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JOHN HUMPHRYS: Are today's bank robbers the ones in suits, not masks?


The bank manager was reasonably friendly, but only a little distant. First names were not used. He was Mr. Jones. I was Mr. Humphrys.

We sat on either side of his highly polished mahogany desk, which had two very small glasses of dry sherry on it – one for him and one for me. I was there to open an account. He asked me a few questions about my financial situation and then gave a short talk on the potential dangers of debt and the wisdom of financial honesty.

As you may have guessed, this happened a very long time ago. I had just turned 18 and it was my first bank account.

It all came back to me yesterday when an old friend forwarded an email to me from his own bank that dramatically illustrated how much has changed in the world of banking. The main thing was that his bank is no longer a bank. It's a "business". It's your capital letter, not mine.

My friend was outraged: “I came to Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank in 1976. They had bags with a big blue Y that I used to carry my books to university. First went the bags. Then the direct phone line was cut so that I could not contact my local office directly, but was forwarded to a call center. Then the branch went. Then the bank became Virgin Money. And now? The horror . . . the horror! & # 39;

I read the email and understood his fear. "Martin!" They said to him in bright red and blue. "We have some exciting news for you!" But first he had to prepare for a life that was more virgin.

Let's remember that this is a bank that we are talking about. Not a website whipping trending trainers to gullible youngsters. A bench. Society can survive without a coach. It cannot survive without banks. And banks are never and never about smiling.

It was followed by the usual empty, tooth-grinding patron who is considered communication in the digital age, and the focus was on this promise: "Service that is about smiles, not sales!"

That is more than empty. It is insincere to the point of dishonesty.

Let's remember that this is a bank that we are talking about. Not a website whipping trending trainers to gullible youngsters. A bench. Society can survive without a coach. It cannot survive without banks. And banks are never and never about smiling. It's about offering us a service and benefiting from us, your customers. To suggest otherwise is a lie.

Banks have been viewed with deep suspicion throughout history. Thomas Jefferson, America's greatest president and seldom understated, got it right when he said, "I sincerely believe that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies."

Not that I saw Mr. Jones as dangerous on his mahogany desk in the early 1960s. On the other hand. I trusted him. But in the decades that have passed since we met, banks have changed almost beyond recognition and wasted that trust.

It's not that they did their customers a huge favor in the 1960s. If you've been in the red by wasting money that you didn't have, then you paid for it. But if you had savings you got a decent return on investment, and if you had a problem you could talk to someone. They played fair.

Pretty much everything is gone.

Of course, the digital revolution has changed the way we do business. Checks die when they're not dead – replaced with a few clicks of the mouse. It has saved customers hassle and saved banks a fortune. But the endless queues in front of each branch in the early days of the lockdown showed how many people still need their local bank and how few have survived.

In the past five years, a third of all bank branches have been closed, so that their customers often have no other location.

The situation is similar with ATMs. Hundreds of thousands of the poorest are in the money deserts.

The returns on earnings are ridiculous: the average for the past month was a practically worthless 0.06 percent. But the interest you pay on an overdraft is stratospheric.

A few months ago, the Financial Conduct Authority instructed banks to simplify their immensely complicated overdraft structure. They did. And then the cost of an overdraft immediately skyrocketed to tearful levels. Anything from 35 to 39 percent for the big boys. Nice job if you can get it.

That may be morally dubious, but at least it's legal. In contrast to the massive PPI scandal that continues to rumble. Like so many other great banking scams, it seemed to offer a service that many of us could benefit from.

If you took out payment protection insurance when you took out a loan and then fell ill or lost your job, your repayments are covered.

No less than 64 million policies have been sold. But millions were sold wrongly to people who didn't want or needed them and who wouldn't have been covered by them anyway.

At first the banks protested their innocence, but the evidence of shady dealings was overwhelming. A staggering £ 36 billion was paid in compensation. The cost of reputation for banks was even higher.

Another scandal could emerge now – this one uncovered by the formidable police force and Thames Valley Detective Inspector Anthony Stansfeld.

He has accused some of the UK's largest high street banks of “serious organized crime” against their clients, which has resulted in billions in losses in at least a decade by forging signatures to win legal cases and retaking homes .

When I spoke to Mr. Stansfeld this week, he said to me: "Lives have been destroyed, families have been displaced, people have been made bankrupt."

Mr Stansfeld said he was examining evidence of forgery of signatures presented to Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency (NCA), last September.

He presented evidence to the Treasury Select Committee in which he said the evidence of criminal activity was "clear and convincing". The committee wants the NCA investigating organized crime to conduct an investigation.

Conservative MP Steve Baker, a member of the committee, told me he was “deeply alarmed” that the NCA had not yet done so, adding, “I've seen evidence that could prove people evicted from their homes were. " wrong premise. & # 39;

So I called the NCA to find out what they are doing.

They told me that they are "doing a thorough evaluation to determine if there are grounds for a criminal or regulatory investigation".

You may be wondering how long it takes to make an assessment.

There are many who share Mr Baker's view that banks are seduced into dubious, if not downright illegal, activity because they can no longer get enough of it by doing what Mr Jones did all those years ago .

There are also many who share the view of Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz: “Instead of justice for all, we are evolving into a system of justice for those who can afford it. We have banks that are not only too big to fail, but too big to be held accountable. "

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