Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Banks should heed Churchmen's anger

On the night when Chancellor George Osborne announced a radical shake-up of the way the financial sector is regulated, the four main banks in Northern Ireland came under attack from a much more surprising source - the main churches.

The leaders of the four main churches, announcing they are to seek a meeting with the Bank of Ireland, First Trust, Northern and Ulster banks, laid into the financiers in very robust language.

Through their spokesman Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper, they accused the banks of inappropriate actions, of exploiting vulnerable customers and of being profiteers. There was certainly little diplomacy in his words, reflecting how deeply the churchmen feel about the issue. Their intervention comes after approaches by business owners who feel that lending practices or variation in existing terms of business is driving them to the wall.

Many people will wonder if it is the duty of churchmen to become involved in the world of business and finance, but they make the valid point that they are merely articulating the concerns of some members of their flocks. It can be argued that the churches have a moral duty to speak out on behalf of their congregations.

There is a widespread suspicion in the business community that the banks are desperately trying to rebuild their own financial standing, at the expense, sometimes, of their customers. Many people believe the financial institutions, through their profligate lending in the past, caused the global economic crisis and say that they are therefore duty bound to help alleviate it, especially since they have been bailed out by taxpayers.

Of course there can be no return to the lending practices of the past, but that should not prevent the financial institutions lending to credit-worthy customers who are struggling in the current economic climate. Punitive rates or variations in existing business practices, if proven, smack of sharp practice rather than smart business. It will be interesting to see if the banks will factor morality into their future business plans.

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