I've Not Changed My Mind: Our Banks Are Brutish Institutions Run by Brutes. MAX HASTINGS on His Explosive Lunch with One of Britain's Most Notorious Bank Bosses

Article excerpt

Byline: MAX HASTINGS

SIR Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, this week renewed his assault on Britain's banks, for failing to provide the lending to small businesses which is indispensable to their growth, and often survival.

New figures show that last year net lending fell by almost [pounds sterling]11 billion. This was in defiance of promises made by the institutions' bosses under the so-called Project Merlin deal, to increase funding for companies.

Meanwhile, the Office Of Fair Trading has called on banks to change their working practices, to simplify the jumble of numbers with which they muddle us, so that customers can make a clear calculation about whether they would be better off changing financial services providers.

In addition, though their bonuses have fallen from stupendous to merely disgusting, bankers are still giving themselves rewards for their own services out of all proportion to their usefulness to society or their shareholders.

Abuse

I recently read a pundit's appeal for an outbreak of truth and reconciliation in the ongoing war between the City and the public. The writer argued that, after all the abuse we have heaped on bankers, it is time to call a halt, recognise their importance to the economy and let them get on with their jobs.

My answer to that, and probably yours, would be: time enough for reconciliation when these people stop robbing us blind and mend their ways. As long as they carry on exactly as before, there is not the smallest reason to stop kicking them.

I have sometimes made mention in the Mail about my own tribulations at the hands of the financial services industry. I now have a nice new grievance.

On January 31, an endowment policy matured. Like everybody's holdings of this kind, mine would deliver only around 60 per cent of the 'target figure' that the crooks who sold it to me promised two decades ago. Indeed, I stand to get little more than the paper amount I have paid in since 1992.

I signed all the maturity forms back in December and had them duly witnessed. It turns out that the provider, Barclays Life, has been sold to another firm called ReAssure.

This week, I telephoned them to ask where my money was. After a few minutes, I was told: 'We've just got the paperwork back from Barclays. We'll be dealing with it today.'

So I would get the cash immediately? 'No, that will take three to five working days.'

I hit the roof. This is how the financial services industry gets rich. By the time I receive the miserable wreck of my endowment money, ReAssure will have had use of it for more than a fortnight past the due date.

I warned the company it would be reading about itself in print, which prompted an automated response letter: 'Your complaint is important to us and will be fully investigated by one of our complaint handlers.'

Now, I will admit that my solvency is not threatened by ReAssure's tardiness and Barclays Life's miserable performance. But for lots of people, much less equipped than I am to extract revenge, such payments are of vital importance. These institutions are brutes run by brutes, each one as bad as the other.

My second barrel at the bankers derives from an experience a month ago.

One of the most notorious bank bosses, a man whose remuneration is delivered in an armoured truck, invited me to lunch. Stupidly, I thought he wished to confess the error of his ways. I could not have been more wrong.

'I am becoming extremely concerned, Max -- you don't mind if I call you Max?' he began with headmasterly gravity, 'that Britain is turning against capitalism and the payment of appropriate rewards. …