There’s one word banks won’t say — 'sorry'

If RBS bosses had a single brain cell, they would have told their staff to visit ordinary folk and hand out cash

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The Independent Online

A week after the Bank of England boss, Mark Carney, said that banks need to behave better, the latest technical meltdown at RBS has left thousands of its poorest customers struggling, as tax credits and benefit payments were not deposited in their accounts.

The meltdown also affected customers at NatWest, Ulster Bank and Coutts as more than 600,000 payments went missing, including pensions. Grocery orders were cancelled, phones disconnected, standing orders went unpaid and an ordinary day on the breadline became just that bit more difficult – and for some customers, it was the third time it had happened.

A single mum whose daughter has a spinal condition told Radio 4 she had no money and no food and could not push her daughter two miles to the nearest branch. People who rang the helpline were left hanging on for over an hour at their own expense. The bank’s spokesmen waffled on about “temporary loans” but what he failed to say was that one simple word that sums up what’s wrong with banking: sorry.

Most people don’t even know who their bank manager is these days. Mine changed and the last one couldn’t even write a literate email, yet he was in charge of my savings. Banks treat ordinary customers like annoying irritants, as if the business would run so much more efficiently if they didn’t have to cope with the public.

If RBS bosses had a single brain cell, they would have told their senior staff to get off their backsides, leave their computer terminals and call centres, and form an emergency hit squad to visit these ordinary folk all over the UK who had no clue how they were going to get through the weekend, and hand out cash.

RBS has an appalling record when it comes to service – last year it was fined £56m for a computer failure in 2012 that left millions of customers unable to use its accounts for up to three weeks.

Our relationship with banks is totally one-sided, and the huge profits they make don’t translate back into customer care at the most basic level. We get charged for withdrawing cash, charged for taking our credit cards on holiday and using them abroad, charged if we go overdrawn by a single penny, charged if a cheque bounces. We aren’t given any flexibility or leeway – but when their useless computer system crashes disrupting our lives, somehow the onus is on us to call them and ask for a temporary loan or get ourselves down to a branch to sort it out. Where’s our loyalty bonus, our sweetener for accepting shocking inconveniences and putting up with them? People go hungry, but bankers hold swanky dinners in Mansion House.

The boss of Lloyds told bankers this week they need to put “the customer at the heart of the business”. Exactly, but that is no consolation to a mum who has nothing for supper. We need banks more than they need us, and there’s little to choose between any of them.

How did RBS tell customers it had a serious problem? On Twitter. A lot of use to a pensioner without a mobile. There’s been a lot of talk recently about social mobility and the poshness test … banks are run by people who pass this test; their ordinary account holders are the ones who fail it. The word customer is code for “mug”.

The RA’s rainbow staircase does not lead to artistic gold

Architectural models can be things of beauty, but not at this year’s Royal Academy summer show. Artist Michael Craig Martin has invigorated what can be a directionless jumble by commissioning Jim Lambie to create a wonderful rainbow staircase which puts a smile on the face of everyone walking through the door. He’s also infused rooms with invigorating colours which pull together artists of very different persuasions.

My highlight is A Humument, Tom Phillips’ reworking of a Victorian book, which fills an entire room with rows of tiny pages meticulously covered with Phillips’ drawings, collage and paintings to create a new marriage of words and imagery.

Sadly, the mood sags in the architecture room, curated by Ian Ritchie. Pretentiously entitled “Inventive Landscapes”, its models of a Cambridge laboratory, a hospice and urban housing developments all fail to inspire – there must be a better way to showcase contemporary architecture.

Coincidentally, a fantastic architectural model room has just been opened to the public for the first time in 160 years. Sir John Soane created one at the centre of his private apartments on the second floor of the museum he created on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. After his wife Eliza died in 1815, he turned her bedroom into a shrine for his collection of models, designing an impressive three-storey construction which takes up most of the floor space.Some models are based on ancient ruins, others are fantasy re-creations of important classical buildings. The highlight is a huge model of Pompeii – imagine waking up to that at breakfast! Exploring Soane’s private apartment, with his bedroom and bathroom now meticulously restored, right down to the wallpaper and stained glass, is a moving experience. There’s a corridor for his books, with a skylight high above, a surprise at every corner.

Whoever hosts ‘Top Gear’, it will remain retro-sloth TV

The other night my phone rang at 9pm. It was a producer from Newsnight asking if I would go on the show that evening to comment on Chris Evans’ appointment as the new host of Top Gear.

Does the BBC have nothing better to do than fill its prestigious current affairs programmes with items about BBC shows? Top Gear’s replacement anchorman isn’t a news story in my eyes, and it’s odd that a man has been given the job when industry research shows that women make the bulk of the decisions (60 per cent) about which family car to buy.

Chris Evans is a very nice chap now that he’s reformed, a public penitent ready for his new career. Previously he was famous for flashes of nasty behaviour which he made a point of apologising for on Channel Four’s TFI Friday tribute the other week.

Top Gear is what I call retro-sloth telly, for men who would spend all their time in sheds if they had a garden big enough to erect one. That’s why shortlists for other hosts include the actor Philip Glenister of Ashes to Ashes fame. Evans has invited the public to send in videos if they fancy appearing as guest presenters. Somehow I know what kind of person they are looking for, and it won’t be Mary Beard.

I’ve got just the job to keep Ed Balls off the streets

What’s going on in the Balls/Cooper household? Yvette is hoping to become the next leader of the Labour Party and is adamant that Ed, currently unemployed, will not be at her side as a “consort”.

Her husband has just announced he is taking up an academic research post at Harvard for the next academic year, which involves spending three weeks of every term on campus. The job is unpaid, so how is Ed going to contribute to the family budget and pay for his piano lessons until next autumn? He’s turned down reality shows, like Strictly, but I have a more suitable plan.

I need a house husband to cook, and shop – perhaps Mr Balls would be interested as it’s London-based and would give him ample free time to socialise with his old cronies and plot his return to power. Or does he plan to follow Alastair Campbell and Michael Portillo as a presenter of worthy documentaries for BBC2?