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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.