Political sketch: Pinning down a squirming survivor

Diamond keeps playing dumb.

Bob Diamond took time off from signing on yesterday to stick as many fingers as possible up to those who had put him on the dole - except he didn’t.

The unacceptable face of capitalism (July 2012 version) had them queueing in the aisles for a seat at the anticipated outing of politicians, regulators and anyone else who played a part in his decision to quit as Barclays chief executive 12 hours after announcing he was staying.

But imagine, if you can, a damp squib in a bucket of water at the bottom of Lake Windermere to get the full idea of the revelations that emerged.

We did learn that Bob loved Barclays, that there had been wrong-doing and he had been “physically sick” when he learned about it - but it was nothing to do with him.

In fact after two and a half hours in front of the Treasury Select Committee you were not even sure if Bob knew where the bad Barclays was, and it was clearly nowhere near the good Barclays he ran.

By then even the MPs had worked out that Bob, hoping for a £20m pay-off to ease his way into unemployment (to add to the £100m apparently already banked in the last six years), thought that omerta was the best way of getting his hands on the loot.

In the best case yet for a judge-led inquiry into the banking scandal, MPs on the committee were generally hopeless at pinning down the squirming survivor.

Chairman Andrew Tyrie tried to make a fist of it with opening questions about who in Whitehall had backed Barclay’s decision to fiddle the inter-bank lending rate but it was clear from the off that the much-trailed naming of the guilty men - or women - was not going to happen.

Why so many thought that Bob was going to come clean when he has ambitions to stay in the business is suprising and despite Tyrie’s open invitation he declined.

This reluctance was judged to be mere shyness by Tory Michael Fallon who, having declared an interest as the deputy chairman of a city firm, then failed to declare an even greater interest as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

Shocked by Bob’s failure to dish the dirt, Fallon cut to the chase and asked if former Brown Minister Shriti Vadera had poked her nose into the Libor affair.

In effect, the Brown Government was trying to get you to fiddle the figures, he said desperately to a now Sphinx-like Bob.

Off he went again with a list of miscommunications, misunderstandings, reprehensibles and handful of unfortunates as he adopted the tactic of answering the question not asked.

Did he live in a parallel universe? asked one MP after an hour when you weren’t even certain Bob was in the country, never mind the office, when the fiddling was going on.

The man invited by the Today programme to lecture on ethics did not even blush when he was reminded how he had trotted out similar sentiments when he called for an end to banker-bashing during his last appearance.

The sudden appearance of Leveson inquisitor Robert Jay could only be wished for as the MPs tried and failed to get him to abandon the 5th amendment.

And it took the appearance of the Bassetlaw basher John Mann to get down and dirty about the life and times of Bob Diamond.

Having accused him of being either “grossly negligent" or “grossly incompetent,” the hero of Pastygate demanded Bob hand over any shares and bonuses he was now in line for.

Having had plenty of time to practice this answer on MPs who had earlier inquired more politely, Bob said this was a matter for the board.

And that was that.

Earlier it had been reported that Bob’s daughter had sent the following tweet: “George Osborne and Ed Miliband you can go ahead and HMD.” Check it out on Google. Bet her dad agrees.

Bob Diamond. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation