James Moore: At least for the short term, gender quotas might be the best bet
Outlook: A majority of the EC’s nine female members reportedly oppose them
James Moore is the Independent's Associate Business Editor and writes the Outlook City comment column from Tuesday to Friday. He also has a keen interest in disability issues and when not attempting to further injure himself playing wheelchair basketball.
Wednesday 24 October 2012
Tory backbenchers who are ready to go into battle for Britannia with the dastardly EU over attempts to reserve seats around the boardroom table for their heroine's sisters can probably rest easy. A vote on the plan has been deferred and it may yet be watered down to such an extent that even the most reactionary eurosceptic would probably find it hard to get too cross.
In part that's because the original plans, demanding that at least 40 per cent of boardroom seats at public companies be reserved for women – backed up by sanctions – might actually violate EU law.
In part, however, it's because they have been met by fierce opposition from some of the very people quotas are supposed to assist: a majority of the European Commission's nine female members reportedly oppose them, including the formidable Neelie Kroes.
The problem with quotas is that they are a rather blunt instrument and can be extremely insulting to people who have worked their socks off, only to have it suggested that they were offered a position solely because of their gender, ethnicity or disability.
I'm guessing this is at least partly what's behind the opposition from "Steely" Neelie and her colleagues – and it's understandable.
But how else do you secure progress? Attitudes at the higher levels of business are often prehistoric, as Lord Davies, who has urged a doubling of female representation on FTSE 100 boards by 2015, has stated.
The trouble is that his prescription for change – persuading, cajoling, pressurising – isn't working that well. And even if his target is reached, women will make up just 25 per cent of directors. In February he described an increase to 15 per cent as "amazing". He wouldn't have dared use such a term to describe such a moderate improvement in, say, profits in his days as a chief executive.
In business, the old boys' network still reigns supreme, and yesterday's climbdown can only reinforce that.
But need boardroom quotas today be such a bad thing?
Time and again I see examples of non-executives selected from traditional backgrounds – former directors, senior civil servants and the like – failing shareholders. If they'd done their jobs properly there wouldn't have been a "shareholder spring" dominated by rebellions over bosses' pay, because a properly functioning board would have listened to shareholders' concerns and addressed them, nipping rebellion in the bud.
Enforcing quotas of women might have the effect of providing companies with a greater diversity of skills and experience by forcing them to look beyond traditional candidates. What's more, the limited progress that has been made so far has chiefly been motivated by the threat of quotas. If that threat is lifted, we're likely to move swiftly into reverse.
State-run bank could work for borrowers
When it comes to lending to businesses, the banks are beginning to sound like scratched, vinyl records (they're making a comeback). Every month the British Bankers' Association releases figures showing they aren't doing much of it; and every month the banks say it's not their fault. "We've got the money but they don't want it," they moan.
This is the sort of defence used by criminal lawyers when their clients have been caught bang to rights: Deny, deny, deny. Then obfuscate, confuse, blow smoke, gloss over. Then deny, deny, deny again in the hope that by the end of the trial you'll have managed to cast enough doubt in the minds of enough naive jurors to get a mistrial.
There is a considerable demand for credit among British companies, which desperately need financing to take advantage of what might be those fabled green shoots of recovery , which will surely be choked off if businesses can't get credit.
That's partly why corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline have taken to playing lender: they too would like to grow but know they won't be able to do so if the smaller companies in their supply chains can't supply that growth because they can't get credit.
Fine and dandy if you're lucky enough to be operating in one of those supply chains. But what if you aren't?
With private-sector banks failing, and seemingly immune to pressure, the state may yet have to step in, and yesterday there were again suggestions of doing that, with Royal Bank of Scotland as the conduit.
That would be dangerous. If the Government ever wants to see a return on the vast investment in that bank it needs to butt out. To threaten to use its clout as a shareholder to force compliance would make the Coalition little better than the oligarchs who insist on bringing their natural resources companies to the London Stock Exchange and riding roughshod over minority investors when they get there.
An alternative would be to set up a state-run bank. It looks unpalatable, given the low level of competence the British state often demonstrates. But if it were operated at arm's length, on commercial terms, targeting the sort of financially sound, creditworthy borrowers who aren't being served by the banking sector, it might work.
It would also bring new competition, and could even make the taxpayer a few quid from a future privatisation.
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