Between the lines: Regulation is still the bête noir of business

FOR Tony Blair, hope sprang from his mantra of education, education, education.

In Scotland's financial services industry, fear stems from the prospect of regulation, regulation, regulation.

Scotland's banks, life companies and asset management houses view the current regulatory regime with equanimity.

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For them the rules imposed on them by the regulators in the UK – the Financial Service Authority being the main one – are a necessary evil.

The industry recognises that some of their number have not exactly been shining examples of probity and so consumers need a degree of protection.

However, they tend to see some of the regulations imposed upon them as overly fussy, creating more compliance bureaucracy than is strictly necessary.

Not only is the FSA seen as overbearing, there are those in financial services who believe that it is over-mighty to the point of arrogance.

One theory going the rounds is that the FSA deliberately let Northern Rock fail, and fail very publicly, to teach the others a lesson.

But, despite these reservations, financial services generally accept that regulation is a fact of life in their business and get on with getting on with the regulators.

But over recent years the industry has had a new set of relationships to establish on top of the contacts with legislators and regulators in London.

Europe is becoming an important focus for financial services in terms of what might be called regulation watch.

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For example, the current debate between the industry and the European Commission is over what are called "efficiency measures" for creating a single market in asset management.

Explaining the detail would take up several months' worth of Between The Lines columns, but the central idea is that there should be freedom for companies to do business across national borders.

But the commission, and some member states, have reservations over how this should be regulated. One idea is to have "company passports" to give firms clearance to work in other countries.

However, there are fears that this could lead to the creation of "empty-box funds", domiciled in one country but administered in another, leaving the home regulator powerless.

It is complicated. And that's the point. Dealing with London and Brussels regulators takes up a huge amount of time – and money.

So the last thing the financial services industry in Scotland wants is another bureaucracy on top of all that lot.

But that is what could be in store were Scotland ever to gain the independence that the Scottish National Party, currently in power at Holyrood, desires.

Which makes the comments on Tuesday by John Swinney, the Nationalist cabinet secretary for finance, intriguing.

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Swinney suggested that retaining a Britain-wide regulatory regime post-independence was "one option" should his party achieve its long-held dream of ending the Union.

In public his words were politely received.

John Campbell, the chairman of Scottish Financial Enterprise, appeared to suggest the prospect of one European-wide regulatory regime – even if that is a distant possibility – would mean that independence would have little practical effect.

In private the view from most of the financial services industry is rather different.

They have looked at the SNP's plans – such as they are – and seen references to a regulatory system mirroring Ireland's.

That would still mean a third system of regulation, assuming that Scottish products would continue to be sold south of the Border.

And that would leave one of Scotland's largest and most powerful industries at odds with one of its most powerful political parties.

It is in the interest of neither side that this state of affairs continue. Next move to the SNP.