Prestwick revelations expose SNP hypocrisy on RBS

Prestwick revelations expose SNP hypocrisy on RBS

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 9, February, 2018

I HAVE EVERY SYMPATHY with those in rural communities facing the prospect of losing their RBS branches. Just a few weeks ago, I joined more than 100 local residents in The Square, Aberfeldy, to protest against RBS’s plans to close the branch there, leaving both businesses and personal customers in the area facing a round trip of more than an hour and a half to get to the nearest remaining RBS branches in Perth or Blairgowrie. Without private transport, that hour and a half becomes at least three hours. 

The consequences for rural communities could be severe. Small businesses taking cash in the tills would no longer be able to bank takings on a daily basis, and have to find other arrangements. For elderly or vulnerable customers, or those simply uncomfortable with using the internet, the option of moving to online banking is simply not realistic. Moreover, large parts of Highland Perthshire, as indeed is the case across much of rural Scotland, simply do not have the digital connectivity to support banking transactions online.

Whilst RBS have indicated that mobile banks (pictured) will be provided to replace branches in places like Aberfeldy, there as yet no details on the hours during which these bank vans will attend, and on how many days per week. The whole situation is entirely unsatisfactory.

It is no surprise that politicians from across the political spectrum have united in their condemnation of RBS. While, as a commercial organisation, RBS has to respond to a changing world and the reduction in user patterns in many small branches, nevertheless the closure programme could have been handled in a much superior fashion.

SNP politicians have taken a typically opportunistic approach to the RBS closures, with its Westminster leader Ian Blackford being at the forefront in calling for UK Government intervention. Week after week at Prime Minister’s Questions, Blackford has stood up and demanded that the Prime Minister intervene, given that the UK Government is a majority shareholder in RBS. The Government’s response has been to say that these are commercial matters for RBS, and if the Government is serious about wanting to return the company to the private sector (and see the taxpayer repaid all the sums put in to save the bank), then Ministers cannot be directing its business decisions.

Blackford was widely condemned at the beginning of the week for trying to claim credit for RBS’s partial U-turn on branch closures. Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show, he announced that he was very close to reaching a deal which would see a number of branches saved from closure. And yet, it was the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee on a cross-party basis which had encouraged RBS to change its mind. Sources close to the negotiations within RBS indicated that Blackford’s grandstanding came very close to scuppering the entire deal.

The hypocrisy of the SNP on this issue was exposed later in the week, when The Guardian journalist Severin Carrell wrote a story about the management of Prestwick Airport (wholly owned by the Scottish Government), doing deals with the US military which would see frontline operations using Prestwick's runway, and at the same time negotiating with Donald Trump’s Turnberry Golf Resort. In response to concerns raised by opposition politicians, the Scottish Government stated that decisions taken at Prestwick were a commercial matter for the management and, “Ministers have no role in the operation of contractual agreements made by Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which operates on an entirely commercial basis in line with European State Aid rules”.

So here we have the SNP in government taking one approach in relation to an asset owned by the Scottish public – Prestwick Airport – but calling for the UK Government to take quite a different approach in relation to an asset – RBS – owned by the British public. It demonstrates exactly the sort of double standards that we have come to expect from this SNP administration.

As for the RBS closures, the announcement this week of a partial U-turn for a small number of branches is encouraging, but does not go anywhere near far enough. If, as RBS claims, closures are inevitable because of the decline in footfall in branches, then the bank has to work much harder to win public trust in managing a transition process, rather than taking the heavy-handed approach that has been adopted thus far. 

It also requires politicians to be both honest and realistic in their approach, given the commercial pressures on an organisation as large as RBS, rather than simply opportunistic and seeking to grab the next headline. Those who follow the latter path are too easily caught out, as the SNP have just found out to its cost.

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