Labour pins Osborne down on bank bonuses

The party challenges the Chancellor to veto any move by RBS to double the bank bonus cap under new EU rules.

It's bonus season again in the City and Labour has spied another opportunity to inflict embarrassment on the coalition. Under new rules passed by the EU, bonuses must be no larger than bankers' basic salaries. But a loophole means that they can be up to twice as large provided that banks win shareholder approval. In the case of RBS, which is still 81%-owned by the taxpayer, that means the government. 

While the new EU cap, which George Osborne is challenging through the European court, won't apply until next year's bonus round, Labour is demanding that the Chancellor pre-emptively vow to block any request by RBS to exploit the loophole. Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie, who has tabled a Commons motion on the subject for today, said last night: "At a time when families face a cost-of-living crisis and bank lending to business is falling, it cannot be right for George Osborne to approve a doubling of the bank bonus cap. It shouldn’t have taken the EU to act to rein in excessive bonuses, but there has been no action from the Chancellor here in Britain.

"As the majority shareholder, the government should reject any request from RBS to increase the cap. We will put this to a vote in the House of Commons as part of our opposition day debate on the Government’s wider failures on banking. The case for repeating Labour’s tax on bank bonuses, to fund a compulsory jobs programme for young people, is getting stronger by the day."

Here's the full text of Labour's Opposition Day motion: "That this House believes that Government reforms have failed to deliver a competitive banking system which serves the interests of consumers or the needs of businesses and the British economy; is concerned that customers have limited choice and low levels of trust and confidence in the banking market; is disappointed that recent legislation has fallen short of the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking which called for action to diversify the sector and ensure that major new banking service providers are created; believes that banker remuneration remains unacceptably high and regrets the fact that it has taken the EU to act to rein in excessive bonuses in Britain in the absence of domestic action but believes the government as a majority shareholder in RBS should not approve any request to increase the cap; and calls on Ministers to prevent a return to business-as-usual in the banking sector which continues to require real reform and competition so that the UK can earn its way out of the cost-of-living crisis."

The official line from RBS is that "no decisions have been made" but the likelihood is that chief executive Ross McEwan, who believes high levels of remuneration are vital to maintain the bank's competitiveness, will seek the highest bonuses possible at RBS's annual meeting later this year. In response, the Treasury said: "Our normal principles apply. There needs to be restraint. Bonuses need to be significantly down on where they were at the time of the crisis and in the last parliament."

But this only prompts the question of why Osborne is resisting any official cap on bonuses. The answer from ministers is that as Andrew Bailey, the head of the Prudential Regulation Authority, has said, any limit will "just increase base pay, reduce claw back and undermine financial stability". But Labour will no doubt remind Osborne of his declaration back in 2009 that "It is totally unacceptable for bank bonuses to be paid on the back of taxpayer guarantees. It must stop." The Chancellor's volte-face has handed the party another chance to accuse him of "standing up for the wrong people. 

Meanwhile, as Newsnight reported last night, Ed Miliband is preparing to announce new proposals for banking reform in his speech on the economy on Friday. While Labour sources are distancing themselves from the idea of a 25% cap on market share, Miliband's intent is to end the dominance of the "big five" (RBS, Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and Santander) and to make it easier for smaller players to enter the market, potentially by forcing larger banks to sell some of their branches. It's a good example of what the Labour leader meant when he spoke in his New Year message of the need to make "big changes in our economy". The aim is to show that he has a plan to deliver a permanent improvement in living standards, rather than merely a temporary one, (by improving lending to small businesses) and an answer to the "too big to fail" problem. 

On the Today programmme this morning, Chris Leslie spoke of how bank customers feel "there is no point in switching" because "they're all the same" and denounced the government for "consistently falling short of rising to the challenge of what needs to be done". He also described the "high rolling bonus culture" as part of "the old economic construct", a sign of how shadow ministers are now echoing Miliband's long-standing call for a transformed capitalism. 

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR