It's looking more and more like paid-for current accounts could be the next mis-selling scandal

Banks are running scared.

The headlines are pretty stark. Paid-for currents accounts could become the next bank mis-selling scandal, according to almost identical headlines in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The source for this gloomy prognosis is the annual report from the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). According to the FOS, it has received a record number of complaints from customers unhappy with their paid for current accounts or packaged accounts.

So just how many people did complain about their packaged current account  - or added value account (AVA) as banks prefer to call them - in the past 12 months? The answer is the grand total of 1,629. Not good, but hardly on the scale of PPI claims. In the last year, the FOS received a staggering 379,000 complaints about PPI. To date, UK banks have required to set aside more than £12bn (and counting) relating to PPI claims that now exceed 700,000 complaints. To put the AVA figure in context, taking into account multiple and joint current accounts in the UK, the total number of current accounts is about 60m. Of these, somewhere around 17 per cent are AVA’s.

In calculating how much these accounts are worth to the banks, the figures do start to get interesting. Research from the consultants Defaqto shows that since 2008, the average monthly fee for an AVA has shot up to £15.11 from £12 four years ago. With 10.2m packaged accounts costing an average of £181 a year to run, this product is worth around £1.85bn to the banks in fees. These are fees that UK banks can scarcely afford to put at risk by another bout of mis-selling They would surely not be so daft as to put this revenue stream at risk Or so one would hope.

Since November 2009 there have been more packaged accounts available than standard, free in-credit current accounts. By April this year, there was 68 different AVA’s on offer on the UK market compared to 63 free-if-in-credit current accounts. But in the past few months, a number of UK banks have been keen to distance themselves from AVA’s. The new kid on the UK banking block, Metro Bank, ditched its £12.50 per month packaged account offering called Metro Bank Plus last December.

Meantime, market leader Lloyds Banking Group – it has a market share of around 1 in 3 AVA’s - pulled its AVA accounts from sale in its branches and over the phone from the start of the year. At the time, Lloyds said that sales suspension would be for what it called a "short period". Almost six months later, to the glee of the more excitable tabloid press (in particular the Mail), sales of the product remains suspended in-branch.

One might reasonably ask: how long does the bank require to re-train its branch staff not to run the risk of mis-selling a packaged account? Elsewhere, Santander launched what comes as close you will get to a genuinely innovative new bank product, the Santander 123 current account. It charges customers £3 per month to run and offers a bundle of benefits, such as cash-back on certain purchases.

Do not however dare to suggest to Santander that the 123 account is an AVA. The party line from Santander is that it does not now offer packaged accounts. The FOS has certainly stirred things up suggesting that some bank staff have switched current account customers to AVA’s without their knowledge, with many only becoming aware of the switch when they check their current account statement. It is also claimed that AVA’s have been sold to customers for whom such a product is not appropriate.

A number of banks have also been running scared when asked to discuss their strategy towards selling packaged accounts: Barclays being a notable exception.

In summary, it is far too early to be rushing out headlines suggesting that AVA’s are the next major banking scandal. The regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, is already on the case and now requires banks to send AVA customers a yearly statement so that folks can see if they are benefitting from such accounts. If any banks are dumb enough to dare to mis-sell AVA’s in the future, they will be hung out to dry – and will have nobody but themselves to blame.

Meantime, just in case you are tempted to ‘upgrade’ your ‘free’ current account to any product containing any word such as Gold, Platinum, Select, Privilege, Ultimate etc: do your sums carefully before you sign up. And read the small print - just in case it is not for you.


Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.