It's hard to let go, but RBS needs be returned to market

Let’s get out of this business, and invest in something more worthwhile, writes James Ratcliff.

I was humiliated last night. After dinner in a favourite restaurant I handed my card to the waitress and had the gut-wrenching experience of being told it had been declined.

After a second failed attempt, I fished out another credit card—one I rarely use—typed my dog’s birthday into the card-reader, and crossed my fingers. Fortunately, it worked and we were allowed to leave without having to do the washing up.

Of course, I bank with Natwest, and I ought to have gotten used to this by now. It certainly proves one thing—you really cannot rely on a single bank.

Payments services are not yet a human right, and banks long ago gave up trying to treat their current account holders with respect. The onus is on us not to let them embarrass us in restaurants and encourage people to use premium rate phone lines when we need their help

In this climate, it is no surprise that credit unions—resolutely local lending and savings organisations—are seeing a resurgence

This latest payments fiasco comes the same day that Bank of England governor Mervyn King told us that we, as majority stakeholders, need to cut our losses in Natwest’s parent company RBS.

"RBS is worth less than we thought and we should accept that and get back to finding a way to create a new RBS that could be a major lender to the UK economy,” he said.

This effectively means separating the bank’s retail and investment arms, but the question remains, how do you create a major lender to the UK economy if you’re going to pare it down to its core retail operations? It hasn’t really worked for Northern Rock.

It is a balancing act. RBS clearly needs some fairly drastic pruning—through its Citizens Bank subsidiary we own and run 1,200 bank branches in the US, which seems a bit extravagant for a state-owned lender. And that’s not to mention RBS’s much-derided investment operation. However, a bank does require scale in order to work on anything other than a very local level.

King was clear in his view that this balance is not unachievable. “I do not believe it’s beyond the wit of man to devise a plan to restructure RBS [and] divide it into a healthy well-capitalised bank capable of lending to UK economy,” he said. “It does mean accepting there are activities that are likely to generate continued losses, and need to be separated from the healthy bank – in that sense it would a be a good bank/bad bank split.

"The whole idea of a bank being 82 per cent-owned by the taxpayer, run at arms' length from the government, is a nonsense. It cannot make any sense.

"I think it would be much better to accept that it should have been a temporary period of ownership only, to restructure the bank and put it back. The longer this has gone on the more difficult it has become to return RBS to the market.”

Definitely not a bad idea, let’s get out of this business, and invest in something more worthwhile.

But, while I know it’s never a good idea to throw good money after bad, I wonder if we could stretch to buying the bank a few new computers before we get rid of it. At least then Natwest customers will actually be able to access their money when they need it, and we will have achieved something.

Photograph: Getty Images.

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

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.