Simon Read: The OFT has let us down by not referring current accounts


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The Independent Online

The Office of Fair Trading weighed into the bank accounts row yesterday. The government's consumer watchdog accused Britain's banks of failing to focus on customers' needs.

In other words, our banks are more concerned about profits than service. The OFT said that there is a lack of competition and low levels of innovation by banks.

Meanwhile, very few people switch, despite poor service and high charges, because of confusing costs and a lack of real choices.

The report is damning, but says nothing that we don't know already. My weekly postbag contains many emails and letters about banks but only one in the almost four years that I've been in this job actually praised one of the big high street banks.

Even then the surprisingly decent service only came about – it turns out – because the bank in question had been forced by the regulator to contact customers and put things right.

So why are we now, five years after the banking crisis hit, still being confronted by confusing current accounts and poor service? Is it because the banks are still arrogant enough to think they can continue to get away with ripping us off?

Despite calls for it to do so the OFT refused to refer the current accounts market to the Competition Commission. That's because it believes that there are improvements afoot.

It reported: "A number of major developments are expected in the market over coming months, including the sale of branches from both Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, a new automated account switching service and the completion of existing initiatives intended to make it easier for customers to compare products and services." Indeed, Lloyds was quick to get in touch yesterday to blow its own trumpet about what it calls its "world-leading seven-day switching service", which will launch in September 2013.

As a Lloyds customer I can report that it's impossible to switch online from a high-cost current account to a lower-cost or free one.

However, there's a button on its banking site that encourages you to upgrade your account to an even higher-cost one.

That tells you all you need to know about the bank's continuing attitude to customers. It simply wants to take as much cash off them as it can.

As the OFT pointed out yesterday, current accounts are worth £9bn to Britain's banks. They want to protect as much of that profit as they can.

Particularly as they've been forced to hand over an estimated £15bn in compensation to people they flogged useless and expensive payment protection insurance to. The OFT has made some recommendations to make current account costs more transparent, the switching process more reliable and improve the way in which unarranged overdrafts are provided.

But the fact that it swerved the chance to put real pressure on banks by referring the market to the Competition Commission is regrettable. The banks aren't totally off the hook, though. The OFT said it will revisit the market by 2015.

If banks have failed to make current accounts easier to understand and easy to switch by then, a referral should be a formality.

In the meantime we should all put pressure on the big banks by switching to rivals. What are the alternatives? You could start by considering the mutuals such as Co-operative Bank or the Nationwide building society.

Twitter: @simonnread

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