Everything's big at Barclays. The chairman's pay has quadrupled just as 171 branches are closing

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The Independent Online

A "big bank for a big world", as the advertising campaign would have it - or just a big bumbling public relations disaster? Barclays Bank has done it again.

Not content with upsetting hundreds of thousands of its most loyal customers with plans to close 200 branches this year, Britain's third biggest bank has revealed that the salary of the chairman, Sir Peter Middleton, more than quadrupled last year to £1.76m. Meanwhile the new chief executive, Matthew Barrett, has received £1.35m for just three months' work. The timing of the disclosure could not have been worse: 171 of the 200 doomed branches close on 7 April.

Two days ago an all-party parliamentary committee was launched to fight these and other bank branch closures.

Martin Salter, the Labour MP for Reading West and the chairman of the campaign, said yesterday: "These payments and bonuses are little short of offensive, doubly so coming as they do just a few days before Barclays continues its systematic butchering of the branch network. This must be one of the few examples of top management being rewarded for providing a worse service."

On seeing the flak Barclays attracted over its closures, the Royal Bank of Scotland decided on Tuesday to call a very public halt to its planned closure of branches of National Westminster Bank, which it took over earlier this month.

But Barclays is steaming on. Last year it shed 7,000 staff. Like the other big banks, it also faces a searching competition inquiry after a report last week into baking practices by Don Cruickshank, the former telecoms watchdog, which accused the banks of overcharging customers by £5bn.

Roy Murphy, joint secretary general of the banking union Unifi, said yesterday: "These salary increases show a lack of sensitivity, particularly at a time when the banking industry is going through such massive change."

Barclays had done its best to keep the pay figures out of the public eye.

Unlike other banks, which normally post their annual reports to the media, Barclays made do with a brief announcement on 15 March to the stock exchange news wire that the annual report was available. It apparently hoped no one was paying attention and the tactic clearly worked very well - until now.

A spokesman for Barclays said yesterday: "We weren't going to send [the annual report] out with a letter drawing attention to the relevant pages, as some people do."

Since Jesus Christ threw the money changers out of the temple, banks have found it hard to get a good press. But Barclays appears to have excelled in the practice of putting foot into mouth, despite spending millions on its latest swish media campaign. Clearly the size of the chairman's pay packet was not quite what Barclays was seeking to draw attention to with its ads.

The highlight of the campaign is a television advertisement directed by the director of the 1986 film Top Gun, TonyScott, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins drives around Los Angeles in a big limo talking about "big deals" and "big bucks".

The campaign has already landed the bank into hot water. One of the press ads features a picture of St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, despite the fact that Barclays closed its Moscow office last April after 25 years in the city.

Barclays was quick to point out that the picture was not of St Basil's itself but an enlargeddetail of an amusement park in China that features great landmarks of the world. But by then the damage had been done.

Ironically, the latest public relations foul-up comes at a time when Barclays seemed to be starting to get its act together, after a catalogue of disasters over the previous 18 months.

Mr Barrett, an IrishCanadian, went down a storm last month when he appeared for the first time in front of a City audience to present the bank's annual results.

But what goes down well in the City does not necessarily work elsewhere.

Even after declaring £2.4bn of profits last year, he wants to see another £1bn of costs cut by 2003 - inevitably spelling yet more job losses and branch closures on the way.

Barclays was yesterday unmoved by the latest protests. The bank maintained that the chairman's payout reflected the fact that for much of the year he had been holding down two jobs.

Now that there is a full-time chief executive, he reverts to a non-executive chairman's role. That pays a cool £400,000 basic for a three-day week.

The bonus is, of course, on top.