We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

Sharon Bowles’ speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference

September 25, 2012 6:13 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Check against delivery

Conference, it's great to be here today and share with you some vital issues of my work.

Some time in the past, if I had been asked about naked short selling and large exposures. I might have thought it all a bit risqué: Closer magazine maybe; Soho rather than City.

But times change.

Now I'm immersed in financial regulation and crisis control, and as in Lord of the Rings it's a burden that gets heavier.

But I won't be captured, or turn into Gollom - unable to tell right from wrong.

As part of the Liberal Democrat team, MEPs follow the same principles of economic responsibility, fairness and sustainability that Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrat minsters do.

In London they've wrestled with the economic mess left by the financial crisis, cut taxes on low and middle incomes, provided the pupil premium and the Green Investment Bank.

In Brussels we've also tackled economic mess, protected savers, pensioners and small businesses, stood up for civil and human rights and shaped opportunities for low carbon goods and services.

On what I do there is much to tell: the battle to save the Euro, how the UK should face up to the all-powerful role of Europe in financial regulation, what on earth is a Banking Union and how will the single market in financial services - so important to the City and the UK tax base - survive alongside Euro area integration.

That is a long list - so I'll touch lightly on detail - but embedded in these topics is a ticking time bomb which may see us on our way out of Europe. It won't come from a referendum, it will come from acquiescence.

And it's a short fuse. Remember the veto - who asked you? That little surprise is still a cancer souring both relations and structures in Europe.

Back here, ever since the financial crisis morphed into the Eurozone crisis it has been a field day for Eurosceptics saying "I told you so".

What a waste of space!

Yes, the financial crisis laid bare flaws in the operation of the Euro - notably feeble ineptitude of the finance ministers who were meant to police it.

But raking over old arguments - like old superstitions with entrails and incantation - does nothing to help us move forward and fix the future; nothing to keep the UK up with the pace of change; and nothing to deliver the jobs and growth in the UK and Europe that are so badly needed.

UKIP and tea-party Tories live in some 1930s fantasy of imperial power, even though we are a lot closer to 2030!

They suggest that the open, mixed trading economy of the UK can function like the niche economy of Norway.

But they omit to mention that Norway and Switzerland contribute to parts of the EU budget,and end up obeying Europe's rules anyway, all without having influenced them.

I know the reality - Norwegian and Swiss representatives beat a path to my door asking for help!

Last year Norway adopted 75% of EU legislation.

The Swiss are implementing the vast majority of Europe's financial services legislation.

Why? Because the Swiss want their bankers and traders to continue to enjoy full access to the world's largest single market.

Europhobes talk of a UK freed from the 'shackles' of Europe, snuggling up to the US, and trading at liberty with the emerging markets.

They forget to mention that Europe already has, or is negotiating, free trade deals with almost every country in the world.

Other countries make time to talk to the world's largest trading bloc.

And what of the special relationship? The US wants a strong British voice at the EU table, but they will soon look elsewhere if we're not there.

An isolated Britain is no good to anyone.

Britain is heard in Washington, Beijing and Moscow when we exercise influence and leadership in Brussels, Paris and Berlin. Britain is stronger when it stands with our partners in Europe.

And as for those Europhobes who promote the idea of a Eurozone collapse. Are they mad?

That would make current economic challenges look like a walk in the park; it is wishing on the UK a recession like the great depression - but as I just said, UKIP and their fellow travellers like the 1930s.

From the US to China, nobody wants the Euro to fail.

They all know the world is interconnected - that their trade, their jobs, their economies are all affected.

And from US to China, they do not have a seat at the decision-making table. The UK does. And we must use it wisely.

Turning now to fixing the Euro - this needs discipline and more Eurozone integration to deliver the prize of growth and stability.

But if people in one country are to guarantee, or even help pay off, debt in another country, democracy does not allow that decision to be rushed.

So there is no quick fix.

And the path so far has not been pretty, more a game of nudge - each short term rescue being bought by agreement to long term reform.

Euro history does not read well: small countries obeyed the rules about not having too much debt - then France and Germany got the rules weakened, Italy still over-ran and Greece hid the truth.

But now, over a dozen pieces of legislation have already strengthened EU scrutiny over individual countries' budgets and their impact on one another, over statistical reporting and performance. Tougher penalties apply to those who ignore the rules or fudge the figures.

There's actually a lot of work done beyond the media scrum of summits!

However, on top of discipline, we must harness the collective strength of the Eurozone. European Central Bank interventions are one way, acting a bit more like the US Federal Reserve, which is what Mario Draghi's recent proposals do.

But this cannot stand alone without moves towards integration.

I also support some pooling of short term Eurozone Government debt, what I have dubbed a 'beginners Eurobond' or Eurobill. The idea here is to get a few years of breathing space to complete other reforms.

All this greater economic integration in the Eurozone presents serious challenges to the UK and we need mutual respect, not animosity, for it to work out well for us too.

Running parallel with the drama of the Euro, is all the legislation to clean up the financial system.

The European Parliament has equal power with the Chancellor and his European ministerial colleagues in amending and approving European legislation.

And amend we do!

I submit hundreds of amendments to major legislation, most of which influence the final outcome.

These aren't just "i" dottings: they have a major impact in areas like the security of banks, financial markets and people's pensions, on lending to businesses and bankers' bonuses.

Aha - you've heard about bonuses - but you may not know the rules came from the European Parliament.

Limiting cash pay-outs, claw-back arrangements, payment in contingent capital, restrictions on pension-pot pay-outs - yep that was us, quite a lot of it me - at the time having to battle against the FSA and against the Labour Government to push it further than they wanted.

Now we are proposing to limit bonuses to a maximum of once or twice an individual's annual salary with ways to claw back even if bankers have moved on to a new job.

I do know all the arguments and reservations, but like rip-off mobile roaming charges there comes a time when it just has to be done.

It is time for a revolutionary change in the way the financial sector thinks and this is part of it.

More generally, all European financial regulation is being tightened.

But this is not taking place in a vacuum. Far from it, the framework follows the G20 internationally agreed program, improving existing regulations and plugging the gaps.

And if UK procedures don't fit with new European versions, they have to be changed. So there is a bit of a frissance about this - and fuss in the press.

But, whether fairly or not - and it is probably a bit of both, the rest of Europe blames the City for the financial crisis and its consequences.

'Mea culpas' from UK supervisory authorities actually reinforce that view - apologies for 'light touch' supervision are not seen as giving the UK the right to suggest that it knows better than everyone else how not to mess up again!

The point is, just as everyone now wants to be tough on big banks that made epic mistakes, so too the rest of Europe wants to be tough on a big financial centre and its regulators - that could and did spread risk through the single market to them.

That's why December's attempt to get a veto on financial services was never a possibility.

Of course the rest of the Europe is far from blameless, but they take all the new rules too.

I'm in the middle of this. I also chair the face-to-face negotiations that reconcile the Parliament's and Ministers' amendments.

In fact, I am the only person always in the room and steeped in the detail of every dossier.

Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm on a roller coaster or dodgems, but it usually ends up well.

Now, the relationship between banking and regulation is a bit like warfare. Banks and complex financial products are missiles - and we have anti-missile systems of regulation, capital and all that - to try and keep us safe.

The thing is, when designing a missile no engineer would leave it without a fail-safe mechanism. But there is plenty of 'fail-unsafe' hanging around in our financial systems.

Fear of losing star traders and key asset managers - which we hear a lot about in the bonus debate - looks less to do with star quality and more to do with nobody else knowing how to steer or disengage the missile.

You know, any small or medium sized business seeking a sizeable loan from a bank would have to have contingency planning in place. A bit more thinking like that on the inside of the banks would have helped!

I'm aiming for more simplicity.

So every fund or manager should demonstrate they are fail-safe, that their positions can be properly understood and taken over by another.

Accounting rules must reflect reality, not what you hope something might still be worth if you wait long enough.

And regulation should not fight complexity with complexity - because instead of encouraging careful and considered investment decisions that leads to blind faith in complex financial products neither regulator nor investor understands.

I've published a longer list on this - but you get the idea.

Finally, to a potential time bomb - the banking union - which is one of the steps on the way to fuller Eurozone integration.

The idea is to stabilise Eurozone banks by having pooled backstops. The first stage is common, strong, bank supervision by the European Central Bank, with options for non-euro countries to join.

Economically we need Eurozone stability.

But ECB-based banking union could unbalance the single market in financial services and marginalise the UK.

In the Parliament the mood is grim, with other countries' MEPs saying this is the moment other countries choose whether the UK is in or out.

Some countries' ministers say the same.

Thankfully the European Finance Ministers meeting I was at in Cyprus just over a week ago was friendly by comparison, with many countries having problems with the proposals.

And the outcome may be that the timer is set on a year rather than a few months. But it is still ticking.

Negotiations are extremely sensitive, and yes with moments to be tough, but the last thing that the UK needs is constant bellowing about repatriation of powers and wanton vetoes from the Tea Party Tories or silly part of the City.

Many City bosses agree with me, and I say to them it's no good crying to me, or behind closed doors, about UK exclusion while letting the Eurosceptic anti-regulation wide-boys portray London as anti EU.

It's no good lying low in case you don't get the deal you want on the Vickers plan for reforming banks - because you need single market access more than where a derivative sits in a ring fence.

You need EU clout to challenge US extra-territorial measures over who constitutes a swap dealer.

If you City bosses don't put your heads above the parapet now, and tell the Prime Minister, Chancellor, public and media about the concerns you share with me - then forget your UK lobbying, you'll need the time to find other ways to get full access to the Eurozone.

And the UK will be quietly on the way to EU side-lines, or exit, because nobody spoke up.

I won't be sitting with that on my conscience. Don't let it be on yours.

The City can't continue to be the leading financial centre in Europe if Britain leaves Europe.

There is no escaping international regulation of financial services in today's world. Either Brussels does it or Washington does it. What would the City prefer?

Regulation from Washington without the UK, or regulation from Brussels with the UK?

The poet John Donne, said that if a clod is washed away, Europe is the less. This quote is relevant today from Greece to Britain.

I doubt it would be much fun being 'clod Britain' either.

Washed away, would clod Britain's automotive industry boom continue when it's built on selling 50% of its cars to Europe;

Washed away, would clod Britain continue to enjoy formidable levels of inward foreign investment - over half of which comes from other European countries.

Would clod Britain be able to attract 128 free trade agreements?

Don't be fooled.

Don't allow the bell to toll for Britain.

Liberal Democrats rose to the uncomfortable challenge of coalition government. Our country needed it.

We must rise now to keep Britain in Europe.

Not tomorrow,

Not when it's convenient,

But now!