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.
 

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories