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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The real bank robbers

Ronnie Biggs and City financiers have so much in common - apart from the matter of punishment

The panto season is under way, and bankers are, perhaps predictably, cast as the villains in some shows. A London production of Dick Whittington has a banker cast as King Rat. Across the Atlantic, one Bernard Madoff has satisfied demand for a real-life pantomime villain. Are we just picking on chaps when they're down, or is it fair to portray the banking classes as a new type of scoundrel?

A few weeks ago, I bumped into someone I had last seen in the dock at the Old Bailey on a robbery charge a quarter of a century ago. We chatted, and I asked what had become of his young sons. He chuckled. They had gone into the City and made far more money than their criminal dad ever did. If only he had known how easy it was, he said, he would have done the same thing.

The fortunes made in the City and the subsequent collapse have many echoes in the criminal world. Armed robbers enjoyed their heyday in the 70s, thanks to a combination of unsophisticated security in banks, a corrupt detective branch in Scotland Yard and a code of criminal conduct that eschewed informing. When all those three factors altered, many criminals looked for other, safer ways to make money. One popular scam was the long firm fraud. It works thus: you set up a business in a warehouse using a bogus name, you order goods and pay on time; repeat, for a much larger number of goods and pay again on time; repeat for a much, much larger amount and disappear.

In many ways, some of our financial institutions have in effect been carrying out a fantastically sophisticated long firm fraud, although that may not have been their intention at the outset. They asked people to give them their money, they paid out on time; they asked for more, and paid out again; then they asked for even more - and announced that they had nothing left. Essentially, a long long firm fraud.

The big difference, of course, is that the dodgy warehouse version of this operation is illegal, while the City version, involving supposedly venerable institutions, is legal - although the damage done by the legal long firm is much greater than that perpetrated by the illegal ones.

Years ago one of the regular sights on Oxford Street, in London, was a handful of shifty-looking men and a cardboard box. They were engaged in the three-card trick, or "find the lady": a Queen and two other cards would be placed face up on top of the box, turned over and shuffled around; the dealer would then invite bets from gullible members of the public as to which was the Queen. From the watching group a plant would emerge. When the dealer was supposedly not watching, he would bend over the edge of the Queen card and bet on it. He would win, and generously tip off a member of the public on this fail-safe method of winning. The punter would foolishly place a bet and - hey presto - when the card with the bent edge was turned up, it would no longer be a Queen but a deuce.

I learned a painful 10 bob (yes, it was that long ago) lesson from these operators on Charing Cross Road. This, too, has many parallels with the way people were encouraged by adverts showing satisfied customers to stake their money on a sure-fire investment. The three-card men have long since gone from the streets, and I would wager at least 10 bob that many of their sons and some of their daughters went to work in the City.

But what's to be done? It is 45 years now since the great train robbery. Here were a group of criminals robbing one of our venerable institutions, the Royal Mail. When they were caught, they had to be punished severely - and seven of the gang were jailed for 30 years, sentences far stiffer than those then given to murderers or serial rapists. In fact, one of the robbers - Ronnie Biggs - is still in prison, aged 79, and unable to communicate except by pointing at letters on a laminated sheet. Why he is not released on compassionate grounds is one of the many wonders of our justice system. But the point is this: an example was made of Biggs and his fellow robbers because they had caused such damage to an institution on which people relied. No one is suggesting that the chaps at the top of our collapsed financial institutions, who have been rewarding themselves so lavishly for so long, should join Ronnie in a cell in Norwich; well, not many people are. But here's a thought: earlier this year the Assets Recovery Agency, which was employed to trace the proceeds of crime, was subsumed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency. During its brief existence, it did not, to be blunt, have a great deal of success, but it must know where money gets tucked away. Why not set it the simpler and more rewarding task of tracing the assets of the people whose irresponsibility and personal greed led to the collapse of the institutions where money was thought to be safe?

If, say, all assets in excess of what could be accumulated from a £1m annual salary and £1m annual bonus, were confiscated from those involved in the collapsed institutions and placed back in the public purse, would that not have an immediate beneficial effect on the economy? And would it not act, just like those 30-year sentences, as a wonderful reminder about how to behave?

As the judges like to say at the Old Bailey when dispatching a miscreant down the stairs to the cells below: "Society needs a rest from this kind of behaviour - take him down."