EU nears cap on banker bonuses, as Osborne holds out

The UK is one of just three countries opposed to the cap.

EU banking reforms are set to impose a limit on bankers' pay, against the wishes of much of the City of London.

The proposal, backed by the democratically-elected European Parliament, would cap bonuses that exceed the recipients salary. France has recently come around to the idea, and, the Financial Times reports, there is now a "clear majority" which is willing to agree to the cap just to get the debate out of the way. The rest of the reforms, which are focused on bank capital ratios, are considered urgent, and there is little desire to hold them up over the pay caps.

The UK, leading those who oppose the pay caps, has suggested that even it is preparing to case on the basic idea, circulating a policy document suggesting reforms which "build on the principle of a cap", the paper reports:

It strengthens current rules enforced in the UK with an absolute ban on upfront cash bonuses that exceed salary and a requirement for bank shareholders to set a cap on variable to fixed pay.

But a ban on upfront cash bonuses is very different from the ban on the entire bonus exceeding salary. That proposed ban can, with a vote from a supermajority of shareholders, be weakened to a 2:1 ratio of bonus to salary, but even that is still a far more restrictive requirement than the one the UK desires.

The British government has reasons for its scepticism. The argument for including bonuses in a bill focused on bank stability is that, when a bonus can exceed the value of one's salary, the incentive to play it safe rather than go for massive short-term profits is reduced. But the UK also makes a compelling argument for focusing just on cash bonuses. Other types of bonus, like front-dated stock options or bonds which vest only if the employer still exists, can be tweaked so as to encourage not only profit but healthy, stable, profit.

In contrast, if the EU's current plan passes, the incentive will be to offer the entire value of the cap in up-front cash. The magnitude of the bonus may thus be shrunk, but its incentive effects could end up being perversely increased.

Nonetheless, politically the economic effects of the bonus cap are likely to be less important than the simple fact of its existence. The banking sector has been seen as overpaid by most of the British public for a very long time now, and if Osborne digs his heels in over what many will see as the right for banks to pay unlimited bonuses, he could find himself even more unpopular than he already is.

That is especially true if the importance of what is being delayed hits home. The capital ratios — which are the main focus of the talks — are widely seen as one of the first post-crisis regulations which could actually have a real effect on the likelihood and severity of future financial crises. By requiring banks to have a certain amount of liquid capital on hand, the move will, it is hoped, prevent the damaging bank runs which ultimately contributed to the recession in 2008. If the Chancellor is seen as holding the economy hostage over the right for banks to pay unlimited bonuses, his image as a canny political operative may be damaged somewhat.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.