Osborne's banking reforms "fall well short of what is required", warn MPs

Banks must be broken up if they try to get round the new ring-fence, says the banking standards commission.

When George Osborne appeared before the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards last month, he told it not to "tear up" the coalition's proposed financial reforms. But while the commission, which published its first report today, doesn't go that far, it does warn that plans to ring-fence banks' investment arms from their retail divisions "fall well short of what is required".

Appearing on the Today programme this morning, Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, who chairs the commission, criticised Osborne for "watering down" the reforms proposed by the Vickers report. Tyrie is calling for the government to 'electrify' the ring-fence (one might call it the "Jurassic Park solution") by giving regulators the power to break up the banks if they try to evade the new rules. He said:

The proposals, as they stand, fall well short of what is required. Over time, the ring-fence will be tested and challenged by the banks. Politicians, too, could succumb to lobbying from banks and others, adding to pressure to put holes in the ringfence.

For the ring-fence to succeed, banks need to be discouraged from gaming the rules. All history tells us they will do this unless incentivised not to. That's why we recommend electrification. The legislation needs to set out a reserve power for separation; the regulator needs to know he can use it.

Tyrie's words bring him into line with Labour, which has called for the government to hold out the threat of a full Glass-Steagall-style separation if the banks refuse to implement "the spirit and principle of Vickers". Unsurprisingly, then, Ed Balls has given a warm welcome to the commission's report. The shadow chancellor said this morning: "As Ed Miliband and I said at the Labour Conference this year, if the letter and spirit of the Vickers proposals are not delivered and we do not see cultural change in our banks, full separation will be necessary. The Commission is clearly right to say the jury is still out and to demand a reserve power for full separation of the banks.

"We need serious cultural change in our banks and the Commission's next report on the culture and practices of the banks will be just as important as these vital structural changes. Only then will we get the banking system our businesses and economy needs."

In a banal response, the Treasury has said that "the government is grateful to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards for its scrutiny of the draft bill and notes that it, 'welcomes the government's action to bring forward legislation to implement a ring-fence'."

But this rather ignores the fact that the same commission believes that the ring-fence, as currently proposed, is seriously inadequate. Unless Osborne proves willing to toughen his reforms, he will stand accused of failing to learn the lessons from the crash.

Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie warned that "the ring-fence will be tested and challenged by the banks". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.