High Court delivers blow to Centrica's internet bank plan

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The Independent Online

Plans by Centrica to launch an internet bank in partnership with Lloyds-TSB had a major setback yesterday after a High Court judge ruled that its 1 million Goldfish customers could not be transferred to the new bank.

Mr Justice Lightman ruled that the Goldfish customers had to stay with HFC Bank, the US-owned financial services group with which Centrica launched the credit card scheme five years ago.

The ruling does not affect ownership of the Goldfish brand, which remains with Centrica. But it will further delay the launch of the new bank and could undermine Centrica's aim of breaking even by 2003 and attracting 2 million customers by 2005.

A Centrica spokeswoman admitted that the ruling was a "blow" but said it would appeal to the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, the House of Lords, to have the decision overturned. In the meantime, Centrica would evaluate its options for taking its Goldfish bank forward.

The bank's April launch was delayed by the High Court case. The earliest Centrica could now launch the Goldfish bank, supposing it is granted an expedited appeal and wins, is September. This is when its joint venture with HFC will be terminated.

HFC said it would be writing to Goldfish customers in the next few weeks to offer a new branded credit card. This is expected to be its Marbles brand, which has 200,000 customers and charges an interest rate of 16.9 per cent, against the Goldfish rate of 18.9 per cent. Unlike Goldfish, there is no loyalty programme attached to Marbles, but HFC is likely to introduce one.

Separately, Centrica made its long-awaited move into the Continental energy market yesterday, paying £52m for a 50 per cent stake in a new electricity and gas supply joint venture in Belgium. It will jointly own the Luminus venture with five municipally owned Flemish utilities,. whose domestic electricity market opens to competition in July 2003. Centrica plans to use this foothold to expand into the Netherlands and Germany.