The right’s folly lies in its inability to understand that bankers have barely been slapped
The self-pity of the British right swells in inverse proportion to its self-knowledge. Conservatives, of all people, ought to have been horrified when the state used taxpayers’ money to prop up lame-duck banks. Conservatives, who shout the loudest about scroungers living off the taxpayers, ought to have been the most concerned about sponging financiers.
In the 19th century, James Mill described the British empire “as a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes”. In the 21st, honest conservatives might describe the public purse “as a vast source of corporate welfare for the moneyed classes”. Yet honest conservatives have been replaced by paranoid fantasists. Fraser Nelson, a charming man who edits me when I write for the Spectator, and is without doubt my favourite rightwing loon, complains: “It has been almost five years since the crash and still the guilty men are being tracked down and subjected to what seems like a never-ending trial for financial war crimes.”
I remember Anthony Browne berating “cowboy” dentists and condemning London cabbies as a “white working-class mafia holding the capital to ransom” when he was a lowly reporter here at the Observer. Now he is chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association and his former hatred of rent-seekers has vanished. “We need to put banker bashing behind us,” he says of cowboys whose ransom demands would make the real mafia blush.
The right’s folly lies in its inability to understand that bankers have not been bashed. Indeed, they have barely been slapped. The courts have jailed no one responsible for the crash. Instead of “a never-ending trial for financial war crimes”, there have been no trials whatsoever. No one has sought to compensate the taxpayer by confiscating the bonuses taken in the bubble. The Financial Services Authority has barred only a handful of bankers from working in the UK financial sector. This palpable injustice allows me to summarise the coalition’s failure to convince the public that “we are all in this together” in a paragraph.
The taxpayer injected about £65bn into RBS and HBOS in share capital. Those shares are currently showing a loss of £20bn. The overall cost to taxpayers is incalculably higher because we must now manage in a zombie economy with a crippled banking system that can’t send credit to where it’s needed. Yet rather than punish those responsible, the coalition has cut their taxes.
The worst of it to my journalist’s mind is that the British have not been able to tell their own stories without fear of retribution. Hugh Tomlinson QC, the chairman of Hacked Off, a malign organisation that dumb liberals think is on their side, fought for months to stop the public knowing that Fred Goodwin was having an affair at the very moment when his bank was hurtling toward ruin. The parliamentary commission on banking standards‘ report on the collapse of HBOS, just published, has many virtues. Its greatest is that parliamentary privilege – a right to free speech Parliament will not extend to the rest of us – allows the commission to speak without authoritarian lawyers and judges blacking out the detail.
The commission’s account of how HBOS’s pre-tax losses reached £30bn breaks the bankers’ mythology. They thought they were the successors of the respectable Victorian Yorkshiremen, who founded the Halifax building society, and the equally prudent founders of the Bank of Scotland. To their minds, they were simply unlucky managers caught out by a crisis they could not have predicted. Sir Ronald Garrick, director and deputy chairman, said that the “HBOS Board was the best board I ever sat on”. Even with benefit of hindsight, Lord Stevenson, the chairman, says that far from being a giddy corporate dictatorship in which dissenters were fired, HBOS had an atmosphere “where people were able to be very direct and blunt”. What brought the bank down, he maintained, was the freeze in global wholesale money markets the day after Lehman Brothers went bust.
It was the same line Gordon Brown endlessly parroted. “A crisis that began in America” destroyed the British banking system. If it had not been for sub-prime loans in California and Bush’s refusal to bail out Lehmans all would have been well.
The banking commission, a strange but surprisingly intelligent group of MPs, peers and – only in England! – His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, takes the wishful thinking apart with admirable brutality. Lord Stevenson and his colleagues’ version of events “represents a model of self-delusion”, it says. HBOS suffered from a solvency, not a liquidity, crisis.
The once respectable Bank of Scotland and Halifax went on an “aggressive, asset-led growth” that took the “quick and easy path to expansion without acknowledging the risks inherent in that strategy”. Because HBOS was trying to muscle into new markets, it took risks sensible bankers would not take. In short, Americans did not kill HBOS: it committed suicide.
It is not as if the managers were not warned. The banking commission skates over the staggering case of Paul Moore, HBOS’s head of regulatory risk in 2004, who tried to talk sense into James Crosby, the chief executive. Crosby fired his risk manager for warning of a risk.
The subsequent careers of the two men sum up the degradation of the last decade. Moore went into the street and burst into tears. He did not know how to tell his wife he had lost his job. Because he had spoken out of turn, not only would no other bank hire him, no head hunter would put him on its books. By contrast, Brown knighted Crosby, and promoted him to serve on the Financial Services Authority. The man who had sacked his risk manager for warning of a risk was now protecting the banking system. Small wonder this country’s bust.
There is a more glaring fault. The banking commission condemns the FSA but, like the Tories and Labour, it will not recommend breaking up the banks by splitting their high street businesses from the investment business. Banks that were too big to fail and had to be bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 are still too big to fail in 2013.
Grasp this point, and the complaints about “banker bashing” turn from the ridiculous into something more sinister. The banking lobby is so unscathed – so unbashed, unbattered and unbruised – it has the muscle to prevent an urgent and necessary reform and can act as if the crisis never happened.
Levy has raised around £1.6tn but has become a headache for business with hopes for a cheap and simple EU tax in the past
Pink Floyd had just released The Dark Side of the Moon and the doors of the London Stock Exchange were finally open to female members when Conservative chancellor Anthony Barber introduced the nation to value added tax.
Imposed as a condition of Britain’s joining the common market, VAT is 40 years old on Monday and it has so far raised £1.6tn for the public purse, according to a study by the accountancy company Deloitte.
Designed by French tax expert Maurice Lauré in the postwar years and first levied in the UK on April Fools’ Day 1973, VAT is now the government’s third largest source of revenue after income tax and national insurance.
But what started out as a simple, easy to collect tax – a low, flat rate imposed on most goods and services – has become increasingly complex, with exemptions for everything from children’s clothes to Jaffa Cakes.
“The initial idealistic hope that it would be a simple tax, easy to apply, has constantly been eroded because there are always special lobbies,” said Deloitte tax expert Daniel Lyons. “Politics and economics got in the way of simplicity.”
Today, many of life’s essentials are not liable for VAT, including water, eggs, fish, milk, butter, cheese, newspapers, books, nuts, prescription medicines, cold sandwiches, tea, coffee, cooking oil and cereals. Other goods and services including zoos, burials, antiques and TV licences are simply exempt.
VAT was a European replacement for the purchase tax, which was charged at different rates according to the luxuriousness of an item. The new levy, a flat 10% on most goods and services, was in theory simpler to administer.
Paid by the buyer but collected by the seller, it is still one of the cheapest taxes for HM Revenue & Customs to administer because it requires businesses to act as tax collector.
It even had its own, user-friendly tribunal, where business owners could represent themselves when pleading their case.
But just one year in, Labour chancellor Denis Healey began to muddy the waters. He reduced the standard rate to 8%, but introduced a higher rate of 12.5% for petrol and some luxury goods, doubling the upper rate later that year to 25% before lowering it in 1976.
In 1979, the higher rate was abolished and the standard rate increased to 15%, where it remained until Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont increased it to 17.5% in 1991. Lamont also imposed an 8% rate on domestic fuel and power, which had previously been zero-rated.
The 1997 general election swept Labour to power and with it came a new series of tweaks and exemptions. Gordon Brown brought domestic fuel and power down to 5%, and knocked money off the rate for home insulation materials. He applied his own moral stamp, with VAT reductions on nicotine gum and other stop-smoking products, along
Newspaper groups including owners of Sun and Mail threaten boycott of regulator if plan proposed by Labour agreed to
Britain’s main political leaders are taking talks on the future of press regulation down to the wire amid signs that David Cameron is prepared to reach a last-minute deal to avoid a damaging defeat in the House of Commons on Monday.
As George Osborne insisted that the government was not “grandstanding” over the issue of press reform, the prime minister appeared to change tack by reopening talks with Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, days after abandoning all-party negotiations.
The renewed political discussions came as three of Britain’s largest newspaper groups, including the owners of the Sun and the Daily Mail, ramped up the pressure by signalling that they were prepared to boycott the proposed press watchdog and set up their own body if Labour and the Lib Dems succeed in creating a statutory underpinning of the new royal charter.
The deputy prime minister found himself effectively acting as a go-between between the prime minster and Ed Miliband . Clegg spoke to the Labour leader on three occasions during the day – twice before meeting the prime minister and once afterwards.
The reopening of limited all-party talks came amid signs that Cameron is heading for a defeat in the Commons over tabled amendments to the crime and courts bill to establish exemplary damages for media organisations that do not sign up to a new regulatory body. Labour and the Lib Dems, who have 314 MPs to the Tories’ 304 MPs, are planning to table their own amendments to strengthen the planned royal charter establishing the new body.
The Tories and Labour played hardball in what appeared to be something of an operation to paper over changes on all sides. Maria Miller, the culture secretary, was despatched on to the airwaves to say Labour had climbed down.
“Labour has been trying to push through a tough form of statutory regulation for the press with really unacceptable consequences for freedom of speech in this country,” Miller told Sky News. “I think their climbdown from that position has put them much closer to our position and I think that is to be welcomed.”
Labour dismissed Miller’s remarks and insisted that it was standing by its core demands – statutory underpinning of the royal charter, a guarantee of prominent apologies by errant newspapers and no press veto on members of the new regulatory body.
A senior Labour source said: “We are in lock-step with the Lib Dems on this. We are clear we are not going to accept [Cameron's] royal charter. Any agreement must be on the basis of our royal charter. We are planning to go ahead with the votes in the Commons.”
There was silence in Whitehall as the government parties prepared for another round of talks in the runup to the votes in the Commons.
The Tories claim that talks between the party leaders broke down last week when Labour sought to strengthen the royal charter on the basis of last-minute proposals by the Hacked Off campaign group. This prompted the prime minister to call for a Commons vote on his proposals.
One observer said: “It is like a game of poker. On Tuesday, the prime minister called their bluff. Then, at the weekend, when they published their royal charter and seemed to revert to their earlier position, they folded their hand.”
This was dismissed by Labour which said the prime minister appeared to be changing his position. The chancellor indicated that Downing Street may be adopting a more flexible approach when he said he was still hopeful of an all-party agreement.
Osborne told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1: “It would be great on Monday if we can get some kind of agreement, even at this late stage, between the parties. Frankly, press regulation that is achieved in a way that divides the political parties is not a press regulation that is really going to last and it is not a press regulation which is deeply rooted in our culture.
“I would say there is still an opportunity for us to get together and get a press regulation that works.
Ultimately we are not about grandstanding on this. We are about getting a press law that works and protects the press and gives justice to victims of press abuse.”
It is understood that the prime minister may be able to live with a statutory underpinning of the royal charter – one of the key Lib Dem and Labour demands. The legal underpinning is designed to ensure that the royal charter can only be changed by agreement of two thirds of MPs, and not simply, like other royal charters, by ministers.
Cameron believes such underpinning is not necessary but is willing to be flexible because he has seen off what Osborne described as “some all-singing, all-dancing Leveson law”.
But there are still differences over the composition of the regulatory body and on how apologies would be carried.
The prime minister is understood to share the concerns of many in the press that leading lights in the Hacked Off group, such as Brian Cathcart, could find themselves on the new body.
Downing Street said it was unable to answer the latest of several requests from the Guardian to reveal how many meetings the prime minister has had with editors, publishers or representatives of the press.
Spain’s ruling conservatives deny allegations that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and others benefited from secret party accounts.
Read more here: Spanish party denies slush fund
Fiona Ferguson resigns saying controversial Voice Risk Analysis software could do enormous damage to Cornwall council
The Conservative group leader at Cornwall council has quit her post over the use of “lie detector” tests on people claiming benefits.
Fiona Ferguson, who was responsible for corporate resources at the unitary authority, cited concerns about the use of voice risk analysis (VRA) software. In her resignation letter to Jim Currie, Tory leader of the council, Ferguson warned that using VRA would not help the council to pursue fraud and would be “extremely damaging to our reputation”.
She added: “It is clearly right that Cornwall council takes a strong line against people who deliberately mis-claim tax benefits but in this case I am more concerned about the impact on the vast majority of honest claimants.”
Ferguson claimed in her resignation email – which was placed online by councillors – that Currie had threatened to sack her from her post if she revealed the details of the lie detector test being used. She also announced that she was launching a petition to require any use of the technology to be approved by a larger meeting of the council.
Private outsourcing company Capita says on its website that VRA is “capable of identifying stress and emotion in a caller’s voice pattern”. The contract will cost the taxpayer about £50,000 but is intended to save many times that amount in preventing false claims, according to Cornwall council which states that research carried out in other areas of the country suggests 4%of single person benefit discounts could be false claims.
A council spokesman said: “As part of this ‘zero tolerance’ approach to fraud, the authority has commissioned Capita to carry out a review of all council tax payers who are receiving a 25% single person discount on their council tax bills.”
He said letters asking for claimants to provide information on their current circumstances have been sent to more than 30,000 households and telephone interviews will be carried out with a number of claimants to verify the details they have provided.
“These interviews will be carried out by trained assessors who will use specialist technology to assist this process,” he said.
Currie said: “There is tremendous pressure on the council’s budget and we need to do everything we can to prevent fraud. This will not affect people making genuine claims but we estimate that identifying and removing inappropriate claims could save the council at least £1m.”
Ferguson’s resignation letter noted that the techniques used by Capita were used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on a trial basis in 24 local authorities on the processing of housing benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.
A subsequent report said: “From our findings, it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP.”
Capita said it was not commenting on issues surrounding Ferguson’s resignation. In response to the DWP report, the company said: “The selective use of VRA technology for the purposes of verifying high risk applications for council tax single person discount is a useful additional tool in the validation process of identifying fraudulent claims. The technology is not used in isolation.”
Southwark council in London has also reportedly used the Capita technology, to check households where a 25% council tax discount was being claimed. Harrow council said it used VRA software in a pilot scheme for housing benefit and council tax benefit claims, but stopped using it a number of years ago.
One Nation Labour will reach out to voters alienated in the 80s and resist vested interests, party leader will tell Fabian Society
Ed Miliband is to set himself apart from old and New Labour when he declares that both strands in his party’s postwar history have lost relevance in 21st-century Britain.
In his first speech of the new year, Miliband will say his new one nation Labour will reach out to voters alienated by the party in the 1980s while standing up to the vested interests courted by the party in government over the past decade.
“New Labour rightly broke from old Labour and celebrated the power of private enterprise to energise our country,” Miliband will tell the Fabian Society on Saturday. “New Labour, unlike old Labour, pioneered the idea of rights and responsibilities. From crime to welfare to antisocial behaviour, New Labour was clear that we owe duties to each other as citizens.”
But Miliband will say that New Labour, which was famously launched with a “prawn cocktail” charm offensive in the City of London, failed to stand up to big businesses. He will say: “By the time we left office, too many of the people of Britain didn’t feel as if the Labour party was open to their influence, or listening to them.”
The Labour leader sees this speech as a chance to show that his address to the Labour conference last year, in which he first spoke of creating a one nation party, was not just a simple political slogan.
He regards it as a coherent political project which will achieve two broad goals: give an honest account of the party’s past and set out a governing framework for the economy, society and politics.
On the economy, Miliband believes a Labour government would provide greater opportunities than the Tories and New Labour, which “skewed the system to the powerful few”, in the words of one source.
Miliband believes his society theme highlights his determination to focus on greater responsibility from top to bottom, with bankers expected to show restraint in remuneration and responsibility in lending, and welfare recipients expected to seek work.
On the politics theme, Miliband will also focus on empowerment – helping people to feel involved and appreciated.
One example is on immigration, as Miliband makes clear that people should feel free within certain bounds to voice concerns.
He will distance himself from his mentor, Gordon Brown, who famously described the Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman” after she raised concerns with the then PM about immigration during the election.
Miliband will say: “I bow to nobody in my celebration of the multi-ethnic, diverse nature of Britain. But high levels of migration were having huge effects on the lives of people in Britain – and too often those in power seemed not to accept this. The fact that they didn’t explains partly why people turned against us in the last general election.”
Miliband will also say that his new approach stands in stark contrast to what is described as the government’s “old trickle-down divisive ideology” in which taxes are cut for the rich while benefits for the poor rise below the rate of inflation.
He will say: “Can David Cameron answer this call for one nation? This week shows yet again why he can’t. At the Ronseal relaunch, all we saw was an empty tin with no vision for the future of our country and an attempt to divide the country between scroungers and strivers.”