Vickers' "electric fence" - are bankers' DIY skills up to it?

Cows, cricket, and dangerous fences.

John Vickers, the man who has laid out the plans for a redesigned  Vickers Report recommended the separation of retail and commercial activities.

Last month, having digested Vickers’ recommendations, the Parliamentary Committee on Banking Standards published its own report, advocating the “electrification” of that ring fence.

Last week, John Vickers appeared in front of the Committee to endorse the proposal. “I welcome anything that reinforces the ring fence and, in particular, I welcome this committee’s proposal to that end,” he said.

“We are now 16 months on from publication of the final report, and nothing has happened in that period which makes me doubt that ring fencing is the right structural ingredient, along with others – loss absorbency and so on – for banking reform in the UK.”

At the time the Vickers Report was published, many in the banking industry were sceptical as to whether a fence could be erected at all. Senior bankers are not known for their DIY skills… And that was before any talk of passing a current through it.

However, the solution has become generally accepted as preferable to the Volker Rule that is currently causing panic on the other side of the pond. In order to avoid similarly draconian measures being adopted here, most bankers are keeping quiet.

But one committee member, Mark Garnier MP, wanted to make sure that Vickers had faith that bankers would resist the temptation to wield the wire cutters. “Is it inevitable that banks will try and test the limits of the ring fences?” he asked. “And is there a commercial advantage in doing so?”

In response, Vickers painted a surprisingly bucolic scene. “I can’t think about this topic without reference to my own experience, in a rural cricket match a long time ago,” he reminisced. “I was on the boundary, and there were cows in the next field.

“I didn’t realise how much power there could be in an electric fence until the ball whizzed past me and I went to get it.

“Having had that experience, I wouldn’t test the boundary. In fact, I’d try and field much closer in.”

A cautionary tale that I’m sure the UK banking industry will give full consideration to. But I have my own electric fence/cricketing anecdote.

At school, our cricket pitch was surrounded by an electric fence to stop errant woodland creatures defecating on the square. It may have been effective in that aim, but did not do a great deal to prevent errant schoolboys from weeing on it. And trust me, despite YouTube evidence to the contrary, it really didn’t do anyone much harm. Indeed, in those pre-mobile, pre-internet days it passed as entertainment.

I guess it really comes down to just how much current you pass down the wire, and whose hands are on the voltage dial. Those are going to be very difficult decisions to make indeed. As admirable as Vickers’ faith in humanity is, most of the investment bankers I know would look at an electric fence as little more than a potential practical joke.

The “electrification” of that ring fence. Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.