Don't be too hard on Osborne: the bonus cap is horribly flawed

What will happen to bankers pay? Very little. To their risk taking? Very little. To, basically, anything? You guessed it.

In opposing the EU's cap on bankers' bonuses, George Osborne isn't just giving nakedly preferential treatment to the city. The chancellor does have some strong arguments on his side as to why the cap is a bad idea.

To recap, late on Wednesday, the EU parliament secured agreement to impose a mandatory 1:1 ratio of salary relative to "variable pay". That ratio can rise to 2:1 with shareholder approval (subject to 50 per cent quorum), but no further. Britain still has the option of pushing the move to a vote, but that would cross a rubicon in UK-EU relations: in the past, Britain, commonly an outlier in matters of banking policy, has pushed negotiations to the brink of formal vote and then taken a few ceremonial trade-offs in return for its approval. That way, it can truthfully say it has never been overruled by the EU.

Not only would forcing a vote we would definitely lose play terribly politically — George Osborne making his biggest-ever stand in the EU over the right of bankers to be paid exorbitant sums — it would also be a gift to the anti-EU wing of the conservative party, of which Osborne is, thankfully, not a member.

But while he shouldn't force a vote, the Chancellor has good reasons for being wary of the policy. There are three big concerns, two of which are legitimate, and two of which are shared by the chancellor (although not the same two).

The first is that the policy will do nothing for equality. Despite the fact that the cap on bonuses is sometimes phrased as tackling "high pay", it will, in all likelihood, increase pay. As Deborah Hargreaves writes:

Already base salaries in the banking sector have been rising sharply as regulators try and choke off the multimillion-pound annual bonus awards. The EU's plan could lead to more pressure for a rise in fixed pay.

Banks have increased salaries across Europe by 37% in the past four years in response to a crackdown on bonuses and pressure from regulators to claw back some rewards if bets go wrong later on.

The reasoning is fairly obvious. If you cap bonuses at the same level as salaries, and put no limit on salaries, it's clear what's going to happen.

Of course, that's fairly unlikely to be a motivating factor in Osborne's reasoning. If there's one thing the Conservatives are comfortable with, it's people getting filthy rich (although they seem to quietly ignore the "as long as they pay their taxes" part of Peter Mandleson's famous phrase). But it's an important argument against the bonus cap overall.

Not such a strong argument is that banks might flee the EU to avoid it. There is certainly going to be some pressure, because the cap has overreached such that it also affects international operations of EU-based banks. The name being bandied around is Standard Chartered, the London-based firm that does most of its work in emerging markets (back in the news at the moment over it's £110,000 fine in Taiwan). But the cap can't be both easy-to-evade and a motivation to spend time and money moving headquarters, and all indications are that it's the former rather than the latter.

But the biggest problem with the bonus cap is that it won't do anything to address the most important reason for its introduction: tackling risk in the banking sector. The model Osborne and the UK proposed instead was likely to be better in that regard: "our" desired cap would only hit cash bonuses. That would provide an incentive on banks to award increasing chunks of their pay pool in the form of stock options and the like, which encourage bankers to act in the long-term interest of their company, not merely boost their returns for that year to enhance their bonus.

In fact, it's questionable whether bonuses even encourage must risk-taking at all. Crooked Timber's Dan Davies demonstrates that, assuming a bonus is linearly related to performance, the bulk of the bonus encourages very little risk taking at all. Employees have a motivation to take risks if their performance is poor enough that they would get no bonus, but once they have some bonus, every further risk they take is as likely to decrease their income as it is to increase it.

Maybe, as the Guardian suggests, the bonus cap was worth it just to make bankers publicly admit that their high pay has little to do with their actual ability. But for any genuine policy aims, it seems unlikely to be as successful as its promotors hope.

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.