JOHN HUMPHRYS: Are today’s bank robbers the ones in suits not masks?
The bank manager was reasonably friendly but just a little aloof. First names were not used. He was Mr Jones. I was Mr Humphrys.
We sat either side of his highly polished mahogany desk on which there were two very small glasses of dry sherry — one for him and one for me. I was there to open an account. He asked me a few questions about my financial situation and then delivered a short lecture on the potential perils of debt and the wisdom of financial probity.
As you may have guessed by now, this happened a very long time ago. I had just turned 18 and it was my first bank account.
It all came back to me yesterday when an old friend forwarded me an email from his own bank that illustrated dramatically how much has changed in the world of banking. The essence of it was that his bank is no longer a bank. It is a ‘Store’. That’s their capital letter, not mine.
My friend was outraged: ‘I joined the Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank in 1976. They had bags with a big blue Y that I used to carry my books at university. First the bags went. Then the direct phone line went, so I couldn’t contact my local branch directly but was hoovered away to a call centre. Then the branch went. Then the bank became Virgin Money. And now? The horror . . . the horror!’
I read the email and understood his anguish. ‘Martin!’ they told him in garish bright red and blue, ‘We’ve got some exciting news for you!’ But first he had to ‘Get ready for a life more Virgin’.
Let’s remind ourselves that this is a bank we are talking about. Not a website flogging trendy trainers to gullible youngsters. A bank. Society can survive without trainers. It cannot survive without banks. And banks are not and never will be ‘about smiles’
There followed the usual vacuous, teeth-grindingly patronising guff that passes for communication in the digital age and at the heart of it was this promise: ‘Service that is about smiles not sales!’
That’s more than vacuous. It is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty.
Let’s remind ourselves that this is a bank we are talking about. Not a website flogging trendy trainers to gullible youngsters. A bank. Society can survive without trainers. It cannot survive without banks. And banks are not and never will be ‘about smiles’. They are about providing us with a service and making a profit from us, their customers. To suggest otherwise is a lie.
Banks have been regarded with deep suspicion throughout history. Thomas Jefferson, the greatest of American presidents and seldom prone to understatement, got it about right when he said: ‘I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies.’
Not that I regarded Mr Jones across his mahogany desk in the early 1960s as dangerous. On the contrary. I trusted him. But in the decades that have passed since our meeting, the banks have changed almost beyond recognition and squandered that trust.
It’s not that in the 1960s they did their customers any great favours. If you went into the red by splurging money you did not have, then you paid for it. But if you had savings you got a decent return, and if you had a problem you could talk to a human being. They played fair.
Pretty much all of that has gone.
Of course the digital revolution has changed the way we do business. Cheques are dying if not dead — replaced by a few clicks of a mouse. It has saved customers some hassle and saved the banks a fortune. But the endless queues outside every branch in the early days of lockdown showed how many people still need their local bank and how few have survived.
In the past five years a third of all bank branches have been closed, often leaving their customers with nowhere else to go.
It’s a similar story with cashpoints. Hundreds of thousands of the poorest people find themselves in cash deserts.
Returns on savings are derisory: a virtually worthless 0.06 per cent was the average last month. But the interest you pay on an overdraft is stratospheric.
A few months ago the Financial Conduct Authority ordered the banks to simplify their immensely complicated overdraft structure. They did. And then promptly hiked the cost of an overdraft to eye-watering levels. Anything from 35 to 39 per cent for the big boys. Nice work if you can get it.
That may be morally dubious, but at least it’s legal. Unlike the massive PPI scandal that continues to rumble on. Like so many other great banking scams, it appeared to offer a service many of us could benefit from.
If you bought payment protection insurance when you took out a loan, and then fell ill or lost your job, your repayments would be covered.
No fewer than 64 million policies were sold. But millions were mis-sold to people who did not want or need them, and who would not have been covered by them anyway.
At first the banks protested their innocence, but the evidence of dodgy dealing was overwhelming. An astonishing total of £36 billion has been paid out in compensation. The cost to the banks’ reputation has been even greater.
Now another scandal may be about to surface — this one unearthed by the impressive Thames Valley police and crime commissioner Anthony Stansfeld.
He has accused some of the UK’s major High Street banks of perpetrating ‘serious organised crime’ against their customers, potentially causing billions of pounds of losses over at least a decade by forging signatures to win court cases and repossess homes.
When I spoke to Mr Stansfeld this week he told me: ‘Lives have been destroyed, families evicted, people have been bankrupted.’
Mr Stansfeld said he had reviewed evidence of signature forgeries which was provided to Lynne Owens, the director general of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in September last year.
He has given evidence to the Treasury Select Committee in which he said that the evidence of criminal activity was ‘clear and compelling’. The committee wants the NCA, which investigates organised crime, to conduct an investigation.
The Conservative MP Steve Baker, a member of the committee, told me he is ‘deeply alarmed’ that the NCA has not yet done so and added: ‘I’ve seen evidence which could prove people have been put out of their homes on a false premise.’
So I called the NCA to try to find out what they are doing.
They told me they are ‘making a thorough assessment to determine whether there are grounds for a criminal or regulatory investigation’.
You might wonder how long it takes to make an assessment.
There are many who share Mr Baker’s view that the banks are tempted into activities that are dubious, if not downright illegal, because they can no longer make enough profit from doing the sort of thing Mr Jones was doing all those years ago.
There are also many who will share the view of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Rather than justice for all, we are evolving into a system of justice for those who can afford it. We have banks that are not only too big to fail, but too big to be held accountable.’
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