UK Politics

From profit to prosecution?

"Systematic greed", "lying for profit", "outraged and disgusted"*. There's been no shortage of angry rhetoric from politicians about the latest banking scandal.

However, what they know the public really wants is not to hear words but to see the guilty lose their jobs and, if criminality is proved, to lose their freedom too. Since 2008 American financiers have been seen doing what they call on the other side of the pond the "perp walk". In other words, they've been filmed head bowed, wrists cuffed, arms held by police officers en route to the court house or the police station. The only perp walk we've seen in Britain has been the giving of evidence to the Treasury select committee (Barclays' Bob Diamond's likely to be taking it the week after next) or the letter from Buckingham Palace to the banker formerly known as Sir Fred Goodwin.

There's a reason for this. Prosecutions are easy to talk about but, it seems, harder to achieve. There is no specific criminal offence of rigging the Libor market. Today Labour and the Tories argued about who was to blame.

Labour said they'd raised the issue a few weeks ago only to be told there were no plans to change the law. They said that the rules were set by Margaret Thatcher's government when she de-regulated the City in the so-called Big Bang of 1986.

The Tories shot back that it had been the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls who, as City Minister in the late 1990s, had boasted of light touch regulation and missed a chance to introduce tougher controls. Smiles were brought to the face of Tories inside the Treasury when the little known Lord Tunnicliffe, Labour's Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, made the mistake of assuming that no-one listens to what's said in the House of Lords. He declared with refreshing candour:

"Criminal sanctions are extraordinarily difficult to bring about because of the burden of criminal law. It is fair to say though that you can't find them in the current legislation. And, yes, OK, it's our fault."

He added quickly: "I hope my leaders don't hear me say that."

They did and he was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn, declaring: "I've now looked into this matter and I was wrong."

Both Labour and the Tories say that the best hope of prosecutions is not the Financial Services Authority - which can and has fined the bank but can't pursue individuals in this case - but the Serious Fraud Office. The SFO can, apparently, pursue cases involving publishing false information or fraudulent trading.

We'll see. Without them the public may regard words as a little hollow.

* The words are those of Chancellor George Osborne, chairman of the Treasury select committee Andrew Tyrie and Labour leader Ed Miliband.