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Regulators stuck in a fine mess

Times Online
September 27, 2008

Regulators stuck in a fine mess

Can anyone explain to me what possible purpose can be served by fining Barclays Bank £50,000? This is the biggest fine that Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, could impose for the offence of silent calling.

This is a disgusting practice, the use of an automated telephone system to cold call people and then not speak to them because there is no operator available. It is at best irritating and, to some elderly people, quite disturbing.

You have to wonder, in today’s climate, how appropriate it is for banks to ram their products, unasked, down the public’s throats. But that is another matter.

That £50,000 fine was imposed on a bank that, in the first half of this year and in the middle of a full-blown banking crisis, generated pretax profits of £2.75 billion. Barclaycard, which placed those cold calls, raised profits by 30 per cent to £388 million. That fine is, quite literally, equivalent to asking you or me to hand over a few pence. Not even an inconvenience.

The argument is that this is all about bad publicity, naming and shaming. Can you name the head of Barclaycard? Can banks possibly become even more unpopular because of a few nuisance calls reported to the regulator? The biggest fine ever imposed by the Financial Services Authority was £17 million. On Shell, sitting on $270 billion-worth (£146.8 billion) of oil, according to the last accounts. Then there was the £13.9 million it fined Citigroup, one of the biggest banks on the planet . . .

Network Rail was fined £14 million by the rail regulator for bringing the railways to a halt over Christmas. Network Rail’s finances are guaranteed by the public sector, so that’s you and me who picked up the tab, and it didn’t stop the greedy boardroom bonus round.

First Great Western, the country’s least popular rail franchise and what an achievement that is, was caught lying, and forced to plough back £29 million into passenger benefits as an alternative to being fined. A good idea, certainly.

In the US, financial wrongdoing gets you 25 years in Leavenworth. Here, it is a minute fraction off your earnings per share. We need a way by which shareholders are penalised, by cuts in their dividend, for the incompetence, laziness or venality of the companies in which they put their money.

Only then will management have any reason to ensure employees behave properly. Barclays directors should be ashamed. The scandal is that they probably aren’t.

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