On 24th September 30 people travelled from all over the Country to attend the first meeting of SMEalliance in the Old Council Chamber at the Law Society. It could have been double that number but, having asked our hosts, Rustem Guardian, for a room for 12 people, then 25 people, then 30 people, I felt it would have been rather rude to continually increase the numbers! All the same we ended up with about 35 people. Rustem Guardian did us proud and we are enormously grateful to them for giving us such a fitting venue for our first meeting.
I say fitting because one of the key phrases that came out of the meeting was this:
“no one is above the law.”
Of course most people at the meeting were brought together because, as SME owners are very well aware, some people do seem to be above the law – which is, in part, the reason why so many SMEs are struggling and continue to be abused and especially (but by no means exclusively) by the financial sector. But the reality is – and we need to remember it – in a working democracy, no one is above the law.
I raised this subject at the meeting because of a letter Paul and I received, dated 1st September 2014, (1 day before SMEalliance was born) on behalf of Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. We wrote to Mr Carney on 31st July 2014 and that is our first letter to him although we were in regular contact with Lord King from 2010 and he always replied, usually in person and with his private seal. Mervyn King (as he was in 2010) had asked to be kept fully informed of the progress of investigations into HBOS (ongoing) and I don’t make the point to infer we are buddies of Lord King’s, I make it because by writing to him and getting replies, we were sure the BoE had critical information about malpractice in HBOS. So we were keen to make sure Mark Carney was similarly well informed. I can’t publish most of our letter or the reply for reasons of sub judice but I can publish this point we raised with the Governor:
Mr Carney, even as music publishers (there’s been little music publishing and lots of fraud investigation over the last 7 years), we understand the need to maintain international confidence in the City of London and our financial sector. But it would seem the attempts to indemnify bankers from crime in order to maintain that confidence, has resulted in the City becoming the ‘Wild West’ of the financial world. By not holding bankers to account individually when they break the law, we now have a situation whereby the banks feel their immunity to prosecution is a licence to further break the law. And they do so in the knowledge that, worst case scenario, their shareholders will pay huge fines while those bankers responsible for the good management and reputation of the banks, continue to get huge pay packets, bonuses and pension pots. Under such a scheme, where is the incentive for bankers to behave lawfully, morally and ethically?
The reply to this on behalf of the Governor was (I’ve redacted specific’s):
Your letter also notes a concern that regulators have not acted to penalise relevant individuals in relation to XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX and that bankers are somehow above the law and able to avoid prosecution. This is a view very much not shared by the Bank of England. As the Governors recent letter to Lord Blackwell made clear there is absolutely no doubt that bankers who are guilty of misconduct should face the regulatory and / or criminal consequences of their actions. No one is above the law.
I haven’t published that to annoy the Governor of the Bank of England by sharing private correspondence. On the contrary I’ve published it to make the point that in the “them v us” scenario many SME owners feel exists between businesses and the establishment, we have a lot of shared views. And I may be very naive but I was actually delighted to read the headline in the Huff Post today: Mark Carney Tears Into Bad Bankers For ‘Getting Away With It’
I am not saying our letter to the Governor made an impact but, on the other hand, maybe he is aware of the bad conduct of banks towards SMEs – maybe we can get our message across to people like Mark Carney and maybe now if the time to resolve a “failure to communicate” situation that has existed for far too long. I really hope we can remedy that with SMEalliance. We can open a real dialogue with people who can help us get change – and this time, the message won’t be from people paid to represent us – it will be SMEs representing SMEs.
I feel hugely encouraged by the immediate response and support for SMEalliance – it really feels as if a fuse has been lit and an immediate network of like minded people have joined forces. We need to build and build our numbers so our voice gets louder. And then we can collectively make sure influential people like Mark Carney or politicians know exactly how we feel, what our problems are and what changes we want to see – straight from the horses mouth. Starting maybe with the statement from the Governor’s office:
No one is above the law.
If even the Governor of the Bank of England is agreed on this principle. maybe we could start dealing with the one thing that hinders it:
But most people can’t afford the law.
That’s a huge problem but let’s not run before we can walk. If we can be sure the authorities will support “no one is above the law” that would already go a long way to helping SMEs. So that when we report misconduct, fraud, misrepresentation, sharp practice or other issues that damage SMEs to the regulators, the police, MPs – we could do so with the confidence the law will protect us.
Last thing – you don’t have to have a problem to join SMEalliance. Aside from trying to raise important issues at a political level and have a huge voice, it is a huge opportunity to network, share information or idea’s and cross reference facts that will also alert others to potential pitfalls. And for those who do have a problem, it will also hopefully provide a support network. I saw all of this go into action straight away when everyone at the meeting adjourned to the pub and it was evident the knowledge and experience people were willing to share was phenomenal.
Please visit our website http://www.smealliance.org and if like us you think SMEs, which are the absolute backbone of the economy, should have a better deal and a bigger voice, please join us. Our next meeting is 6th November at the Winford Manor Hotel in Bristol.
Very brief blog to confirm the 1st meeting of SME Alliance will take place 24th September at 1.00pm in the Old Council Chamber of the Law Society, 113 Chancery Lane, London.
This meeting has come about as a concerted effort. Many thanks to Jon Welsby who has got us the venue; to all the people who have got on board so enthusiastically; to Nick Gould and to Gareth of Rustem Guardian who are supporting SME Alliance.
I’ll stop there before it becomes an Academy Awards speech where I throw in family members, my cats (dead and alive) and a tragic life story. But I would genuinely like to say (she’s off again), who would have thought something so important, and in a way so obvious, could have happened so quickly?
I look forward to seeing those attending on the 24th – and for those who couldn’t make it but want to support this initiative – the website will be up soon, it’s easy to join, it won’t cost anything and your support will mean everything.
We need a voice to make SMEs heard. If you join us, we’ll get that voice.
It’s been a busy week and I still can’t believe that two weeks ago SMEalliance didn’t exist. It certainly does now! Obviously it’s still early days but here’s a brief update of where we are:
We have a company .
We have a domain name smealliance.org.
We have a logo (to be unveiled next week)
The website is being built and should be up and running by the end of next week.
We have a meeting confirmed for 25 people on 24th September at 1.00pm (the venue will be confirmed early next week but if it’s not Chancery Lane it will be within walking distance of Chancery Lane)
We have supporters who can’t make the meeting but are on board.
We have media interest.
Not bad progress for 12 days work. But I am fully aware we are at the very beginning of something and what we want to achieve will not be easy.
I’ve been repeatedly asked over the last few days, the very obvious question, what will make SMEalliance different from any other organisation that supports SMEs. And I want to say straight away, we haven’t formed this group as a criticism against other organisations.
However, there are serious issues for all SMEs that clearly are not being dealt with or resolved. As these are issues that affect SME owners, shareholders, employees, it makes sense for us to try and help deal with them ourselves and alongside existing organisations. After all, who knows the problems we face better than us? And please note – SMEalliance is absolutely not just about banks – so we are not going into competition with Bully Banks or anyone else – in fact we have a meeting scheduled with Bully Banks and I hope we’ll have meetings with the FSB in the future.
As I said on Day 1 of this initiative – there are 4.9M SMEs in Britain and it is absolutely ridiculous that we are ignored by all the major political parties. They may say they don’t ignore us but the proof of the pudding is; no one is doing anything about the way banks continue to trash SMEs and steal their assets; no one is enforcing the conditions banks agreed to as part of the bailouts (i.e funding for SMEs); no one is looking at the abuse we suffer at the hands of the insolvency sector; no one is looking at the inequitable position we are in with the justice system (i.e first we get abused and then our abusers use shareholders money to make sure we can be abused again in the Courts); we are crippled with red tape and regulation while the major corporations SMEs struggle to compete with, are often not even paying UK taxes because they’re registered off shore; the various Ombudsman schemes are not set up to deal with SME problems; the regulators are not set up to deal with SMEs (e.g the FCA does not deal with individual issues but the FOS can only give limited compensation which doesn’t cater for SME losses); and so on and so forth.
The reason for SMEalliance is: we, the members (the few now and the many coming) are all very aware of how important SMEs are to society but also how individually vulnerable we are against the kind of unethical practise that blights the business community. Many of us started businesses with all the enthusiasm and dedication synonymous with entrepreneurship and with no idea how easy it would be for rogue elements of other sectors to see us as mere cannon fodder. We all employ (or employed) people and we know first hand the devastation caused when businesses fail because of immoral and sometimes fraudulent scenarios we have no control over. I think we’ve been collectively shocked that the protection we thought we had – regulators, law, Government – has, in many cases, proven to be totally ineffectual. Many of us have watched in horror as our businesses have been destroyed despite our every effort to save them. We’ve all tried individually to stop the kind of corruption and “wilful blindness” that makes SMEs such easy prey. Now we’re going to do it collectively. Who better than us to try and help remedy the problems facing our sector?
SMEalliance is a very simple concept. SME owners, shareholders, employees getting together to share idea’s and information that will help us all. And, most of all, having a collective voice that policy makers in Governments have to listen to. I’ll put that another way because a) “HAVE” to listen suggests we have a very aggressive agenda and b) as we all know, selective hearing or pretending to listen (nodding dog syndrome) is a speciality of some politicians. We want to get to the point where political parties genuinely WANT to listen to us and genuinely want to use our experiences to identify what needs to be changed or put in place for a more equitable platform for SMEs. It can only be a good thing for the economy to make the SME sector strong.
It’s a plan. It’s a very good plan. Now we just need to make it work! As I said, it’s early days but something about this does feel very logical.
That’s it for now. Anymore and someone will be buying me a soapbox! Will update again in the week. Please spread the word. #SMEalliance.
Last Saturday I had a very interesting time at the Cambridge Symposium on Economic Crime. I was there with other members of a whistle blowers organisation and several of us gave a ten minute speech on our personal whistle blowing experiences in relation to economic crime. I must admit I did feel slightly disadvantaged because the economic crime I know most about (HBOS Reading) is the one thing I couldn’t mention because it’s subject to sub judice until the end of the criminal trials.
I must also admit that while my colleagues were either very eloquent and experienced at giving speeches or had taken the time to write and rehearse their speeches, I kind of hoofed it because the last few weeks have been quite hectic and I could do with 28 hours in every day. So I was very nervous. But I also felt very privileged because the whistle blowers involved with WBUK are a pretty impressive bunch and some of them are very well known for their extraordinarily brave actions exposing corruption across many sectors. You can check out some of the members on this page: Members testimonials
Anyway I did manage to make a speech. God knows I don’t need much encouragement to start giving my views on malpractice in the financial system and once I got started I could probably have gone on for hours given half a chance (fortunately for the audience I didn’t have that chance).
What really struck me about yesterday was how shocked and how interested the audience was. They really seemed to appreciate the opportunity to hear ordinary people sharing their experiences. The rooms for both of the WBUK sessions were pretty much packed and the feedback we got from the audience was incredible. In fact the organiser of the Symposium has invited us back next year to do a whole day in a bigger location because everyone was so keen to hear what we all had to say. And everyone was so complimentary!
I should explain why I found that so extraordinary. We, the whistle blowers, are not at all used to compliments. if anything, we’re used to being disliked for what we do – obviously we are disliked by the people we blow the whistle on but in general the authorities are non too keen on us either. For example, one of our members blew the whistle on very serious corruption in the police force – end result? She was kicked out of the police. Another even more tragic case was in the healthcare sector where the inability of the NHS to listen to a whistle blower who is a senior Paediatrician, later allowed the tragic death of baby P to occur (that 10 minute speech was heart breaking). She also lost her job although she fortunately has it back and is well respected for what she did. Or the case our Chairman, Colonel Ian Foxley, who blew the whistle on irregular payments between EADS and the Saudi Royals. Not a very popular decision in certain circles: see GPT
I could go on as we have collectively blown the whistle on so many totally corrupt and unethical situations. And in general we have managed to highlight very, very serious issues to the public that in many cases have had positive results. But the result for the whistle blowers has generally been very negative. Many of us have had our lives devastated – people don’t want to employ people who might blow the whistle – most of us have lost either our jobs or our businesses – in the majority of cases whistle blowers have to fight for years before anyone will even listen to them and take the issue they are raising seriously – and while the issues whistle blowers raise are crucial to a just and ethical society, we are often labelled as trouble makers.
But I realised on Saturday, when people have the opportunity to sit down and listen to our stories, they appreciate what we’ve done and are even astounded by what we’ve done. I could see a reaction by many people in our audience of complete bewilderment and incomprehension that it should be so hard to blow the whistle on situations that are blatantly wrong – not just for individuals but for society. I really felt an enormous amount of empathy for what whistle blowers do. And of course while we do meet each other and speak to whistle blowers on the WBUK help line, we rarely get the chance to collectively meet people who are totally unconnected to the world of whistle blowing.
Unfortunately the Government, with their various enquiries and reports don’t seem quite so keen on us and everyone at WBUK has been very disappointed at the Francis Report or the BIS review of existing legal frameworks for whistle blowers and I am already disappointed in advance of the PRA report of what caused HBOS to fail. But Saturday made me think that maybe, if we can keep raising the profile, it will be the public (even bankers, lawyers, accountants and even senior officials in the healthcare sector) who will help us make whistle blowing a respected and much needed voice in society. Clearly we just need to spread the word about the good whistle blowers do.
To finish, I would just like to reply to a valid point raised by an accountant in the afternoon session who suggested we (society) needs to look at both sides of the coin – i.e. someone might use whistle blowing to make malicious and unfounded allegations against another person. I didn’t get a chance to reply but let me just say – I have been one of the people manning the phones for the helpline for the last couple of months. I have heard some totally appalling stories and I mean truly shocking, from people who feel they have no option but to join the whistle blowing community. I have also heard stories that weren’t really about whistle blowing but were about personal disputes. Still serious issues but not necessarily whistle blowing. It’s not hard to identify real whistle blowers. And when I’m speaking to people on the phone, my own criteria is – is this person telling me something that will be detrimental to lots of other people if it isn’t exposed?
I would say to anyone questioning the integrity of whistle blowers and here’s the crunch – no person in their right mind would chose to be a whistle blower. No one queue’s up for the job and no one really wants the job. It’s not easy and it’s not a nice job. Sometimes it changes the entire direction of your life. It is a fact many whistle blowers need support to deal with the mental stress and anxiety resultant from their decision to try and do the right thing – and that is a support WBUK tries to give. Nervous breakdowns or depression are common complaints with whistle blowers. But all the disadvantages still doesn’t stop some people blowing the whistle on gross injustice or corruption. Thank God.
Anyway, Saturday was a really positive day for all of us and I am really encouraged to believe that by this time next year we will have an even bigger voice and support for WBUK. And we will be closer to removing the stigma of blowing the whistle. Hopefully we’ll be closer to a situation whereby whistle blowers get the kind of protection that will encourage others to come forward and blow the whistle when they see situations that should and must be flagged up for the good of society. And while my personal experience involves the financial sector, hearing the speeches on Saturday, the thought that has remained with me all week is – at all cost we must avoid a Baby P situation ever happening again. We need whistle blowers.