James Moore: Voluntary groups as risky customers? The banks really need to get a grip

Banks ought to have the wit to be able to differentiate between high risk and low-risk customers for a start

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The Independent Online

Outlook Up and down these isles a criminal conspiracy is quietly attempting to take root. A network of drug kingpins, terror funders and facilitators of rogue regimes are bent on establishing themselves on these shores. And they’ve chosen the humble village hall as the means of achieving their ends.

Fortunately we have some heroes on our side. Those bold defenders of all that is good and true, HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, and RBS have stepped up to the plate, developing a secret weapon that is set to save the day: Superform! Superform has prevented the baddies from getting their hands on village halls and other voluntary organisations’ bank accounts, thus saving us all.

By exercising his box-ticking powers he’s ensured that no drug dealing, terror funding, citizen of a rogue regime can ever assume the position of village hall treasurer.

Incredibly, this isn’t all that far from the truth. As the bosses of the Financial Conduct Authority appeared before a hearing of the Treasury Committee, Liberal Democrat MP John Thurso complained of receiving a growing volume of complaints from voluntary organisations whose activities are curtailed by their banks.

He claimed that the process his correspondents are required to go though to complete the relatively routine process of changing Treasurer might even trouble sophisticated public companies.

Was he, like me, indulging in a little playful hyperbole? Apparently not, because he’s not the only one telling this tale. It’s becoming commonplace.

You would have expected some sort of blow-back after it became clear that the near $2bn penalty imposed on HSBC over its penchant for doing business with Mexican drug lords was not a high watermark but simply a starter for ten. An over-reaction would have been somewhat understandable, as the scale of the fines was ramped up.

But the fact that village hall committees are now getting lost in a blizzard of paperwork is straying into the realm of plain silly. And village halls are not alone. This newspaper has highlighted the case of innocent Syrians denied bank accounts because they might at some point have had some tenuous connection to the Islamist thugs currently operating in that benighted country. Such as, you know, once having waited at a bus stop in the same queue as one of them.

This goes beyond what is acceptable as part of “de-risking”, mentioned by Financial Conduct Authority chief executive Martin Wheatley at the hearing.

Banks ought to have the wit to be able to differentiate between high risk and low-risk customers for a start. And they should be capable of showing regulators they have procedures to do this so it can be judged if they followed them in the event of something going wrong. If they’re worried about our Syrian bus passenger, or if a potential Treasurer of Chiddingfold-on-Sea hall had a misspent youth resulting in a drug conviction, it should be possible to put them on a watch list without denying them accounts.

What the committee failed to say, but perhaps should have, is that there appears to be an element of petulance in the banks’ response to the regulatory battering they have received. A desire to pass their pain on to their customers. Who seem to encounter the same problems wherever they try to bank. This is unacceptable, and the regulator needs to say so. 

Profitable state-owned line has one-way ticket to oblivion

 It is arguably Britain’s best rail company. Actually, I could easily remove the “arguably” from that sentence, which, of course, concerns East Coast.

The state-owned franchise has just released figures showing it returned £225.3m to its taxpayer owners in premiums and profits last year.

The bumper returns were fuelled by a 4.5 per cent rise in ticket sales, and the firm did this while also achieving the top customer satisfaction result and having the happiest staff of all the long-distance rail operators.

Everyone, it seems, is happy. But there’s a catch. You see, having proved that running a railway can be a winner for all concerned, the Government is hell-bent on forcing this exemplary rail service down the road that leads to perdition. East Coast is slated for privatisation.

Few now debate that rail privatisation has been a disaster. It is often blamed on the process embarked upon by the government of John Major, which was spectacularly ill-conceived.

Train companies don’t compete with each other, so there are no benefits to the paying passenger on that front. Private operators have charged high fees for a shoddy service because there is little pressure on them to make it any better and they benefit from having a captive market.

Meanwhile, the taxpayer still subsidises the system despite attempts to reduce the drip feed. It speaks volumes that many travellers hold their noses and, where it’s available, take Ryanair for inter-city journeys.

Now, here’s East Coast giving lie to the claim that the private sector always does things better.

The trouble for its commuters is that with every pound it returns to the taxpayer, with every happy commuter leaving its trains at the end of their journey, with every staff member who returns home and speaks fondly of the good day they’ve had, East Coasts sticks another knife into the back of one of the Government’s sacred cows.

It has to get East Coast out of taxpayers’   hands, and quickly, because even some of its own supporters are seriously wondering whether the steaks might not taste too bad if that cow were to be taken to the slaughterhouse.