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 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.