George Osborne talks to the press as he arrives for an economic and financial affairs meeting (Ecofin) in Brussels on November 7, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne drops legal challenge to EU bank bonus cap

With attention on the Rochester by-election, the Chancellor makes his retreat.

Under the cover of the Rochester by-election, George Osborne has abandoned his long-running legal challenge to the EU's cap on bank bonuses. The decisive blow came earlier today when an advocate general at the European Court of Justice advised that the new law, which restricts payouts to 100 per cent of a bankers’ salary, or 200 per cent with shareholder approval, should be upheld. 

Osborne said: "I’m not going to spend taxpayers’ money on a legal challenge now unlikely to succeed. The fact remains these are badly designed rules that are pushing up bankers’ pay not reducing it. These rules may be legal but they are entirely self-defeating, so we need to find another way to end rewards for failure in our banks."

Ed Balls has been swift to respond, deriding the move as "a humiliating climbdown". He said: "The Chancellor revealed his true priorities when he decided a year ago to spend taxpayers’ money fighting a bank bonus cap while working families face a cost-of-living crisis. He should tell taxpayers how much money he has now wasted on this challenge, which we warned him against.

"It shouldn’t have taken the EU to act to rein in excessive bonuses, but George Osborne has totally failed to act here in Britain.

"Labour will reform the banks and levy a tax on bank bonuses to fund a paid starter job for young people out of work for over a year."

The cap has been criticised by left-wing economists on the grounds that it simply allows banks to inflate employees' basic pay (which is not subject to claw-back) and does little to tackle the underlying causes of excessive risk-taking. But the politics of this debate are too exquisite for Labour to get caught in technicalities. Expect it to swiftly FOI the Treasury to find out just how much of the public's money Osborne spent on his doomed challenge. 

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that forced to side with either the EU or the City of London, Nigel Farage has sided with the City. He told the Evening Standard: "A lot of people in Rochester and Strood commute to London to work in the finance industry. They will be reading about this in the Evening Standard on their way home and may well feel dismayed by the verdict.

"It is the constant drip, drip, drip of Britain losing every single negotiation and ruling. We never win and it’s time we woke up to that fact."

The former trader added: "If you applied this law to the Premier League you would not expect Britain to remain one of the world’s greatest footballing nations. London is the world’s greatest centre for a lot of industries, including finance."

Farage's stance is consistent with his europhobia and his free market principles. But it is unlikely to go down well with Ukip voters, who, as polls have consistently shown, lean to the left on economic issues. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.