Tom Baigrie: The toxic element of our lawmakers’ culture

Tom Baigrie

Any group of people forming a team will acquire their own culture along the way: a predisposition to certain ways of thinking and thus modes of expression and typical behaviours. Once established, it is very hard to change that culture, ways and modes.

This is true whether the corporate body is a commercial business, a regulator or even a government department. It is one reason why start-ups and disruptors can work so well against the odds: they have a cultural clean sheet and, having learned their lessons, can start afresh untainted by the mistakes that taught them.

But one cannot restart large corporations, regulators or treasuries. Rather, these have to evolve their new behaviours slowly, forever unable to see the real cultural reasons for their failures.

Sometimes such a slowly reforming culture can become toxic: ‘brokers’ in the 1980s, insurers in the 1990s and bankers in the 2000s are three examples from our world that have needed radical surgery.

But what if the culture at the very top becomes the issue? The very top in our case is the Treasury and the FCA. It seems to me the toxic element of their culture is hyperactivity. They would disagree vehemently but the evidence is plain to see: the attrition rate of leaders is unsustainably high, the adoption of untried solutions ridiculously fast and the love of the radical overwhelming.

We saw all of those in the RDR and we see them now in its unpicking. We saw them in pension freedoms being hurled at consumers without any attempt to educate the innocent in how to use them, and we see it now in the possibility that commission might return.

Ironically, the causes of this hyperactivity seem exactly the same ones needed to achieve great good: a good cause allied to personal ambition. The former justifies the zeal, the pace and the ignoring of the risks needed to feed the latter.

Whether it is a chancellor’s decision to hasten pensions reform to ease a difficult budget or a regulator’s decision to demand a whole industry reform itself at a stroke no matter the cost, the fast decisions create a landscape of uncertainty that makes life nigh impossible for those trying to work honestly in it.

And it is paralysing uncertainty and default to the quick buck that are the main unintended side effects of the lawmakers’ hyperactivity. Consumers do not know what to think or who to trust, so they take their money and run. Those whose business it is to help them do not know what routes to market will last beyond the next U-turn, so they cannot invest.

The only winners are the vast tribe of lawyers and advisers who help scout out a way through that ever-changing landscape. And not even they would claim that is a state of affairs that serves the nation well.

Tom Baigrie is chief executive of LifeSearch