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.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital