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The Banks Are Not Off the Hook

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Britain's banks may have escaped immediate referral to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading last week, but they aren't off the hook.

The OFT's damning verdict on the current account market, which finds the industry still lacks both customer focus and effective competition, is the latest evidence showing how badly people are being let down by the banking industry.

One of the biggest problems is that the government's reforms are failing to address the unhealthy dominance of the biggest banks. The market power of the largest players has increased - and not because they have provided better customer service or value-for-money products, but because of government subsidies and bailouts.

The result is that it's now almost impossible for smaller providers to gain a foothold in the market. Only last week the founder of Metro Bank said he wouldn't set up a new bank in the UK again.

So that leaves consumers to vote with their feet and switch accounts in greater numbers, which would incentivise the banks to genuinely compete for customers. The problem is that switching rates are abysmally low - only an estimated 6% of people switch current accounts each year, and Which? has found that more than half of people have never switched their current account.

Many people are put off by the process of changing their direct debits and standing orders. There will be a new, more automated switching service in place later this year that may go some way to smoothing the process.

But six in 10 people we surveyed said they'd be more likely to switch if they could take their account number with them. So it's disappointing that the industry refuses to seriously contemplate portable account numbers.

While the OFT has said it will ask the banks' own Payments Council to look into the costs of portable account numbers, we would like to see a proper independent assessment of the costs and the benefits.

Consumers might also feel more empowered to shop around for the most competitive bank account if they could see how much each account costs and make easy comparisons between banks.

We think the banks should be required to publish information on how consumers use their account and all fees, charges and interest, and make this easily available online all year round. Consumers should be able to use this downloadable data to make 'one-click' comparisons between current accounts. The OFT's recommendation that this information is included on annual statements doesn't go far enough.

Unless there is quickly a measurable improvement in competition that makes a real difference to consumers, the whole of the retail banking sector should be referred to the Competition Commission without further delay.

But a more competitive market alone will not transform customer service and stop banks offering poor value products. That's why we want to see other fundamental reforms to tackle the culture of banking, with banks that put customers ahead of sales, tough new professional standards, and individual bankers punished for mis-selling and bad practice.

We also want the new regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, to clamp down on poor bank products, warn consumers when they are investigating a bank product, and remove charges that make it difficult for consumers to compare products.

To date almost 130,000 people have signed the pledge for Big Change in banking with Which? and 38 Degrees. The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is asking the right questions. It seems that everyone - consumers, the Government, leading bankers and now the OFT - agrees that big change is what's needed.

Is 2013 the year a big change in banking will finally happen?

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