we are going in this field.

8.19 p.m.

Lord Joffe

My Lords, I, too, am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, has raised this important issue, and I support the powerful case that he has made for the Government to take action. At the outset, I declare an interest as a policyholder of Standard Life.

The issue has two dimensions: first, a moral dimension; and, secondly, one of competition. It is unusual to concern oneself with morality in financial matters. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, outlined, mutual organisations were set up for the benefit of their members and not for profit. Therefore, in my submission morality plays a very important part.

The effect of demutualisation is simply that current members will appropriate for their own benefit the reserves created by previous generations of members. It could not possibly have been contemplated by those previous generations that that would happen to the reserves that they had a part in building. In so doing, the current members are depriving future generations of the benefits of mutualisation. They are also imposing additional expenses on future generations. Therefore, although it is perfectly legal, it is certainly not particularly moral. On the question of morality, it is also relevant to applaud the integrity of the managements of Standard Life and of the Nationwide, who, against their personal interests, support the continuation of mutualisation and the purpose for which the organisations were set up.

I turn to the matter of competition. By and large, the products of good mutuals must be better than the products of good profit-making organisations. That is for the simple enough reason that there is no profit loading. The result of demutualisation is that consumers must pay more for the same products. In my view, it is the interests of consumers that are paramount in relation to the competition aspects. If consumers have to pay more because there is no competition from the most efficient organisations in the field, it is self-evident that government should intervene to protect them from unnecessarily high charges. Government should at least take action to ensure that the most competitive organisations do not disappear.

It is relevant to consider the action taken by government thus far in relation to mergers and monopolies. If, for example, Prudential and Standard Life decided to merge, there is every possibility that the Government would say that that was contrary to the interests of consumers because it created a monopoly situation and distorted the market and, as a result, consumers would be overcharged in the future. Yet, if Standard Life demutualises, competition will disappear and, again, consumers will be prejudiced. I shall be interested to know whether the Minister can provide the rationale for the protection given to consumers as a result of mergers and monopolies legislation and the lack of protection which exists currently in relation to consumers who suffer from the effects of demutualisation.

We know how easy it is for the current members of mutual organisations to be bribed to give up the benefits of mutualisation without regard to the future. We know how easily they overlook the fact that it may not be in their best interests from the long-term point of view. Because of that, if the Government consider that there is a role for strong mutual companies in promoting a healthy and competitive market, they had best take action soon because after the next three or four years there will be no strong mutuals to protect.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Faulkner, not only on initiating the debate but on doing a first-class job in exposing the issues both for and against. In effect, this debate is a defence of the mutual principle. I applaud the principle of mutuality. The concept of "all for one and each for all" appeals to my political background and is the bedrock of a great deal of good.

In practical terms, the benefits of mutuality have been sketched ably by my noble friend Lord Faulkner. I welcome the opportunity to restate the value of mutualisation and to plead with the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, tellingly told us that the stable door has almost been bolted. However, the stable door was opened by a government not of my political persuasion and for very good reasons. Their political philosophy saw the great opportunity that existed in the locked-in assets of building and insurance societies.

My background is the Co-operative movement. In 1844, when the Rochdale pioneers began their sterling work, they produced, with the trade unions, the friendly societies and a great many others, the concept of helping each other. The great stakeholder was the member. I am delighted at the emphasis that has been placed by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on the value of member and consumer participation.

It is only a few years since a predator decided that the Co-operative movement, through the CWS, which was the central federal organisation, was ripe for a takeover. It is due only to a vigorous defence of the CWS, the Co-op and the mutual idea, led by my noble friend Lord Fyfe, the chairman of the CWS, and by its chief executive, Graham Melmoth, that the Cooperative movement is as healthy today as it was then. These attacks come and they will go. We must acknowledge that the jungle in which we walk and try to survive has had predators for a very long time. The principle of "dog eat dog" is well established.

In my view, it is terrible that the appeal to greed and avarice which has been launched in the past few years has found a resonance among so many people. I believe that it is immoral that the assets and prizes, which could have been distributed but which have been kept in the business to make it stronger, are now seen by the present generation as its entitlement. The Co-operative movement is no different. The asset base of the movement substantially comprised the untapped dividends of the members. The members left their dividends in place. Quite frankly, I believe that we should recognise that what we are seeing now could lead to something worse.

However, it is not the end of the world. Reference has been made to Standard Life, and I wish its directors well. Hitherto, the motivating force for demutualisation has been the directors of the companies who stood to gain the greatest benefit. They knew that once the companies demutualised, there were rich pickings. The first fat cats in our society were the directors of demutualised businesses.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, makes a valid point that the retention of assets can be taken too far, but I would much rather have them prudently managed in that way, particularly if members are being looked after by better terms.

The Minister can do the House a service. The stable door has not been bolted completely. There is still a battle to be fought and won. The Co-operative movement has 8 million members and 30 or 40 big regional co-operatives. They will resist any such move this time, next time and whenever it comes. The Co-op will fight, fight and fight again to retain the principles on which it was established.

The last time that I spoke in a debate on this subject was the day that the Link building societies put forward a scheme to attach excessive charges to hole-in-the-wall machines. I got my debate on an important day, just as my noble friend, Lord Faulkner, was lucky to get this debate tonight. The battle is worth fighting, so I congratulate my noble friend on giving us the opportunity to put in our two pennyworth.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Northbrook

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, on securing this debate. Like other noble Lords, I should declare my interests, first as an investment manager investing in quoted UK life, banking and building society companies, among other UK plcs, and, secondly, as a holder of mutual and non-mutual insurance policies.

I take as my starting point a helpful comment by the Minister. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, said, on 18th April, in response to a question from my noble friend, Lady Knight of Collingtree, the Minister advised the House that, The Government's view is that a variety of different kinds of governance in the insurance industry"— which I assume that we can read as the financial services industry more generally— is a good thing. Therefore there is a place for both mutual companies and for shareholder-owned companies".—[Official Report, 19/4/00; col. 703.] That makes sense and is important. As Charles Leadbeater, writing in the Guardian a year or so ago, put it: Putting all our organisational eggs into a single basket threatens disaster. We need a healthy ecology of competing organisations and that requires a variety of forms—traditional companies, partnerships, mutuals, co-operatives, social enterprises—to choose from". At least in part, that is the appropriate answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, about the role of strong mutual companies in producing a healthy and competitive market in financial services. We support that. It underlies the point that while, according to the Financial Times, The 'mutual vs plc' argument is sexy—and easy to write about", it is far too simplistic to perceive the issue merely in those terms. The merits of both sides of the argument are well rehearsed. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and others have enunciated them again tonight most eloquently and I do not need to labour them. However, it is too easy for the debate to become polarised. It is right for the adherents of each side to fight their respective corners, but we have to bear in mind that if competition is to be enhanced and diversity maintained, it is in the interests of the industry and the consumer that mutuals and plcs—and other organisational forms—should co-exist.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of mutual companies? A well run mutual life company, for example, has certain key advantages over its quoted public rivals. It does not have to pay a dividend, and therefore will have more of its surplus to pay out to policy holders. It does not have a share price to be concerned about, and therefore can be less concerned about short-term fluctuations in profit. The mutuals can also make use of a strong local identity to promote themselves.

However, mutuals can have disadvantages. First, due to their size, many may not be able to compete in the long term with their larger quoted brethren. That can be a particular problem in the mortgage market where the size of the market leaders, such as the Abbey National, the Halifax, the Cheltenham and Gloucester and the Woolwich, can lead to greater competition in the setting of rates which the smaller companies may not be able to match over a long period.

Secondly, because of their structure, mutuals can be less able to react to problems within the company, such as additional competition or poor investment performance. Whereas the stimulus of outside shareholders can force change for quoted companies, there is no such mechanism for the mutuals under their existing status.

Some commentators argue that the greatest threat to the survival of mutuals is the management deciding to change to plc status rather than the investors in the company's products.

In summary, neither type of organisation is intrinsically better or worse than the other. What really matters is that the best run of each brings its own benefits to the needs of financial services product consumers.

8.36 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend, Lord Faulkner, on introducing this timely debate. I have scored the debate at six in favour and two don't knows. I have counted the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, as don't knows.

I have been asked by my noble friend, Lord Lea, to give a philosophical overview. I do not think that I shall be able to do that in the 10 minutes at my disposal, particularly as I have to start by declaring an interest, as others have, as a policy holder of Sun Life of Canada and Scottish Widows, both of which have recently demutualised against my vote. That is my starting point.

Let me start with building societies, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, did, remembering a dear friend, Douglas Houghton. Most of the building societies started with as few as 10 friends putting money aside and using the funds to buy one house, then buying more for other members in turn. They dissolved when they had achieved their objectives. A century ago, there were 2,000 of them. Now mergers—-a much more significant phenomenon in a sense than demutualisation—mean that there are only 68, of which only nine have converted to plc status. I agree that those nine are among the biggest.

The first legislation for building societies was enacted in 1874. The Building Societies Act 1986 was the first substantial revision of it.

Building societies work on a one-member, one-vote basis. The board is elected by the members to act in their interests. Only the board can propose conversion to or takeover by a plc bank. A vote requires 75 per cent. of saving members on a 50 per cent. turnout and a simple majority of borrowing members. Borrowing members have a veto, regardless of the strength of support among saving members. Those are rightly high thresholds for change.

Despite those high thresholds, when boards have proposed conversion, the votes in favour have frequently been in excess of 95 per cent. on a 75 per cent. turnout. In 1997, the Halifax, the Alliance and Leicester, the Woolwich and Northern Rock got 98 per cent. votes in favour. That is quite a facer for those who want higher thresholds still.

I shall not go into the history of insurance societies, except to say that mutuals and non-mutuals both have long traditions. Demutualisation has happened not only in the United Kingdom but also in Canada and Australia, and it is not one-way traffic. This year, the Royal London took over United Assurance, which is a plc, and as we have been reminded, Standard Life was a shareholder company for 100 years until it mutualised in 1925.

There are over 100 mutual insurance companies. Many are small; for example, provident and mutual health insurance specialists. Most mutuals are general insurance businesses and demutualisation is focused largely on large life mutuals. But even there, some significant players such as the National Farmers Union and Wesleyan Assurance are still mutual companies.

As for the procedures for the demutualisation of insurance companies, there is no legislation governing voting because many are mutuals registered under private Acts. So the business and commitments have to he transferred to a company limited by shares created for the purpose.

The Insurance Companies Act 1982 sets the framework for that and the regulator, the Treasury—in practice, the Financial Services Authority—has a say in the way in which that is done. Those who believe that they may be adversely affected may make representations to the court.

A number of noble Lords, notably my noble friend Lord Faulkner and the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, have said that other things being equal, mutuals should have an advantage. Indeed, that should be the case. But it is very difficult to prove that. One can almost always find figures to prove either case. Past performance may not be a guide to the future, as it always says in the small print in the advertisements. Payout performance data on policies that run their full term are unhelpful if many are terminated or surrendered early. One can make comparisons between different forms of policy, on the length of policy, on surrender values and on termination values. Those are too complicated from which to draw simple conclusions about which is better. Some companies may be building reserves which may restrict pay-outs. Are they performing less well? It is extremely difficult to say.

On the one side is the theory that, as a company owned by shareholders, management will be driven to perform better. On the other side there is the undoubted fact that mutuals do not pay dividends to external shareholders. However, there is not enough empirical evidence yet, if there ever will be, to test either theory.

Reference has been made to the Treasury Committee report last year which proposed a number of primary legislation changes: aligning the voting thresholds for borrowing members with saving members; applying the same thresholds on members' resolutions proposing conversion; preventing members of less than two years' standing from receiving a share distribution on conversion.

The Government's view is that although, of course, we believe that variety in the market-place is healthy, there are difficulties with the Treasury Committee's view. We must remind the House that borrowers have a veto although they have only one-seventh of the membership. So against the principle of one-member, one-vote, they already have more than their natural share of voting power. When we are looking at the interests of consumers, borrowers, the policyholders, are the consumers for those societies. Experience shows that borrowers vote in the same way as saving members. That may not be a pleasant thought but that is the truth of the matter.

I remind the House that members' resolutions do not have any statutory force. It is the board which must act and the members cannot require the board to do so. Those votes are effectively opinion polls. Imposing voting thresholds does not make any difference to the strength of members' views.

I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, said about charities. All large societies have charitable assignment schemes in place. I heard what has been said about the two-year rule. But that would mean that only longstanding members, rather than charities, would receive windfalls and that would not affect the voting. When Lloyds took over the Cheltenham & Gloucester, the two-year rule applied and 95 per cent voted for demutualisation on an 84 per cent turn-out.

Of course, we recognise the intergenerational equity issue. We believe that the boards should take account of future customers; that is, potential policyholders. In the case of insurance companies, the regulator must have regard to the ability of the business to fulfil reasonably expectations of policyholders and potential policyholders.

We have taken action ourselves. We increased the turn-out threshold on conversion votes in 1977 and we have encouraged the Building Societies Commission to increase the number of backers required to nominate board candidates, propose members' resolutions and requisition general meetings.

The Question on the Order Paper asks the Government what they consider to be the role of strong mutual companies in promoting a healthy and competitive market in financial services. Obviously we consider that role to be important. We agree with the thrust of the Question. The subtext is whether we are going to do anything else to prevent demutualisation. I have explained what we have done to make demutualisation more difficult. The problem we have is that the pressure for conversion comes from the members. If we were to support proposals for legislative change, we should risk destroying the very essence of mutuality in an attempt to protect it.

High hurdles are in place before institutions can convert. But in the end, the only way for societies to ensure their own future is to convince their members of the benefits which mutuality can bring. Many societies are doing so through the rates and returns they offer and the quality of service they provide. In the end, the future of those societies is in their own hands, and that is the way it should be.