Do it yourself banking will only work if we can be bothered to do it

Can we?

Last week was a good one for British Banking, for both the industry and its customers. The first sale of shares in one of the part-nationalised banks – at a nominal profit, no less – marked an important first step on the road back to a healthy finance industry. At the same time the advent of the Current Account Switch Service represented a significant shift in the balance of power between retail banks and their customers. Over the next few years, we will see just how significant it is.

I say years, but it may well be longer. Research from the CEBR has predicted only a doubling of account switching frequency over ten years, which seems remarkably low, and is probably more credible, rather than less, for being commissioned by Metro, one of the key challenger banks that stand to benefit from the new service. The much-recited statistic about the average bank account lasting longer than the average marriage is no less odd than it is true, and the CEBR seem to believe that this old habit will die hard.

The truth, however, is that no-one yet knows what the impact will be. On the face of it, the new Current Account Switch Service ought to provide a huge opportunity for the challenger banks, but the established institutions will fight very hard to protect their turf. And, with the advantages of established brand networks, huge marketing budgets and massive reserves of customer data, there’s no doubt that they begin with the upper hand.

Those advantages, however, may not be as robust as they might appear. A ranking of UK banks’ customer service (admittedly assessed alongside the somewhat subjective categories of "honesty" and "integrity") released to coincide with the launch of the Current Account Switch Service, gave a damning verdict on all four of the UK’s biggest retail banks. The same customer satisfaction survey showed a very wide spread of standards as well, with marks ranging from four out of a hundred for one institution, to 89 for another, so this malaise does not affect every company in the industry.

While it may be that the smaller players, the mutuals and the challengers simply have to try harder to counter the incumbent advantages of the big four, the Account Switch Service could mean that their effort translates into growing market share for some of the industry’s smaller players.

In the long term, of course, the Current Account Switch Service will mean that all banks will need to become more customer-centric. That is the inevitable effect of pro-competitive regulation in any industry, and the voice of the customer is likely to have a great deal more influence upon the way that banks will run. The onus will then fall on us, the consumer, to make sure that we communicate clearly with our banks – by taking our custom elsewhere if necessary.

If the Current Account Switch Service works as intended, then dissatisfied customers will simply be able seek better service elsewhere, without any great inconvenience. Poor customer service and other questionable practices may persist, and the institutions that provide them may endure. If they do, however, it will be clear that UK consumers simply have other priorities. Either way, it will show the true colours of what really matters to banking customers in the UK.

For the sake of the economy, and our wellbeing, we can only hope that that is a sensible balance of good value and good service. Those few banks with high customer satisfaction scores do offer something along those lines, and the technology and business know-how needed to do so already exists in most institutions – what will hopefully change is the influence it exerts within them. If the British public do not use their new-found consumer power, then we will have missed a golden opportunity to build a banking industry more in the image of the one we’d all prefer to deal with. After the events of 2008, it was clear that we needed to reform the UK’s retail finance industry. Now that the economy is getting back to its feet, we all have the opportunity help do that.

Photograph: Getty Images

Claire Richardson is VP at Verint

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”