News: Customers shut out as Newcastle goes back to its roots

Debt collectors face clampdown; awareness campaign aimed at gay couples; top mortgage lenders snub key-worker scheme
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The Independent Online

Low levels of use by customers in 19 out of Newcastle's 52 branches had led to staff conducting an average of only 39 transactions a week each. This in turn resulted in problems of recruitment and retention, with staff turnover at these branches twice as high as usual.

Earmarked for closure in December are branches including Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham. All are outside the building society's heartland in north-east England.

Newcastle's chief executive, Robert Hollinshead, said the branch closure plan had been a "difficult decision" but stressed there were strong business reasons for it.

"Customers will be upset at this move, but it is best for the society as a whole," he said.

Customers whose branches are closing will now have to make transactions by post, phone or on the internet.

Around 100 jobs could be under threat as a result of the closures - although a spokesman pledged that the society would do all it could to relocate workers.

OFT targets debt firms

The Office of Fair Trading has launched an investigation into debt collection agencies said to be threatening, mis-informing and overcharging debtors.

The OFT is concerned that people are being pressured to pay in full early, and that repayments are in some cases being increased to unaffordable levels. It also cites some debt collectors' refusal to meet with appointed third parties such as Citizens Advice.

The investigation is taking place as personal debt levels in the UK soar. Most high-street banks are making greater provision for bad consumer debts.

The OFT set out minimum standards in July 2003 for debt collection by companies - and individuals - holding consumer credit licences. It has been monitoring compliance on a case-by-case basis for the past two years, responding to complaints and removing licences as appropriate. In this time, the number of debt collection agencies in the UK has risen from 270 to around 500.

"We have some evidence of non-compliance and also examples of changes in behaviour as a result of the guidance," said the OFT's executive director, Penny Boys, speaking after the announcement of the investigation last Wednesday.

"This review will give us a clearer picture of compliance levels."

The watchdog has undertaken 12 formal actions since July 2003 to revoke credit licences held by debt collectors. It plans to report the findings from its review in the spring.

Same-sex shake-up

Same-sex couples embarking on a civil partnership under new laws that come into force in the UK in December will be able to turn to Citizens Advice for financial guidance.

A guide published by Citizens Advice details how to register for - and end - a civil partnership and explains the potential benefits to couples.

Along with legal recognition of their relationship, a gay couple who register under the Civil Partnership Act will have access to a whole range of legal rights.

These include the right to benefit from a deceased partner's pension; exemption from inheritance tax; and occupancy and tenancy rights in the couple's home. Partners will also be recognised as each other's next of kin.

Citizens Advice is concerned that many gay couples are not aware that the new law will affect them regardless of whether they intend to register a civil partnership.

For example, some gay people claiming pensions or welfare benefits may see their entitlements change. This is because same-sex couples who live together will no longer be treated as two single people when a claim is made - whether or not they are civil partners. Under the new rules, the income and savings of both partners will be taken into account when benefit claims are calculated.

"We cannot stress how important it is that same-sex couples are aware of what these changes will mean," says Liz Seward, a spokeswoman for Citizens Advice.

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Shared equity setback

A government-backed pilot scheme to help key workers on to the property ladder through "shared equity" plans looks set to go ahead without participation from two major mortgage lenders.

Under the Homebuy scheme, the Government and lenders will club together to pay a quarter of the cost of a property. This should help first-time buyers working in the public sector, such as police officers, nurses and teachers, to buy their own homes.

But after early interest from many of the leading mortgage providers, Abbey and Alliance & Leicester have announced they will not be taking part in trials planned for later this year. Behind their decisions lie concerns about cost and viability, since the scheme is expected to help only around 30,000 new buyers. Those lenders planning to take part in the trial include Nationwide building society and Halifax.

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