Simon Read: Banks must pay for their arrogance

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The Independent Online

Angry customers have been queuing up to complain about their banks, according to figures published this week by the Financial Ombudsman Service. Each of the high street banks had thousands of complaints that ended up being referred to the Ombudsman, with Barclays topping the list of shame with more than 8,000 complaints referred during the first six months of the year.

The number of grievances has doubled over the past year, chiefly because of the campaign against bank charges led by The Independent. Because the banks have, as yet, failed to deal adequately with the charges issue, tens of thousands of fed-up customers have been forced to give up on banks' own complaints teams and take their problem to the Ombudsman. Stripping those out, the figures may not look so bad.

But I was still staggered by the arrogance of the British Bankers' Association (BBA), which claimed that the figures demonstrated that most customers are happy with their banks. Eric Leenders, the BBA's executive director, rushed out a press release pointing out that the banks conduct millions of transactions every day. As such, was his conclusion, even with tens of thousands of complaints, they're hardly worth breaking sweat over as they represent such a tiny proportion of the overall work the banks do. "Millions of transactions for millions of customers go through the banking system every day and... these numbers published by the ombudsman show that most customers have no problems with their bank," was Leenders preposterous claim.

He also suggested that there is less than one upheld complaint for every 10,000 products you can get from your bank. So what? I'd say Mr Leenders is living in cloud cuckoo land if he really believes the majority of us are happy with our banks. Unless I've missed something, the opposite is true.

Peter Vicary-Smith, the chief executive of Which?, was equally astounded. "At a time when the industry should be seeking to learn from its mistakes, it defies belief that the body representing the banking industry would seek to 'spin' what are clearly appalling results for the industry," he stormed. "The BBA should be trying to get its members to fix these problems, rather than encouraging them to bury their heads in the sand."

I couldn't agree more. It is time the banks 'fessed up to their shortcomings and did something about improving them. Oddly enough, only the Abbey – owned by Spanish bank Santander – took the trouble to contact me to apologise, even though the number of complaints referred to the Ombudsman about the bank fell. A spokesman said: "We acknowledge that we still need to do better."

They do, along with the other high street banks. And they can start by actually putting decent complaints procedures in place so that we aren't forced to take our case to the Ombudsman. Some two-thirds of complaints about banks were upheld, which shows just how far they need to go before they can claim to be treating us fairly.

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