Second minister backs Barclays boycott

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Indy Politics

A second Labour minister today said Barclays Bank customers should consider "voting with their feet" in protest at rural branch closures.

Environment Minister Lord Whitty's comments in the Lords echoed those of his colleague Chris Mullin whose remarks earlier drew an angry response from Barclays.

Former law lord Lord Ackner (Ind) asked at question time: "Do you find anything objectionable in a minister suggesting to a disgruntled rural customer of a bank that he always has the alternative of changing banks?"

Lord Whitty replied: "I do not regard that as objectionable. These were almost exactly the terms which Mr Mullin indicated, and clearly where a bank has let down a rural community, it is open to customers in that area and areas which sympathise with them to change their bankers. That's understandable in these circumstances."

The junior minister was pressed later by Labour former trade and industry minister Lord Clinton-Davis whether he supported Mr Mullin's attitude.

Lord Whitty replied: "I support the position taken by Mr Mullin in the House, I think a week ago, which indicated ... that it is of course open to customers of Barclays who are disgruntled by what seems to be a bit of a cavalier disregard of rural interests to change their bankers.

"That's what he said and that is all that he said. It's not a call for a boycott. It's an indication that customers within rural areas do have a choice and should exercise that choice."

Politicians from both sides of the Commons were drawn into the row sparked by the Environment Minister. Both Trade Secretary Stephen Byers and Opposition Leader William Hague entered the fray over Mr Mullin's comments on Barclays' plans to shut 172 branches this Friday.

Mr Byers refused to condemn Mr Mullin's remarks, made to MPs on two separate occasions.

Meanwhile Tory leader William Hague dismissed any boycott of Barclays over its rural branch closure plans as "futile".

He said millions of customers would not heed any calls to withdraw their accounts and urged the Government to focus policy on rural areas instead.