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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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”