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No, Prime Minister

The Opposition has been particularly aggressive in recent weeks in its attacks over the Government&#39s position on the future of financial services.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have provoked vigorous debate in both Houses over contentious issues such as the stakeholder pension regulations and the authority of the FSA.

It is the responsibility of the Opposition to question the Government over its policy agenda but what is the purpose of this debate? Is it just political posturing leading up to the next general election or is the Opposition intent on forcing the Government to change these areas of policy?

Perhaps more important is the question of whether it can force the Government to lis-ten to its concerns. Given the massive majority that New Labour enjoys in the House of Commons, it can push through virtually any piece of legislation no matter how determined the Opposition.

Realistically, the Opposition cannot force the Government to abandon its agenda. What it can do is raise public awareness and knowledge over the Government&#39s actions.

It can debate matters, raise concerns and propose alternative solutions. Many political commentators agree that while in other areas the Opposition has only got its act together in the last month, in financial services it has been consistent throughout Labour&#39s mandate.

It seems at times the Government has been willing to put aside political differences and accept there are people on the Opposition benches who have extensive backgrounds in financial services.

One political pundit says: “The Government knows in its heart its backbenchers do not have the same depth and experience as the Conservatives. It has to listen to those who know about financial matters.”

By some estimates there are 20 to 30 Tory backbenchers who have spent almost their entire careers in financial services. Labour can only boast two or three similar experts at best.

Quite often, the financial or social security spokesperson for the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats will table an amendment to a Bill. They know the likelihood of that amendment being adopted is rare but propose the change all the same. The result on a number of occasions is that the Government tacks on a perhaps differently worded, yet similarly intended amendment at a later stage. In this way the Opposition parties have had an indirect impact on policy.

Committee stage is another forum where interested MPs can make their voices heard. The Treasury select committee is highly respected in political circles and is renowned for not being afraid to take the Government to task.

The House of Lords has also gained much respect in political circles for its role in the process. In the past, it was seen as a rather bloated “old boys&#39 club” that had little interest in involving itself in the workings of Government.

The current administration campaigned on and has been greatly successful in reforming the Lords to make it more accountable and more effective. The result has been a House of Lords that takes an active role in the legislative agenda of the Government. Especially in the fight over the Financial Services and Markets Bill, the Lords has done an admirable job in its criticism of some of the more vague aspects of the bill.

Consolidated Communications director Jim Boyd says: “Even though the Conservatives have not through weight of numbers been able to effect many changes in the House of Commons, Lord Saatchi and Lord Kingsland have had a number of noticeable successes in the House of Lords, including amendments to the takeover panel.”

The Liberal Democrats and Tories have been able to put political differences aside and use their collective majority in the Lords to force the Government to compromise in areas such as the corporate structure of the FSA and the independence of the takeover panel.

Ludgate Communications account director Michael Davis says: “The devil is in the detail. If you don&#39t get the detail right, there will be serious problems.”

The fight over the Financial Services and Markets Bill has been a prime example of how the Opposition should function but it is not the only one. In this session, other issues of great importance to the industry have come to the forefront and been responded to by the Tories and LibDems in a similarly effective manner.

The Government introduced stakeholder pensions as a way to deal with the unavoidable fact that a large percentage of people arenot prepared financially for retirement.

While the Opposition has been broadly supportive of the initiative, they along with many in the industry have expressed concerns about some of the finer details. Rather than let the matter lie, they have repeatedly called for a renewed debate to ensure that stakeholder achieves its desired purpose.

Questions over concurrency, the scope to give advice and wider doubts over whether stakeholder will work remain unanswered.

The most recent move was for the Tories to use an obs-cure Parliamentary regulation to force yet another debate on stakeholder. This is likely to occur in the next week.

If the intention was purely political, issues such as stakeholder would slide through with little attention devoted to them. They are not sexy, the public is not particularly concerned with them and they are unlikely to garner many votes come election time.

The fact that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are still focusing on them is a sign of their dedication to financial matters.

One commentator says: “It is the role of the Opposition parties to oppose. In financial services they are doing more than simply posturing, however, they are offering constructive alternatives.”

CF Bio-Tech is back as the top-performing unit trust over one year with a return of 189.16 per cent, almost 30 per cent above nearest competitor Artemis smaller companies.

Framlington Health continues its ascent. It is now placed third over one year with a return of 154.83 per cent.

Solus has had further success with its special situations fund, moving up to fifth position after entering the top 10 a month ago.

M&G European smaller companies drops from the top 10 after a fleeting visit to make way for the return of Close Beacon.


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