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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 07:32 GMT 08:32 UK
Big banks accused of 'cynicism'
The logos of Barclays, HBOS, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB
The UK's High Street banks have been accused of "bare-faced cynicism" by an influential committee of MPs.

In often heated exchanges, members of the Treasury Select Committee challenged the chief executives of Barclays, HBOS, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB about how they treat credit card customers.

The focus was on the interest rates charged on credit cards.

Barclays boss Matt Barrett told astonished MPs that he didn't borrow on credit cards as it was "expensive" and no way to fund "chronic borrowing".

One member of the committee went as far as describing the marketing tactics employed in attracting new card business as "a bait and a trap".

Explosion

Some High Street banks charge credit card rates that bear little relation to the interest rates set by the Bank of England.

People are being actively misled... no one is offering to benefit the customer rather than themselves
Angela Eagle

James Plaskitt asked the bankers why interest payable on UK credit cards had declined by only a third since 1992 when Bank of England interest rates had fallen by two-thirds in the same period.

Jim Cousins accused Barclays of "bare faced cynicism" for a recent offer to cardholders, which allowed balance transfers from rival cards without incurring any interest - as long as the cardholder spent at least 50 a month on the card.

Cash-back offers were condemned as a "bait and a trap" by the MP.

Admitting there is a problem and that you need help is an important first step
Steve Quinn, debt adviser

Angela Eagle was scathing about the big banks' marketing tactics: "People are being actively misled... no one is offering to benefit the customer rather than themselves."

Honesty

The Committee questioned the bankers on plans to introduce so-called 'honesty boxes' on credit card offers.

The honesty box, also known as a Schumer box, puts all the costs included in the small print of a credit agreement into a single table, making loans easier to compare and understand.

Apacs, a credit card industry body, has said that all credit card agreements will carry an honesty box by March 2004.

All the big banks were committed to the introduction of the new boxes, Mr Barrett told the committee. His bank's card offers would start displaying the boxes this month, he said.

Sandra Quinn, director of communications at Apacs, said: "We are delighted that the banks not only welcomed the boxes but also committed to a review of how they are working later down the line."

Indebtedness

The banks were also criticised for giving credit card customers unsolicited increases to their credit limit.

There does not seem to be any general commitment by the credit industry to tell it to people straight and simple
Norman Lamb MP
Committee chairman John McFall questioned whether unsolicited credit increases encouraged people in financial difficulties to borrow beyond their means.

Fred Goodwin, Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive, told MPs that his bank raised credit limits to benefit customers.

"We do occasionally raise limits to stop people incurring fees," Mr Goodwin said.

Straight

Mr McFall also criticised card issuers for failing to make it clear to consumers that if they made only the minimum repayments each month it could take them up to 18 years to repay their debt.

HBOS chief executive James Crosby said: "I don't think any of us would recommend to our customers that they stayed at the minimum repayment for any period of time."

After the session, committee member Norman Lamb said:

"People are groping around in the thick fog of charges, interest free credit periods, misleading introductory offers and sharp marketing practices.

"There does not seem to be any general commitment by the credit industry to tell it to people straight and simple."




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