A People’s Charter for the Banks

 

In 1842, Feargus O’Connor led the working people of the United Kingdom into a general strike on behalf of the People’s Charter. The Chartists’ aim was for the House of Commons, then run by the elites of the landowning class plus some merchants and millowners after the 1832 reforms, to become more democratic. The six proposals were:

 

  1. A vote for every man over 21 years
  2. Secret ballots
  3. No land qualification for voters
  4. Payment for Members
  5. Equal constituencies
  6. Annual ballots

 

It took many years for the first five to be enacted and many more for women to achieve equality (something not even envisaged by the Chartists). The Chartists failed to drive change because the British economy continued to improve and the other motors for change (such as Trades Unions) were continuously provided with small (even if sometimes significant) improvements in factory conditions, better hours, better wages and the like. This meant that pressure for change in the way that the Chartists demanded were stifled by more practical changes that were seen to immediately impact the working classes.

 

However, the impact of elites continuing to run the country and ameliorated only by small improvements in conditions was (in hindsight) bound to result in extreme consequences. The First World War was a consequence of elites throughout Europe playing a game decidedly different to the vast majority of people and using them as mere playthings – whether in armies or in factories.

 

The BBC’s current six-parter, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, shows clearly who was in charge in 1805. That continued throughout Europe until 1918 at least after millions of lives were lost.

 

It may seem difficult to equate the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the consequences of that crisis to the class crises of the nineteenth century but the similarity of elites that are unwilling to give up any power over the economy remains. The elite may now be different (although bankers held great power in the nineteenth century as well) but the way that Banks and their allies in Governments in the UK (Conservative as well as Labour) see the rest of the country as mere playthings is no different.

 

A new film is about to hit the screens in London – “The Big Short”. Based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, published in 2010, it portrays the banking world in the USA as completely indifferent to the problems faced by society as they pursue their own, short-term gains and bonuses. Government is either unable or unwilling to address the problems because the banks are so important to the country – too big to fail – and also because most in Government do not understand what to do.

 

Just as the mill owners of the early nineteenth century were seen by landowners as a necessary partner for the future, Governments see bankers and banking in the UK as necessary for themselves. This means that they tolerate all but the very worst abuses.

 

The FCA – Financial Conduct Authority

 

The FCA is the organization that Parliament developed under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to oversee the financial system. Part of its remit is:

 

The reduction of financial crime.

(1) The reduction of financial crime objective is: reducing the extent to which it is possible for a business carried on—

(a) by a regulated person, or

(b) in contravention of the general prohibition,

to be used for a purpose connected with financial crime.

(2) In considering that objective the Authority must, in particular, have regard to the desirability of—

(a) regulated persons being aware of the risk of their businesses being used in connection with the commission of financial crime;

(b) regulated persons taking appropriate measures (in relation to their administration and employment practices, the conduct of transactions by them and otherwise) to prevent financial crime, facilitate its detection and monitor its incidence;

(c) regulated persons devoting adequate resources to the matters mentioned in paragraph (b)

(3) “Financial crime” includes any offence involving—

(a) fraud or dishonesty;

(b) misconduct in, or misuse of information relating to, a financial market; or

(c) handling the proceeds of crime.

(4) “Offence” includes an act or omission which would be an offence if it had taken place in the United Kingdom.

(5) “Regulated person” means an authorised person, a recognised investment exchange or a recognised clearing house.

 

All this is within a framework of law that sits the financial community within itself. By this I mean that the regulator is charged with the above but only insofar that it does not harm banking competitiveness and so that the resources of the FCA are used efficiently under Section 2 of the law. While consumer information is called up in the law, there is no balancing of the “reduction” of financial crime against the needs of the consumer and nothing about how the financial system and banking in particular is to be used to benefit the overall British economy.

 

This means that the FCA is bound by rules that err on the side of the banking and financial fraternity – a financial brotherhood – and does nothing to impact the financialisation of the economy to which I referred in a previous blog.

 

Evidence of the ability of Government to “rebalance” the objectives of the law in favor of the banks is the recent decision of the FCA to shelve its report on the culture of banking and for it to work on an individual basis with banks (behind the scenes). As Michael Lewis’s book and the film so amply shows, culture is at the heart of the problem. The FCA’s step backwards under acting Head Tracey McDermott appears to be sold evidence of its inability under the current law to be effective on behalf of the British economy unless it has a leader within the FCA with enough integrity of his or her own to challenge the banks on behalf of all consumers and all those potentially impacted by wrongdoings of the banks – like Martin Wheatley. Ms McDermott is now no longer in the running for the Chief Executive position. Does anyone on the shortlist that Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, has interviewed come up to those exacting standards: someone that has the integrity to see through the shortcomings of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA 2000) and is able to bring the banks into line so that they serve the economy?

 

I doubt it as this Government has shown repeatedly that it is hell-bent on balancing the books at the expense of all else – even if that means allowing banks to keep the economy from re-balancing to an economy that uses banks and finance from one where the banks suck the rest dry.

 

This means that the law needs to change. It is so important that the UK is “de-financialised” (like an addict that needs to be properly drawn from drugs) that we should seek the FSMA 2000 to be brought up to date with a Charter for economic improvement so that, at the very least, the FCA has to minimize financial crime not just reduce it and so that, in any decisions it makes, the needs for economic well-being override the considerations in Section 2 that could lead to favouritism towards bank and those individuals within that system.

 

Because it has never been shown that a massive banking system does anything other than reduces the ability of other industries to survive because it raises exchange rates, raises property values, sucks the best people into it, restricts business loans because of short-terminism, pays for short-term advantage and (often) criminality at the expense of good business decisions and overly impresses economically uneducated civil servants and politicians with their results.

 

The lessons of an elite taking hold of an economy and leading it to disaster have not been learned. The lessons of 1842 that led to the First World War and the lessons of 2007/8 have been sidelined as this Government now has a majority in the first-past-the-post House of Commons (still undemocratic) and a Chancellor who has decided that bashing the banks has gone far enough. He has done this without any notion of economic objectivity whatsoever.

 

We now need a People’s Charter for Banking and De-financialisation – maybe just two elements to start with:

 

Change the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to:

 

  • Section 6 – Minimize criminal wrongdoing not “reduce”
  • Section 2 – Add an over-riding requirement so that any decision of the FCA has to show that it is taken in regard to overall economic well-being of the country not just to the financial industry.

 

Just like those that had been left out of the elite ruling classes of the 1830’s and 1840’s, those that are not allowed entry to the financialised sector, i.e. the mass of people – the British public, need to challenge how decision-making in that sector, now taking far too much of the British economy and with very disputed benefits to the mass of people (just like early capitalism) need to agitate for change.

In the 1840’s, the Chartists were successful only in bringing the issues of the working class to the attention of the ruling classes. They did not succeed in most of their demands. It took decades until those demands were met and eighty years before women were given the vote. This country still has a House of Lords and unrepresentative democracy in the Commons as a result of first-past-the-post: we are very conservative. Nevertheless, when British people have their backs to the wall, they react. The FCA is putting British people’s back to that financial wall by their inability to tackle banking as it should be tackled – at the centre. With a pending recession in the UK – in the midst of austerity – this is a dangerous situation. Time to make changes.

 

 

 

 

Governance – From Osborne to Diamond – where is it?

If we wanted to see bad governance issues at their most raw – in all sectors of society – then maybe this was the week.

First – Corporate governance was shown to be completely awry at Barclays, where Bob Diamond’s testimony showed so clearly that non-execs that should have been applying governance strictures were so out of the picture.

Second – the public sector and education, where Michael Gove in a strange speech at FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools) said he knew what “good governance” looked like (fascinating to hear a politician talk about good governance!) and criticized many existing school boards as:

A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.

Third – charities, where governance was held up at an ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) conference to be a critical problem and the split between Chief Execs and Trustees very problematical (nearly 30 are seeking urgent advice from ACEVO on this issue).

Fourth – Government via the astonishing spat between Messrs. Osborne (our Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Ed Balls (his shadow) over banking and LIBOR – or worse, their obvious hatred for each other.

Across the nation – Governance in doubt

We clearly have a crisis of governance across the nation and in all sectors. Government, public sector, corporates and Third Sector all exhibit problems where real strains are showing and proper governance is often missing.

Gove’s comments (which show political mannerisms at their worst) can be spread across all areas if we want to.

The role of non-executive directors, trustees, governors or similar is crucial in organisations. Their importance is completely under-estimated in the same way that the importance of backbenchers in Parliament is. This showed so clearly in the Osborne / Balls playground fight this week and showed how dangerous it is when the Executive is a major part of the Legislature (as we have it in the UK) and back-benchers are unable to confront the over-weaning egos of the front-benchers.

The example shown here – of a senior government minister and his shadow in opposition – was appalling but, unfortunately, does shine a light on society. When recession strikes, the worst examples of society come to light.

What’s going wrong?

Much is actually right in sectors of society that organize themselves into such oganisations such as companies, public sector bodies and Third Sector organisations. But, there is a crucial link that is not sufficiently understood and where traditional rules don’t really work anymore – and, where they do work, are rubbished by politicians pursuing a political agenda.

The link is the one between senior operational staff and Boards. It is the crucial link in any organization.

Corporates

The danger here is the risk that Chief Executive Officers who have got where they are because they are good at what they do but also because they act like steamrollers, often force Boards to concede issues with too little scrutiny. Time is of the essence and information hard to take in when you are a Non-Executive Director (NED) maybe at many corporations and spend a few days a year on each.

The law now lays a heavy burden on NED’s but there remain many who want to bring their skills and knowledge and experience to companies. Most are acceptable to the CEO if they have good connections /networks. Beyond this, they are begrudgingly provided with data and fill remuneration and audit committees and the like, fulfilling a role but often not really involved with the central and driving forces behind the business. Government tinkering with the laws has prescribed the areas of involvement that the law requires and where NED’s have to focus. Areas that are fundamental, like strategy, culture, and ethics, are more likely to be left outside.

The danger becomes real in companies like Enron – which imploded under a Ponzi scheme that should have been obvious to all on the Board. It is endangering one of our best-known banks as it did with RBS and Lloyds-TSB.

Name the major scandals in corporates and then describe the efforts of NED’s to make things right – whether in newspapers and phone hacking, oil industry and health and safety, mining and corruption.

Public Sector

I use the example of schools / academies to show the reverse. Michael Gove, in seeking to set up an array of different schools so that the good ones can “emerge”, is in danger of wrecking education and the potential for good that exists in those schools / academies.

Of course, he was speaking at the FASNA – so, was amongst friends. But, his injudicious language threatens to throw out the good with the bad. I am a Chair of Directors / Governors at an excellent Academy and Gove runs the risk (as all “leaders” do) of demoralizing just the people he should be motivating.

In pursuing his political agenda, he shows he is full of ideas but not allied to the skills of a leader. Schools boards / or governing bodies are full of people who (unlike in corporates) are unpaid and fill positions out of a desire to help kids and the staff that run the schools. Gove is at least ten years out of date with his picture of local worthies – it is not just an insult but shows Gove to be stuck in the 1970’s at best.

At schools, the link between Head and Governors / directors can be bad (as it can in any situation) but is often very good. The role of the board as “critical friend” is enshrined in all that is done and the Head (and some of his / her staff) are on the Board as well. This creates a team that motivates each other to work together and develop a school for its students. Where it works (and it usually does to some extent), it provides enthusiasm as well as governance, skills as well as motivation – on both sides, operational and governance.

Of course, Gove has some insights as schools in difficult areas will have trouble finding the skills needed to fill a board. But, this is down to the location and the need to ensure that they are supported within a structure that works. This is a key area and where successful schools can certainly help.

But, Gove should not ridicule the governance structure in schools – it may be the one area that does work!

Third Sector

Now, I work in this sector as a CEO. I have a good Board but having been in the sector for five years or so (my previous 30 were in the corporate one), it is clear that there is a crisis and it is between CEO’s and the Board.

There is a divide that is unnecessary and needs to be fixed. My concern is that it won’t be because the mind-set of third sector participants is that the charity sector is precious and that there needs to be a separation between boards and operations.

The separation is, I am repeatedly told, because of conflicts of interest. These conflicts, if a CEO becomes a Trustee, means, for example, that the roles are somehow confused and that the Chief Exec can no longer properly comment on staff salary issues because of conflicts of interest (see NCVO website).

The Charities Commission is completely confused. Two requests for information on this yielded completely different responses in the last couple of weeks – both suggested a board would need to ensure no conflicts of interest but while one said they would need to approve the appointment and one did not, neither could attest to the specific conflicts that would be in evidence.

What this means is that the separation (which does not happen in Education – and a school is no less precious) is maintained for little reason and the huge benefits – teamwork, joint motivation, openness for example – are lost in the preciousness.

It needs to change and fast.

Governance and Government

Our government shows itself adrift in its response to good governance by the way it shows itself in parliament. Having the Executive commanding the legislature is bad enough but requires a more magisterial quality. Osborne and Balls would not know that if it hit them between the eyes.

It is important that organisations are properly run. They have an enormous impact on society and are a key part of it. It can be argued that civil society has lost its control over organisations as government (our supposed defenders) has clearly shown no tendency to take itself seriously. Osborne and Gove are poor exemplars.

There may be no excuse for the rioters of last summer in England, but the tendency of organisations to show lack of leadership is troublesome and leadership is needed.

The future of Governance

Sectors of society like the three (or maybe four) mentioned above work in silos and come up against each other from time to time. There is much in common and governance issues affect each and all of them.

Governance is the method of governing – it applies to us nationally, internally and within organisations to which most of us belong. Good governance is crucial to the way society works but it is under threat.

The future of society depends on good governance and we now need to unravel the workings of a hundred years of legal doctrine to develop improvements throughout all the sectors of our society.

We need structures that combine strategy and operations, directors / trustees / governors and business / organizational leaders, but where the non-executives are provided with the skills and time to address the concerns that society has.

At the same time, Chief Execs need to be able to explain the key drivers that make (in their view) the organization work and non-execs should be able to investigate for themselves.

Gove wants Ofsted to rigorously assess governors in the way they monitor Heads. Fine (if they had any understanding of what that means and the ability to do it) but who is doing this in corporates – maybe the auditors or some other independent body for any publicly listed company?

Finally, different sectors should not be isolated from each other. NEDs, trustees, governors have a lot in common but all operate to completely separate rules and guidelines. It is time for some common dialogue as civil society (which includes everyone) is getting pretty sick and tired of the mess that organisations are in.