Weekly Reflection 16th – 22nd August 2009

Posted on: Friday 28th August 2009

Heal thyself…

I was visiting a church in the City the other day one lunchtime and I got talking to a man who turned out to work for the Financial Services Authority. If he joined in the words of the General Confession with more heartfelt sincerity than the rest of us, I couldn’t tell, but it cannot have been an easy time for people like him since the credit crunch crunched. Regulators, while not exactly vilified like bankers, are unlikely to be nominated for Pride of Britain Awards any time soon. How could they have allowed the banks to get us into this mess? And what are they going to do about it, I wondered?

He was pretty philosophical about it, acknowledging that the FSA had not always delivered what we expected it to deliver (although its successes, unlike its failures, are invisible); but he reminded me that it can only work within its powers. The issue that enrages most people – bonus culture – is not one the FSA can settle. If bankers wish to pay themselves huge bonuses that’s a matter for them and their boards and their shareholders, and the FSA can no more regulate that than Premiership transfer fees. He was also argued that they have to tread very carefully lest the City‘s wealth creators, as jumpy and volatile as racehorses, bolt for easier pastures. If London were to lose its preeminence as a financial centre the rest of the economy, and in due course the whole country, would really feel the difference.

I’m not sure that the choice is a simple one, between, on the one hand, regulation so light it would be as pointless as an Italian speed limit, or, on the other, as rigorous as a Stalinist Five Year Plan. But talking to him reminded me of another conversation I’d had at the BBC last week with a producer who, like many of his colleagues, is utterly fed-up with working in the new culture of compliance and regulation that the Hutton Enquiry and, some say, the Daily Mail, has ushered in. There’s a story going round that an editor interrupted the recording of a radio programme when the presenter read out a letter on air. “Is that the actual letter?”, he was asked. “No, it’s a copy,” he replied. “Then you can’t read it out. You have to read out the original, not the copy”.  I have an awful feeling it might even be true.

I told the man from the FSA that story and he laughed. We walked together to the tube and he said that he was retiring in six months and wouldn’t be sorry to go. He and his wife are going to spend their time going round the country offering their experience and expertise helping churches sort out their finances. “What brought this on?”, I asked. He said that he had come to believe that the only really effective regulation is not light-touch or heavy-touch, or even imposed by an authority. It has to come from within. “The real issue”, he said, “is how we regulate ourselves”.

Fr Richard Coles, Curate.