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Wednesday 12 January 2011
Letters: Bank bonuses
I read David Buik's "View from the City" (10 January) several times. Had to, because I felt sure it was a wind-up. I looked for irony, the tongue in the cheek, but – Wow! – Mr Buik actually was arguing for a bank bonus culture.
When will these types get the message about my wellbeing and the wellbeing of millions of others? We allow the bankers to use our money until we need it back. So I want my bankers to be totally focused on my pension fund and its long-term success (long term is six years in the real world, not six weeks).
I most definitely do not agree that being able to choose between Lamborghini yellow and Ferrari red is going help my pension fund one little bit. Bankers need to understand value for money as we in the real world do.
David Buik undoubtedly does express the "View from the City" but that is like asking the Krays for their opinions on the law against protection rackets.
It is easy to blame the last government and undoubtedly, blinded by free-market infatuation in common with just about every other administration, it was negligent. But if the police do not do their job properly this does not make the people who commit the crime one iota less guilty.
Bankers were paid fortunes which would have been ludicrously high even for a job well done. Yet the job was not well done and the economy of the western world was brought to its knees by these individuals, only to be dragged back from the brink by the very politicians Buik would rather blame.
Instead of begging forgiveness from the common people who bailed them out and who are themselves now paying the penalty, the bankers are back demanding the right to pay themselves the same astronomical sums of money which contributed so fundamentally to the whole mess in the first place.
No, "life is not fair", but much of life is what we choose to make it, and it's time we started to make choices and changes to bring some fairness and sanity to the economic system.
Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Has the Coalition Government got it so wrong, moaning hopelessly about bonuses and doing nothing? Perhaps moral force is one of the few means available to change a climate of excess.
Adam Smith knew that markets work properly only when gross incomparabilities of power, knowledge and mobility are moderated by societies and by states. Top bankers' remuneration reflects the breakdown of a proper market system. That breakdown has had a cultural effect across the higher levels of almost all paid employees, even in the public sector, producing differentials previously available only to entrepreneurs and "stars".
The only means available to limit the greed are moral, social, educational and regulatory. Most of these will only operate effectively, in a globalised world, if applied internationally. There is therefore every point in railing against the free-for-all, but not only in one sector of the economy. Tell all the overpaid that, like over-rich countries, they depend on the work and consumption of others who are nauseated by their excess.
Some of the rich have always been shamed or inspired to philanthropy, partly from altruism and partly from fear. Will today's greed be moderated by social norms and by international regulation, before there is a revolution? Bankers, like rich countries, have to learn to be embarrassed and afraid.
In the last few years long NHS waiting lists have been slashed. This would be considered a success by NHS patients. Banks have gone bust, and have been nationalised. This is pretty good evidence of failure.
NHS pay rises to compensate for inflation have already been frozen, and now the "NHS Employers" group (a proxy for the Government) is negotiating with public-sector unions to freeze the salary increments which are part of staff contracts.
What NHS staff must understand is that unless a lot of them take a pay cut, the Government will not be able to afford the really large bonuses which are apparently part of the contract of a small number of bankers.
The USA may have the Tea Party movement, but we have the Mad Hatter's Tea Party movement. Success must be punished so that failure can be rewarded.
If it is the case that British banks are able to make larger profits because they are implicitly underwritten by the British Government and taxpayer, why not make this guarantee explicit and charge something for it, so that the taxpayer, who shares in the risk, also shares in the benefit?
Banks which paid up, and perhaps also undertook to behave responsibly in restraining their own pay and bonuses, would receive the official pledge of support. Those that did not could be publicly listed as being on their own if they got into difficulties. Investors and depositors could then take their own decision on whether they wanted to take the risk of doing business with them.
The banks which were government-guaranteed would need to be regulated to ensure they were not too heavily exposed to those which were not, so that the risks were not the subject of a hidden transfer.
The Government could also publish its own assessments of foreign banks, based on the extent to which the host country might be expected to bail them out. Small countries which were operating as tax havens would probably be listed as particularly high-risk. The difficulty which it could cause them might deter some banks from leaving this country, as they are currently threatening to do.
The continual worries and loss of nerve about bankers threatening to leave the country would be greatly reduced if we adopted the American policy of requiring citizens to file tax returns wherever in the world they choose to claim as domicile.
If they go to a similar society to ours then there is little or nothing to pay, since it is offset by tax in their country of residence. If, however, they have taken refuge in a tax haven and there is little offset, then they would still pay some UK tax. The only way to avoid that would be to give up their citizenship, for which their descendants might not be very grateful. The existing system was very good for encouraging people to go out and serve in the empire but that is no longer the priority it used to be.
There is a lot of justifiable outrage to some of the practices of the major banks, but for many people there are alternatives to using them.
Banks exist, for example the Co-operative Bank, that offer full banking services without paying huge bonuses to staff. It also works to a more ethical policy than many other institutions.
So, rather than fulminate at the injustices of bonuses, anyone who really cares about these issues could easily make a real difference and minimise the trade and support they give to businesses they disapprove of.
Barclays bank didn't take government money for a bail-out. Bob Diamond, Barclays' chief executive, is the wrong person for MPs to focus on. They should save their thunder for RBS or Lloyds.
Incidentally, the special tax on "bankers' bonuses" also hit people working in HR and IT; neither group was implicated in the credit crunch. Yet again, mob fury fails to discriminate between cases.
In his Annals of an Abiding Liberal, the eminent economist J K Galbraith summed up the situation on bankers' bonuses when he wrote: "The salary of the chief executive of the large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself."
Why patients get too many drugs
The medical establishment, in the shape of Professor Sir Alasdair Breckenridge, is criticising GPs for overprescribing, particularly in the elderly ("NHS told to end culture of overprescribing", 4 January). This would be, of course, the same medical establishment who actively encourage high levels of prescribing in people who may not benefit much from the drugs. I refer to the quality and outcome framework (QOF) introduced some six years ago under which GP practices are financially penalised unless a number of clinical targets are met.
This can lead to otherwise fit elderly people being prescribed as many as four drugs to control mildly raised blood pressure, which may in the past have been left alone by the family doctor as it may have been felt to be of little importance in the patient.
Pressure groups constantly berate GPs for not paying enough attention to particular medical problems, particularly in the elderly. Woe betide the doctor who does not prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs, blood-pressure medication and blood-thinning drugs to his octogenarian patient who may have what are simply age related cardiac abnormalities. You need to be a brave doctor to exercise common sense these days, which is one of the reasons I am a recently retired GP.
Dr Peter Glover
Heritage of the railways in peril
I write on behalf of the Stephenson Locomotive Society to express our concern at the proposed demise of the Railway Heritage Committee (RHC).
The RHC has done a valuable job over the past 14 years, having taken over a role previously held by the British Railways Board (BRB) in designating important historical railway documents and artefacts for preservation, and ensuring they are not lost for ever.
It is because of the work done by the RHC and the BRB before it, with the backing of legislation, that we have such a rich collection of railway heritage. Were it not for these bodies then it is likely that much of what we have now in the national museums would have ended up on a scrap heap or been sold into unregulated private ownership.
To the best of our knowledge the RHC operates with only one paid member of staff (the secretary) whilst the experts drawn from the rail industry, heritage railways, the National Museum of Science and Industry, the National Archives of Scotland and others with expertise in conservation and archiving, are all volunteers. It seems that there is little saving to be made by government in abolishing the RHC, but much to be lost in its abolition.
We therefore ask that the Government should review and reconsider this short-sighted decision.
M A Green
General Secretary, The Stephenson Locomotive Society
I'm sure (or at least I hope) that your editorial "Excellent ambassadors" (5 January) was written tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, it's perhaps a bit unfair to leave us with the impression that little has changed since the days of 19th century lie-abed attachés and 1920s Chancery ink-fights.
Ask anyone who has recently undergone the rigorous graduate entry procedure for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if they thought they were being judged on their fine features, charming wife or abilities at cards and tennis, and I suspect you'd get a pretty undiplomatic response.
Although I'm not in touch with the current generation of "excellencies", I doubt that many of them will be seriously riled at Mr Hague's proposal to give them training to improve their ability to gain advantage, particularly of the commercial kind, for British interests. It's what they do for a living.
It's only a TV drama
I very much agree with Alice Jones's article "Get real about EastEnders" (8 January). Of course the BBC shouldn't have to change its storylines because of the sensitivities of a few viewers.
This is after all a work of fiction – and it certainly is not the first sensational story for this drama series. We all have an off switch on our televisions. I had a stillborn baby myself over 40 years ago. I found the acting excellent, and the handling of the subject beautifully managed. The BBC should refuse to be bullied. It is sad – not to say a bit scary – when people can't differentiate between reality and a drama.
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
I do not know how many Jews there are in Leamington Spa. There must be some. Jonathan Brown ("Back in the groove", 8 January) has his own view, however. Even so, describing the seemly place as "gentile" seems to be making more of a distinction than is truly warranted.
Gerald Gilbert passes quickly over Edward III ("Screen kings and queens", 7 January) in his list of royal portrayals, but Michael Hordern's appearance in The Dark Avenger was notable for his onscreen son, Errol Flynn, being older than him.
Wrexham, North Wales
Perspectives on selling off our forests
A proposal that will unite the nation
Well done to Johann Hari for his piece on the potential sale of our forests (7 January). However, congratulations are also in order for David Cameron. This latest idea seems to demonstrate a remarkable similarity with the One Nation Tories.
This proposal has created agreement across the widest range of political opinion I have seen in many years. Email campaigns from staunch Conservatives as well as left-wing activists seek to overturn this latest foolish venture.
Perhaps if the united opposers of this policy turned up in Parliament Square carrying leafy branches, Cameron would recall what happened to Macbeth when Burnham Wood came to Dunsinane.
Along with the majority of British voters, I did not vote for a Conservative government last May, but we seem to have one now. Like so many others I was nervous, but in the interest of stable government willing to feel supportive of the Coalition arrangement.
No longer; for me the last straw is the Government's intention to sell off the country's woodlands to the highest bidder. I actually believe that this won't happen; it will touch such a raw nerve for such a wide variety of individuals, organisations and interest groups that the collective protest would be larger than marches by the Countryside Alliance and students against tuition fees combined.
I am normally content to pass comment or to protest from the comfort of my computer screen, but for this issue I would be out there chaining myself to the logging machines alongside RSPB members, fox-hunters, ramblers, National Trust members and ladies from the WI, not to mention everyone else on the political spectrum to the left of Fred Goodwin.
Is this where the Greenest Government Ever would take us in the interest of wood-chip producers?
Chapel Lawn, Shropshire
Millions can still enjoy the woods
Johann Hari's article seems to be based on clairvoyance – but his crystal ball must be faulty because it contains predictions that simply will not become true.
In conjuring up supposed targets for raising revenue and land area to be sold Mr Hari is likely to induce unnecessary panic in those who care about our forests. He rightly notes that these woodlands are enjoyed by millions across England, and that's something we want to make sure continues in the future. We also intend our woodlands to continue to deliver a huge range of environmental benefits for now and future generations.
All will become clear when we launch an open and transparent consultation in the coming weeks. I confidently predict that Mr Hari's worst fears will then magically disappear.
Caroline Spelman MP
Odd shade of green
Things are much worse than even Johann Hari described. The three first green-relevant actions of the new Coalition were to relax the rules on speed cameras, to encourage lower parking costs and to endorse a massive rise in rail fares. In prospect is a regulator action to restrain petrol prices.
Professor Frederick Toates
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