Banks must become more competitive

THE Banking Sector Strategic Issues, a review of Irish banking, has been gathering dust since it was published jointly in July 2000 by the Central Bank and the Department of Finance.

The report found Irish banks were among the most profitable in Europe as well as being the most costly from a consumer point of view.

"Irish bank charges were among the highest, ifnot the highest in Europe," said Eddie Hobbs, theConsumers' Association spokesman on finance.

It was the first major study into the banking sector, but little or no action followed from the report. Last year, small firms' group ISME conducted a study and passed its findings to the Competition Authority, which is carrying out a major investigation.

The Irish Bankers' Federation (IBF) refuted the allegations about charges, claiming charges were mid-range compared to the rest of Europe.

The IBF study excluded Holland, France, Italy and Luxembourg from its comparative analysis, thus showing the Irish sector in a more favourable light, said Mr Hobbs. ISME head of research Jim Curran said his organisation was "deeply disappointed" that "no action" was taken following the 2000 study.

Last night, the Competition Authority said it plans to publish a preliminary findings into the state of personal current accounts and loans to small business by the summer.

By the end of the year a spokesman said it hoped to have the final report available for publication.

The authority identified personal current accounts and loans to small business as the key to unlocking greater competition among the banks, he said.

The reality is that small businesses are paying 8%-10% on bank loans while the basic EU rate is 2%.

On personal current accounts, it was virtually impossible to transfer from one bank to another.

Irish Consumers' Association chief executive Derek Jewell said this was "key" to forcing competition into the banking sector.

The new financial regulator, IFSRA, will have a crucial role in ensuring consumers get the services they deserve. A spokesman said it can introduce codes to force the banks to facilitate ease of transfer of accounts from one bank to another, which Bank of Scotland (Ireland) has identified as a major block to competition.

The IFSRA spokesman said the initial 2000 report was overtaken by events. Now that IFSRA is in place, the consumer can expect the new regulatory authority to "play a key role in ensuring the banks are forced to become more competitive," he said.

Clearly, the Competition Authority will also have a role in that regard, he said.

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