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NatWest: Account Terminations and Branch Closures

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with NatWest, as a major shareholder, regarding the numbers of (1) payment account terminations, and (2) local branch closures, since 1 January 2023.

My Lords, the Government’s remaining 37% shareholding in NatWest is managed at arm’s length by UK Government Investments. The Government do not intervene in the commercial decisions of NatWest, including with regard to branch closures and individual account terminations. None the less, the Government are strengthening requirements for all firms around account termination and support the FCA’s guidance on bank branch closures and industry provision of alternative in-person services such as banking hubs.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but I think the matter should be a little further explored. Will she acknowledge that Which?, the trade magazine, has monitored all bank closures since 2015 and has calculated that in that period NatWest bank as a whole closed no fewer than 1,140 branches? In the same period—and more alarmingly—a total of 5,818 bank and building society closures took place. That must impact on a lot of people. Secondly, will the Minister acknowledge that NatWest and probably other banks are currently closing the accounts of innocent holders without notice and refusing to give any reasons? Again, the impact of that is a lot of distress: for example, for small traders, having their bank accounts taken away can be devastating.

If I may, I will focus on the second part of the noble Lord’s question around account termination. It is an issue that the Government take incredibly seriously. For absolute clarity, the Government are clear that payment account providers must not discriminate on the basis of political belief or, indeed, any other opinion. Therefore, following events over the summer, the Government issued a policy statement on 21 July which very clearly set out that 90 days’ notification must be given to any customer whose account is to be closed. Also, the bank must give a reason for that closure. That will come into legislation in due course. We are working at pace to draft the secondary instrument and it will be laid in your Lordships’ House soon.

My Lords, the Minister may recall that, towards the end of last year, I asked about the establishment of a banking hub for my home town, Lisnaskea, after the Ulster Bank, which is part of the NatWest group, decided to close the last remaining bank in that rural town. I mention rurality as I was surprised when I met the representatives of LINK, which has set up banking hubs, who told me that they do not take into account the rural nature of the area when they are deciding on banking hubs. I understand that there is a consultation ongoing: when changes are being made, will the Minister consider the needs of rural dwellers?

I am grateful for that intervention, because that is precisely what we intend to do. We are placing the existing voluntary arrangements set up by the banking sector on a statutory footing. There is a consultation out at the moment by the FCA, part of which is asking what factors and criteria should go into any assessment—the number of people in the area, the number of SMEs affected, the impact on the vulnerable and what other cash access services there are. Of course, rurality will impact on all those factors, so it will be taken into account.

My Lords, I suspect that I am not the only Member of the House to have noticed a marked deterioration in customer service from the banks over the past 20 years. Digitisation was supposed to improve that, but it has got much worse. Of course, this is generic—witness the comments made about HMRC—but banking, of all areas of commerce, depends more than anything else on trust. Trust is greatly enhanced by personal contact and greatly reduced when there is none. The Minister said earlier of HMRC that you are always given six options—yes, you are, but, mysteriously, none ever seems to apply appropriately to the question I have. So has she carried out a simple survey of customer satisfaction with banking and, if so, what are the results?

The Government do recognise that banks hold a key position in our society. We need to ensure that our banking system meets the needs of that society. Certain banks, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, pride themselves on keeping their bricks and mortar on the high street. If customers require that sort of service, they should be able to vote with their feet.

My Lords, I think we have something like 20 banking hubs—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but it is a piffling number. Will she assure me that, in the statutory instrument that is coming, the banks will be required to participate in banking hubs where their area meets the criteria standard? Everything I have heard up to now still leaves the banks with the ability to refuse to participate even where the standard is met.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. That is why we are putting this voluntary provision on a statutory footing. The Treasury has the power to designate not only banks but the operators of the cash access co-ordination services—Cash Access UK—to do the banking hubs, so they must then follow the requirements set out in the legislation.

My Lords, the average house in the UK now costs nine times average earnings—the most expensive ratio since 1876. Living standards are seeing their biggest ever fall and families remortgaging since the Government’s disastrous mini-Budget have seen their monthly payments rise by an average of £220. Given this, does the noble Baroness agree with the comments of the chair of NatWest last week that it is currently “not that difficult” to get on the housing ladder?

No, I think those comments were very ill advised and I rather wish he had not made them—as I am sure he does. The key to a thriving housing market is ensuring that interest rates come down. To do that, one has to reduce inflation, and that is exactly what this Government are doing.

It is excellent news that the Government have today commenced the statutory instrument by which so-called “politically exposed persons” will not be subjected to increased monitoring compared with the general public. Will the Minister ensure that banks no longer use the policy of “constant refresh know your client” as an excuse to close bank accounts?

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to highlight to the House that that statutory instrument, laid before Christmas, comes into force today. It means that banks should not treat all politically exposed persons the same; domestic politically exposed persons, as well as their family members and close associates, will be subject to a lower level of checks. In terms of “know your client”, it is important that we have the right balance between the information the banks have about the client and any concerns about their involvement in illicit finance. There are money laundering regulations in place but they are not prescriptive—firms must apply them in a proportionate fashion and appropriate guidance for banks on customer due diligence has been published by the Joint Money Laundering Steering Group.

My Lords, does it not show the weakness of the present regulation when banks are closing thousands of their branches all around the country, withdrawing services to their customers, and then promising banking hubs that they do not introduce? Do we not need stronger government and stronger regulation?

I have to disagree, because that is exactly what we did, by making the change in the Financial Services and Markets Act. We are now putting that into place. Now, of course, we cannot do that immediately. A consultation is live at the moment and it will bring together all the information we need to ensure that customers get the banking services they need.

My noble friend the Minister has explained that, now the SI has been laid, customers in future will be told why their accounts have been closed. Those customers will then want to open new accounts. Will they then be told why their application has failed and why they have not been given a bank account when they apply and are turned down?

That is a very good question from my noble friend and I do not have the answer to it. But I would say that the banking sector for individuals is incredibly competitive, and for those individuals with a very poor credit rating, who are not able to access standard current accounts, the Government require banks to offer basic bank accounts. There are 7 million individuals who have those accounts, so it should be the case that all individuals can get a bank account.