Don't get your knickers in a twist over M&S

M&S decision to open a bank is hardly groundbreaking

News that Marks & Spencer will launch a chain of in-store bank branches has deservedly attracted the attention of the consumer press. It plans to roll out in-store M&S Bank branches within a number of its stores and extend its range of products to cover current accounts this year with mortgages slated to follow next year, backed by HSBC.

But let’s not get carried away. It will take M&S two years to open the grand total of 50 in-store branches.  M&S has dabbled in financial services since 1985. In the 27 years since its launch, it has introduced a limited range of products and grown its customer base to just 3m. Last year, it made turned a profit but a modest one of £50m.

Meantime, the Cooperative is pressing on with plans to expand its number of in-store Coop Bank outlets within its chain of supermarkets. Rival Tesco might, just might, sort out teething problems it has experienced in respect of the debut of its first current account product. According to M&S chief executive Colin Kersley, the retailer will provide customers with a credible, alternative choice in the banking sector. It is debatable if there really exists such a lack of choice.

And 50 High Street outlets: that will hardly strike fear into the heart of Santander, RBS/NatWest, Barclays or Lloyds. M&S Bank says that it will put the customer at the heart of its proposition and deliver an exceptional level of service: well it would say that, wouldn’t it? Do not forget that Virgin Money is bashing on with plans to open Virgin Money lounges. Virgin’s track record – at least for its airline, if not its overcrowded and expensive West Coast Main Line rail franchise  - suggests its customer service proposition will be a selling point.

So the M&S Bank story is interesting but will barely cause a ripple in terms of affecting market shares for current accounts. As for 50 extra branch outlets: my bet would be that this will just about cover the High Street branches that HSBC will shutter within the next two years. One positive is that M&S Bank will create up to 500 new jobs. Or put another way: it will mop up a fraction of the jobs that will be lost over the same period as HSBC continues to shrink its workforce.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

M&S, Photograph, Getty Images.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.