Stephen Hester's magical misdirection: defending RBS's £5bn losses and £679m bonuses

RBS has announced losses of over £5.1bn and bonuses of £679m, after being bailed out by the taxpayer. Through Stephen Hester's sleight of hand, we are expected to believe that this has been a “chastening year” for the bank.

There is one essential ingredient to almost every magic trick: misdirection. Dangle something with your left hand, while your right pulls all manner of rabbits, bouquets, bonuses and silk handkerchiefs out of a top hat. Stephen Hester used it truly magnificently today, when he announced that RBS had posted losses of over £5.1bn, while doling out bonuses of £679m. This bonus pool is certainly not the “far lower” figure Treasury minister Danny Alexander had in mind, with commentators having predicted last month that it would be in the region of £250m.

Fret not, however. This figure is very modest, indeed the result of a “chastening year”, Hester argues, in an act that would leave Penn and Teller shaking their heads with bafflement. Modest compared to what? At which question, Hester starts pulling a number of shiny coins from behind our ears.

This figure is very modest, we are told, compared to the bonuses Barclays are expected to announce. Hang on, Stephen. Barclays is a privately owned company which has turned profit for the last couple of years. Your bonuses come directly from the money all of us stumped up to bail RBS out. What else have you got?

Oh, sorry, this figure is modest – punitive even – when you take into account that it has been reduced in order to recoup Libor-related fines to the tune of £300m. One momentito, if you please, Stev-o. Is what you are telling us, essentially, that if we compare it to an even higher and totally fictional figure, the actual figure is lower? Anything else?

This figure is modest when you compare it to last year’s figure of £800m. Sorry to interrupt again, but if one adds the £300m Libor fines, by which you claim to have reduced the bonus pool with the very specific purpose of penalising traders for manipulating the rate, then it would have been bigger than last year’s. Add to that the fact that you have engaged in a programme of redundancy of tens of thousands of employees – reducing the staff in the investment arm alone by roughly a quarter – and this must represent a real increase. Or am I missing something?

It seems that I am. The missing piece of the puzzle, as articulated by Hester, is that RBS needs to remain competitive by offering performance-related bonuses, in order to attract the best people. This includes a very competitive £2m paid to Hester himself. This view was fully endorsed by our beloved Prime Minister only today in a European context, in which, disgracefully in my view, he is gearing up to resist a move to cap bankers’ bonuses at EU level to 100 per cent of their salary or 200 per cent of their salary with board approval.

This is where reality and rhetoric disconnect – the latter flying off Hester’s outstretched finger, like a white dove. Which group of people – other than those working in the highest echelons of the financial sector – would view doubling or tripling their annual salary, after performing so exceptionally badly that the company lost over £5bn, as a snub?

This is the fundamental proposition which all this misdirection attempts flamboyantly and flagrantly to hide. At a time when millions are being made redundant all across Europe and unemployment rates hit record highs, at a time when everyone else’s salaries are being frozen or reduced in real terms (including lowly RBS staff), at a time when RBS itself, like most other banks, is laying off thousands of employees specifically from its investment banking arm – we are asked to believe that, at this time, investment banking is the only industry which is not an employer’s market.

And now turn your attention to what the other hand is doing: people being forced to work for nothing in order to maintain their basic benefits. Public servants – including the people who heal you when you are sick, protect you when you are threatened and teach your children – being told to do more with less. Tax credits vanishing for ordinary families. Benefits being capped for those being exploited by landlords. Drawn curtains. Closed blinds. Strivers and shirkers.

Contrast those two attitudes and a further policy assumption emerges. It is at the heart of everything this government is doing. While the poor can only be bullied into productivity by the threat of more poverty, the rich can only be coaxed into it by the promise of more wealth.

Perhaps we might hope for a shareholder revolt, similar to those recently observed in other large companies. Only,the one powerful shareholder in this case is the government and they have made their position clear on many occasions: it is time to stop with this banker-bashing and let the crème de la crème get on with the difficult work of losing billions and leading us into the next phase of this crisis, unfettered by regulation, decency, logic or morality.

Take a bow, Stephen Hester. Next stop, Las Vegas.

Protesters outside Royal Bank of Scotland HQ in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Apprenticeships remain a university alternative in name only for too many young people

New research shows that those who do the best apprenticeships will earn higher salaries than graduates, but government targets undermine the quality of such schemes.

Rare is the week that passes by without George Osborne donning a hi-vis jacket and lauding the worth of apprenticeships. The Conservatives have made creating 3m apprenticeships a governing mission. Labour, both under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, are scarcely less enthusiastic about their value.

The best apprenticeships live up to the hype. Those with a level five apprenticeship (there are eight levels) will earn £50,000 more in their lifetime than someone with a degree from a non-Russell Group university, as new research by the Sutton Trust reveals.

But too many apprenticeships are lousy. In 2014/15, just 3 per cent of apprenticeships were level four or above. Over the last two years, there have only been an estimated 30,000 apprenticeships of at least level four standard. So while David Cameron comes up with ever grander targets for the amount of apprenticeships he wants to create, he neglects what really matters: the quality of the apprenticeships. And that's why most people who can are still better off going to university: over a lifetime the average graduate premium is £200,000.

Proudly flaunting lofty targets for apprenticeships might be good politics, but it isn’t good policy. “The growth in apprenticeships has been a numbers game with successive governments, with an emphasis on increasing quantity, not quality,” says Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust.

60 per cent of apprenticeships today are at level two – considered to be no better than GCSE standard. These might help people get a job in the short-term, but it will do nothing to help them progress in the long-term. Too often an apprenticeship is seen as an end in itself, when it should be made easier to progress from lower to higher apprenticeships. The Sutton Trust is right to advocate that every apprentice can progress to an A-Level standard apprenticeship without having to start a new course.

Apprenticeships are trumpeted as an alternative to going to university. Yet the rush to expand apprenticeships has come to resemble the push to send half the population to university, focused more on giving ever-greater numbers a qualification then in ensuring its worth. For too many young people, apprenticeships remain an alternative to university in name only.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.