Why can't banks make themselves popular?

What is wrong with Britain's banks? The Banking Ombudsman tells me they have radically improved in recent years. But like any organisation that - pretty-much - you've got to use, it is unlikely they will ever be popular (Richard Branson, could-be banker, take note).

The Ombudsman himself this week reported an increase in complaints to his arbitration service in the past year, noting that some of the worst cock-ups appeared to stem from supposed efficiencies such as the shift away from traditional branch-based banking.

And banks don't seem to do themselves any favours, either. Take cashpoints, which we survey on page 18. Account holders can make free withdrawals from a surprising range of machines run by other banks and building societies. Yet, as a First Direct account holder, I don't remember ever being told I could use TSB, Halifax or Abbey National cashpoints.

Why don't the banks shout about these conveniences? Surely not because it costs them when a customer uses another bank's cash machine? After all, they also stand to earn fees for other banks' customers using their machines.

By encouraging cashpoint use they could even hasten the branch closures they seem so keen on. Which begs the further question: why are the likes of NatWest and Woolwich making, or planning to make, charges?

THE Plain English campaign published its first "list of shame" this week to embarrass organisations into producing understandable information. No prizes for guessing that it was dominated by gobbledegook horrors from financial companies, particularly insurers.

The rogues gallery, which was compiled from literature sent in by the public, included Allied Dunbar, Commercial Union, Sun Life of Canada and NPI, as well as a range of lesser-known insurance firms, the Co-operative Bank and M&G, Britain's biggest unit trust manager.

The irony is that this week also saw the financial great and good set up (yet another) education initiative - the Personal Finance Education Group. Put aside images of slimy life insurance salesman slithering around school corridors. Most of what the PFED plans to do is difficult to fault: trying to get more personal finance on the school curriculum and to get companies to help schools. But no mention of making the job easier in the first place by producing more accessible and jargon-free subject matter. The founder members include the insurance companies' own trade association, the ABI.

The Plain English Campaign plans to update its list of shame every month and is looking for examples. Send those you find to PEC, PO Box 3, New Mills, High Peak, Derbyshire SK22 3ES. Here at the IoS we're still sifting through the entries to our own jargon-busting competition run with Virgin Direct. We'll announce the winner imminently. Rest assured, many entries are great candidates for a Plain English shaming.

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