Charles Kennedy – 2001 Speech to the Financial Markets Association

charleskennedy

Below is the text of the speech made by Charles Kennedy, the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, in London on 23 January 2001.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted to be here this evening.

I’d like to begin by thanking Hugh Macdonald and Martin Ely

for inviting me to meet you all.

The former Conservative Chancellor

Nigel Lawson once famously called ACI UK

“a bunch of City scribblers”.

Diplomacy was never really his strong point.

I can assure you that I have a higher opinion of your organisation

and look forward to talking to many of you later to hear your views.

London remains the largest financial centre in the world

accounting for almost one third of global currency business.

As such issues that affect that City and those who work in it

are of great importance to politicians of all parties

and naturally to government, let me be clear from the outset.

I want the City of London and the UK financial services industry

to be the global leader. Government should do all that it can

to enable you to do this.

At home that means competitive taxes, consistent policy, and sensible regulation.

In Europe – completing the Single Market,

winning for the City of London

and getting the economy right for Euro entry.

In the world, opening up the market for financial services.

Where regulators need to be tough they should be,

with the full support of politicians.

Tough because reputation and confidence

The most important ingredient for a healthy economy,

I believe, is financial stability.

That is why the Liberal Democrats entered the last election campaign

advocating independence for the Bank of England.

We were delighted that the Government chose to adopt our policy

which has proved to be very successful.

No decision has done more to end boom and bust economics.

However, the other chief ingredient in economic stability is

exchange rate stability.

On this, the Government has failed.

Prolonged over-valuation of sterling

has done a great deal of harm

to certain sectors of the UK economy.

Which is why the Liberal Democrats

advocate membership of a successful Single Currency

at an appropriate exchange rate

subject to the consent of the British people.

Last May, my party set up a commission,

chaired by Chris Huhne MEP,

whose members included such people as

Willem Buiter of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee,

and a variety of other distinguished

City practitioners and economists,

to advise on those measures Britain needs to take

in order to join the Euro-zone successfully.

Their report was published in September.

Yet, almost five months later the Government

still has not taken a lead on this issue.

My Party welcomed the step forward

that was taken in financial regulation

in the City in the last few years.

We have a high personal regard for Howard Davies

and believe the concept of the FSA is the right one.

Whilst regulation must never be over-bearing

we have always believed that the FSA

must take full account of the need

for proper consumer protection

in the job that they do.

In this respect,

regulators need

to be prepared, on occasion, to be tough to ensure that

And that means there should be no hiding place

for those who have mis-sold pensions,

failed to deliver on endowment mortgages

or closed rural bank branches.

Economic efficiency and social justice can, and must,

go hand in hand.

Before moving on to the main theme of my speech

I want to take a moment to

make some points on two specific regulatory issues

of which you will no doubt be aware

and which are of great importance to financial service institutions

as well as to politicians both as public policy makers

and as representatives of our constituents’ interests.

The first is the recent AXA deal on disposing

of its ‘orphan assets’,

And the second is the plight of Equitable Life

whose many policyholders

may suffer some heavy losses

as a result of the company’s difficulties.

Both of these issues are linked,

in my mind,

by the role of the FSA in regulating each company.

And they have implications

for the job that the FSA is doing more widely.

The recent controversy over the AXA deal on ‘orphan assets’

and particularly the role of the FSA

in giving it the green light to that deal

is a source of great concern to me and has been much commented on.

We have great sympathy with the Consumer Association

in the action that they took on behalf of consumers.

Government ministers

seemed to indicate a few years ago

that ‘orphan assets’ belonged to policyholders

in a ratio of 9 to 1.

Yet now, the AXA case would now seem to imply

that this principle has been undermined.

Previously I had understood

that ‘orphan assets’ were to be allocated

according to the ‘90% rule’

whereby nine tenths of the value of those assets

is given over to policyholders.

In the AXA case, the figure is much closer to a mere one-third.

This case is particularly important not only because it affects

the 660,000 with-profits policy holders

who are disputing the £1.68 billion worth of AXA ‘orphan assets’

but also because it has implications for those

with a potential claim on the £20 – 30 billion worth

of unallocated ‘orphan assets’ in other insurance companies.

Many thousands of people

throughout the country could be affected.

How to best dispose of ‘orphan assets’

is a source of some debate I acknowledge,

but I am not at all convinced that the regulator should have agreed

to in effect transfer well- over £1 billion

from AXA policyholders to AXA shareholders.

And I’m not at all convinced that the regulator should have agreed

to a ballot where AXA policyholders

were asked to agree a deal on the basis of

a ‘take it or leave it’ cash offer.

in which only those who voted in favour of that deal

would actually be entitled to the cash.

This is rather like Gordon Brown giving pension increases

only to those pensioners who voted Labour.

Ballots – whether of AXA policyholders, trade unionists or Florida electors – must not be open to question.but at first sight the outcome of the AXA case would seem

to contradict the Government’s intentions.

Moreover, the FSA’s stance throws doubt

on its willingness to defend the consumer interest.

This is not the only issue

in which the role of the FSA has been controversial.

The Equitable Life case is a cause of enormous concern too.

I appreciate that Equitable Life is not insolvent,

but it is in severe financial difficulties.

Many policyholders could suffer losses,

or returns below reasonable expectations.

There has clearly been a serious failure by management,

by the FSA, and quite possibly by the DTI at an earlier stage

which has allowed the situation to develop

into the crisis we see now.

Last year, Vincent Cable MP,

the Liberal Democrat Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary,

called on the Chancellor of the Exchequer

to instigate an immediate independent assessment

into possible regulatory failure by the FSA in this case

which could lead to compensation for any investors

who have been misled.

he Government has acknowledged

that the FSA has a case to answer

but responded to this by announcing

that the FSA itself would be charged with investigating

its own performance as regulator.

This is simply not good enough.

In both the AXA ‘orphan assets’ decision,

and the Equitable Life case,

the performance of the FSA as regulator

would seem to have been inadequate at best.

Many people would call it incompetent

The FSA was set up

to be champion of the consumers interests –

it should be just that.

London cannot afford a ‘paper tiger’.

It is time for the Government to

force the FSA to be more rigorous

and to take its share of responsibility

for any mistakes that have been made.

Investors and the wider public

must have confidence that it is doing its job on their behalf.

The City of London must not be over-regulated,

but must be regulated in a way also needs to must be regulated

in a proper way

so that protects and enhances London’s

excellent reputation

around the globe is maintained.

The reputation of politicians on the other hand

is probably beyond redemption.

You may be surprised to hear someone like me say that,

but I am genuinely concerned that

the public’s perception of politics

and the political class

is at an all time low.

You may have seen some press speculation recently

about the probable date of the next General Election.

Indeed, the media have

reported that an unofficial election campaign

by the three main parties is already underway.

Given that the likely date of the General Election

is the 3rd of May

I am truly depressed that the electoral “Phoney War”

seems to have begun

almost four months before anyone

is likely to walk into a polling booth.

And I am particularly angry because

this is exactly the kind of behaviour

that is putting more and more people off voting

and off participating in the electoral process.

At the last round of local elections in May 2000

voter turn-out in some parts of the country

was as low as ten per cent.

That is an horrendous figure to anyone

who cares about inclusive politics.

I am deeply, deeply worried by it.

And the other two parties are already engaging

in the usual pre-election Dutch auction

over tax and spending –

pretending that you can magically tax people

less and less

and yet spend more and more

on the things that people care about.

The public know that you don’t get

something for nothing.

This kind of debate

with both other parties striving

to reach the lowest common denominator

does a great deal to turn the public off politics

and create cynicism about the promises of politicians.

I fully intend that the Liberal Democrats will enter

into the forthcoming election battle

as the only major political party

who are prepared to be honest with people

about the cost of investing properly

in our public services:

in schools, in hospitals, in pensions and in the police.

This debate should not be characterised simply as “tax and spend”.

All Governments raise taxes

in order to spend the revenue they bring.

I want the debate to focus on

what we as a nation see as our priorities

for investing in public services

based on how we as a nation are prepared to fund them.

I believe that the British people

do want to see investment in public services in this country.

A country in which the NHS

provides decent care for all, free at the point of delivery.

A country in which schools are properly funded

and teachers properly valued.

A country in which older people share fairly in increasing prosperity.

And a country in which all in society feel free from the fear of crime.

And that investment is funded by all of us

through the tax system.

That is why I will enter the forthcoming election

promising honesty in taxation.

Telling people exactly how we would invest their money

in the services which they use,

and from which they may benefit.

In an age of political cynicism

one of the ways that these and many other policies

could best be discussed

in front of as wide an audience as possible

would have been through a debate

between the three main UK party leaders

during the election campaign itself.

As you may know, the BBC and ITV

approached Tony Blair, William Hague and myself

with a set of non-negotiable proposals

for two debates to take place between us during the

final two weeks of the General Election campaign.

I have long believed that in a television age such debates

would be an important addition to the democratic process

allowing the public to see the Party Leaders debating

outside of the juvenile environment of Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Because of this I have agreed to the broadcasters’ proposals for a debate.

William Hague has agreed also.

Unfortunately, as you may have seen in the papers,

Tony Blair has refused to take part,

arguing that the British people are not electing a President

but rather individual MPs.

This is true, and I do not want British electoral campaigns

or British politics

to become presidential in nature.

Well, I accept it is always good to see a sinner repenting.

But only a Labour spin doctor could argue

that the farce of Prime Ministers Questions

is a substitute for a serious leaders’ debate.

Mind you self-evidently debates are dangerous.

So dangerous that they have had them in the United States since 1960.

Canada since 1962.

Germany since 1969.

Holland since 1977.

Australia and New Zealand since 1984.

And South Africa since 1994.

Dangerous?

No, Tony it’s called democracy.

But I do believe that Leader’s debates

would have done a great deal to re-engage

and hopefully re-enthuse the public

ahead of election day.

And now that these debates will not take place

I think Tony Blair must be prepared

to accept much of the blame if

voter turn-out is down again at this election.

By shying-away from debating with William Hague and myself

he is doing the country and the electoral process

a great disservice.

Nevertheless, it would be unfortunate if

arguments over the Leader’s debates

to detract from the issues that will be

crucial in the forthcoming election campaign.

Because there are real reasons

why the next General Election

should concentrate on issues of greater importance

to the British people

and to the future direction of our country.

The Liberal Democrats will enter that election promising

further targeted investment in our public services.

Honesty and openness in taxation.

More decentralisation away from Westminster and Whitehall

to the nations and regions of Britain.

A sensible relationship with our European partners

with whom we, as a nation, do so much of our trade –

not least in the financial services sector.

For the Liberal Democrats 2000 was a very successful year.

In May we recorded 28% of the vote in the local elections,

the highest share of the vote

we have ever received in a national election

which enabled us to capture

previous Labour strongholds like Oldham.

And on the same night we captured

what had previously been the safe Tory parliamentary seat of Romsey

in a Westminster by-election.

I want to translate those results

into further success at the polls this year.

There is every chance for my party to do so.

Liberal Democrats are already in national government

in Scotland and Wales.

We are already in local government in town halls

up and down the United Kingdom.

We will be fighting this election hard.

I intend for my Party to take more votes and more seats

from both Labour and the Conservatives.

No-one should expect us to do any other.