Tag Archives: banks

Speech: Where we are and how we got here

Note: I got into a bit of a state preparing for my speech at the Social Liberal Forum Conference on Saturday, staying up the previous night writing and angsting about it: for some reason I found the prospect of sharing a platform with Neal Lawson, Will Hutton and Simon Hughes (who ended up replaced by Evan Harris at the last minute) quite intimidating. In the end, I would have been better off just writing half a dozen notes, having a good night’s sleep and winging it. I never got round to doing the final section because I went massively over time.

I’m not really happy with it – in particular I really need to spell out better what I’m trying to say about corporate culture and how the banking crisis is connected to IP wars and body image – but for what it’s worth here it is. In the event, a lot of what I didn’t get a chance to say was touched on during the day in any case, which was pleasing.

We established the Social Liberal Forum in early 2009, but its conception arose out of the Lib Dem 2008 Autumn Conference. Many will have forgotten, but that conference was dominated by the publication of the so-called “vision and values” paper Make It Happen.

The party leadership’s line to the press in the run up to that conference was that this paper signified a shift in policy, and specifically a move towards the party promising overall tax cuts at the following general election. This caused a predictable outrage and equally predictable froth about Clegg having a “Clause 4 moment”. In fact, the policy motion going to conference said nothing specific about tax cuts but was sufficiently vaguely worded that it was open to interpretation. The result was an absolute mess, with people hopelessly confused over what the debate was even about and the official line changing on an almost hourly basis. It was possibly the lowest point in the party’s proud history of deciding policy in a transparent and democratic manner.

In the end, the motion was passed, but it was a hollow victory. While we spent our time debating the prospect of tax cuts in Bournemouth, in New York Lehman Brothers was falling apart. By the end of the conference, it was already clear that we were going to have to tear up our economic policy and start all over again.

It is important to recall that incident because we need to be clear about where the SLF was coming from. We didn’t set up SLF to be some kind of Tribunite vanguard of a fringe liberal left. Our concern was that the mainstream voice of the party was being sidestepped and bypassed. The social liberal majority within the party had grown complacent about its predominant position, assuming that the party’s internal democracy would prevent the party from going in a direction it wasn’t willing to take. The 2008 conference made it clear to a number of us that it was important we got organised. As it happens, with the formation of the coalition, the need for that organisation is now more apparent than ever.

Was SLF established as a ‘response’ to the Orange Book? Well, it is true that several of its founding members were involved in the publication of Reinventing the State, which certainly was a response to the Orange Book. But I don’t think that portraying tensions between “social” and “economic” liberals within the party is some kind of ideological schism is helpful or especially meaningful. Within the Lib Dems, the debate over how public services are delivered ought to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements, merely that such an internal debate ought to be something that can only be constructive – as long as that debate is conducted fairly and democratically. It is the dogmatic approach of Andrew Lansley’s health reforms that, above all, should cause us concern, not the prospect of reforming the NHS at all.

The real ideological struggle we face is not over how we should deliver public services but over the size and the role of the state. This is clearly a dividing line between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Is it a dividing line within the party itself?

There is certainly a libertarian fringe, but it isn’t a grouping that any senior party figure has ever chosen to associate themselves with. And despite the fact that senior figures within the party have occasionally appeared to flirt with libertarianism, I have never got the impression that this is part of a thought through position. Indeed, in some ways, it would be less problematic if it was. Rather, this flirtation appears to have more to do with an anti-intellectual tendency to confuse policy making with posturing.

This anti-intellectualism is not limited to the top of the party; indeed I would argue that it is one of the biggest challenges we face as a party. For my job at Unlock Democracy a few years ago, I conducted a survey of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem local parties. I was shocked when the figures came back to show quite how little policy discussion actually went on in the Lib Dems, even in comparison with our rivals.

For too many within the Lib Dems, party involvement begins and ends with winning elections. For them, policy is only a means to an end. All too often that leads us down the road of populism and all too often populist policy proves to not be terribly practical when it comes to implementation. We have a tendency to focus too much on what makes a good slogan.

There’s a very specific reason why, for me at least, we decided to call ourselves a Forum, and that’s because we wanted to foment debate within the party at all levels.

But what direction should future party policy take? Spearheaded by Tim Farron, and no doubt in response to the Big Society, there has recently been a flurry of excitement about the idea of reviving community politics as the party’s core strategy. I welcome this, but feel it will only be a worthwhile exercise if we can work how to prevent the hollowed out form of community politics, which exists as little more than a technique for winning elections, from predominating. Despite many of its adherents’ best efforts, community politics has been indirectly responsible for helping to form the very intellectual vacuum that we are now so concerned about. Somehow, the reinvigorated communicty politics of 2011 needs to avoid this.

What other policy challenges are there? In my view, we need to urgently come to some kind of understanding about what we mean by inequality, and thus fairness, as a party. We have to come up with a more compelling answer than “social mobility.” It isn’t that social mobility is a bad thing to aspire to, merely that it is hard to see how you can truly tackle it without taking on entrenched privilege, or recognising that it is harder for people to rise from the bottom to the top is the gulf between them is so high. I fear that there is a lot of talk about how to loosen up society at the bottom but very little focus at the other end of the spectrum. To me, you can’t seriously discuss inequality or social mobility without talking about wealth – and specifically land value – taxation, yet we continually shy away from it.

Closely linked to both the idea of community politics and the need for a more fair society is, in my view, the need for us to create a more dynamic, people-centred economy. It frightens me how the very financial corporations and institutions which took us to the brink less than three years ago have already reasserted themselves, and in such a way that appears to have achieved little other than the seizing up of the global economy. But it is about more than just banking; corporate culture has commodified everything. The mass expansion of intellectual property legislation has meant that our culture has been quietly privatised. Information technology has made our purchasing habits and even the friends we choose on social networks a commodity to be bought and sold.

I’m no Ned Ludd and this isn’t a plea to go back to a simpler age; I’m a great lover of technology and am deeply immersed in it in every aspect of my life. It’s capacity to liberate and empower people is something that inspires me every day. Nor is it anti-capitalist; in fact I’d go so far as to say that in wanting to challenge entrenched oligarchies and monopolies, this is very much a free trade argument.

Fundamentally however, I don’t think our politics has yet woken up to the implications of how the combination of information technology and trans-national corporations is changing society and making the very possibility of a fairer and more just society increasingly difficult. It links the drugs we take with the books we read and even questions about body image and low self-esteem which Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone have been doing so much work on recently.

How should we tackle this? It’s a good question and not one I have a comprehensive answer to. We need much stricter banking legislation of course and a vital aspect of it is to scale back our ever burgeoning intellectual property legislation. We also need to rediscover industrial democracy: a concept which the liberal party embraced and championed throughout the 20th century yet have forgotten in recent years.

But if we’re going to achieve anything over the next few years, we need to do more to build alliances, both inside Westminster and beyond. By holding the balance of power in both Houses of Parliament, we are in a real position of strength. We undermine that when we go out of our way to disparage and alienate the Labour Party. What’s worse, for many of the people who voted for us in 2010, it confirms all their worst fears. For a party which has always objected to a culture of two-party politics, we have done a remarkable job of reinventing it.

On a great many issues Nick Clegg is in a position to negotiate with David Cameron on behalf of the majority of parliament rather than on behalf of a minority third party. This doesn’t mean being uncritical of Labour by any means, but it does mean choosing fights with more care and positively encouraging Labour when does the right thing.

When is a wunch not a wunch?

Courtesy of David Cameron this week, we now know there are two types of city financier.

The first, epitomised by Sir James Crosby, is the sort of shyster that only a Prime Minister with a serious lack of judgement would dream of putting in a senior role.

The second, epitomised by Sir David Freud, is “a hugely impressive figure” worthy of an insta-peerage (this is the new type of peerage introduced in 2006 where party leaders get to magically give people a lifetime seat in the legislature for doing something Important – such as accepting a job or defecting. If you struggle to recall when the public debate for this new type of appointment took place, forget it, it didn’t happen).

Of course, this is the same Sir David Freud who brags about the misselling of Eurotunnel shares as “successfully [selling] the market a pup.” Who went on to do it all over again over Railtrack.

Anyone else struggling to tell the difference?

Abbey normal customer service

Readers may recall that late last year I blogged about my girlfriend’s family’s problems with Abbey when they tried closing her late stepfather’s account. That particular incident ended happily as if by magic once the Observer got involved.

I wish I could say that was the end of the matter. Sadly, it is not the case. I’ll let Alex’s mother’s letter to the Financial Ombudsman do the rest of the talking – there really isn’t anything my usual brand of sarcasm can add:

I have enduring power of attorney for my mother. She has recently moved into a care home and I wanted to purchase an insurance policy to cover the fees for her care home.

In order to fund this we needed to release the funds (approx £16,000) in her savings accounts with Abbey. I wrote to Abbey on 8th April, enclosing a copy of the POA form, asking them to transfer the funds to my mother’s current account.

A week later I phoned Abbey who said they had no record of having received the letter and could not speak to me because I am not the account holder.

The next day I received a letter from Abbey acknowledging that I had sent a copy of the POA forms and asking me to fill in a number of Abbey forms to register that I had POA for my mother. I did this immediately and sent it back to them – I had it faxed and posted from the local Abbey branch.

I then spoke to Abbey twice and was given conflicting messages – one person said they would transfer the money once the POA had been registered the other said that this would not be possible.

On the 24th April I received a letter from Abbey acknowledging that the POA had been registered in relation to my mother’s accounts. I didn’t receive anything else from Abbey and the cheque did not arrive.

On the 6th May I phoned Abbey again and spoke to someone called Maria in their Belfast office. Maria told me that a cheque would be put in the post and sent first class by the end of that day. It wasn’t.

On 7th May I phoned Abbey again but this time was put through to their Glasgow office and was told that they could not help because they could not see if any action had been taken; they did however give me the number of the Belfast office. I then called the Belfast office direct and spoke to Chris who refused to discuss any of this with me as I was not the account holder. I explained that I had POA and this had been registered with Abbey, but he still refused to talk to me about the account. Even when I quoted the reference from the letter from Abbey saying that POA had been registered he said he could do nothing!

Eventually he agreed to speak to their legal department and got the POA registered. He then said that a cheque would be put in the post that day and would phone me to confirm that this had been actioned. He did not phone and the cheque did not arrive.

On the 8th May I phoned Abbey again and spoke to someone called Miles who was very helpful – he said that the cheque had not been sent despite all the assurances and that he did not know why. He once again agreed that the cheque would be sent that day and that he would phone me on my mobile to confirm that this had in fact happened. Again he did not phone and the cheque has not arrived.

We have been given a one week extension by the insurance company to raise the funds but if Abbey do not send us the cheque that quote will no longer be valid and the price will increase by approx £6,000. The price of these policies has increased considerably since the credit crunch.

On the 14th May I spoke to Laura in the Belfast call centre. I was told that although they have a record of my power of attorney registration, they have no record of my request to close the account and send a cheque. I was told this would need investigating and that they would phone me back in 24-72 hours and would mark this as urgent.

At this point I also formally lodged a complaint, by e-mail, with the Abbey complaints department.

By the 19th May I had still not had any contact from Abbey and the cheque had not arrived so I sought legal advice from which?

They advised me that Abbey’s abysmal customer care and inability to respond within a reasonable time frame had contravened the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.

I once again wrote and e-mailed the Abbey complaints department to this effect. I have still not had a response beyond a standard acknowledgment of the receipt of my complaint.

On 21st I phoned the Belfast office – a recorded message said that all their systems were down, so I phoned the complaints department and spoke to Sam who gave me a reference number and promised to phone back. He didn’t.

I phoned Abbey again on 23rd May, I spoke to the Belfast office again as the complaints department apparently closes at 5pm. Anthony said that they would investigate, as once again he could not find the POA registration, and phone me back. They didn’t.

I phoned again on the 24th and was referred to the ISA customer services helpdesk. Gillian said they would have to contact the ISA administration team who would not be in until Tuesday. I was told that referrals take 24-72 hours but they would mark it urgent. She also said that they only had records of me having phoned once – I have records of at least 10 phone calls to date.

At no point so far has anyone returned a phone call. The only acknowledgement I have received is a letter dated the 24th April confirming my POA registration and confirmation of receipt of my complaint on 22nd May.

My advice to anyone thinking of banking with Abbey? Don’t. In the meantime, any helpful journalist out there want to take this up? This whole sorry mess is haemorrhaging real money now.

In the meantime, here are some related links:

Abbey normal behaviour for a bank

So much for The Power of the Blog – I had a salutary reminder of the power of the mainstream media this week.

My girlfriend can be found beaming from page 17 of the Observer Cash supplement today under the headline Abbey bids to rediscover good habits. For those of you who haven’t been following the Observer’s Why Are We Waiting? campaign, the issue concerns the failure of Abbey’s probate and bereavement centre to release dead relatives’ accounts on the basis that apparently too many people died in 2006.

What I can vouch for is this: Alex and her mother have spent months pursuing this, taking days off work to have meetings with bank staff, making phone calls that go unreturned, getting fobbed off with standard impersonal letters. For the situation to get sorted out, what it ultimately took was a single phone call from a journalist. Either Huma Qureshi has mafia-like powers of persuasion, in which case her byline photo doesn’t do her justice, or banks really are craven when it comes to bad publicity.

When I read claims that ‘There is room for people to make mistakes – but if mistakes do happen, then we have procedures in place to deal with things quickly,’ I am thus sceptical.

The real scandal is that if this had concerned a public sector organisation, the story would have been on the front page of at least one major national newspaper. Yet for some reason we seem much more ready to suspend our critical faculties when it concerns a private company. I’m not blaming the media here, for understandable reasons. It is ultimately the mores of the general public that relegates this to the money pages. It is as if Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” has taken on semi-mythic status – people assume they don’t need to keep a wary eye out because something called the “market” will do it for them.

These problems arise all the time, and time and again they appear to be rooted in an assumption within banks that they can afford to try it on on the basis that so long as most people don’t make a fuss.