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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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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