The end of free UK current accounts?

The end of free checking gathers pace.

On 24 May, Bank of England executive director for banking supervision Andrew Bailey said that the "myth" of free banking enjoyed by customers when not overdrawn made it hard to link costs to products and services received.  UK current account customers will not warm to his argument or its likely implications but the High Street banks will welcome the argument to end free checking if-in-credit.

It is a trend already being endured by customers in Ireland. If you think that the banking crisis was bad in the UK, spare a thought for customers across the Irish Sea. Following a sector wide crisis in 2008 – the cost to the Irish taxpayer so far is about €70bn, give or take - six Irish owned banks have become two so called ‘pillar banks’. The big two (pillar) banks left standing – Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks - are now rewarding taxpayers for their support by ramping up fees for everyday banking for a sizeable proportion of the country.

Bank of Ireland kicked things off by raising fees affecting almost one-half of its 1m customers in March. AIB has come out in sympathy and will follow suit with the end of universal free checking from 28 May. Only Royal Bank of Scotland-owned Irish subsidiary, Ulster Bank, now offers universal free current accounts. It does not however rule out following Bank of Ireland and AIB.

Ulster Bank spokesperson Debbie McCaughey said:

"I can confirm that Ulster Bank does not charge a monthly fee on standard current accounts. As with all our products and services, we keep our current account offering under continual review."

So we now have the irony of the UK government bailed-out RBS Irish subsidiary standing to win over account switchers from the two Irish government-backed lenders, Bank of Ireland and AIB. There is one further irony. Bank of Ireland has not (at least not yet) ended universal free if in credit current accounts for its customers based in Northern Ireland.

In fairness to Bank of Ireland, a lot of its customers can get around the monthly current account charges. If, for example, they deposit at least €3,000 into their current account and make nine debit payments from that account using the telephone or online banking over a three month charging period, they will avoid charges. Students and customers aged over 60 are also exempt. In addition, customers who maintain a permanent credit balance of at least €3,000 (a relatively small percentage of clients) qualify for free banking. Customers not qualifying for free banking will pay €0.28 per transaction or a flat fee of €11.40 per quarter for up to 90 transactions with excess transactions charged at €0.28 each.

AIB’s fees strategy is worse – much worse. AIB spokesperson Helen Leonard told me that the fees change “is driven by the need to enhance cost recovery across all AIB businesses, including the provision of money transmission services, the cost of which is significant.” So from 28th May AIB will seek to recover some of the losses it incurred following the crash by imposing current fees for customers who do not maintain a minimum daily credit balance of €2,500 for the full fee quarter on a personal current account.That will take in 60 per cent of its current account customer base. The 40 per cent of exempt customers will, in the main, be the other exempt customer categories: students, recent graduates and clients aged over 60. The 60 per cent of AIB customers affected will be charged €0.20 per debit card transaction while writing a cheque or withdrawing cash at an AIB branch will cost €0.30 per transaction.

In a statement, Bernard Byrne, director of personal and business banking at AIB, said:

"Free banking offerings across the industry have changed significantly in recent times. While this was a difficult decision to make, nonetheless it is a necessary one if we are to continue to create the conditions in which we can become a strong and viable entity again."

The fees bombshell for Irish bank customers follows an incessant stream of bad news in the local banking sector. Around 6,000 banking staff in Ireland have left the industry in the past three years. Thousands more are set to follow with AIB looking to shed another 2,500 jobs; Bank of Ireland will let up to another 1,000 staff go under a voluntary redundancy scheme agreed with trades union The Irish Bank Officials Association.

Ulster Bank is also bloodletting and will lay off 950 staff in the short to medium term.UK High Street lenders will be watching intently to see if Bank of Ireland and AIB can make the current account fees stick.With such limited competition on the Irish Main Street, there is every chance that Irish customers –or at least those who do not switch to Ulster Bank - will just grin and bear it.

In the UK, there are already 10m chargeable current accounts, with customers paying an average of £185 in fees per year.That is already worth big bucks to UK banks: about £1.8bn in fees last year across the sector.But such accounts are termed packaged accounts (or added value accounts, as banks prefer to call them) and typically offer a bundled range of incentives such as mobile phone insurance and car insurance, other preferential financial services including overdraft, personal loan or mortgage, as well as non-financial products and services.

There were approximately 54m active current accounts in the UK in 2011 and packaged current accounts made up about 17 per cent of the UK retail banking market. The number of charged for current accounts on offer in the UK (69) has more than doubled from the 33 on the market just five years ago and since late 2009 has exceed the number of free in-credit current accounts on the market. Thus far, no UK bank has gone for broke and made the decision to start charging for all current accounts for fear of losing market share. With encouraging noises off from Andrew Bailey – and a bank sector enthusiastic about finding new ways to charge for services currently not charged for - that day may not be far off.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International.

Bank of Ireland: Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.