RBS was 'rude and aggressive' in dealing with struggling businesses

Inquiry clears bank of forcing firms into bankruptcy but criticises business culture

associate business editor

Royal Bank of Scotland has been cleared by an international law firm of allegations that it systematically forced viable businesses into bankruptcy.

That was the most incendiary allegation in a report into the bank's Global Reconstruction Group (GRG), dealing with distressed businesses holding RBS loans, penned by the government adviser Lawrence Tomlinson.

But Clifford Chance, which was commissioned by the bank and has previously done work for it, still criticised a lack of transparency over the way in which fees were charged to struggling businesses and highlighted how companies it had interviewed said GRG staff were "insensitive, rude or aggressive", although it did not verify that allegation. The law firm also found that a staff-training manual in use at GRG had suggested using client companies' overdraft facilities as "leverage" in negotiations and raised issues about internal valuations of property.

However, it cleared RBS staff of "offering" companies with attractive property assets to GRG so that the assets could then be sold on to its property arm West Register.

Clifford Chance publicised its review, which had been due to come out at the start of the year, after carrying out 138 interviews and reviewing 130 files comprising over 400,000 pages.

Its findings led Ross McEwan, RBS's chief executive, to say: "The trust that a bank has with its customers is fundamental. That trust was put at risk at RBS by the allegation of systematic abuse made in the Tomlinson report. I welcome the Clifford Chance findings, which show no evidence of the serious and damaging allegation that we had set out to deliberately defraud our business customers.

"This allegation had a profound effect on the bank and on the work of a team that successfully turns round the vast majority of businesses that it works with. We could not let this allegation hang over us. That's why we acted quickly to appoint Clifford Chance to get to the truth of this claim. We are determined to earn back the trust of our customers."

The report is not the end of the matter. The Financial Conduct Authority has commissioned a "skilled persons review" into the wider question of whether RBS's small business customers are treated fairly. It is not expected to be complete until the end of the year.

Mr Tomlinson said he was "struggling to understand headlines that the Clifford Chance report gives RBS a clean bill of health, as their broader findings around the lack of fee transparency, lack of adherence to mandatory rules for internal valuations and need for an improvement in the business culture of GRG tally with the central themes of the Tomlinson report and the patterns of behaviour I witnessed".

Neil Mitchell, who heads an action group that plans to sue RBS over GRG, said he had not expected the report to find evidence of wrongdoing. "Now that it is published, we can get on with further exposures and actions planned on behalf of the over 2,000 cases now in circulation and seek retribution," he said.

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