BBRS SME Liaison Panel
Held virtually and at BBRS offices 0945 – 1245 on Wednesday 21 September 2022
SME Liaison Panel:
- Antony Townsend (AT), Chair
- Tony Baron (TB)
- Mark Bishop (MB)
- Heather Buchanan (HB)
- Diana Chrouch (DC)
- Nish Kotecha (NK)
- Andy Keats (AK), acting as Nikki Turner’s alternate
Apologies: Katie Matthews (KM)
- Dirk Paterson (DP), Customer Director
- Shamila Begum (ShB), Senior Analyst – Customer Strategy and Correspondence
- Ethan Kelly (EK), Corporate Communications Manager
- Sally Berlin (SB), Chief Adjudicator
- Lyndy Geddes (LG), Director of Operations
- Caroline Barr (CB), Bank Liaison Panel Chair
- Jeremy Bennett (Secretary)
1. Introductions and opening remarks from the Chair
AT welcomed Panel members and introduced Caroline Barr, Chair of BBRS’ Bank Liaison Panel who was attending primarily as an observer, and other BBRS attendees.
He explained that the meeting agenda has been structured into three parts, relating to:
- Proposals for improvements to the scheme,
- Current operation of the scheme, and
- Residual governance issues.
AT reminded Panel members of the need to adopt a respectful and positive tone during the meeting.
He noted in particular that:
- after discussion with BBRS he had been able to issue a blog on the BBRS website explaining particular Panel concerns.
- work had commenced on recommendations for changes to the Scheme Rules (agenda item 2).
- Janine Alexander had resigned from the Panel, as owing to a change of role she no longer had the time to contribute to the Panel. AT noted that she would be a loss in view of her past contributions and wished her well. A replacement would be sought as a priority.
There were no questions arising from Panel members.
PART 1 – PROPOSALS FOR IMPROVEMENTS TO THE SCHEME
2. Scheme rule changes recommendation process
AT noted that he had issued a brief paper to Panel members the previous day summarising the rule changes that were being proposed and outlining proposed next steps. He was keen to get moving with the process.
He also noted that, under the process which had been set out by the BBRS, it was for the Panel to work with the banks to seek to agree rule changes with them.
He wanted to start by asking Panel members whether the rule changes were ones they agreed should be acted upon.
MB considered that the potential additional changes referred to in paragraph 8 of the note should be considered in the rule change process. Among other matters, the cap on awards rendered potential awards too low in comparison with likely business turnover.
AK was concerned with the limitation on eligibility resulting from the ‘gross asset’ balance sheet requirement. He said that the ultimate purpose of the BBRS was to permit a review of cases which hadn’t been able to be considered by the FOS. FOS have rejected cases because they consider other fora more appropriate for resolving them, but then BBRS reject them as well because they are nominally eligible for FOS.
AT noted that he was seeking to capture this issue in paragraph 7b. In response, AK said that the ‘balance sheet’ question should also be covered under 7b. A number of categories of SMEs were currently prone to be excluded on that basis.
TB agreed that the ultimate purpose of proposing the rule changes was to ensure that an avenue existed where people could find redress where they had previously been unable to.
HB noted that there needed to be direct engagement with banks to seek agreement on the general principles, as when the lawyers got involved things got more complicated.
AT said that while he recognised the issues being raised, two separate streams were involved. Panel members needed to distinguish between matters which had arisen as ‘unintended consequences’ in the operation of the scheme, and those matters which were ‘baked in’ by design in the first place.
CB agreed strongly with AT in that respect. A creative approach was needed. In particular, if there were cases within FOS eligibility criteria but not expertise, BBRS could promote themselves to resolve. CB suggested in particular pushing for the proposed changes concerning insolvency practitioners and eligibility date. For the other two categories under paragraph 7, some concrete anonymised examples would be needed, showing clearly why cases shouldn’t have fallen between the cracks. The turnover balance sheet issue had been decided long ago, and in her view the current criteria represented a suitable measure.
CB also pointed out that as the Historical Scheme was due to close in Feb 2023, the Panel would have to act quickly. CB asked if the issue would also be taken up with the PIR 2 reviewer, and AT confirmed it would be.
MB stated that the intent of the scheme was to bring justice to a meaningful number of SMEs with complaints against their banks. SME representatives had accepted the eligibility criteria established for the scheme on the basis that the working of the scheme could be reviewed. It was necessary to have a discussion with banks over the scheme purpose and intent.
AK expressed concerns about the FOS approach to some complaints referred to them. Sometimes they wouldn’t look at claims because they were too large or too complicated. Cases would then ‘fall through the cracks’. CB noted that it would be necessary to present hard evidence to banks as to why particular cases fell between cracks.
AT noted that the Panel should ‘think tactically’ and seek to establish a relationship of trust with banks. It wasn’t possible to start from scratch and simply say that the ISG had got things wrong. The Panel needed to persuade banks that there were things which could be done to improve the scheme based on its actual operation.
NK considered that AT’s comments were a good summary of the situation. He asked CB what the banks’ current perception of the scheme was. CB said that her relationship with banks was more at an operational level through the Bank Liaison Panel, so this was more of a question for the BAM, and that perhaps AT could raise this with the BBRS CEO for discussion with the BAM. CB reiterated however that concrete examples of where cases may have fallen through the cracks between the FOS and BBRS needed to be presented to banks.
MB noted that he was content not to go back to ‘ancient history’ in terms of BBRS development and that there were other options to make progress, for instance through the Financial Services and Markets Bill. However, he considered that if it was not possible to have a conversation about the major issues with banks, then there was no point going into detailed issues.
AK said that he thought it was a mistake to get too technical in discussions. The question was whether SMEs in general should be entitled to a review of bank complaints by one of the FOS or the BBRS.
AT brought the discussion to a close and summarised the position, being that there was support for the paper that had been prepared, and that examples of problem cases as suggested by CB needed to be prepared. Those examples would be shared with the Panel members for discussion how to take matters forward with banks.
The Panel approved the approach summarised by AT.
ACTION: AT would share further Scheme Rules change information with Panel members so all were clear on the direction of travel.
3. Post Implementation Review (PIR) part 2 (postponed until after discussion of agenda item 4)
DP shared information concerning progress towards selecting the party to conduct part 2 of the PIR. A tender process was underway with the PIR expected to be completed by the end of this year or early in 2023.
DP highlighted that there were 13 potential candidates who had expressed an interest to submit a tender document from 3 categories: academics/academic departments of universities; consultancies; individuals with a review background.
It was anticipated that Panel members would be consulted by the reviewer in November.
4. Accessibility and outreach to SMEs
EK explained that BBRS had been using advertisements, social media and trade media to get the message out that the deadline for making use of the Historical Scheme was approaching. He had already discussed BBRS’ activities in this regard with DC and AT. He asked Panel members if they were able to offer support to this process via their own networks.
DC offered to support approaches to potential customers from ethnic minority backgrounds. This was a key area. She invited BBRS representatives to discuss the issue further with her. EK agreed that BBRS would work further with her. DC added that it was important for BBRS to stay engaged on the issue with DC and NK in particular as trusted community stakeholders.
NK asked what information BBRS had relating to their customer demographics. LG said this was a challenge. BBRS had recently instituted a diversity questionnaire for customers but this was voluntary and had not yielded a significant response so far. Customer Champions provided support for customers who might have difficulty navigating the BBRS’ case management system for language or other reasons.
CB suggested that contact could be made with metropolitan mayoral departments and local MPs in areas where there was likely to be a significant proportion of residents from ethnic minority backgrounds. NK suggested approaching the Deputy Mayor of London for Business.
The meeting was adjourned for a short break at around 11am and resumed at 11.10am with discussion of agenda item 3.
Part 2 – INFORMATION ABOUT THE CURRENT OPERATION OF THE SCHEME
5. Update on adjudication and resolution from Sally Berlin, Chief Adjudicator
SB said she wanted to provide Panel members with some general observations concerning how BBRS’ services were used.
Recently, there had been greater engagement by banks in particular in conciliation, mediation and direct settlement approaches to resolving disputes. Customers who went through CEDR-supported mediation had found it an encouraging experience.
SB reported that while the overall number of cases was still weighted in favour of the Historical Scheme, BBRS were starting to see a higher number of case registrations under the Contemporary Scheme.
Everyone was aware of the current economic climate and the difficulties faced by SMEs. SB was keen to receive insights from Panel members concerning SMEs’ experience currently with their banks.
NK noted that SMEs were concentrating currently on ‘keeping the door open’ for business and being able to pay their fuel bills. Other issues were being pushed aside.
TB noted that their surveys of small businesses were indicating that the proportion of successful applications for bank finance was declining (to around 45%). The majority of applications were for cash to keep businesses going. There was distinct distress among SMEs, notably in the hospitality sector, based on high energy costs, a difficult labour market and not having fully recovered from the economic effects of the COVID pandemic.
TB noted further that users of the Contemporary Scheme would be encouraged based upon outcomes to historical cases. The need for BBRS was clear, but its impact would be determined by how it dealt with current cases and how those cases were reported.
DC raised the particular difficulties of business owners from ethnic minority backgrounds. They regard the scheme as complicated. Publicising the scheme to relevant communities in an appropriate way was crucial, considering the disproportionate barriers faced by such business owners.
In response, DP encouraged Panel members to visit the refreshed BBRS website. A number of improvements had been made to make it more customer-centric and simpler to start the complaint process. Illustrations based on the profile of potential customers, rather than stock images, were now used. DP welcomed any advice from Panel members on further potential improvements.
There was discussion concerning references on the site that may still be considered ‘jargon’. Panel members considered that BBRS should review the website contents from this perspective. AT encouraged Panel members to advise BBRS if they considered that there were particular aspects which merited improvement.
NK suggested that feedback be sought from customers who had used the website. He also suggested that an aggregation engine such as ‘Resolver’ could be utilised to drive traffic to the website.
DP agreed to look into the issue. ShB confirmed that customer experience data were collected in the form of a pop-up survey and were being monitored. DP advised that, whilst the new website had only recently gone live, the small amount of data that had been obtained indicated that customers found the website easy to use. When more data were obtained, it would be shared with the Panel.
Regarding general press coverage, DP explained that there had been around 100 items concerning BBRS’ services in the ‘sectoral’ press, in particular farming, construction and tourism.
NK noted the importance of promoting positive press coverage by publishing successful case resolutions. DP noted that the results of three successful outcomes to cases had recently been published on the BBRS website on an anonymised basis.
NK said that he would like one of the parties involved in a successful case outcome to come and talk to the Panel to discuss their experience.
MB expressed concern about being able to support the scheme in his public comments when he had concerns about various scheme limitations. AK noted the scheme eligibility criteria and asked if customers could be asked to tick a series of eligibility boxes for a prompt assessment of eligibility. LG cautioned against such an approach as there was still an opportunity for engagement with banks even if a customer was not formally eligible.
6. BBRS case data discussion
LG noted that further awards were necessary before meaningful data could be produced to the Panel.
While a number of successful case resolutions had been achieved through routes other than a formal determination, again it was not possible to provide further information currently as a settled means of reporting had not been established.
If BBRS facilitated settlement discussions between a customer and their bank, then BBRS were likely to be aware that there had been a resolution but not necessarily the details. Customers and banks might also deal directly with each other after a case had entered the system without further involvement from BBRS, in which event it was less likely that BBRS would learn the outcome in detail.
AK remarked that banks needed to be informed that it was in their interests to publicise the successful settlement of cases.
7. Service complaints
ShB advised that to date, BBRS had received 17 service complaints. It was apparent that a number of complaints raised weren’t in fact appropriate to raise under the service complaint process. These included:
- seeking to challenge the outcome of the case or process;
- raising questions concerning BBRS establishment, independence, legal architecture and/or Scheme Rules;
- challenging the expertise and/or impartiality of staff.
Key themes for other service complaints were as follows:
- eligibility: most of the service complaints had been raised by customers whose claims were deemed ineligible for BBRS resolution. The main area of concern was not being told early enough in the process that their complaint was ineligible. Such complaints were generally limited to cases registered pre go-live. Since the issue had been recognised, there had been a greater emphasis on Customer Champions managing customer expectations around eligibility at an early stage in the process.
- time taken: there had been some concerns raised about timeliness. Again this was something generally seen in BBRS’ older service complaints and pre go-live cases. BBRS had worked towards giving customers quicker answers and managing expectations about how long the process may take. BBRS had not seen concerns about time taken raised in more recent service complaints.
- postal correspondence: in a couple of cases, customers had raised concerns about sending case-related correspondence to the BBRS registered office address and the documents either being returned to them undelivered or not being received by BBRS. The customers hadn’t made BBRS aware they would be posting documents to the registered office address. Most customers use the BBRS online portal to submit documents but some customers prefer using other means and this is something BBRS have been able to facilitate. BBRS now include a correspondence address on all correspondence even when emailed to the customer. The BBRS website has been updated to show the correspondence address on the ‘Get in touch’ page.
- Case Management System (CMS): a couple of customers have raised concerns about the CMS. All customers are sent a guidance document on how to use the online portal when they register and over time BBRS have made changes to the system to make it easier to use and more customer friendly. This is something BBRS will continue to review going forward.
- concessionary cases: in a couple of cases, customers have raised concerns about their cases not being considered under the concessionary case process and wanted to appeal. Both complaints were ineligible for the BBRS service and the customers concerned had been given an explanation why their cases weren’t suitable for the concessionary case process.
ShB remarked that in reviewing the service complaints it was noted that almost all customers were happy with the level of service they received from their Customer Champions, regardless of the outcome of their complaint.
TB asked whether conversations between Customer Champions and customers were recorded and retained. LG confirmed that the practice was to record and retain them until case closure, meaning after the last possible process in the customer journey had been taken.
MB asked how many data subject access requests had been received by the BBRS. LG advised that several had been received during the course of BBRS operations. They were responded to formally in accordance with applicable data privacy law.
TB asked if any service complaints had been from an ethnic minority group. LG said she was aware of some. DC pointed out that she was not concerned about complaints relating to race, but rather that people from ethnic minority groups are eligible to access the scheme and that BBRS were reaching them.
Part 3 – GOVERNANCE ISSUES
8. BBRS set up and governance
AT noted that concerns about governance arrangements in the establishment of BBRS had been raised by certain Panel members since the Panel itself was established.
The issue that had caused most angst was the role of the Bank Appointed Member. His understanding was that the role of the BAM was raised in, and signed off by, the ISG and appeared in the Articles of Association and bank Participation Deed. AT felt that little was to be gained by debating the history. Rather, the Panel needed to concentrate their energy on what could be achieved going forward.
Panel members were generally in agreement that so long as there was a willingness amongst the Banks to make changes to improve things, then people could look forward. If not, then a look backward may be appropriate.
AK said that he had always maintained that the BBRS could be a really good organisation. There was good infrastructure. The problem was that SME representatives were being blamed as having been complicit in its difficulties.
DP noted that while there had been a debate about scheme eligibility, it was important to appreciate that BBRS was operating successfully within the rules established for it.
MB encouraged BBRS to provide relevant data to indicate the effect of possible scheme changes as proposed by the Panel. DP said that BBRS could provide information if it was on an impartial basis and in accordance with its independent status.
9. Close of meeting
AT brought the meeting to a close, thanking Panel members for the positive nature of the discussion and CB for her observations.
Meeting ended around 12.45pm.