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Will we see our bankers banged up?

Do not pass GO or collect £200,000.

Photograph: Getty Images

After five years here it is: a parliamentary report recommending bad bankers go to jail. No more bonus restrictions, enforced regulation or deferred pay; its straight to jail for senior executives who let their banks fail. Do not pass GO or collect your £200 (thousand) bonus, etc...

But how realistic is this idea put forward by the optimistically entitled report, “Changing Banking for Good”?

After one year, hundreds of interviews and 161 hours of evidence heard by an Archbishop (Justin Welby), head of the Treasury select committee (Andrew Tyrie), five MPs and four peers, The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards has made a number of ethical, rather than financial, conclusions. Here are some highlights:  

Too many bankers, especially at the most senor levels, have operated in an environment with insufficient personal responsibility

 One of the most dismal features of the banking industry to emerge from our evidence was the striking limitation on the sense of personal responsibility and accountability of the leaders within the industry for the widespread failings and abuses over which they presided.

"Dismal", 2responsibility" and "accountability" are all words we want to hear, but how practical are they, really?

Firstly, Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the parliamentary review, said that a prison sentence would only occur if there was “has been taxpayer support for a bank.” With pressure building on the government to sell its shares of RBS and other bailed out banks, there will probably be no "taxpayer support" by the time this becomes policy (if at all).

Then there is Tyrie’s comparison of the banking failures to Murder on the Orient Express where “everyone had some small contribution on the deaths and nobody was responsible”. Basically, with or without Miss Marple, how will you ever prove who is responsible for a bank’s failure without putting the whole management away? Building legislation to castigate one individual for a whole bank’s malpractice is going to be very hard, if not almost impossible.    

Lastly, the Treasury will not want to throw bankers in the slammer. Simply, it’s bad for our image. As Philip Augar reminds us in today’s FT, London is a global-sized financial centre in a medium-sized economy poised between recovery and recession. The City therefore needs to hold on to its competitiveness and putting bankers away is not going to look good.

While all this is gloomy pessimism for banker bashers and the likes, all hope is not lost. Even if we don’t see bankers behind bars any time soon, the threat should suffice.