Television: Banks are a highly-charged issue

Hilary Clarke wonders if her cash would be safer in a teapot under the bed
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World in Action


Do you, like me, ever feel like this consumer society of ours is just a modern excuse for rape, pillage and plunder? Those of you who watched 's investigation into bank overcharging, "How safe is your cash?", on Monday evening will be left with no doubt that is the case and that it is the Barclays, Midlands and NatWests who are the latter- day robber barons. The 30-minute documentary concluded that your money isn't safe with the high street banks and building societies, who regularly, and it seems systematically, whack up charges made to customers.

In an attempt to liven up this important yet visually dull subject, the team brought in two independent auditors, one for banks, the other for mortgages, to pore over the bank statements of the residents of Ilkley in West Yorkshire, a region with a reputation for thriftiness. By focusing on a town the camera was able to conjure up idyllic images of the Yorkshire moors and middle-England life on the cricket pitch and in the pub.

Mrs Hepworth, chairwoman of Ilkley in Bloom flower show, summed up the attitude of most of us after finding she and her accountant husband were paying 8.75 per cent interest on their mortgage instead of the 6.25 per cent they thought they had agreed with their bank. "I would automatically trust the bank. I wouldn't ask questions," she said.

In all, of the thousand accounts surveyed in Ilkley, 42 per cent had been overcharged, including all of the 200 small businesses and one half of mortgage borrowers. The total amount of money "extorted" by the high street banks from the unsuspecting, upright citizens of Ilkley in excess interest rates, arrangement fees and bank charges was a staggering pounds 8,000. made an intelligent stab at turning a national scandal into entertaining television.

I have two criticisms of the programme however. Firstly, the two worst cases of all, including the story of a man who had paid a whopping pounds 15,000 too much in interest rates on a house-building loan didn't come from Ilkley at all, something I found rather confusing. Secondly, the programme did not attempt to get to the bottom of the problem - that is, how can such scandalous overcharging happen? No banker was really brought to task on the issue, leaving it to a faceless official from the British Bankers Association to express cynicism at the survey's results. What else could he say? Surely in such a small town, could have tracked down a couple of local bank managers who could have shed some light into why, in this computerised age, such massive accounting errors occur.

Maybe it is simply a question of under-staffing at the banks. Or, more cynically, do the banks deliberately trick customers, hoping they won't notice, in order to boost profits? As the banks get bigger through consolidation and mergers and with all of them under competitive pressure to cut costs by closing branches and individual attention to customers, it is a problem that can only get worse. Trying to recover money from the country's financial institutions can be frustrating and time-consuming. That is why so many of us tend not to bother. The question is, what can we do about it short of stashing our cash in a teapot under the bed? While commending for bringing the problem to the viewers attention, it was a question the programme sadly failed to answer.