Northern Ireland

NI bank branch closures 'showed little customer concern'

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Image caption Northern Ireland's banking system has been scrutinised by a committee of MPs

Northern Ireland's banks have shown "relatively little concern" for their customers when closing branches, a committee of MPs has concluded.

The NI Affairs Committee has been examining the local banking system.

The committee said that despite greater transparency from the banks, it was still not possibly to identify exactly how much new money they are lending.

The British Bankers Association (BBA) said banks in Northern Ireland "want to be transparent".

It said it would soon give a breakdown of lending by postcode area.

'Too conservative'

The committee has recommended that either the banks or the Treasury introduce a standard definition of new lending.

Northern Ireland's main banks have closed more than 20% of their branches in the last few years in a response to changing consumer behaviour and to cut costs.

The committee concluded: "We regret that Northern Ireland's banks have shown such little thought towards its customers by seeking to either concentrate its branches in the major centres of population, or to close branches in favour of online banking."

The committee also raised a concern that the banks' response to the financial crisis meant their business lending polices had now become too conservative.

"From the reckless high-risk attitude of many banks pre-financial crisis, the pendulum appears to have swung too far back in the opposite direction," it said.

It concludes that while recent statistics show an increase in business lending, many companies have been "dissuaded" from pursuing opportunities that need bank finance.

'Regrettable'

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Media captionRachel Cray from the Consumer Council said she hopes banks could work together to improve services for their customers

The report makes specific criticism of Danske Bank and First Trust for not participating in the government's Funding for Lending Scheme (FLS).

The scheme allows banks to borrow cheaply from the Bank of England in order for them to pass this on in the form of cheap loans to firms.

The committee said it was "regrettable" that the two banks had decided not to use the scheme.

Danske Bank told the BBC that it did not need to use FLS as it had sufficient capital available for lending.

A spokesperson for First Trust Bank said: "First Trust Bank has just received the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report and will now take time to consider the details of the report and the implications of the clear market developments that have taken place since the inquiry began in July 2013."

There is also specific criticism of Ulster Bank for its response to a BBC Spotlight programme that examined allegations that it forced viable businesses into insolvency.

The committee said Ulster Bank's "refusal to take part in the programme... could not fail to give the impression that the bank may have had something to hide".

The report also touches on the sale of Nama's Northern Ireland property loan portfolio to Cerberus, a US investment fund.

That £1.3bn deal was described by First Minister Peter Robinson as "excellent news for the Northern Ireland economy".

However, the committee said it was "still to early" to say whether it "was indeed excellent news," adding that it had heard "disquieting stories" from some businesses.

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