Middle England forces Barclays to say sorry

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The Independent Online

When Jessie Bonner Thomas, 89, stood up to speak her mind, the Barclays executives must have quickly realised that Middle England had arrived, and that it was very, very angry.

The bankers knew in advance they were in for a rough ride. They had brought in comfy chairs, a gourmet buffet and a consummate smoothie, its group chairman, Sir Peter Middleton.

Sir Peter humbly apologised for closing 171 small village branches and admitted it had fouled up. "Our execution and PR has not been of the best and I apologise for it," he said. He even unveiled a new deal with the Post Office to provide basic banking close to 155 of the affected areas.

It still didn't help. Vicars, retired captains, stockbrokers and even the odd former Barclays branch manager formed an orderly queue at the Barclays' annual meeting to berate Matthew Barrett, the bank's avuncular Irish-Canadian chief executive and the architect of its decision to kill off the closed branches.

And their champion was Mrs Bonner-Thomas, of Cricklewood, north London. She stood at the vanguard of the fearsomely respectable delegation of shareholders that had travelled to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster yesterday to give the men and women of the City a large piece of their mind.

Delivering the necessary pasting, Mrs Bonner-Thomas said: "There is a stigma of shame that you have brought on the name of Barclays by leaving over 200,000 customers stranded. Instead of a customer-friendly bank, your Big Brother image, obtained by spending over £15m, is now a damp squib."

The £15m referred to an advertising campaign featuring, among others, Sir Anthony Hopkins, which proclaimed Barclays to be the "Big Bank" - just as it embarked on the public relations disaster which left many of its rural customers with nowhere to retrieve or deposit their cash.

But there was more.

Having lost her husband, Evan, 24 years ago to a heart attack while he worked for Barclays, Mrs Bonner-Thomas wondered why the bank's record profits this year of £2.4bn had coincided with the lowest ever rise in her widow's pension - £1 a week.

Sir Peter, a former permanent secretary to the Treasury, who last year netted £1.76m in salary from the bank, was the target of her ire as she added: "This is the worst increase I have ever had. I only have a small pension. You possibly earn more in a minute than I earn in a month."

The audience erupted into applause.

Even Mr Barrett, dubbed the "Montreal Mauler" by his 89-year-old adversary, was snared by an unfortunate choice of words for his personal mea culpa over the branch closure fiasco.

He said: "Whenever we make difficult choices ... there must be no doubt in the minds of the people affected by our actions, that we have gone the extra mile to minimise inconvenience or hardship."

The words "extra mile" did not go unnoticed. Geoffrey O'Connell, whose community in Belford, Northumberland, had marked the passing of its Barclays branch by placing a wreath outside, said: "It should be noted we now face a 20-mile round trip to our nearest bank."

The Reverend Michael Davis, of Linfield, West Sussex, added: "To describe the closures as inconvenient is just plain wrong; it is inconvenient for me but for many others in my community it is nothing other than a disaster."

One irate shareholder brandished the insignia of the Royal Order of the Bath at Barclays knighted chairman, Sir Peter, suggesting he was a disgrace to its name and that he should face banishment.

Despite their humiliating experience, Sir Peter and Mr Barrett insisted their actions were designed to protect the bank's overall commercial interests. Sir Peter insisted the closures were an inevitable result of forces outside of its control."We don't close branches where 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."

He was equally 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, aware that other major banks have dropped rural branch closure plans in the wake of the backlash against Barclays, 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.

And, in the end, the Disgusteds of Surrey and Outrageds of Cheshire trooped off for some canapés after three hours of close questioning.

The Barclays' executives also trooped off, left reeling by the effects of isolating that most feared body of people, so prized by politicians, advertisers and opinion pollsters. As Mr O'Connell, of Belford, put it: "All of Middle England is here today. And this bank should know we are not very happy."