Belfast Telegraph

Apologies aren't enough in Ulster Bank's sorry affair

The time for saying sorry is past. The bank needs a plan for its customers - and fast, says Antoinette McKeown

For the past 20 days, the Consumer Council has spoken up for Ulster Bank customers, informing, advising and attempting to reassure. We had to do this because Ulster Bank failed to do so.

The Consumer Council can understand technical difficulties. What we cannot understand is why Ulster Bank has failed to be upfront with its customers.

In the first days of what Ulster Bank last weekend referred to as 'a disaster', we were told 80 branches would be open late and that 60 would be open over the weekend.

This was misleading, as it referred to branches across the island of Ireland, when only 28 Northern Ireland branches were open late and only eight that Sunday. The Consumer Council had to engage with the media, correcting this misinformation where we could, but we felt frustrated that Ulster Bank was failing to do so.

At the beginning of week two, Ulster Bank tried to give assurances that the technical difficulties were resolved and the regularisation of accounts was beginning.

But already we were seeing real distress and confusion amongst consumers, in spite of the extra efforts of frontline bank staff.

This was confounded by expectations being raised and then dashed with shifting timetables of when the issues would be resolved.

The real challenge was changing information. First we were told customers needed to go to the branch where their account was held.

The Consumer Council had to point out that this was unworkable - given the number of people who commute long distances, or no longer live in their home town.

Ulster Bank responded by allowing customers to access their cash at any branch, but lack of consistency meant it was up to individual branch managers to decide on amounts customers could withdraw.

The Consumer Council's real concern was, and remains, those vulnerable Ulster Bank customers, particularly basic bank account holders who do not have any other access to credit. We have urged people not to go to pay-day loan companies, not only because of the high interest rates, but because Ulster Bank still cannot give customers any reassurance of when this situation will be fixed.

The time for explanations is over. Now is the time for a clear plan from Ulster Bank showing how they will resolve the situation.

Customers need to know that there will be no more queuing outside the bank for access to limited amounts of their own money.

They need to know when this situation will be resolved, so they can plan for accessing their money.

Customers of Ulster Bank and other banks also need to know how they will claim back interest and charges levied on them because of Ulster Bank's systems failure.

Small business owners need to know how and when they will be able to pay their staff. Customers need to know how Ulster Bank plans to expedite the updating and regularisation of accounts.

Customers of Ulster Bank and other banks who have been impacted by this, must be given a guarantee by Ulster Bank that their credit rating will not be affected.

The end of month pay day has been and gone, we are in July when many families are taking their holidays and will have major concerns about accessing cash abroad.

Ulster Bank say that they give 'help for what matters'. This is what matters - people being able to access their own cash; householders being secure that their mortgage payments, rent and utilities are being paid; and small business owners being able to pay staff and suppliers. Ulster Bank has an opportunity to do the right thing.

In the meantime, the Consumer Council will continue to do all it can and keep people updated on twitter, facebook and through the media.

Anyone with specific difficulties can contact us at complaints@ consumercouncil.org.uk, via facebook or twitter, or call 0800 121 6022.

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