Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Banks 'to help' small businesses

Scottish bank notes and bank cards
Banks have promised to change the way they deal with business customers

The banking industry says it will help small business customers in difficulty during the economic downturn.

Lenders have revised their guidelines for dealing with these customers.

The banking industry has come under intense government pressure to pass on cuts in interest rates and help firms who may be running into trouble.

However the new guidelines put the onus on small businesses customers to ask for help early, and warn that banks will still have to protect themselves.

"It is not in anyone's interests for banks to continue to support businesses that cannot survive," say the guidelines published by the British Bankers' Association (BBA).

Changes

The BBA said the main changes to the guidelines, first published in 1997, were:

• pro-active contact by banks if they think firms might be in trouble

• banks to offer to discuss all concerns in person

• banks will look to use business assets as security before they consider personal assets as security

• business account switching within 5 working days

• banks helping customers to revise their business plans and forecasts during the recession if necessary.

Disquiet

The guidelines have been revised after consultation with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR).

The business secretary Lord Mandelson recently expressed his disquiet at reports and a survey suggesting that some bank managers were treating their customers aggressively, for instance by changing the terms of their loans or overdrafts at a moment's notice and without any consultation.

And he has praised last month's commitment by the newly nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland to freeze overdraft charges for small firms until the end of 2009.

However the new BBA guidelines state clearly that a firm in trouble which has agreed a rescue plan with its bank may find that its borrowing costs go up as part of the process - but the bank will explain why.

Last month the government set up a panel to keep an eye on the way banks lend to small businesses during the impending recession.

It will be made up of officials from the Treasury, the Department of Business, and the Bank of England.

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