Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is a senior adviser at HSBC and chair of the cross-party Financial Inclusion Commission.
Financial inclusion has long been an issue that’s fascinated me. Making sure every individual, every firm (however small), has access to the mainstream financial system for the products they need at a time and a price that works for all parties.
During my 30 years in the Foreign Office, I saw up close, in the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, the importance of including all economic actors – whether people or businesses - in the regular, and therefore regulated, financial system. Financial inclusion promotes prosperity, and underpins stability. It enables regulators and law enforcement agencies to monitor a broader range of financial transactions, thereby helping to deter and detect crime.
In mid-2014 I was asked by Chris Pond, the former Pensions Minister, if I would be prepared to chair a new cross-party Financial Inclusion Commission to take stock of the state of financial inclusion in the UK. I’ve been delighted to lead a hugely knowledgeable and experienced set of Commissioners with backgrounds spanning politics, the financial services industry, academia and the third sector - with support provided by MasterCard.
The Commission’s work has been a fascinating and, at times, disturbing journey to understand the state of financial exclusion in the United Kingdom. We found it shocking that, in a developed and wealthy country such as Britain, nearly two million adult Britons didn’t have a bank account – more than half of them because they had once had one, and didn’t want to repeat the experience.
The Commission’s report, published in March 2015, acknowledged that the United Kingdom leads the world in financial services. But too many people are excluded from, or are unable to engage with, the financial services essential to playing a full part in society: to manage money, to absorb financial shocks, and to plan and provide for the future.
A recent milestone was the Financial Inclusion Conference (‘The Next Move Forward’), which took place in January. It was the first major gathering of those interested in financial inclusion since winding up of the Financial Inclusion Taskforce, led by Sir Brian Pomeroy. I welcomed the chance to play my part in putting the issue back on the public policy agenda.
Over the last decade, much has been done to make Britain a more financially inclusive society. But the Commission heard from witnesses around the country that there was much still to do. The Commission called for every adult to be connected to the financial system, with access to affordable credit, savings products and the right insurance cover.
We were delighted that the three main UK political parties included promoting financial inclusion in their manifestos for the last election. The Commission is now working with the new government, regulators and all the other actors in the financial inclusion space to build on the progress made in the last ten year.
Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that the Commission’s report is being translated into Chinese. In China, India, Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, as well as the United States, promoting financial inclusion is at the top of the public policy agenda. But that will have to be the subject of another blog post…