Page last updated at 19:36 GMT, Thursday, 29 March 2007 20:36 UK

The true cost of bouncing a cheque?

Data from the Yorkshire bank
Banking industry data used to calculate the cost of bouncing a cheque

The cost of employing a bank clerk to bounce a cheque may be less than £2 each time a customer goes overdrawn.

As the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) gears up for a full scale investigation into the cost of banking, this crucial issue will be at the centre of its deliberations.

The BBC has been shown one way of making this calculation, derived from an internal Yorkshire Bank study.

These details have led one MP with an interest in the matter to describe as "extortionate" the charges some banks levy on customers who break their overdraft limits - which can be £25 or more.

Labour costs

The labour cost of bouncing a cheque was discovered by a study carried out when a former Yorkshire Bank employee - who wishes to stay anonymous - was asked to analyse some of the bank's internal processes.

It's not rocket science to know how long it takes for someone to do a certain amount of work
Former Yorkshire bank employee

Using standard banking industry timings - broken down into fractions of a second for more than 200 separate actions - the staff member worked out the time and cost of bouncing a cheque.

This is a routine task carried out by lower paid staff in the branch and the head office.

"I was given a list of those timings and was told they were industry standard timings," the former employee said.

"It was my job to break down each individual process and work out how long it took."

Using a spread sheet, they calculated how long it took a clerk to:

  • look at the daily report of overdrawn accounts
  • decide an account needed to be referred to head office
  • check the account transactions
  • manually change the account to reflect the bounced cheque
  • put the information into a computer
  • generate a standard letter
  • and send that letter out in the post.

This work would involve one person at the branch and another at head office, taking them no more than 10 minutes altogether.

"Based on the system I used, I worked out that the administration of bouncing a cheque was definitely no more than £2," the former staff member said.

"The timings of the workload were well known throughout management, I took my findings to my operations manager and then they went up the line."

In fact the findings were discussed each week by senior management at the bank.

"But it's not rocket science to know how long it takes for someone to do a certain amount of work," the former employee pointed out.

Extortionate

In 2004, one of the first people to successfully challenge her bank's overdraft charges and win a refund was Laura Saunders from Goldsithney in Cornwall.

Andrew George MP
Andrew George MP accuses the banks of extortion

The Yorkshire Bank repaid her £922 when she threatened to sue it in the county court.

After hearing the evidence from the former Yorkshire Bank employee, Ms Saunders' MP, Andrew George - the Lib Dem MP for West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly - said he was not particularly surprised.

"I think that banks are in fact extorting money from the most vulnerable people in society," he said.

"It is inevitable that those on the lowest incomes who have the greatest difficulty maintaining their accounts in credit will be the most vulnerable to these charges."

Other costs

Of course, other costs are involved in bouncing a cheque.

Banks will have obvious overheads such as buildings, heating, lighting, stamps, stationery, telephones, computers and so on.

When the OFT forced banks to cut their credit card default charges to no more than £12 last year, it acknowledged these sorts of costs could fairly be taken into account and be passed, at least in part, to the customer.

A Yorkshire Bank spokesman denied that the analysis provided by its former employee was valid.

"We believe the figures are misleading," he said.

"They account for just one individual's role in the process for dealing with account defaults.

"For example, these costs would be higher if a senior manager was involved as well," he said

Court scrutiny

When threatened with legal action, the Yorkshire Bank, like others, has submitted a defence on paper, typically claiming that the charges are a genuine estimate of the financial damage caused by having to chase up the unauthorised overdraft.

I would hope that a judge would ask the Yorkshire bank to come to court and explain themselves
Marc Gander, CAG

But is it credible to believe that other non-staff overheads would add £20 or more to the charges being levied each time a cheque is bounced?

The issue has not yet been thrashed out as the banks always withdraw before the hearing, often settling out of court.

The Consumer Action Group, which has been leading the campaign against high bank account charges, says the issue may soon be scrutinised by the courts anyway.

"A number of people who have previously claimed against the Yorkshire Bank have now written to the courts, pointing out this discrepancy, asking the court for their comments," said Marc Gander of the CAG.

"I would hope that a judge would ask the Yorkshire bank to come to court and explain themselves," he said.



SEE ALSO
Study launched into bank charges
29 Mar 07 |  Business
Success for bank charge claimants
23 Mar 07 |  Business
Mis-selling is 'rife' at Barclays
21 Mar 07 |  Business
Credit card firms jack up charges
13 Mar 07 |  Business
Paying bills by cheque can be expensive
12 Mar 07 |  Business
Banks and consumers at loggerheads
06 Mar 07 |  Business

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