Chris was delighted to give the keynote speech on financial inclusion at a major Fintech conference that kicked off Fintech week in London in April. As a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Financial Exclusion, the full findings and report of which were published just two weeks earlier, Chris was pleased to have the opportunity to pull together themes from this work and his work in fintech. Chris highlighted the terrible cost and persistent nature of financial exclusion by asking why those who have the least, pay the most. He pointed out that in the UK there are currently 1.7 million people without a bank account and 40% of people without £100 in savings. Recommendations from the Lords report include introducing financial literacy at school, expanding the remit of the Financial Conduct Authority to include financial inclusion and creating a Cabinet Minister with direct responsibility for financial inclusion. Chris also celebrated the possibility of technology to offer solutions to some of our trickiest problems, not least the issue of financial inclusion. Chris reminded the audience that technology in-and-of-itself is neutral and the key is to ask always how will the enable, empower and include? On the same stage that morning Tim Berners-Lee had spoken about the need to think about the effect on society in a highly connected, networked world and Chris followed on from this by touching on the need for greater understanding and ownership around resources, identity and data stating that it’s your data, your choices and your permissions. His emphasis on the potential and possibility of technology to solve problems was again clear when he finished by asking everyone to imagine the power of fintech in its totality.
Chris took part in a session on aspects of trust in sport in major HR conference; Changeboard’s Future Talent 2017. Chris spoke on the importance of trusting different people, urging that it’s time to take an inclusive approach for innovation and that companies need to become diverse or die. Chris argued that flat structures and leadership teams that lead by example, by “delivering on a promise”, are creating the right environment for trust to flourish. He recalled moments from his own life when he had to trust in others, including his guide dog Lottie and stressed that trust is about relationships and being prepared to be vulnerable. As Chris says, “It’s not easy but it is essential.” Other speakers in the session were Dame Katherine Grainger and Sir Clive Woodward who spoke about trusting yourself and teamship and collaboration. There was positive feedback during the session and Dr Alan Watkins, chairing the discussion, drew out these lessons on trust from the world of sport and explored how they would apply to corporate leaders and organisations. The future of talent is important because the world is increasingly complex. The only way out is up. By upgrading our human operating systems.
Today I’ll be asking the government what they have learnt from an ongoing trial in which benefits are paid to people via a system using blockchain (or distributed ledger) technology. A blockchain is an asset database that can be shared across several networks, and the trial – run by fintech company GovCoin and researchers at University College London – pays participants through an app on their smart phone which connects them to various services.
I passionately believe in the potential for technology to transform our lives for the better and think it essential that both government and society start from the point of a considered can, rather than a fearful can’t. I hope that learning more about the Govcoin trial will help us all understand, and be part of, the changes that are coming. I also believe the government needs to look wider than the Department for Work and Pensions for applications of this technology; across Whitehall and the whole public sector and also seriously consider the move from proof of concept to pilot to scale.
Advances in technology can absolutely be about empowering, enabling and creating closer more effective relationships. Distributed ledger techonology, if applied properly by seriously addressing issues of privacy, security, identity and trust, can offer incredible benefits to us all, including, but not limited to, reduced costs for government (and taxpayer) and better services for individuals.
As a member of the Lords Committee on Financial Exclusion our report, published this weekend, found that more than 1.7m people in the UK do not have a bank account, further estimates suggest at least 600,000 older people are financially excluded. A combination of distributed ledger technology and developments such as the Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) could lead to greater financial inclusion of people currently on the fringes of the financial system. These are serious and tangible benefits.
Another significant area of potential is the transformation of the relationship between government agencies and citizens. Greater transparency and trust should lead to a more equal, connected and far closer relationship. But this will not happen as a matter of course and there needs to be a principles-based, appropriate framework that is underpinned by an understanding of the philosophical, psychological and legal issues at play.
The best way for the government to move ahead with the work is to adopt clear, honest communication with the public. There must be clarity about what the government is trying to do and how to get there – and crucially how it’s a joint endeavour. This means a further shift towards user-centric service design and co-production that sees people as active parties, rather than passive recipients. People must understand the value of their data and have ownership of it. The Digital Economy Bill, currently making its way through parliament, offers a start in dealing with some of these questions and considerations but lacks ambition and has provoked understandable concerns regarding privacy and data sharing powers.
The House of Lords Select Committee into Financial Exclusion, of which Chris is a member, published their report “Tackling financial exclusion: A country that works for everyone?” on 25th March. The report calls on the Government, the Financial Conduct Authority and banks to give greater priority to tackling financial exclusion.
While the UK has a world class financial services sector, it is failing those customers who need it most. The Committee heard that more than 1.7m people in the UK do not have a bank account, and that 40% of the working age population had less than £100 in savings. Estimates suggest at least 600,000 older people are financially excluded, while 51% of 18 to 24 year olds regularly worry about money.
The report says the Government should show its commitment to addressing this issue by broadening the remit of the FCA to give priority to tackling financial exclusion, and working with the FCA to establish new rules requiring banks to have a duty of care towards their customers. This would strengthen the protection offered to customers and reduce the potential for unfair practices.
The Government should also appoint a Minister for Financial Inclusion and report annually to Parliament on progress made toward addressing financial exclusion.
The report highlights that regulation has proved to be effective in tackling abusive practices by pay day loan companies since the Government asked the FCA to cap interest rates. The Committee recommends that similar restrictions should be introduced for other forms of high cost credit. The Committee calls for urgent action to introduce new controls on ‘rent to own’ products and unarranged overdraft fees.
Better financial literacy is identified by the Committee as a key priority for reducing financial exclusion. To achieve this the report says financial education should be introduced to the English primary school curriculum and that Ofsted should assess the extent to which schools provide young people with the necessary financial knowledge and skills.
The Committee also considered the relationship between disability, mental health issues and financial exclusion. It calls on the Government, the FCA and the British Bankers Association to carry out a review of reasonable adjustments for disabled customers and to publish that review within 18 months. The Committee points out that banks are required by law to make reasonable adjustments when communicating with disabled customers but do not appear to be doing so.
The report also identifies the accelerating trend for banks to focus on online services at the expense of their branch network as potentially excluding older people and others who lack access to the internet – 53% of UK bank branches closed down between 1989 and 2016. The Post Office now has more physical outlets than all the high street banks combined, and can offer banking services for 99% of current account customers in the UK, although awareness of this service is very low at present. The Committee calls for the banks and Government to fund a major publicity campaign to address this, and to help the Post Office provide services to those customers who have lost their local bank branch.
The Committee also considered the impact of Universal Credit on financial exclusion and highlighted the six-week gap between claiming Universal Credit and receiving the first payment as a period during which people were at risk of taking on unaffordable debt or falling into arrears. To tackle this the Committee recommends the Government abolish the seven-day wait before a claimant becomes entitled to Universal Credit, and also that it should allow more flexibility about whether payments are made monthly or more frequently. This flexibility is already in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Pocklington Trust is a UK charity providing housing, care and support services for people with sight loss
Obviously the Brexit Bill is the one that’s getting all the attention at the moment, but another Bill currently making its way through Parliament is the Higher Education and Research Bill. Last night the Lords voted on an amendment to that Bill that, if accepted by the Government, would be a great benefit to our country and would preserve our long history and clear leadership in offering a first class education and warm welcome to international students. The amendment was tabled by diplomat Lord Hannay and would ensure that international students are not treated as migrants. I believe this is essential to reassure any potential foreign students that they are welcome and to reverse the worrying decline of recent years; figures for non-EU students are down by between 2% and 8% and the number of students from India is down by a half. The Prime Minister of India, Mr Modi, said of the UK; “you want our trade, you don’t want our children”. If that is the impression being received in India and other nations around the world, how can we possibly expect to attract the brightest and the best to come to study in the United Kingdom? That is what we need and want. Our doors and our arms should be wide open to the brightest and the best to come to study here because there is no downside to that. This is not an argument about migration, or about government targets to net migration – that is a conversation for another day – and in any case changing the way students are classified will have little effect on the Government’s ability to control medium to long-term net migration. This is about recognizing and promoting the significant benefits international students contribute to the UK in terms of education, soft power and cold hard cash. Many universities are able to subsidize their outstanding facilities through the income received by international student fees, but, I believe, the benefit to our educational establishments extends beyond the financial to the whole character, quality and calibre of the university. The soft power argument is perhaps most strikingly made by the fact that 55 current heads of state benefitted from an education in the UK, the value of these interactions and relationships, again, cannot be measured in financial terms but is surely significant. Finally, looking at what can be measured, a report from the University of Birmingham found that just eight additional international undergraduate students would add £1m to the economy. At a time of uncertainty in what precisely our global future will look like this is a powerful message I hope the Govt will be prepared to send.
Chris is delighted to be Co-Chair of a new All Party Parliamentary Group on assistive technology. The group aims to disseminate knowledge, generate debate and facilitate engagement and a greater understanding of assistive technology amongst members of parliament. The group is supported by a number of organizations ranging from academic institutions to manufacturers of assistive technology and disability charities. On the day of the launch a group of key stakeholders met to discuss aims and objectives. One key issue raised was the unacceptably high disability employment gap (40% of disabled people are unemployed compared to 5% of non-disabled population) and the role assistive technology can play in providing solutions. Questions were also raised over what was perceived as limited dialogue between the industry and government, and departments with government, it is hoped that this group will help address this communication and understanding gap and lead to far greater access to assistive technology for far more people. The group had invited Hannah Rose to share her experiences of using assistive technology after she was paralyzed from the neck down at the age of fifteen. Thanks to various products including mobility aids, environmental controls (allowing her to turn off the lights and switch TV channel independently) and drag and dictate software (allowing her to use a computer) she enjoys a significant degree of autonomy and loves her job at Cheshire Police HQ – she jokes about how difficult it was to convince officers that she had found a job when she was trying to sign off incapacity benefits. Access to employment is important but assistive technology is not only about jobs. It is about enabling people in a far broader sense, to live independent and fulfilling lives. It is about finding and making available the tools that allow people to overcome barriers and Chris relishes the challenge of working with the group to make sure that happens.