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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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. 

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