In July, Santander wrote to tell me that there were going to be changes to the online account for small businesses I have had with them for around eight years. They began:
Our aim is to build the bank we know our customers want. A bank that takes the time to listen…
Then it went on to tell me what it was that I wanted. Things like ‘simple value-for-money banking’, ‘rewards for customer loyalty’ and ‘access to local business contacts’. The next paragraph was headed: ‘What does it mean for you?’ What it meant was that my account was going to be transferred to their ‘award-winning £7.50 fixed monthly fee account, which has been selected based on the amount of cash you currently deposit each month.’ Other, livelier accounts would be charged up to £40 a month. In return, I would get what I was already getting, plus interest of 0.25 per cent AER (variable), a competitive arranged overdraft at 5.5 per cent EAR (variable) and ‘extra support’. They also sent a leaflet about the new account which said: ‘Simple, straightforward and no hidden charges’.
Here’s the thing. I chose the account (then owned by the Alliance & Leicester) because it was advertised as ‘Free Forever’, promising:
We guarantee that unless there are any changes to the law or banking regulations, or any new taxes relating to bank charges, you will benefit from free day-to-day business banking forever.’
I wrote and pointed this out to them, that forever had never meant ‘for a while’, and that I had no need or desire for the new services. They replied that I would greatly appreciate the new services, that the free account was indeed going to be closed and that I ought to be begging to pay them more than the measly £7.50 they were going to charge me. (OK, I made that last bit up.) There was no mention of the words ‘Free’ or ‘forever’.
I wrote to the Financial Ombudsman who took up my case with Santander. It appears I wasn’t alone. This week I got a letter from Santander:
Following feedback from some of our customers, we understand that the benefits of our new current account may not be appropriate for some of our customers at this point in time and therefore you may wish to stay on your current fee free banking product… Our new Business Current Account is still available to you… if you would like to take advantage of the new account, please do not hesitate to contact us.
I don’t know how many of the 230,000 free account holders wrote to the Ombudsman, but each case would have cost Santander £500 in administration fees, amounting to £115 million if everyone had done so. Some people were preparing to take them to the FSA and the Small Claims Court for breach of contract and mis-selling a product as free forever which turned out not to be; others planned to claim back their time and expenses in complaining to Santander and the Ombudsman.
This is a simple case of a bank treating its customers as if they were incredibly stupid or suffering from chronic memory loss, in order to make more money. Santander tried to trick us, and did it stupidly, assuming they wouldn’t be found out or called on a clearly illegal move. It’s just the same kind of behaviour, deceit, contempt and stupidity, that banks have been displaying on a bigger scale, but mostly getting away with. So there is a tiny sense of triumph about the fatuously phrased turnaround by Santander.
But it strikes me that I shouldn’t take too much pleasure in it. One reason the system, mad though it is, carries on regardless, is that every now and then, the power trips itself up by overdoing itself, underestimating its mugs, getting found out and appearing to cringe a little. Perhaps that tiny triumph we feel, each in our own individual corners, takes the edge off our mugs’ rage, and so it all goes on, the permanent non-revolution.