Cyprus looks for plan B

There is no plan B.

At 10am Cyprus time, the Cypriot government started to hammer out another vote on whether they have a plan B to present to the European Central Bank. If they do not have an alternative to the mooted deposit tax by Monday, the bank will cut off emergency liquidity assistance to Cyprus' two biggest banks, plunging them into bankruptcy, and putting Cyprus on a path which will inevitably lead them to an exit from the euro, and possibly the EU altogether.

Cyprus does not, currently, have a plan B.

The plans to be put in front of Parliament cover the winding up of Laiki, one of the two troubled banks (the other is the Bank of Cyprus), splitting it into "good" and "bad" banks, hopefully ensuring that the depositors in the good bank – those with insured deposits under €100,000 – do not immediately withdraw their money once the banks reopen.

That proposal has received a "cautious" response from eurozone finance ministers, according to the Financial Times, but doesn't go anywhere near solving the problem.

In giving the Monday deadline, the European diplomats and ministers who ultimately hold sway over Cyprus also clarified their position about what an acceptable solution would be, and in doing so made things much, much worse.

We already knew that their initial proposal to the Cypriot government offered a loan of €10bn and required the government come up with a further €7bn itself in order to fund the €17bn needed for recapitalisation of the banks. But, reports Felix Salmon:

The stated reason why Europe won’t lend more than €10 billion is that Europe refuses to allow Cyprus’s debt level rise above a certain level.

That means that, at a stroke, most of Cyprus' alternative solutions are bust. It can't take a loan from the Russian government, it can't borrow from its own pension funds, it can't confiscate deposits and replace them with post-dated bonds.

The EU is basically confirming to Cyprus that its options are:

  1. Pass the deposit tax.
  2. Find some other tax which will get €7bn – a little under a third of GDP – in a weekend.
  3. Leave the eurozone.

In a way, though, the background situation has got better for Cyprus in the last week. On Monday, the country was deathly afraid of the deposit tax because it could have signalled the death of Cyprus as a destination for offshore banking. That appears to have been the reason why it took the disastrous choice to "spread the pain" by hitting insured depositors with a tax on top of uninsured.

Now, it doesn't have to worry about that, because its role as an offshore banking destination is dead already. It is, bluntly, inconceivable that the "solution" to the crisis, whatever it is, won't result in deposit flight from overseas depositors. The only hope left is to ensure that it doesn't also result in Cypriots moving their money offshore.

With that in mind, it may turn out to be the case that the best solution for Cyprus is the one it was offered at the start: soak the (largely foreign) rich with a 15 per cent deposit tax, look after the poor's deposits, and move on to trying to find an alternative basis for its economy.

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.