City: Society parlour game

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The Independent Online
THE TREASURY can do the nation a valuable service in the next week or two. It is due to publish its review of the Building Societies Act. When it has finished deciding whether the societies should be allowed to become banks or vice-versa more routinely, it might ask its draughtsmen to simplify the Act's current provisions with regard to takeover bids from commercial companies.

Sir Donald Nicholls's High Court ruling on Lloyds Bank's bid for Cheltenham & Gloucester was a masterpiece of which Gilbert and Sullivan would have been proud. He ruled out the bid, and then saved thousands of pounds in lawyers' fees by coming up with an ingenious solution to the barrier he had identified. But the idea that members of a society should become non-members so that other members can sell their membership is the stuff of rainy-day parlour games, not a serious way to decide the fate of a substantial organisation.

The Treasury should give a clear lead: either building societies are to be ring-fenced, beyond the pale of corporate cut and thrust, or they should be free to throw in their lot with other businesses. The present mess is just that, and the attendant uncertainty is a waste of time.

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