Belfast Telegraph

The bank chaos top Tories don’t want to know about

Pass the parcel at Westminster over account shambles

By Claire McNeilly

Top Government figures are playing pass the parcel with the Ulster Bank crisis as the plight of thousands of customers unable to access their money in Northern Ireland enters a third week.

On the same day that David Cameron announced a full Parliamentary inquiry into a rate-rigging scandal at Barclays amid a growing wave of criticism of British banks, the Prime Minister and Chancellor George Osborne have refused to intervene in the Ulster Bank frozen cash scandal.

There have been calls for Westminster to take direct control of the situation as the bank still cannot give any guarantee to customers as to when their accounts will be fully functional.

SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has called on George Osborne to help bring the Ulster Bank crisis to an end.

She said: “The Chancellor must actively pursue a resolution to the ongoing fiasco where customers of a bank that is 84% owned by the Government cannot access their money.”

The Belfast Telegraph contacted Downing Street and the Treasury to ask what action they would be taking, but found they were much less forthcoming about dealing with the banking crisis in Northern Ireland than they were when they set up an inquiry into the Barclays rate-rigging furore.

A Downing Street spokeswoman declined to comment, saying it was “a matter for the Treasury”.

But when this paper contacted the Treasury a spokesman for Chancellor George Osborne’s office said the Financial Services Authority (FSA) was in the driving seat, but added that the Treasury was “carefully monitoring the situation”. He said: “The FSA is working closely with the firm to resolve this problem and minimise disruption for customers.”

The FSA, whose chairman is Lord Turner, has said that a full investigation will take place after Ulster Bank has resolved its problems.

Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker said: “How can it be that Ulster Bank is so far behind the RBS and NatWest in resolving issues for customers, if they all shared the same system which caused the problem?

“Why have people in the rest of the UK been prioritised at the expense of those in Northern Ireland, who will continue to be without access to their money well in to the week?”

Customer accounts have been thrown into chaos since problems began two weeks ago, leaving bills and direct debits unpaid.

End of month salaries were also not credited last Friday, with the bank admitting progress has been slower than it would have liked.

First Minister Peter Robinson told the Northern Ireland Assembly that he couldn’t understand why Ulster Bank was taking so long to fix its problems and he urged bosses to act within hours, not days.

Clients have taken to Facebook to voice their anger, and a new page demanding compensation from the bank has been set up.

RBS Group chairman Sir Philip Hampton flew into Belfast on Monday to apologise, saying the computer failures “should never have happened”.

“We've got to make sure we fix it fully and then we've got to make sure these problems don't re-occur,” he said. “Hopefully, as we go through next week, we will absolutely break the back of this.

“It's true that it has taken us longer to fix this than we thought likely but we are making progress.”

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson met Sir Philip to discuss the ongoing difficulties and he said the continuing delays were unacceptable.

Mr Wilson said he had “relayed” to Sir Philip the Executive's disappointment that several public assurances on when the problem would be fixed had “come and gone”.

“This has been a communications disaster by Ulster Bank leading to the widely held view that Northern Ireland customers have been treated as second-class within the RBS Group,” he added.

On Monday night Ulster Bank posted a personal letter of apology to its customers for the first time.

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