Did you hear the one about the honest, hard-working and decent banker?

No, really, did you?

Despite this being the worst week yet for an industry that’s had more than its fair share of miserable weeks in recent years, and even in spite of the fact that the accusations against the so-called “banksters” have escalated from a lack of morality to potential criminality, there remain plenty of honest, good and moral men and women working in financial services. Many of them are even in the most senior positions

Take, for example, the old story (retold to me this week) about Lord Mervyn Davies, when he was boss of Standard Chartered. As the drama of Bob Diamond’s resignation over the role of Barclays in Libor-rigging unfolded, I was offered this wonderful insight that explains why few expect Standard Chartered to be implicated in this most serious episode of financial misadventure. It also explains why Standard Chartered wasn’t quite as exposed to the financial crisis as many of its competitors.

Some time in 2006, one of Standard Chartered’s financial rocket scientists met with Davies to let the bank get involved in the sort of complex transactions that were all the rage at the time and that were making rivals (both institutions and individuals) so rich. Davies, clearly not a stupid man, asked the boffin to explain the scheme. About 20 minutes later Davies stopped him and admitted he hadn’t understood a word. A sure sign of his intelligence and honesty was that he was confidant enough to show his ignorance (not something very prevalent in banking boardrooms at the time). He gave the boffin another go, who then took half an hour to explain his ideas in plain English. Davies thanked him for his time but still didn’t follow. He is reported to have said, because he couldn’t understand the scheme, there was no way he was prepared to let the bank get into it. Two years later that already looked to be a good call; six years on it looks like the wisest possible decision.

There is danger that this sort of story makes Davies appear something of a throwback to a much-vaunted "golden age" of banking. While this week has been bad, we must resist glorifying the past or go misty eyed over an era before the Big Bang opened the City up and all those brash Americans brought their naughty ways over here. The old City was the worst kind of closed shop. Deals – rather, gentleman’s agreements – were sewn up over lunch or a round of golf, and in this age diversity meant hiring from both Oxford and Cambridge. Women, if they were in the boardroom at all, were there to make tea and take notes.

It may have its faults, but the modern financial services sector is a rare example of a UK success story. And the whole economy benefits from a thriving financial services industry. But that’s exactly why wrongdoing (especially crime) must be rooted out and acted on swiftly. Criminality must be punished as such and all financial gains must be recovered, as they would be elsewhere.

All this requires adequate regulatory oversight and proper legal protection. It’s why the government must recognise that its Financial Services Bill is not fit for purpose as it is and needs a radical overhaul.

The good news is that there is still time to get it right. But it requires politicians to stop pointing fingers over whether light-touch, tripartite regulation caused the mess and see that the proposed twin peaks regulation is equally flawed. There are myriad specialists arguing that while politicians quibble over quantity of regulation, it’s the quality of those rules that matters. Politicians must take this opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes and create the support and regulatory structures that allow us all to be confident of hearing many more stories about decent, honest bankers in the future.

This article originally appeared in Economia

London. Photograph, Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.