A group of politicians, clergy and former members of the Occupy London movement have launched a bid to take control of the body which governs London’s financial district.
The group will support a host of candidates standing for election to the City of London Corporation’s (CoLC) main decision-making body the Common Council early next year on a ticket of radical reform of the secretive organisation.
Members of the City Reform Group, who include the Conservative MP David Davis and the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral Giles Fraser, want to see greater transparency in the CoLC. They have promised to publish all of its financial secrets, should their supporters gain an electoral foothold in March.
“The City of London Corporation certainly needs to be reclaimed by the people. It is a public authority and it should be more for the common good. There is a question about it masquerading as a public body but lobbying for private interest. It is very important that it publishes its accounts in full and, if it has nothing to hide, then brilliant,” said Dr Fraser this week.
David Davis MP said that the campaign was not about increasing regulation imposed on the City or on the Corporation but about instilling aims which would make it run more efficiently.
He said: “One of the key things the Future of Banking Commission taught me was that we need more than just rules and regulation. We need a commitment to professional and moral standards. The City Reform Group Pledges are an important step to that end.”
The Group is made up of representatives of savers and borrowers, faith groups, politicians and think tanks. It has no party political affiliations and will offer its support to any candidates who agree to sign up to its seven pledges. In the event that it gains some influence with the secretive body, it plans to institute change from within.
The pledges include promises to put customers – not bonuses - first in banking, to put money towards ensuring better business practices and to blow the whistle on bad practice, such as fixing Libor rates.
The pledges also include promises to recognise a “responsibility to the common good”, operate in an open and transparent manner to “administer the Corporation democratically, efficiently and accountably”. People signing up to the pledges will also be expected to report publicly on how they have kept their promises.
The City of London Corporation’s Common Councillors are elected every four years and make up the organisation’s main decision-making body. The Corporation has been criticised in the past for a lack of transparency since it sits astride the boundary between private body and local government authority for the Square Mile.
That status – along with other centuries-old rights it has won – mean that it has exemptions from certain laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act. It also runs its own police force, the City of London Police. The Corporation argues that it abides by all laws and publishes all accounts and decisions it is required to. It also holds meetings to decide budgets in public.
The Corporation holds endowments – monies given to it over hundreds of years by private benefactors – to be spent for the public benefit. It is only required to publish information on any use of that money related to its role as the local government for the City and has no obligation to provide any other information. It said it voluntarily publishes details of plans it spends the money but keeps any other information secret.
But Dr Fraser said: “Required by the law, I am sure that’s right. My problem is that there is an enormous amount of money administered by the City of London Corporation which is not open to view and it seems to me a matter of democratic principle and basic morality that a public body should be much more open and transparent than that: ‘I abide by the law’.”
He added: “It’s not good enough for me that that moral work is done by corporate social responsibility; giving money to the opera and to animals. It is not enough for that moral work to be done by just a little bit of charitable giving, it has to be intrinsic, intrinsic to the nature of the activity that goes on. And there’s no reason why it can’t be.
“Unfortunately, the City too often backs away from the idea of any sense of its ethical responsibility. In 2009, and this is an extraordinary thing, ‘the City of London Corporation does not have a position on the causes or solutions of the financial crisis’, it says.
“The City of London did not take a position on the worst thing to happen to the City for decades and decades and I’m afraid it’s a shocker. The City of London Corporation and the City has to do much harder work to reconnect with its moral principles and particularly, for me, the idea of the common good. It needs to rebuild trust.”
A spokesman for the City of London Corporation said: “We are in favour of people being actively engaged in the elections and we hope that a lot of people will come out and vote.
“We absolutely follow the local authority responsibilities and all other laws. Where we have particular responsibilities; like the Funds we have for provision of public spaces, they were given as endowments to run things like Hampstead Heath.
“Our spending is published in detail and all that we do is debated fully and is the subject of reports, almost all of which are published.” After campaigners attacked “anomalies” in the way the organisation is run and governed, the spokesman added: “The anomalies also provide for many good things, the Corporations also has large endowments which it uses for public good.”
Like other government authorities, City of London Corporation Common Councillors are elected by the people who live in the area. However, unlike others, votes are also given to businesses which are based there, via their employees.
The Group’s initiative will be aimed at encouraging people who agree with the pledges to stand, as well as convincing those who would otherwise have stood to take them. The elections will take place on March 21 2013. Also launching the initiative alongside Mr Davis and Dr Fraser were: Pula Houghton, Executive Director of Which?; David Pitt-Watson of the RSA think tank and Simon Walker, the Director General of the Institute of Directors.
Mr Pitt-Watson said: “Nothing could be more important to the financial services industry than its integrity and professionalism. The City of London Corporation proudly stands at the top of that industry, promoting its affairs. In the City election, the electors are the employees as well as the citizens, and those people need to ensure that that integrity and professionalism is top of everyone's agenda.”
Simon Walker, Director General, Institute of Directors, said: “Capitalism should continually seek to improve itself. It is important for the City’s critics to engage with it constructively, honestly and in good faith.”
However, the Group immediately came under fire for its under-representation of women, which panellists admitted was “fair cop”.