Britain’s justice minister called Saturday for criminal prosecutions of bankers and stronger financial regulation after scandals erupted over rate manipulation and mis-selling by major lenders.
“We are very bad at prosecuting financial crime in this country,” Justice Secretary Ken Clarke told BBC radio.
“I suspect financial crime is easier to get away with in this country than practically any other sort of crime.
“This is still being investigated, no doubt, but once these investigations are complete, if they have committed criminal offences they should be brought to trial.”
Clarke said the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products, which on Friday led to banks including HSBC and Barclays being ordered to compensate businesses, amounted to “obtaining money by deception”.
He added that Britain must resist anti-regulation pressure from banks, saying: “Let’s look at regulating stronger the banks as we are already planning to do… It plainly needs a cultural change.”
Clarke joins other heavyweight ministers and the governor of the Bank of England in demanding changes to the operation of the City of London, one of the world’s biggest financial centres, after a dire week.
In the most serious blow, Barclays was hit with a record fine after it was found in an investigation by British and US authorities to have tried to manipulate inter-bank interest rates.
Barclays was fined £290 million ($452 million, 362 million euros) while the investigation continues into suspected manipulation by several banks that help set the Libor and Euribor rates — benchmark reference figures compiled from rates that banks pay to each other for loans.
The Libor and Euribor play a major role in international financial markets, and are linked to the level of borrowing costs passed on by banks to businesses and consumers for products such as mortgage loans.
Billions have been wiped off Barclays’ market value since the Libor scandal emerged, and it has fuelled public ire with an industry already resented for its role in the 2008 financial meltdown and big bonuses paid to top executives.
On Friday, in a separate case, regulator the Financial Services Authority (FSA) said it had reached agreement with Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) “to provide appropriate redress” for mis-selling interest rate hedging products.
It said the mis-selling of the specialist insurance had had a “severe effect” on many small and medium-sized businesses, which would be compensated.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband on Saturday also called for criminal prosecutions along with a year-long public inquiry and new professional standards board. He accused banks of being “institutionally corrupt”.
“There hasn’t been a proper reckoning for what happened in the banking crisis. The bankers told us, ‘It’s all fine, we’ve cleaned everything up’, and I’m afraid that just doesn’t hold water any more,” Miliband, who leads the Labour party, told the Times newspaper.
“People are sent to prison for nicking £50 worth of goods from the supermarket. If you’ve got somebody who’s making tens of millions of pounds in what is clearly a corrupt way, (and) then nothing happens, people will think, how is that possible?”
But business minister Vince Cable said such an inquiry would be expensive and long-winded, calling for quicker action to clean up the industry instead.
The FSA does not currently have the power to impose criminal prosecutions for manipulating Libor but has said it is in discussions with Britain’s Serious Fraud Office over the case.
Finance minister George Osborne said Thursday that manipulating Libor may be criminalised, while the law would also be changed to allow prosecution of “the directors of failed banks where there is proven criminal negligence”.
The BBC reported Saturday, citing a source in the Conservative Party — which leads the ruling coalition — that ministers were set to order an independent review into the operation of Libor.
A computer problem at RBS, which is majority-owned by the British government after a bailout in the wake of the financial crisis, meanwhile left millions of customers unable to complete transactions for up to four days last week.