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Business Comment

OUTLOOK: RBS investigators are too tied to the establishment to win victims’ trust


Lawrence Tomlinson cuts quite a dash. The swashbuckling racing driver/millionaire tycoon shoots from the hip, and his report on RBS’s treatment of small business was characteristically explosive.

But proving its allegations will be no easy ride. Of the hundreds of companies which have contacted him with their complaints, he identified none as most were only speaking on condition of anonymity. Who can blame them? With so little competition in the banking market, publicly exposing the shoddy behaviour of your bank manager could be corporate suicide.

So what exactly will Clifford Chance’s investigators be able to investigate? A lot of businesses with metaphorical cracked heads and broken noses claiming to have fallen down the stairs? 

The fear of talking to the law firm’s staff will be exacerbated by the chilling words on their calling cards: “Clifford Chance”. Few names in the legal world state in bigger capital letters, “guardians of big business”. From its glittering skyscraper HQ in London’s Canary Wharf to the famous £1m-plus salaries of its partners, Clifford Chance is a byword for establishment power. Big banks are among its core customers. According to The Lawyer magazine, it acted for both Barclays and RBS on the Libor scandal. Not to mention the British Bankers Association.

Only last year RBS handed Clifford Chance the lucrative account to run the internal investigation into the IT fiasco that left millions of customers unable to access their accounts. Whether the firm did a rigorous job or not, only RBS management can know: the report has not yet been made public, pending a probe by regulators.

Given such a mighty City reputation, what small businessman who’s already been beaten up by his Big Four bank and its Big Four accountant is going to want to open his front door to a Magic Circle lawyer?

Those small businesses furious enough to go on the record will, in many cases, be in the middle of legal action against the bank, awaiting decisions and appeals which Clifford Chance cannot prejudge. Other allegations may be true but lacking in evidence, and it is not yet clear if Clifford Chance will have the power to force the disclosure of documents and emails like a litigant would.

With less than three months, including the Christmas break, to carry out its work, we should be sceptical.

Outsourcing civil servants risks losing a pride in service

Owen Paterson has good reason to be worried. The Environment secretary has just written to the Cabinet Office enforcer Francis Maude to express concerns about the ideologically driven (my words, not his) Conservative edict to privatise a large chunk of his department and pack it off to call centres in India. Mr Paterson frets about the damage to morale it will cause as 1,000 or so jobs go abroad.

The response, I’m sure, from Mr Maude will be along the lines of: “It’s just boring back office stuff, old boy. I know you want to look good in front of the troops, but really, it’s not worth the fuss.”

Actually, though, it is. Among the functions to be “offshored” by the new contractor, Steria, are human resources and payroll. These staff will, I’m informed, be handling all the personal details of Defra’s 100,000-plus civil servants. Among those, unions claim, could be Mr Paterson himself. Certain security details, such as his addresses in Britain and France, not to mention his bank account, may also be pinging around the new Indian offices.

And then there are the personal details of all the thousands of suppliers and farmers that Defra deals with on a daily basis.

I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the probity of Defra’s new contractors in Pune, second biggest city of the state of Maharashtra. And I certainly don’t deny they deserve jobs. I just don’t understand why we should be sending them fairly critical matters of state to deal with.

India does not comply with EU standards of security for cross-border data transfers. And I know whose legal system I would rather be operating under.

Ah, you may say, but banks and insurance companies have been operating out of India for donkey’s years. That’s true, but many of them have since returned to the UK amid waves of complaints from customers. Why doesn’t Whitehall learn from their mistakes rather than repeat them a decade later?

The offshoring decision seems to have been deliberately made by the government when it ran the tender: Steria, the French company which won, was awarded it over BT, which had proposed keeping the work in Britain. (Perhaps BT has learned from its own experiences with Indian call centres: an entire Facebook page is dedicated to their dismal customer service.)

The government was not always so keen to pursue the offshoring agenda. Mr Maude might like to check his Hansard for current Justice secretary Chris Grayling’s parliamentary boast a couple of years back that he had blocked a Hewlett-Packard contract at the Department of Work and Pensions from being shipped overseas. “We have a job to try to maximise employment in this country” he said.

There is no doubt that there are parts of government that might benefit from privatisation. But each saving must be weighed against its price: the fact that the civil service has an ethos of being there to serve their departments, and the country.

Transferring civil service posts to private contractors makes them one step removed from that founding principle. Moving them to the other side of the world can surely only distance them further.