If not this mess, what will make us switch accounts?

helen glaberson
By Helen Glaberson

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Following the mess over at Natwest, RBS and Ulster Bank and, then, Barclays, commentators have been pressing the banks' dissatisfied customers and, frankly, any banks' dissatisfied customers, to switch.

Yet, overwhelmingly, we're staying put.

So, if not this mess, what will motivate us to shift our cash?

A longstanding problem

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls called for "root and branch reform" of retail banking following the Natwest IT debacle.

Banks make it "very difficult to change bank accounts", he said, pointing out that we are more likely to divorce than switch where our money is.

According to the Independent Banking Commission (IBC) just 3.8% of bank customers changed bank accounts.

The IBC calculates that, on average, account holders will change every 26 years; the average divorce happens after 11.4 years.

A 2010 ICM poll, commissioned by Consumer Focus, also found switching was rare.

Just 7% of a sample of over 2,000 UK account holders had moved accounts within the previous two years.

Some evidence of recent moves

There's some evidence that recently more people have been switching, bucking that trend.

The Co-operative Bank recently announced that the number of people moving to their ethical current account range rose by 61% in the last three weeks.

Similarly, Nationwide building society reported a 67% increase in new account applicants even before the RBS fiasco.

The ethical banking site Move Your Money - which has received extensive national media coverage over the past month - told us that their site visits increased 15 fold in the 3 weeks after the Barclays Libor scandal broke and in the same period they gained a 90% increase in users.

Since January this year, Move Your Money claim, half a million people have moved to ethical banks such as Co-ops and mutuals.

All of these figures are positive and impressive but let's put them in context.

There are 48 million current accounts in the UK, according to Mintel, so half a million moved is just 1% of the market.

Similarly, fairly few people are moving to Co-op and Nationwide so an increase in new applicants isn't necessarily significant.

Why the reluctance?

In short, although a portion of society has had enough and is starting to heave their cash, there remains a huge chunk of the UK who are staying put, despite being unhappy with their current banking service.

Why is that?

Not enough motivation

A massive IT mess which left thousands of people without access to their money and a huge rate fixing scandal involving most of the major banks, might look like motivation enough.

But many consumers won't have been personally affected by either of those things and media encouragement to make a stand against high street banks sometimes comes off as unrealistic.

In The Guardian, for example, Zoe Williams urged readers to "just move" and said that switching, anywhere, was always better than not moving at all.

It's a bit of a fuzzy position to stand behind.

Perceived hassle

The hassle perceived with moving is another major issue.

An earlier study by the OFT found that a significant number of bank consumers thought it was complex and risky to switch accounts.

In reality, as we uncovered here, switching bank isn't the hassle it once was. Banks' new switching services mean they can move direct debits and standing orders for you. You just need to inform those who pay you your new details.

It'll get better...

Finally, it cannot be insignificant that the banking powers that be are always promising that the market will get better - but not delivering much.

The OFT has just launched a new inquiry into the current account market, promising to report back by the end of the year.

It last looked into current accounts in 2008 and not much has changed since then: accounts continue to give massive charges and the different way banks calculate fees can make it difficult to compare services.

There are some improvements on the way but they look insubstantial.

Currently, banking watchdog FSA requires that your new account will be opened within ten working days of your application approval. If it takes longer you are within your rights to demand a chase up and refund of any loss of benefits.

But following a report from the Independent Commission on Banking, the Government will force banks to agree to a new 'redirection service' for current accounts.

Banks will have to make the switch for you within seven days.

That new service kicks in from September 2013.


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