RBS nightmare continues

Hester’s position becoming untenable

It now seems scarcely credible that as recently as 10 days ago, the outgoing head of retail banking at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Brian Hartzer, told the Financial Times:

“I have rebuilt nearly everything about the place……from call centres, to branch systems…”

As Hartzer departed to return to Australia to take up an appointment at Westpac, he summarised his work at RBS as “job done”.

Hartzer’s upbeat assessment of his own performance at RBS echoed a glowing tribute from RBS chairman, Philip Hampton.

On 30 May, Hampton told RBS shareholders:

“Brian is leaving a behind a division with a much sharper customer focus. 

“The latest independent audit of UK Retail's Customer Charter shows Brian has made real progress on the things customers most wanted changed.”

Within two days of Hartzer’s FT interview being published, RBS endured a nightmare “technical failure” which has affected a large number of its 17 million customers.

A week after the IT problem surfaced, RBS remains unable to confirm when all customer accounts will return to normal.

The cost to RBS in respect of the extra cost of staff overtime, branch openings and fees refunds is likely to cost the bank tens of millions of pounds. Once you factor in the cost of customer compensation, the final cost could easily exceed £100m.

PR disaster

Above all, the episode has been yet another PR disaster for RBS in general and CEO Stephen Hester in particular.

In February, Hester did himself no favours by giving the impression of only waiving a proposed £1m bonus as a result of a public outcry and pressure from politicians that no such bonus was merited.

Hester’s neck is now on the block as a result of this latest embarrassment, one of the biggest customer-service disasters in living memory.

He did not exactly cut an impressive figure on TV news with the inadequate explanation that the service failures related to a “software change that didn’t go right.”

It would be a surprise if he remains in his current role beyond the end of the year.

It has been claimed that RBS’ technical issues have been exacerbated by an over-enthusiasm on its part to outsource key parts of its banking technology.

If anything, RBS has outsourced less of its IT functions than rival banks.

RBS continues to run the majority of its banking technology in-house via so called IT legacy systems.

There is no evidence that the current problem relates to failures within RBS’ core banking IT platform.

It is however fair comment for analysts to point out that RBS has failed in the boom years to replaced ageing legacy systems with modern platforms.

By contrast, RBS rivals such as Nationwide Building Society and Cooperative Bank are investing heavily in latest generation core banking platforms.

Power vacuum

The impression of a power vacuum at the top of RBS’ retail unit also does not help.

Hartzer left RBS earlier this month. His successor, Ross McEwan, another Australian – does not take up his position until early August.

Meantime, the head of retail banking role is being shared by Satyendra Chelvendra, managing director consumer distributions, and Les Matheson, managing director, products and marketing.

Ross McEwan has run the retail banking unit of Australia’s largest retail bank, Commonwealth Bank (CBA), since 2007.

Under McEwan’s leadership, CBA has adopted a very different IT strategy to RBS.

In April 2008, CBA announced plans to its core banking operations to the SAP for Banking platform under a four year, $600m programme to overhaul its legacy systems.

At the time, McEwan said that the investment would deliver a better customer service platform and simplify IT systems, infrastructure and business services, as well as provide significant operational benefits and cost savings. 

The current RBS IT and customer service nightmare should make McEwan feel quite at home, straight away.

Lowlights of CBA’s IT and service issues include during McEwan’s time as head of retail banking include:

  • November 2008 - CBA had to issue a groveling apology to customers as problems with its NetBank online banking system and other payment channels affected around 200,000 customers;
  • June 2009  - CBA had to shut down its online banking platform under the weight of unprecedented levels of traffic;
  • August 2009 - CBA announced that it added $150m million to its original $580m core banking overhaul budget;
  • December 2010 -CBA was hit by another glitch that left some customers unable to access their account information;
  • February 2011 – CBA extended its core banking tech modernisation programme by one year, and upped spending on the project to $1.1bn almost double its original estimates of $580m, and
  • December 2011- CBA customers are left fuming by more ATM and online outages.

In the boom years, there is a strong argument that RBS failed lamentably to invest in its IT architecture and systems – it has hundreds of millions of pent-up IT investment ahead in the short to medium term.

As the experience of CBA shows, investing in the latest banking technology is no guarantee that major customer service problems will not occur.

One thing is for sure: it will be some time before a head of retail banking at RBS cheerefully signs off with a “job done.”

UK retail banking customers are notoriously reluctant to switch their main banking provider.

Less than 1 in-10 of us switched our main bank last year.

The customer service meltdown at RBS NatWest of the past week will stretch that customer loyalty to the limit.

It is now for the FSA to ask some pertinent questions of RBS as to why its back-up systems or lack of back-up systems have failed so miserably in the past week.

It is highly unlikely that RBS or Hester will emerge from that enquiry with their reputations enhanced.

Meantime, if you happen to note that RBS’ share price seems to have moved in the right direction  - it has limped along at around 20p-30p for the past year, don’t be kidded, don’t be conned.

Earlier this month, RBS shares were consolidated with shareholders handed one new share for every 10 they own, meaning the bank's share price will soared artificially to around 200p.

So RBS shares will now have to exceed 500p before getting close to a level at which the UK government can start to sell off its 82 per cent stake and break-even.

RBS shares currently trade at 229p (or 22.9p under the old shares arrangement). The day when the UK government can dispose of its RBS shares cannot come too soon but seems further away than ever.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Hester, Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.