Barclays faces battle over back-payments: Bitter dispute arises over bank's failure to collect premiums

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MARTYN WILLIAMS, who runs a large second-hand clothes store in Bristol, took out a pounds 25,000 pension mortgage with Barclays Bank in 1988 to help expand his business. The documents were drawn up, but Bisco, the Barclays insurance subsidiary that arranged the pension plan designed to pay off the loan, failed to collect the premiums by direct debit for more than three years.

When Bisco discovered the mistake, it asked Mr Williams to provide the back payments in full, which he refused to do. Bisco has since offered a compromise, but Mr Williams maintains that Bisco made the mistake and should pay the full cost of putting matters right. The two sides disagree about how much that would cost, and after a two-year battle Mr Williams has taken the case to the banking ombudsman.

John Cunliffe, a partner specialising in pensions law with the City firm McKenna, would not discuss the individual case. But he stressed that if Mr Williams had been in a company scheme, the tough rules governing such schemes would never have allowed arrears to build up in this way.

'Trustees have to tell members of the scheme if contributions are more than three months late,' he said.

'A direct debit allows a group to take money from someone's account - and customers do not have to check they have done so.

'If there is a long delay in collecting money, I think the pension group - or the insurance brokers - should pay for all the growth that the premiums should have earned in a tax-sheltered fund. It should also put up at least part of the (premium ) money.'

Mr Williams said it was not his job to check whether money had left his account. 'I have three different accounts with my business and pay direct debits from them on other life and pensions policies,' he said. 'The bank rolled up pension premiums together so I don't check details of each payment month by month.'

When Mr Williams first found Bisco had not been taking his money three years after his policy started, he checked what was happening on earlier contracts. He asked Bisco to look at an earlier scheme and to send him the documents.

'I had signed a direct debit to pay pounds 54 a month for the plan - but the official document setting up the scheme showed the premium as pounds 5.40 a month,' Mr Williams said. 'If that is what the official document showed, that was what I thought I should pay. So I cut my payments to that level.'

The difficulty of the client knowing what he is paying for arises because of the 'cluster system' used by most modern pension plans for the self-employed. In the past, insurers provided one plan designed to provide a tax-free lump sum and money to buy a pension all on one date. Now most companies issue 10 contracts so the client can take some pension without cashing in the lot.

But Mr Williams is not convinced that the argument applies in his case. He believes the documents he received show his pounds 5.40 payment covered all the plans in the cluster, not just one of them. Meanwhile, he stopped making mortgage payments to Barclays almost a year ago.

He maintains that Barclays owes him more than pounds 100,000 - more than he owes the bank - allowing both for its mistakes and the time he has spent fighting he case.

Barclays insists the mortgage and the various disputes are competely separate and has sent him a formal notice of foreclosure - the first step towards cancelling the loan and claiming back the capital and alleged arrears. The battle is far from over.

(Photograph omitted)