Belfast Telegraph

'Tis the season to squander taxpayers' cash on Xmas parties

By Janet Street-Porter

Since the recession, the mindset of the well-paid people who work in our financial services industry doesn't seem very different, in spite of a government that says it wants to clamp down on excessive behaviour.

The old regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority, was deemed ineffectual, and was replaced by the Financial Conduct Authority - funded by taxpayers. Note that word "conduct". Recently, the FCA has imposed huge fines on British banks for rate-fixing and unacceptable behaviour. Closer to home, what kind of example does the FCA set to those it seeks to monitor?

It's the festive season and "custom and practice" in the City of London means setting aside a tidy sum of money to celebrate with a staff party. Wine bars and restaurants are packed with drunken revellers. The FSA was heavily criticised for spending huge sums of money on parties at expensive venues during the financial crisis - more than £270,000 in 2007 and almost £230,000 in 2008, a time when the banks were in meltdown.

Since then, the economy has grown slowly, but the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever and food banks are headline news. So you might think that the FCA would take soundings from its public relations department before deciding how to mark Christmas. Sadly, moderation seems to be an unfashionable word in the Square Mile.

A Freedom of Information request reveals that this year the FCA has set aside £180,000 - about £60 a head - for staff parties for its 3,000 workers, at a range of venues. It justifies this expenditure by saying it is less than the tax-free limit of £150 per person set by the Inland Revenue.

I don't want to be a killjoy, but why are any publicly funded organisations funding staff parties this Christmas? That includes the various government departments, Number 10, the Foreign Office and the BBC. In the private sector, some bosses may want to reward staff for hard work and loyalty. But when it comes to the public sector - and I include council workers - why are taxpayers funding their turkey, paper hats and prosecco?

If I want to give my local road sweeper a fiver, then I do. He has a particularly drab job, trying to eradicate fag ends, gum, takeaway food wrappers, vomit and bottles. But the people at the FCA are only doing their job, just like the rest of us - no more and no less, and it's in a cosy office.

The feeble reason given to justify Christmas parties is that they are part of a "PR exercise". In fact, they are the most stupendous waste of cash going. The FCA is in business to protect customers, so why isn't it forcing banks that have treated clients unfairly to send those affected a turkey and a bottle of bubbly?

When banks get fined millions, the money goes back to the Treasury. Somehow the customers get left out of the loop. But the staff at the FCA will be enjoying £60 worth of food and drink. Maybe they should donate it to Crisis at Christmas.

Belfast Telegraph


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