Update from SME Liaison Panel Chair, Antony Townsend
21 July 2022
- The BBRS SME Liaison Panel has now been operating for around nine months. Its membership includes a range of people, some with long experience of dealing with complaints from SMEs about business banking, others with experience of representing SME businesses.
- The Panel is independent and advisory – it is not part of the decision-making process of BBRS. Its role is to ensure that the views of SME stakeholders are understood by BBRS, and that in the light of the experience of BBRS’s performance, improvements can be made to the handling of complaints from SMEs.
- The Panel operates in a difficult environment. The long-standing and well publicised problems with the way in which the banks have treated some SME customers means that there is scepticism and mistrust which has to be overcome if BBRS is to meet stakeholders’ expectations. Arguments about the way in which BBRS was established have yet to be resolved. As Chair of the Panel, I have found it frustrating that BBRS’s responses to these concerns have been slow, which has made it hard to resolve historic issues and move on. It is essential that there is openness and transparency if the record is to be set straight and progress is to be made.
- The Panel has been examining the data which BBRS has been publishing. The early data from BBRS was difficult to interpret, but there have been constructive discussions between Panel members and the BBRS executive as a result of which the published data has improved. There have also been helpful interactions between Panel members and BBRS on initiatives to improve information to traditionally harder to reach groups of SMEs.
- The principal concern of the Panel is the very low number of cases which have been received by BBRS, and the even lower number which have been resolved in the complainants’ favour. In 2019, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote:
If it transpires that the scheme is not bringing resolution to a meaningful number of complaints, and as such is not going to achieve its objective of bringing closure to past complaints, then I would expect there to be further discussions around the scope of and eligibility for the backward-looking scheme.
- Given the estimates made in the run-up to BBRS’s establishment, the fact that so few cases have led to settlements in favour of complainants is worrying. While there may be several causes for this, it is essential that the learning from these early cases is used to see what adjustments to the Scheme may be required to enable it to fulfil its potential, in line with the Chancellor of Exchequer’s statement above. The Panel is drawing up proposals for Rule changes, which it will discuss with the banks and BBRS at an early opportunity, and will continue to interrogate the data to try to establish why case numbers remain so low. This is particularly important given that the cut-off date for historic complaints is getting closer.
- BBRS has commissioned a two-stage Post Implementation Review (PIR) to assess the effectiveness of BBRS’s establishment (Part 1) and operation in practice (Part 2). The Panel had serious concerns about Part 1 of the PIR, which we considered to be too narrow in scope to reflect stakeholders’ expectations of the service. Our suggestions to widen the scope were not accepted by BBRS, and when the report was published our concerns were confirmed. One member of the Panel resigned as a result. Part 2 is now being commissioned: BBRS has engaged with the Panel on the design of Part 2. The Panel considers it essential that a robust, senior independent reviewer is appointed, who can examine the experience of those who have used BBRS so far, and get to the bottom of why the number of cases remains so low.