A Labour-made crisis

Dr Eamonn Butler argues that it is absurd for ministers to condemn Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s pension deal on leaving the position of CEO of RBS given the pensions mess that they created.

Yes, Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension is a scandal. How can someone who brought his company to near collapse walk away, aged just 50, with £703,000 a year? But would I tear up the contract? No, I wouldn’t. A deal is a deal. If the minister, Lord Myners, was foolish enough to sign it – without even giving himself a cooling-off period, which of course the banks have to give their customers – then I’m afraid that he and taxpayers are stuck with it.

What revolts me more is Harriet Harman’s declaration that, whatever the legal position, Goodwin’s pension can’t survive the “court of public opinion”. I don’t see Harman and friends deferring to the court of public opinion. If they did, they’d all have resigned long ago, probably when Blair took us into Iraq.

People should not be robbed of their lives, liberty, property, or even their pensions by a “court of public opinion”. That’s something for a court of law. An eagerness to replace the rule of law by this rule of public prejudice is one of the most gut-wrenchingly illiberal features of this government.

Sir Fred Goodwin made some big mistakes. Buying the Dutch bank ABM Amro was one. This pig-in-a-poke was stuffed full of US sub-prime junk that cost the Royal Bank of Scotland £16.2bn. But, until then, everyone hailed Goodwin as a financial genius. He made the RBS a major economic force, employing 180,000 people worldwide. It was the backbone of the economy, particularly Scotland’s economy. In 2007 it paid £1.7bn in tax. A high-spending chancellor must have been grateful.

If Goodwin had stood on the brakes back in 2007, I’m sure he’d have been out on his ear with a pension of tuppence. But back then, the government was pouring rocket fuel into the economy, and the sky seemed the limit. Of course it all exploded. But that’s down to Gordon Brown’s imprudence, not Goodwin’s.

There certainly is something wrong about Goodwin’s pension, and the other astronomical sums that corpora-crats pay themselves. It’s the fact that company law gives shareholders – the real owners of Britain’s businesses – far too little say. So Goodwin is rewarded, while people who loyally invested in his business see their shares fall by nine-tenths. But that’s something the lawmakers must sort out.

While they’re at it, politicians should sort out their own pensions scandals. They’ve promised hugely generous pensions – usually two-thirds of final salary, index-linked, of course – to more than five million police, judges, mandarins, BBC staff and other state employees. These civil-service pensions cost taxpayers more than £20bn a year. That’s a total liability of £1,261bn, which works out to a £47,998 debt on every household in the country.

Why is council tax so high? Partly because we’re paying for all those retired council officers. Why is Britain’s policing so feeble? Well, much of the police budget goes to pay the pensions of 140,000 retired officers rather than the wages of the 165,000 serving ones. Some forces actually pay out more in pensions than they do in wages.

A top civil servant like the head of the Department of Work and Pensions – the person in charge of paying married couples their state pension of just £145.05 a week – can expect to retire with an inflation-proof pension of 18 times as much, £138,000 a year.

Nice work, if you can get it. But most of us can’t. In 1997, Britain’s private company pensions were a huge success, worth more than the rest of Europe’s put together. Gordon Brown thought they could well afford his technical “dividend credits” manoeuvre that netted him £5.3bn and rising. But over the last dozen years, that’s amounted to £175bn taken out of the pockets of pension savers – a tax of £16,600 on every saver.

Today, just half of the 100,000 pension schemes of 1997 still exist, and few of those are taking on new members. Less than half of private-sector workers are now paying into a pension. With the economy suffering, this “public affluence, private squalor” is causing real resentment. No, if you want to make money these days, the only thing to be is an MP. You can fiddle your expenses, employ your family and buy a second home at taxpayers’ expense without even facing suspension, never mind jail. And the final-salary pension scheme is, naturally, fabulous. Even beats being a banker, doesn’t it?

Blog Review 889

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Imagine if shops were run like schools, with a lottery as to which ones you could use?

And then think about how well markets work.

Yes, it's true, incentives matter.

This is very disturbing if true. That troops are being asked whether they would fire on a crowd if employed in riot control.

So where is the call for the subsidies to Exxon?

Just what do they think the price inelasticity of demand for booze is?

And finally, a few cans short of a six pack.

Brown in USA

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Gordon Brown is smug to be the first European leader to meet the new American President. And no doubt he'll be telling Mr Obama how the special 'partnership' can save the world.

He's still jumping the gun a bit, since Obama's economic team is far from being in place. That's because of all the FBI checks, the Congressional hearings, the Trial by Newspaper as the press trawls through the tax returns of potential Cabinet members. It can take six months to find a set of Cabinet appointees who've actually paid their taxes, not hired illegal nannies, not taken free trips from lobbyists, and all the rest. And in a US administration, there are 2,000 or more political appointments to be made. You have to get the Cabinet selected first before you can then move down to the others. So we haven't the faintest clue as to what Obama's Treasury team will look like. Mr Brown will be speaking into a void.

You don't know what a US administration's policies will be until everyone's appointed. Which might not be before the summer. It's a feeble way to run a country.

Not that any of them have any idea what to do anyway. Obama has never run any organization, except possibly a campaign team. His refloat package, like the $750 billion put up to solve the financial crisis last year, was a figure plucked out of the air. I guess that $500 billion sounded not quite enough to convince people it would work, and $1,000 sounded too frighteningly large. The politicians and officials just felt they had to do something, but they still don't know quite what. Nor do they know who's going to pay back all this debt they're clocking up. You can't rely on China - its fate so largely depends on its trade with the US, so you're in a spiral there. Ah well. Good luck, Gordon, save a bit of the world for me.

The Rotten State Of Britain by Eamonn Butler (Gibson Square Books) is now available to buy here.

The "Freedom Bill" is not liberal enough

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The Liberal Democrats recently unveiled their new "Freedom Bill". Although it has been heralded as the beginning of the counter-attack to reclaim our civil liberties, its lack of ambition and the existence of a number of possible flaws mean that this valiant effort may fail in its early stages.

The proposal for reducing the period of detention without trial is limited in only demanding a retreat from 28 to 14 days when it had the opportunity to call for a much greater reduction. However, this is not the only sign of unfulfilled aspiration. With measures to restore the right to public assembly by increasing the numbers permitted back from 2 to 20, the Bill has missed the opportunity to demand an even higher number.

A proposed reduction in the number of crimes that can be retried in light of new evidence appears to suggest that attempted murder, kidnapping and a number of sexual offences are not considered serious enough, and that retrial should be limited exclusively to cases of genocide and murder. By doing so, the Bill does not defend against Double Jeopardy, which is the retrial for the same crime on the same evidence, but instead attacks the retrial of gravely serious crimes based on both new and compelling evidence - terms already clearly defined.

Finally, the "Freedom Bill" makes no mention of repealing some of the most ridiculous curtailments of our freedoms. There is nothing on repealing the criminalisation of photographing police officers, and perhaps most seriously of all, there is nothing to balance or redress the huge potential to abuse ministerial powers due to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act of 2006, a law that allows minsters to ignore Parliament and even directly amend existing legislation at their own discretion.

If Britain is to truly reclaim liberty from its own government, we must have the courage to be bolder and more radical in our demands.

Anton Howes is leader of the Social Liberalist Party.

Convention on modern liberty

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Last Saturday, I attended the London event of the Convention on Modern Liberty. It was “a call to all concerned with attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state".

Whilst England may be the birthplace of freedom, we live in a country increasingly burdened by excessive government. Our political freedoms are under perpetual attack under the false pretext that freedom and security are a zero sum game and liberty must be traded for security. As the economy crumbles, the battle to halt the further erosion of our economic freedoms will be tough. We have reached the dire situation where we have failed to achieve greater security or better services, but have given up fundamental liberty. The attrition has accelerated under the Labour regime and as David Davis commented, we may not live in a police state, but when does it become one? We only see what we have lost when it has become too late.

While there was considerable concurrence at the convention against many forms of swelling intrusion, especially in political terms, I was shocked and perturbed by the many who claimed to champion the cause of Liberty, but actually wished dishonourably to stab it in the back. To clarify with some examples:

  1. Billy Bragg passionately attacked the rise of individualism, and consumerism. He clearly missed the inherent link between Liberty, and the freedom to pursue one’s own interests.
  2. There was little mention of economic freedoms.
  3. The Left and Liberty ... a contradiction in terms? It was noteworthy how quasi socialists attempted to latch on to the positive support for liberty.

Overall, it was an excellent event, and I highly recommend going on the website to look at media from the event and to support the cause. The eternal battle for liberty is never won, but people “have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."
 

Koch Associate Program 2009-10

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The good people of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation have opened up their Associate Program for 2009-10.

During the year-long program, Associates are based in Washington, D.C., and spend four days each week at non-profit organizations working in full-time positions and one day each week at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation immersed in a Market-Based Management curriculum.

The non-profit assignments cover fascinating fields such as policy research, leadership and talent development, grassroots education, marketing, network development, and non-profit operations, and allow Associates to explore specific areas of interest within the organizations. Associates have the chance to demonstrate their talents and the opportunity to earn more responsibility if they perform their jobs well. Associates witness first-hand the nuts and bolts of non-profit work, including how decisions are made, how projects are prioritized, which capabilities are necessary for an organization to operate smoothly, and the challenges faced in a non-profit environment. Over the course of the year, Associates share their diverse experiences with the group, creating a unique learning opportunity unparalleled in other development programs.

Click here to find out more

Blog Review 888

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At least someone has a solution.

Has Harriet been studying Zimbabwe?

Not necessarily true but interesting all the same: is HSBC actually to blame?

A return to traditional British foods, that's what we need.

By not allowing companies to contract or go bust are we Sovietising our economy?

Yes, Warren Buffett really is different.

And finally, Lord of the Rings as written by other authors. Conan Doyle for example.

Northern Rock's lesson in regulation

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The Northern Rock, which publishes its results today, used to be a building society. They were rather conservative institutions, whose role was to take money from cautious savers and lend it to people buying homes.

But in the Thatcher years, they found themselves suddenly able to become banks, and swap the dull world of bricks and mortar for the exciting world of international derivatives. A few didn't take up the offer, recognizing that their customers actually preferred savings accounts that were dull but safe. Some, like Northern Rock, grabbed the chance. And this being a competitive market, the Rock rushed after market share. Unfortunately it rushed after market share at the expense of good business, and came a cropper.

Some folk think that this Thatcherite deregulation is the sole cause of our present problems. That's wrong. Firstly, it was quarter of a century ago, and lots of other things have happened since. Secondly, to me it shows more the folly of regulation, rather than deregulation. If you minutely regulate your business institutions, then suddenly set them free, you might well expect them to do a lot of silly things. Like all those East Europeans, after the Berlin Wall came down, rushing into the West to spend their life savings on the Mercedes Benz they'd always dreamed of. The lesson isn't 'don't deregulate' - the lesson should be 'don't over-regulate in the first place'. And if you're going to cut back on regulation, maybe it's best to do it gradually so that euphoria doesn't overwhelm everyone all at once. The deregulation of the alcohol licensing laws might provide us with another example.

Should we then go back to tighter regulation? To force banks to separate their day-to-day small-saver business from their high flying money market activities? Bring back Glass-Steagall? No, we shouldn't. After this little lot, customers will be demanding that for themselves. And bankers will be well aware of what sort of a mess they got themselves into by mixing and matching different kinds of business. Regulation, as we now all realize, is a very powerful tool. It's such a shame that it's wielded by people who plainly don't have the competence to handle it.

The Rotten State of Britain by Eamonn Butler (Gibson Square Books) is available to buy here.

Government in a panic

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‘Bad cases make bad law’ (Law 101). I have read many contracts and I have never ceased to be amazed at the casual approach to important contractual issues displayed by relatively high-paid executives in both private and public life. The reaction to Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension fiasco among members of the Government is born of the panic to remove him as quickly as possible as the fall-guy for the whole sorry mess.

The more the bank bosses were and are portrayed as culpable, the less the public would blame the Government, or so the politics of pass-the-parcel blame game feels like since last October. This Government is obsessed by being seen to be ‘doing something’, allegedly better than ‘doing nothing’ (though ‘doing right’ is the better strategy).

The ‘mere’ details of the severance arrangements slipped from view. Competent negotiators often say: ‘If you’ve got it in writing you’ve got a prayer; if it ain’t in writing you’ve got thin air.’  Sir Fred got it in writing. Lord Mandelson, the Chancellor, and the Prime Minister didn’t, and neither did their talented advisors. Double worse, it has come to light, and now they are squirming in deep manure.

Their reaction? As ever, they panic!  Harriet Harman threatens to over-ride the law because the Prime minister says so. How? By passing a new law, or introducing a new tax on high incomes, or perhaps something in the anti-terror laws, or how about the wartime laws on the seizure of German assets? Or don’t pay him and await his writ in the courts?

In short, more panic, more short-termism, and more of what got us into this mess.

Professor Gavin Kennedy is a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and writes regularly here