Barclays chief calls for halt to 'excess' of bank inquiries

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The Independent Online

Matt Barrett, the chief executive of Barclays Bank, has launched a stinging attack on the Government, accusing it of "political theatre" and creating uncertainty through repeated investigations into the banking sector.

The criticism comes in the wake of last month's decision by the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, to block the proposed takeover of Abbey National by Lloyds TSB, Barclays' rival, and amid an extended investigation into the larger banks' grip on the small business banking market.

Mr Barrett said: "What I do think bears some more thought for business generally is the regulatory environment. There seems to be an excess of inquiries and commissions, and these things sap the energy of business because you have to respond to them.

"There seems to be one announced every other week. There are times when they are legitimate and times when they are political theatre. I would just hope there isn't a desire to dine out on this kind of the thing."

Mr Barrett said the Government appeared to suffer from a predisposition to attach blame, which was at risk of "getting out of hand". The decision to block Lloyds' proposed takeover had created uncertainty as to "the rules of the game".

The Competition Commission said that a merger of Lloyds and Abbey risked leading to higher charges for consumers, in particular in the small business banking market. The commission's investigation was triggered by concerns over Lloyds' potential power in the current account market, where a deal with Abbey would have lifted its market share to above the 25 per cent threshold which is deemed to constitute a monopoly.

Its report described the urgent need for the encouragement of competition against the so-called "Big Four" banks, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Barclays. In thwarting Lloyds' bid, the Government has forced the banks to look to overseas mergers.

Mr Barrett said the 25 per cent rule was "strange" in the context of determining whether a market was competitive. "The role of the [Competition] Commission should be always ruling on things that are in the interest of the consumer, not taking sides between rivals," he said.

Mr Barrett added that the British consumer was generally hard done by. "A service revolution is a little overdue," he conceded. "I find the legendary politeness of the English to be not in their self-interest. I think they should be ranting and raving at the service they get, wherever they are getting it, banks included."

Monday interview, page 13