Barclays admits bungle over branch closures

Chairman tells shareholders the decision was badly handled, as an 89-year-old customer delivers a harsh verdict on the management
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Barclays Bank yesterday apologised over the handling of its decision to close nearly 200 village branches, saying it clearly had bungled and needed to do better.

At the bank's annual meeting in London, Sir Peter Middleton, the chairman, admitted more could have been done to minimise the impact of the closures and avert the criticism which has damaged the reputation of one of Britain's largest banks. "Our execution and PR has not been of the best and I apologise for it."

Sir Peter, a former Treasury mandarin, sought to offset some of the damage by announcing a deal with the Post Office to provide basic banking for customers at 155 of the 171 sites affected by the closures. He admitted that, with hindsight, the bank would have done better to have put these arrangements in place before announcing the closures.

But he stood by the bank's decision to close unprofitable branches, saying they were an inevitable result of forces outside of its control."We don't close branches were there is any chance of keeping them alive. Hospitals shops, pubs, doctors' surgeries, chemists, police stations and churches have closed, often being replaced by larger, more efficient outlets at some distance. The banks are following this trend, not leading it."

The closures this month prompted protests by politicians and rural campaigners. Their anger was fanned by disclosures that Sir Peter's pay quadrupled to £1.7m last year, while Matthew Barrett, the new chief executive, earned £1.3m for three months' work and is in line for a share options package that could be worth upwards of £30m.

Other banks have responded to the Barclays protests by saying they will halt plans to close branches. Hundreds of Barclays shareholders, many from villages that will now be without a bank, arrived at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster to voice their disapproval.

Sir Peter was also uncompromising in defence of the salary and share options packages for top executives, which he said were needed to attract the best talent.

But Mr Barrett, the highly paid Irish-Canadian chief executive, was more conciliatory. He agreed to look into a suggestion that banks club together in rural areas to share facilities which would otherwise have to close altogether. "The lesson is clear. Where we have difficult closures, there must be a debate among the people affected and we have to [do all that we can] to eliminate the inconvenience. We did not. We must do better," he said.