The end of free banking could be an opportunity for other financial institutions

Building societies and credit unions stand to benefit if we move towards a paid-for model.

While many of us start to recover from the shock revelation that charge-free bank accounts are a myth, and that banks have been incentivised to mis-sell other financial products for their loss-leaders, some financial institutions like building societies and credit unions are quietly looking forward to the end of free banking.

After the scandals that have hit banks over PPI misselling and the £9bn set aside to recompensate those who were its victims, bankers and regulators have shared a rare platform in agreeing that an end to free banking could prevent similar future episodes.

The argument goes that banks were only scheming because fees aren't being levelled towards customers for their accounts, and so inevitably it became necessary to cross-subsidise from one profitable bit of the operation to in-credit personal current accounts free of charge.

Indeed as the newly-appointed chairman of Barclays, Sir David Walker, has said: "Because banks are not charging, it drives them inexorably into this sort of position”.

The issue has been raised in parliament and will be raised again at the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where bankers have already submitted evidence, highlighting free banking as one of the things that led to bad behaviour.

One of the practical problems that awaits this (some call it an inevitability) is if one bank makes the leap and starts charging, the likelihood is that their customers will run and go elsewhere. To be a renegade over this can promise a huge money loss, which undermines the point in doing it in the first place - some risks just don't come naturally to banks.

Of course the other problem is that if it became a trend among banks, nobody can promise against an outbreak in customer dissatisfaction. One of the concerns being raised is that for unethical banking, the general public is being asked to subsidise another income stream for Barclays, HSBC, RBS and Lloyds.

For Phillip Inman, economics correspondant of the Guardian and the Observer, this is like a pickpocket saying he was forced to steal wallets because he was denied other sources of income. The only way of stopping a naughty banker from selling you stuff you don't need, in other words, is by giving him money. One can understand the discontent at this twisted logic.

But from another angle some institutions are seeing an opportunity. While one of the appealing planks of David Cameron's big society was the building up of smaller financial institutions, realists could see the many market entry barriers for types like building socieities and credit unions.

While the mainstream is already occupied by big banks, it was discussed at the KPMG’s 22nd annual Building Societies Database recently that: “almost half of the UK’s 47 financial mutuals had increased their profit in the year to April 2012, and that they would benefit further from the end of free banking.”

This isn't the first time I've heard something similar. Speaking to someone recently who works close to the credit union industry, who preferred to go unidentified, they told me that Barclays' talk of transparent charging structures has made the prospect of credit union modernisation very interesting indeed.

Credit unions have always had such a structure, and if paid-for accounts led to more competition among smaller players then the notion of a credit union membership rise increases the chance of them lending more money, particularly to those who are currently having difficulties remaining creditworthy or are thinking about going to a payday lender.

Trouble is the paid-for model comes with many problems. Too many, perhaps. People don't want to be charged a fee. Customers may end up kicking up a fuss about who their banks lend to on the grounds that their fees subsidise them, which when trying to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, may see the number of creditworthy people diminish.

Though most of us do want more competition and for places like credit unions to have more relevance in the market. Some very complex conversations and arguments are going to be had over this subject, that much is for sure, but it is interesting to note that advocates for an end to free banking are not only the usual suspects alone.

A high street bank. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.