Deputy PMQs: Vince tackles Harriet on bankers' bonuses

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2009

Y’know I’ve expressed my general contempt for the pantomime which passes for Prime Minister’s Questions on many occasions: it’s theatre, mirage, insubstantial: all performance, no content. But we discovered today there’s something worse than the usual rowdy PMQs: when there’s both no performance and no content.

It’s hard to remember that William Hague once had a fearsome Commons reputation for being the best, sparkiest, wittiest debater on the block. Perhaps all those after-dinner speeches have dulled his senses – or perhaps he reckons he’s not paid enough to waste all his best lines on Parliament – but today’s performance against Prime Ministerial stand-in Harriet Harman was lame and dull. To put it in context, he made Harriet look actually quite good. She wasn’t – she was anodyne and frequently out-of-her-depth – but the comparison was to her credit, not his. Still, at least Mr Hague was better than Gordon Brown.

Vince Cable rose, as is traditional, to cheers from all-corners of the house. He started with a dry, slightly obscure, joke in Harriet’s honour – “may I express the hope that when she was briefing the Prime Minister for talks with his friend Signor Berlusconi, she remembered to enclose an Italian translation of her progressive views on gender equality?” – but then stuck to the touchstone issue among the public at the moment: how can government ministers talk of the need for public sector pay restraint when they are signing-off large bonuses for executives in banks currently majority-owned by the public? Harriet made a half-heartedly fierce show of sounding tough while committing the Government to nothing.

In a low-scoring contest, Vince edges it both for injecting (a little) humour into proceedings, and (more importantly) for asking a question that matters to the public, on an issue the government can do something about, and where his own party has something distinctive to say. Mr Hague, take note.

Full Hansard transcript of Vince and Harriet’s exchanges follow:

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): May I add my condolences to the families of the seven brave servicemen who died in Afghanistan and to those of the victims of the Camberwell fire?

In welcoming the Minister back to her temporary job running the country, may I express the hope that when she was briefing the Prime Minister for talks with his friend Signor Berlusconi, she remembered to enclose an Italian translation of her progressive views on gender equality?

My question is about public sector pay. How do the Government expect low-paid public sector workers, whom the right hon. and learned Lady has rightly just defended, to accept restraint in an environment where the Government are allocating to senior management—senior civil servants—large salaries, generous pensions and very large bonuses, averaging £10,000 a head?

Ms Harman: We have made it clear that we expect to see restraint at the top of the public sector. It is important in difficult times that those in a leadership position in the public sector take their responsibilities seriously and set a good example.

Dr. Cable: But that does not address the basic principle. Why is it that two thirds of all senior civil servants expect to receive bonuses in order to get out of bed in the morning, on principle? May I also address the issue of the most highly paid public servants—namely, those who work in the publicly owned and guaranteed banks? Why do the Government simply not stop bonuses being paid within those banks? They are publicly owned banks, owned by the taxpayer. Why do the Government not simply say no?

Ms Harman: The Government have made it very clear indeed that we want to see an end to recklessness whereby people have enriched themselves while gambling with other people’s money and given themselves big bonuses as a reward for failure. We have made it clear that we expect action from the Financial Services Authority, and the Chancellor will be making a statement about that shortly.