I’ve no idea whether Matthew Barrett, the chief executive of Barclays Bank who was widely reported last week to have “done a Ratner” by declaring at a Treasury Select Committee that credit cards are too expensive, is a visionary banking genius or a blithering idiot.
One would hope that, as he has risen to the very top of Britain’s third-largest retail bank and is meant to take over the chairmanship next year, he is rather more of the former than the latter. But what I do know is that parliamentary select committees have as their members rather more of the latter than is helpful for their roles as scrutineers of British industry.
I have spent some time on the committee corridor of the House of Commons, both as a reporter and as an adviser to witnesses. Those who are called to appear before such committees may have a lot to answer for, but the MPs on the committees leave even more to be desired.
They are often facetious, poorly briefed and shamefully indolent in their examination of witnesses. For their part, as Barrett has just discovered to his cost, the witnesses are expected to be respectful, fully briefed in the minutiae of their businesses and quite armpit-sweatingly committed to the parliamentary process.
In the Eighties, the committees were, at least, conducted with good humour. The Trade and Industry Select Committee used to pass each other jocular notes about the need to break for a drink. But, by the Nineties, a new austerity and pomposity had set in.
I remember the Energy Select Committee interviewing the likes of National Power and Powergen about fossil-fuel emissions and demonstrating quite conclusively that some of its members were incapable of distinguishing the industrial differences between power generation and distribution.
It is also quite usual for committee members to believe that a company’s profits are inherently wicked, because they are what make executives, investors and sundry “fats cats” wealthy. There is no connection in these politicians’ minds – and they are by no means confined to unreconstructed Labour benches – that profits are what expand businesses, provide employment and fuel the economy.
I remember Sir Desmond Pitcher in the mid-Nineties, then chairman of United Utilities (and no relation, though some quarters of the press have referred to him as my “bastard father” – quite unfair, as he isn’t old enough to be so), when he appeared before the Employment Select Committee.
He was answering questions about “executive remuneration”. This was the “fat cats” inquiry by any other name, and the committee’s chairman, Labour MP and amateur magician Greville Janner, had enjoyed languidly cross-examining provincial utility chairmen in a metropolitan barrister’s style.
I saw my namesake before he went in to this latter-day Star Chamber. Janner had just been asked some awkward questions in the House about his own business interests in a training organisation. I suggested to Pitcher that a rather more robust response to Janner’s committee was appropriate, but that perhaps he should wait to be attacked before becoming strident.
In the event, Janner opened with some mild enquiry about United Utilities’ contributions to charity. I paraphrase, but Pitcher replied to the effect that the committee could mind its own bloody business – and the television pictures should be able to record my toes curling in the seat behind him.
What I’m saying is that it is all too easy to treat these self-important and superannuated political apparatchiks with contempt. Struggle as he might, I suspect that this was a temptation that Barclays’ Barrett found beyond human endurance.
The photo shown most regularly in the papers would seem to support this view. Barrett is seen in a pose of amused exasperation, his forehead on a fist that grasps his discarded spectacles, as he faces his interrogators.
Here is body language that exclaims: “I run a bank and serve customers and shareholders – I don’t have to answer to these clowns.” That is a view with which many of us, I suggest, should sympathise.
Barrett is accountable to his shareholders, not to Parliament. Yet select committees, which are accountable to Parliament, like to suggest that businesses have some higher calling to the good of the nation and to public service.
So Barrett probably barked a little intemperately that he wouldn’t borrow on credit cards, because they are “too expensive”. In the holy halls of the committee corridor, this was the grossest hypocrisy from the head of the company that owns Barclaycard.
One MP accused him of “bare-faced cynicism”. It is nothing of the sort. There’s a great big world full of choices out there – choices that, under other circumstances such as education and health, politicians cosseted in Planet Westminster like to vaunt.
A Barclays manager has in the past advised me not to use the &£10,000 facility offered automatically on my credit card, but to take a cheaper loan instead. This is precisely the point that Barrett was making: credit cards are for short-term, readily serviceable debt, not for hard-core or “chronic” debt.
A simple point. But not one you would expect MPs, with their tax-free allowances, their wives as secretaries and credit from any number of organisations in the form of freebies, readily to understand.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon