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Careless U-turns

The Treasury is steering through reforms without considering where it is going

With the reliability of an aged auntie offering the same outsized, outdated Christmas jumper, the Chancellor’s parting Christmas gifts to financial services are two more yuletide U-turns.

One might suggest that Gordon Brown and his cohorts ask themselves a few hard questions.

But what is the point of that? It does not need soul-searching or anything spiritual. No one need to do any difficult adding up or tricky long division.

Even with all those double-firsts from Cambridge and Oxford, one wonders if the Treasury people would be up to the task anyway.

We do not require any personality questionnaires to filled in and no demonstration of leadership or problem-solving skills. No one need think outside the box nor expostulate on the latest economic theories.

Instead, they should ask themselves some easy questions and then answer them. No mandarin nor even special adviser need get involved. A couple of grade-four civil servants would do as long as someone listened to them.

The first question is: “What is the object of such and such a reform?”

The second: “Will this reform achieve this object?”

The third: “Does it also achieve something else we might not want to happen or, indeed, achieve something else entirely?”

And the fourth: “How will the financial services industry respond and is the thing we would like them to do legal in terms of law of the land or above board in terms of the huge regulatory system we have set up?”

The Treasury is not due very much respect at all following last week’s mischief in the pre-Budget report so let’s rudely suggest another question they should never ask themselves: “Who can we blame if it all goes wrong?”

This is one of the most unfair pre-Budget reports in memory for financial services. Two U-turns have been made despite repeated warnings and attempts from financial services companies to establish if this is what the Government intended initially on alternatively secured pensions and pension term assurance.

The Asp argument strayed very close to Orwell in recent months, with the industry being asked to come close to breaking the law while the regulator twisted and squirmed as it tried to do its Treasury master’s bidding.

In the process, the FSA damaged the credibility of its independence as it tried to scare savers away from doing something they were perfectly within their legal rights to do.

Treasury economic secretary Ed Ball’s performance on Asps, despite his obviously formidable intellect and political skills, has left many hoping he will not get control of the Treasury in a Brown administration.

PTA was simply a case of tax relief given to the wrong product, assuming the aim of pension simplification was to close the savings gap, with increased pension coverage, and not the protection gap.

But once it was up and running, it should have been allowed to do some good in that area at least.

All this comes a year after the last U-turn on putting residential property in pensions although most IFAs concede that that was the right course of action, albeit one executed badly.

But where Treasury incompetence is best revealed comes where these decisions are measured against things that the Chancellor supposedly holds dear. To select a few, Brown wants to improve competitiveness and productivity, cut regulation and improve skills.

With these U-turns, he has decreased competitiveness and productivity by getting companies to waste management time and mispend on investment and staff training. As for cutting regulation – regulation is at its worst when the regulated have to second guess how to act.

The Treasury is effectively failing its own tests but will it be punished?

One of the big strands of Conservative thinking is that they would bring a return to good governance. It will be interesting to see how much they can make of this argument.

Without a dramatic change of attitude, it is difficult to see how current governance in financial services could get any worse.

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