Barclays' little story and how it changed banking culture

Top City boys queue up, two by two, for a grilling.

This week has seen top City boys queuing up, two-by-two, as the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (PCBS) called them in for a grilling on UK banking standards, rate-rigging scandals and big fat cheques.

In the firing line this morning was Anthony Jenkins and Sir David Walker, Barclay’s group chief executive and chairman, after Lloyds’ on Monday.

During an intense three-hour inquiry, Jenkins told the committee he was “shredding” the legacy left by his former boss Bob Diamond, after (quite publicly) rebuffing a £2.75m bonus having decided it would be “wrong” to receive a cheque too fully-loaded.

It is still far too early to see whether there has been any material change in Barclays’ culture. Rome wasn’t built, or-re-built in a day, and the jury will still be left with a few big questions over the British bank’s cultural DNA after today’s session.

Diamond on his part had received a £2.7m annual bonus for 2011, a pay check of £17m (with the bank paying also his £5.7 tax bill) after resigning amid the interest rate rigging scandal.

The boss was known to lead an "aggressive" and "self-serving" culture in the bank, the committee heard, while hush-hush talks in the City from former Barclays’ people push it a bit further, describing it as “rotten”.

The multimillion-bounty led to the forced resignation of Alison Carnwath, former chairman of the Barclays remuneration committee, who claimed to have been the lone voice for Diamond receiving "zero" bonus.

Along with Walker, Jenkins announced, avoided –and confessed- a few things.

The Committee jumped at the chance to enquire about The Bonus, remuneration and more specifically Sir John Sunderland, the man in control of it –he who replaces Mrs Carnwath.

“The problem we have with [Sunderland’s] evidence is that he didn’t think he had made a mistake (in regards to Bob Diamond's pay off), even in retrospect?” the committee asked.

“You'll have to trust my judgement,” replied Walker, in what looked more and more like a battledome.

Walker and Jenkins informed the MPs of a bonus slim down at Barclays following yet another £1bn provision to cover compensation for interest rate swap products and mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI).

According to Barclays, the scandal-hit year is now costing the bank around £2.6bn in compensation: PPI damages will go to borrowers who were (mis-)sold loan insurances (to protect them if they missed repayments due to illness or redundancy), but were not actually eligible to claim it.

During the tense discussion, Jenkins let out that he would step down if there was a regulatory failing under his watch.

This comment seemed too trouble-free for the Committee not to pick upon: Jenkins was head of Barclaycard from 2006, and throughout the time PPI products were sold.

“We worked hard to modify PPI products and we didn't get it right completely” was what Jenkins had to answer. He added: “it's a question of proportionality.”

This answer baffled the Committee; but not as much as when he spoke about the LIBOR-fixing –which cost the bank $450m in fines. “I first learnt about Libor on the day the Libor fine was announced,” he said.

When the committee asked him if he questioned the banking culture while working closely with Diamond, Jenkins took the time before calmly answering, “Yes.”

What he meant by this assent, was that he had been arguing “for a change in culture since 2012.”

Rumours were sparked by Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie when he said it was possible the Barclays bosses would be called in before the Committee again.

But next in line for the grilling are JP Morgan and HSBC’s heads, who will give the Committee more to query until their new report is published.

Photograph: Getty Images

Elsa Buchanan writes for VRL Financial News

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.