Did the Prophet Ecclesiastes have a point when he asserted in Ecclesiastes, 1, 9, that “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun”?
A few days ago, I had occasion to consult my large collection of newspaper cuttings. My search was in connection with the vexed question of the rewards collected by senior business executives and specifically with the extent to which these typically large reward packages reflected effective executive performance on the one hand and the extent to which they reflected an enviable knack of extracting as much cash as possible from their employers using their privileged positions on the other.
I began to collect these cuttings around 20 years ago as part of my preparation to write a book about work, in particular which people had demanding jobs and who got what rewards for the work that they did – or maybe did not do.
I called the book A Cushy Number and sales of the book soared into double figures when I published it on the net. Sales levelled out as I ran out of relatives and friends who might be persuaded to buy the book.
I have continued to add to my collection since then and almost all the cuttings refer to some aspect or other of job demands and job rewards.
As I looked through the cuttings, I was struck by the extent to which controversy about some jobs appeared to crop up repeatedly down the years. The controversy mostly revolved around the scale of the reward packages available to and all too frequently snaffled up by senior business executives.
What follows is a selection from my cuttings about a range of cushy numbers and my attempt to look at my findings in the context of the verse from Ecclesiastes – that there is no new thing under the sun.
2012 and all that
- “On pay, who decides how much it too much? Beware politicians offering simplistic anti market sound bites” (Kamal Ahmed, Sunday Telegraph, January 22, 2012)
Mr Ahmed subsequently received his reward when he was appointed to a senior position in the BBC, an organisation not noted for its enthusiasms for transparency when the pay of its own senior managers and its stars was involved.
2. “The going rate? Bankers and their rewards” (Letter to the Times from a Mr Patterson, February 1, 2012)
Mr Patterson noted that “public opinion, of which you appear to be scornful, is incandescent about executive pay in general and about bankers pay in particular… it is time to stop giving in to the blackmail of bankers threatening to move their businesses elsewhere.” Hear, hear, Mr Patterson.
- “ Public sector pensions a Ponzi scheme, says Charity… It would cost around a third of pay to buy the equivalent privately” (The Times, May 12, 2012)
“More than 12,000 former public sector workers have retired on pensions worth at least £50,000 a year – twice the average national wage in Britain – according to a report by the Inter-generational Foundation …. Taxpayer liabilities for public sector pensions have swelled to £45,000 a household, with government employees enjoying vastly better pension coverage than their private sector counterparts according to the charity.
“About 88% of public sector workers are entitled to pensions related to their final salaries, which are typically the most generous with only 10% in the private sector, the charity found.”
(No further comment necessary.)
- “Ministers urge rail chiefs to scrap £20M bonus pot” (The Times, February 6, 2012)
The article relates to the decision by the then Transport Secretary Justine Greening – currently in the news for her resolute stand on Brexit- to take the “unprecedented step” of attending Network Rail’s AGM to oppose the plans to award a total of £20M to 6 senior executives of Network Rail.
I could not trace a cutting which reported on the outcome of the meeting but my guess is that the Big 6 duly collected the £20 million – what do you think?
- My next cutting poses a typically rhetorical question to which you and I and the rest of the paupers in the UK already know the answer.
“Are these the right people to police pay levels?” (The Times, January 10, 2012)
The opening paragraph of the report – by Patrick Hosking – noted that “Insurance company chiefs and fund management bosses who are being urged to crack down on top level board room pay are themselves paid in a similarly generous manner.“
Hosking went on to list the names and rewards of a random selection of top bosses. Michael Dobson (CEO at Shroeders) headed the list with £6.55 million, but there were also impressive performances by the likes of Michael McLintock (CEO at M and G, £5.41 million), Tidjane Thiam (CEO at Prudential, £4.86 million) and Martin Gilbert (CEO at Aberdeen Asset Management, £ 4.85 million)
I could go on – and on and on – but you get the picture. (And, to eliminate any doubt, the answer to the question posed by the Times is a resounding “no”.)
The report does not indicate whether those named were also shamed but those in the know suggest that any even marginal regret was purely cosmetic.
- “How children’s home failed to protect its only resident from sex abuse by 25 men” (Andrew Norfolk, The Times, May 12, 2012)
“A teenage girl who in one night was sexually abused by 25 men was the sole resident of a privately run children’s’ home that charged £252,000 a year to provide her with intense and individual care.”
Evidently the care provided was not all that it might have been in terms of intensity and individuality.
- “Police chiefs hire retired colleagues on £1,100 a day” (Jack Doyle, Daily Mail, March 26, 2012)
The gist of the Doyle report – using information acquired by the admirable Freedom of Information Act – centred on the practice used by retired senior police officers to set up consultancy companies which would then be awarded contracts to supply advice to police forces. It was thought by some that the practice itself and especially the rates paid verged on the lavish – yet another example of sharp practice at the very top.
- “Back to work tsar – a second fraud inquiry… Director of scandal -hit firm used to work for Cameron” (Daily Mail, February 23, 2012)
According to the report: “Police have launched a second fraud inquiry involving state contracts run by David Cameron’s millionaire “back to work” tsar Emma Harrison. Ministers were last night distancing themselves from 48 year old Mrs Harrison who was appointed by the Prime Minister to get 120,000 problem families back to work…”
I hope that the fraud enquiry launched by the police was rather better managed than the inquiry launched by Wiltshire police into the allegations made by the mysterious Nick in recent years.
Also – and given the track record of the rapacious Russian tsars down the centuries – ought we to find another word to signify the job of enquiring into this or that presumed dodgy sector?
So much for 2012 – what about 2006?
As with 2012, my selections are in no particular order and there is no shortage of material, but here are a few favourites
- “Ineptitude and political correctness gone mad -a devastating verdict from a Home Office insider” (Daily Mail, April 28, 2006)
The insider concerned was Steve Moon, “dismissed from the Home Office two years ago after blowing the whistle on a visa scandal allowing immigrants unchecked into Britain.”
The first paragraph from Mr Moon’s recommendatory reads: “The foreign convict debacle has shone a spotlight on the utter chaos that prevails within the Home Office. As Charles Clarke mumbles his apologies, we can see a department that is riddled with incompetence, deception and ill-conceived dogma.”
We are now in 2018 and nothing has changed other than the procession of hopeless Home Secretaries. We should note that one of this band of bunglers is now demonstrating her inadequacy on a rather larger stage, namely Mrs May.
- Radio 4 revolt at high pay of chattering DJs (The Times, April 23, 2006)
The report by Richard Brooks and Maurice Chittenden begins: “The head of Radio 4 faces turmoil among his presenters over the disclosure of the six-figure salaries paid to disc jockeys on Radio 2. Their indignation has little to do with how little they are paid in comparison. They are simply outraged that the corporation is paying so much money to people who chatter on air between playing records. The Radio 4 presenters have calculated that they are paid a fraction of the money given to Radio 2 DJs such as Jonathon Ross and Chris Evans.”
Here we are 12 years on and no further forward. Holdenforth readers will note that in a recent blog I argued that the problem of the BBC could be solved by the simple expedient of selling it off to the show business private sector where it belongs.
3. “RBS will set tougher targets for executive directors’ pay packets.” (Financial Times, April 20, 2006)
The article stated that RBS – in the personage of Sir Fred Goodwin had “assured Rrev, the powerful institutional investor group that it will set tougher targets for board executives in its executive share option plan”
I have been unable to ascertain what bonus was payable to Sir Fred following the collapse of RBS. I recall that Sir Fred was demoted back to plain Mr.
Even today there are siren voices – mine is one of them – calling for rather sterner measures to be taken against Mr Goodwin, partly as a richly deserved punishment and partly to deter his many would be imitators given the outcome for him as opposed to the outcome for the tax paper from the fate of RBS.
4. “Sack this skirt-lifting creep: in any commercial company John Prescott would be out of a job without pension or severance pay” (Libby Purves, The Times, May 9, 2006)
When I initially unearthed this cutting I mistakenly read an h for the k in skirt and wondered if there might be an element of homophobia in the Purves piece.
The scandal which triggered the Purves piece and a lot more besides was one involving the then Mr Prescott – now Lord Prescott – and an accommodating young colleague called Tracey Temple. The media had a field day.
There follows a representative sample from April and May of that year: ““Two Jags has betrayed his class, his principles and now his wife” (Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail)… ““He has nothing but contempt for women … even his wife” (Amanda Platell, Daily Mail)… “New Labour’s bit of rough gone wrong” (Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times)…. “John Prescott is a serial sex pest who shamelessly gropes anything in a skirt according to a former senior labour aide.” (Tricia McDaid, Daily Mail)
And now – back to Libby Purves and a few comments that she might not make so readily today.
“I keep on forgiving Boris Johnson on the grounds that he is clever” (Is he?) “and public spirited” (You could have fooled me) “and that he conducts private misdemeanours in his own time using his own bicycle.”
An early hint of things to come in the BoJo saga and, an important point to make here , possibly the gravest offence of Mr Prescott was that he was doing whatever it was that he was doing in the time of his employer. Normally an offence to trigger a P45.
5. Senior managers – who gets what and why?
This has been an issue of considerable interest to those who follow business matters, to investors, to the likes of you and I as we toil in the lower reaches of the management pyramid, and obviously, to the senior managers.
Firstly, C&W defending their bonus scheme, as reported in the Financial Times of May 16, 2006: “Cable and Wireless, the troubled telecommunications company has proposed a private equity -style bonus scheme for top management arguing that it provides a clearer link between performance and reward for the executives.”
There have been countless stories along these lines in the past few decades, with tetchy and ill paid financial reporters usually highly critical.
Cooler critics – such as myself – argued that it would be helpful if senior business managers spent a little more time on improving the performance of their employers and rather less on devising arcane and opaque reward schemes designed to deliver huge benefits regardless of the all important factor of company performance.
In the previous year (2005), a number of “hedge fund stars” earned – well, received – over $1 billion each, including James Simons (Renaissance Technologies, $1.5 billion) and the splendidly monikered T Boone Pickens Junior (BP Capital Management, $1.4 billion). George Soros, of Soros Fund Management, received a measly $840 million.
The sums mentioned do seem to verge on the excessive, but that is, of course, not the view of these lions of the financial arena.
(George Soros is currently – July 2018 – actively working to bring about a reversal of the 2016 in- out referendum – and a man who does that can’t be all bad.)
What about the boys enjoying the fruits of operating in the treasure island that comprises the financial sector?
Here, the largest earners (well, most fortunate recipients) included Peter Griffiths of Nationwide (£1.3 million), Neville Richardson of Britannia (£600,000) and John Goodfellow of Skipton (£600,000).
Nice work if you can get it – and I note that that senior managers in this sector continue to reap lavish rewards and simply ignore the howls of protest from the envious paupers
6 This next scandal has run and run – and doubtless will continue to run and run – how about cash for honours?
“Cash for peerages link to Blair trust: Trustee is business associate of man who lent Labour secret £1m” (Mail on Sunday, May 21 , 2006)
“The Mail on Sunday can today reveal the link between a businessman caught up in cash for honours scandal and Tony Blair’s own private trust set up to fund his retirement. One of the trustees, City lawyer Martin Painser is a close associate of stockbroker Barry Townsley and manages his family fortune. In 2005 Mr Townsley secretly lent Labour £1million. He was nominated for a peerage …
Holdenforth wonders – Why else would he lend Labour £1m?
“Exclusive – Loans for peerages millionaire gives his first candid interview.” (Mail on Sunday, May 28, 2006)
“Property tycoon Sir David Garard, who loaned the party £2.3M and was later put forward for a seat in the Lords, is now being treated as a suspect in a police inquiry into alleged political corruption… He and several other Labour donors – some of Britain’s wealthiest men – have humiliatingly been interviewed under caution by Scotland Yard.”
Tell me the old old story.
Let us go back a hundred years with an extract from “Baldwin” by Roy Jenkins.
“Then in June (1922) the honours scandal passed from the baroque to the rococo stage. With an ill-fated exuberance which only a government is its last stages could achieve, Lloyd George succeeded in assembling five nominations for peerages, four of which were discreditable”
This particular sharp practice has very long and colourful history but the wealthy amongst each generation show no sign of reluctance to exchange cash for an agreeable ennoblement.
- The alleged boisterous tactics employed by some members of the Momentum tendency has not gone down well in all parts of the Labour Party and these tactics have been used by a range of critics to berate Momentum for its anti democratic propensities.
I was interested by one cutting for 2005 which dealt with similar boisterous tactics employed by New Labour back in 2005.
“Walter rejects police apology” (Mail on Sunday October 9, 2005)
The background to the report was that Mr Walter Wolfgang was held by the police after being manhandled out of the of the Labour Party conference hall by Labour minders for shouting ‘nonsense’ as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was speaking on Iraq
Mr Wolfgang was 82 at the time of the incident.
Mr Wolfgang was spot on his heckle.
On a personal note – I met Walter Wolfgang whilst on a CND march in the mid 1960s. My recollection of him is that he was one of the mildest men it had ever been my privilege to meet.
But – even at the age of 82 – Walter had not grasped that it was wise to heckle New Labour big shots.
In those far off days, Alastair Campbell was the bullying Tsar for New Labour – and he was very good at the job.
So – back to the beginning – did the prophet Ecclesiastes have a point when he noted – just after Proverbs and just before The Song of Solomon -that “there is no new thing under the sun.”
Well – given the events of 2006, of 2012 and of 2018 – it would appear so. The scandals discussed have a remarkable staying power despite the attempts of the politicians and some elements of the press to change things for the better.
What about a few conclusions?
In no special order.
- In 2018 the scale of the problems posed by the huge number of polluted stables across the UK remains at an high and unfortunate level.
We will refer to this as the Augean stable problem named after King Augeus in Greek mythology.
- Sooner rather than later Holdenforth would like to the appointment of a latter day Hercules tasked with the cleaning up of these stables.
- The campaigning press has been tireless in flushing out the bewildering variety of social misdemeanours carried out by those at the top to enrich themselves and to impoverish the rest of us.
Sadly its efforts have been commendable but not notably effective. It is something of mystery as to why their collective zeal for good has brought about so little improvement
- The misdemeanours flourished as vigorously under New Labour as they have done subsequently under the Tory/Lib Dem coalition and latterly under the Tories.
Most of the abuses in the UK Augean stables were all too apparent under Blair and Brown.
- An unseemly but relevant observation:-
“Why does a dog lick its balls – because it can” – old proverb but not from the Book of Proverbs”. To adapt the old adage – Why do greedy bastards steal from the rest of us? Because they can still get away with it.
But why do we – the impoverished many – allow them to get away with it?
Holdenforth believes that the soon to be appointed modern Hercules WILL get the UK Augean Stables cleaned up.
- What does the Holdenforth want?
We want to demonstrate that Ecclesiastes COULD be wrong.
You ask – what is our policy?
Holdenforth has just one policy with regard to the issues under review – to see the election of a Government committed to curb the activities of the rapacious social element at the top by effective action to create a society in which there will be no hiding place for the acquisitive thieves.
You ask : what is our aim? To cleanse the Augean stables that pollute the UK.