4 MAY 2002, Page 39

Fly your friendly bank, in first class or steerage, when what you want is modest comfort


An eminent tax accountant of my acquaintance was moved to write to a High Street bank's chief executive: 'Dear Sir, Is your Hampstead branch still open?' All his attempts to attract its attention had failed. On his client's behalf he had tried his luck with the bank's telephone system (which, of course, does not any longer go through to the branch) and had written politely and often, but he might as well have been posting his letters in a hollow tree. Luckily, the chief executive could work the oracle. Others find it harder, for this is, or can too often be, modern banking. Its pioneers told us how much better off we would be once they took the paperwork out of the branches, so freeing the staff (or so we were told) to look after the customers — and, of course, cutting costs. In the process they cut the lines of communication. It is as if the banks were airlines, flying super-jumbo jets which offer the customers no middle option between steerage and first class. Turn left as you enter the aircraft and you find yourself in otiose luxury. These financial airlines have fallen over each other to offer what they call private banking. You and your wealth will be cosseted (that is, if you have enough of it) and advisers will wait on you, whether you need them or not — for you may already be advised by eminent accountants. First class is suitably expensive, but if you turn right you will find yourself with your knees round your ears and at imminent risk of thrombosis. Above your head you will find a button for service. Press it and see what happens. Go on, press again. There is a whistle for attracting attention, but not unless the bank is in deep water.

Club class, please

WHAT is missing from these airlines and their service is the idea of modest comfort: club-class banking. They just draw a curtain across the aisle, as British Airways used to do. and charge more for the seats in front. This is still steerage, but with fancy names and bolt-on additions, like travel insurance and in-flight magazines. Ask for someone to talk to, and you learn that this is no part of the service. This someone need not be a manager of the old school who arrives in the morning and settles down to read your cheques. She might well be a capable girl who knows how your account works and can be reached on the telephone. The first bank to put her in charge of club class will be overwhelmed in the rush. It can be done, because by good luck (which is mine) and good management (which is my bank's) I have such an arrangement, but confidentiality forbids me to name names.

Non aux oligarques

FRANCE is an oligarchy tempered by revolutions, and I am never surprised to see mobs in the streets, cows on the runways and other practical expressions of discontent. It has surprised the prigs and oligarchs who, when the French expressed their discontent with their votes just a fortnight ago, told them to try again this weekend and get it right. The Danes, when they had the nerve to vote against joining the euro, received the same message. France nearly took my advice (`Votez Non, votez souvent') and voted to join by the narrowest margin, after boxes stuffed with Oui votes had been flown in from distant Reunion. Now Morgan Stanley's man in Paris, Eric Chaney, calls the latest vote an anti-Maastricht backlash: 'France is an outstanding example of a country that has become massively disillusioned with the European Union.' Not, so he thinks, that there is much the French can do about it, or should. Normal service will resume and the old boys of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration will continue to carve up the top jobs, in and out of government, while power continues to shift to the Commission in Brussels and the Central Bank in Frankfurt, far removed from any voters. What will temper the rule of these unelected oligarchies, we have yet to see.

This way out

I HAVE discovered a new form of tax avoidance. Quite legal, quite simple — you can do it. too, though it may take time. It is a counter to Gordon Brown's new ersatz income tax, perfunctorily disguised as a surcharge on National Insurance. This, as I was saying before his Budget burst on us, is the tax that dare not speak its name. Any relation between what you pay and what you get is now vestigial, and to some contributors it brings no benefits at all. They will now have the plea of paying more for the same absence of benefits. There is a way out, though. Although you are never too old to pay income tax, when you reach pensionable age you can stop contributing to National Insurance and enjoy its benefits, or lack of them. I suppose that in his next Budget he will classify this as a loophole and bung it up retrospectively, but perhaps he would let me pay no tax at all and receive nothing for it. I might even settle for that.

Flair on the rails

MY railway correspondent. 1K. Gricer, writes: Railwaymen will miss Sir Peter Parker, who brought with him the flair and showmanship the railways much need and now lack. They are Sir Richard Branson's stock in trade but they have yet to rub off on his trains. Sir Peter set them into play when he had to endear the railways to Margaret Thatcher: no light task, least of all for a chairman of British Rail known for his leftward leanings and appointed by a Labour government — not One of Us, in fact. He hit on the idea of inviting her to come and name a locomotive Airey Neave. She melted and, when the time came, chose a railwayman, Sir Bob Reid I. to succeed him. CharIbury, his own local station in Oxfordshire — an idyllic Great Western survival — has some of his style.

Thanks, Bernie

TELECOM tycoons are out of fashion, and Bernie Ebbers is out of a job — ousted from WorldCom, which owes its banks even more money than he owes the company. At the height of his fortune he frustrated British Telecom's imperial ambition to pay $22 billion for MCI. the American long-distance network. WorldCom bid even more — in shares, of course, not cash — and BT walked away with a £2 billion windfall, which it blew on something else. A good one to miss, though. Thanks, Bernie.