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Journey to the centre

I was going to write about the Budget this week but suddenly I had one of those dreadful feelings of ennui: “You’ve written about Gordon for the best part of 10 years, covering upwards of 20 Budget and pre-Budget speeches. All he has achieved, yet again, is to give with one hand and grab with the other. Why bother?”

That and the fact that the rest of this week’s Money Marketing is bound to be full of excellent continuing analysis of Gordon’s speech. Instead, I thought I would give readers of this column a bit of light relief and write about someone far more interesting – Christine Farnish, public policy director at Barclays Bank.

Sure, you remember Christine Farnish. She used to be the director of the FSA’s consumer division before decamping to the National Association of Pension Funds in 2002.

To be honest, I always thought she had been brought in at the FSA in order to help humanise it. After years of PIA-style regulation, the idea of someone taking responsibility for better consumer education was actually rather refreshing.

Although she did not entirely succeed in this aim, Farnish left the FSA far better placed than when she joined. The consumer-facing part of its website had some useful information and, most important, the concept that regulators need to relate to the public far more rather than simply talking to the industry had a lot of merit.

At the NAPF, where Farnish became chief executive, she also succeeded in raising the organisation’s profile, albeit sometimes by accident, such as when she described the Turner commission’s proposals on a national pension fund as creating a “monolithic quango” and a “throwback to the Stalinist era” – shades of Gordon Brown there.

I was not hugely surprised when she left to join Barclays Bank. After all, no matter how generous her salary at the NAPF, if someone dangles mastodontic sums at you to come and make them look a bit more respectable, what do you do?

When she arrived at Barclays last July, Farnish was quoted as saying that she was “very excited” about joining at a time when the bank faced “the challenges of continuing to delight customers against a backdrop of increasing regulation and stakeholder pressure around the globe”.

Farnish added: “It is clear from the UK experience that banking is under increasing scrutiny. It is also clear that Barclays has a major contribution to make as a leading financial services player in a global market-place. I am looking forward to helping to build on Barclays’ strong reputation through the work of the public policy team as we move forward.”

Last week, we finally discovered just how Barclays’ “strong reputation” for “continuing to delight customers” really works in practice.

Amanda Egbujo, an undercover reporter for the BBC, went to work at its call centre in Doxford near Sunderland, alongside 1,800 Barclays staff based there.

The reporter told phone customers calling in that she was an “account consultant”, itself an interesting variant on her role as a salesperson. She had to do this because, as one of her colleagues advised her, she needed to “lie a lot” in order to stay on the line long enough to sell the bank’s products.

While at Doxford, Egbujo received in-depth training from the bank. Her trainer told the call centre staff he was teaching that he “loved” it when customers complained about the extortionate cost of bank charges. He said: “They would phone up, start crying and blaming you , telling you that their kids are going to starve. And I would be like ‘I don’t know you – I don’t care’. I was just thinking, ‘You’re not getting it back’. I was a right git.”

On the subject of bank charges itself, one manager at Barclays boasted to Egbujo that bouncing a cheque or stopping a direct debit costs the bank as little as £1.50 or £2 to administer but “we bill the customer 30 quid to 35 quid so that’s a bit unfair”.

Another manager said the charges are justified because “We are a business and we are here to make money. I’m a shareholder so we need to continue to make profit.”

Bear in mind that banks such as Barclays have always justified their charges as a fair reflection of what it costs to send out their overdraft letters.

Meanwhile, staff were actively encouraged to put customers on to the bank’s additions accounts, which can cost around £150 a year, without them realising what had happened. Why? Because doing so brought in a £10 bonus.

That £10 bonus shocks me. I mean, at least when an IFA missells, he does so in order to earn a few hundred, maybe a few thousand quid. But to con a punter for a tenner’sworth of commission, that is not even double-glazing money, it is barrow boy stuff.

While this is all happening, where is Farnish? Formulating vital public policy on behalf of Barclays, no doubt.

Until, of course, the TV programme was shown by the BBC last week. At that point, Barclays wheeled out Farnish to tell viewers that, contrary to what they had just seen, “We are not in the business of encouraging or condoning inappropriate sales in any way whatsoever.” What had happened was “not in any way representative of the way in which Barclays does business”.


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