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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.