Botin sorry on Santander complaints mountain but offers lending promise

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The new head of Banco Santander's British business yesterday publicly apologised to customers who have lodged thousands of complaints about the "new force" in banking

Appearing before a hearing of the Treasury Select Committee, Ana Patricia Botin admitted that "we have a lot of work to do" to sort out problems which saw her bank named as the worst bank for customer satisfaction in a recent Which? poll. Data from the Financial Services Authority also gave an unflattering picture of the level of complaints Santander receives.

Responding to reports that the bank has pulled out of "Project Merlin", designed to get agreement between banks and the Government on measures such as lending to business and the creation of a "Big Society Bank" to fund social measures, Ms Botin denied this was the case.

However, she said: "We continue to be in Merlin in our own way and in certain areas. We have been growing lending and we very much support those objectives [lending to small businesses and supporting growing the economy]. Our intention is to be part of lending commitments."

Santander is likely to sign up to a commitment of its own, rather than a UK-wide deal. Ms Botin said Santander was a "challenger bank", taking on the existing big four of Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Lloyds, where her predecessor, Antonio Horta-Osorio, was hired to be chief executive.

She plans for the bank to have 1,700 branches in place by the end of the year. Santander UK has been built from the combination of Abbey, Alliance & Leicester, parts of Bradford & Bingley and more than 300 Royal Bank of Scotland branches that the company bought last year.

Ms Botin said she did not support forcing banks to split investment banking from retail banks. She said only a small proportion of Santander's business would be affected by such a move, but she said it would be damaging by preventing the company from offering services such as foreign exchange and hedging risk through derivatives to its clients.

Ms Botin was speaking as the Santander group chief executive, Alfredo Saenz, faced the threat of being forced to step down after Spain's Supreme Court barred him from working as a banker, according to a report in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo on Monday. Ms Botin could replace him.