Merryn's Blog

We need to make the banks pay. Here's how

Bankers seem to think they've suffered enough. It's back to the good old days of big bonuses, and no one seems to have the will to stop them. But there is one small way in which they could give something back to the rest of us - by paying to solve one of the problems that caused the crisis in the first place.

There is something very trying about listening to the nonsense being spouted by today's bankers. They think that the "sacrifices" they made in 2009 when some of them didn't take their multi-million pound bonuses aren't being "recognised" by the public. "We don't want a repeat of last year when no one felt able to take their bonuses", one senior banker told the FT.

Hmmm. He might not. But I strongly suspect the rest of us want to see many, many repeats. The same goes for the apologies. Bob Diamond of Barclays says he thinks it is time the banks stopped having to say sorry. "There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over" he told the cross party Treasury Select Committee today.

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Again I'm guessing the rest of us would rather disagree. We don't think there has been too much apologising. We think there hasn't been enough. By a long, long way. The financial industry might think the time for banker bashing is over. But us? We just want to see the men at the top paying their dues.

However, as the authorities clearly aren't going to regulate for reform and the ingrained bonus culture isn't going anywhere, how? One small answer might be to make them pay to solve one of the problems that caused the crisis in the first place: financial illiteracy.

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I've written about this before: the horrible truth is that not only are around seven million Britons functionally illiterate, but, according to Prudential, around 50% of the population can't do any maths at all beyond very basic addition and subtraction.

I have always called on the government to deal with this by first improving the mathematics education we offer in our schools, and then by introducing absolutely compulsory personal finance education in our schools: let's not forget that many more lives have been ruined by not understanding compound interest than by not knowing the capital of Bolivia.

But City AM's Alistair Heath has a better idea which is lucky given that David Cameron didn't appear to be listening to me. Why not make the banks educate their own customers and potential customers? Each bank, he says, should be forced to make an "immediate and very large donation to a special new educational fund for financial literacy". He's talking in the hundreds of millions rather than the hundreds of thousands. And I'm with him all the way.


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