Why Ulster Bank’s long(ish) goodbye is stressing out so many people

It began last April with a beautifully worded media statement that tried to reassure us all in a very calm fashion that the closure would not be painful or indeed laborious. However, as we enter the month of September, I have to say I have yet to meet anybody who has not been dragging their hair out in fits and starts as they tried to transfer their business from Ulster Bank to another bank in the Republic of Ireland.

The bank started the process of writing to its 900,000 current and deposit account customers in what we were told was a very orderly and controlled fashion away back in the spring. The aim was to try and give the punters six months’ notice to move their accounts to another institution where required – or to close them altogether. When the first letter came through the letter box, I distinctly remember wondering (complete with a bit of a jaundiced eye) if this phased plan would really be so smooth.

Ulster Bank had warned us at the end of last year that it was getting out of its operations here, adding that there was plenty to wind down. It immediately started selling €7.6 billion of assets, including performing non-tracker mortgages, performing small and medium business loans, its sizeable asset finance business, and no less than 25 branches to Permanent TSB at that point. Later they told us that AIB was also going to be one of the new owners by buying €4.2 billion in performing corporate and commercial loans from it. By general agreement, there was an awful lot of work to be done.


Current accounts

What was left out of the deal at that point, however, were the 900,000 current and deposit accounts which Ulster Bank had on its books for decades and for the weary Joe Soap in that category the job of finding a new home for the debit card began. It was estimated that those current account holders, including 360,000 primary active personal accounts and 300,000 deposit accounts, would either have to move them to a new institution or close them altogether – and that’s where the real fun began.

The PR offensive was very strong at the beginning. Ulster Bank said that its branches would remain open during the process to assist customers who need in-branch support and, despite fears from the regulators and unions that the banking system was not fully prepared for the mass switching process by Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland customers, we, the public, were told it was all systems go.

The problem was of course the complicated nature of all of our current accounts nowadays and in particular the need for us customers to tell utility providers, employers and others who use weekly and monthly direct debits, standing orders and make salary payments into accounts of our new banking details – if and when we get them set up.


Paperwork nightmare

Anybody who has recently tried to set up a new account in a bank or a credit union will not need me to tell you just how complicated a process this has become. The anti-money-laundering legislation has pushed us all to the pin of our collar at this stage. The need to gather a paper file of bills and ID documents and haul them into the bank is usually the first step for most setting up a new account. Even that process, which should be straightforward, is often fraught with difficulty and some stress.

What happens for instance if you, the new account holder, just don’t have the electricity bill or the phone bill in your name anymore? It is often the case in lots of households that different spouses take on these tasks at different times of the year and indeed change accounts regularly into their own name from year to year. The move to online accounts has also meant that some people don’t even possess a paper bill in the kitchen cabinet anymore and rely instead on the laptop view every week. But it’s been the request for even more personal information from new account holders that has also been deeply frustrating and time-consuming.

I am aware of cases this year where personal credit reports from the Central Bank have been asked for by some of the organisations opening new accounts and trying to administer relatively small loan projects. In some cases historic evidence of income from social welfare has been requested. I am not sure if you have applied for your own credit report from the Central Bank in recent times but it can also be a tortuous process. Patience is also certainly needed for anyone brave enough to take it on.


Staff shortage

The problem with all of this is the scale of the task that Ulster Bank had to take on in a relatively short time. There were over a million people in Ireland who were with KBC or Ulster Bank and many of these have since then faced major delays in switching their accounts.

There were also issues on the ground. By the end of April it was claimed that, due to a shortage of staff in some banks, those trying to schedule in-person 1:1 appointments to get their affairs in order ahead of the big shutdown in a face to face fashion were having to wait weeks and weeks on end to be seen because of staff shortages.

According to the Irish Independent, some people who are trying to open with a new bank were really going through the mill after being temporarily blocked from a number of new services they needed. These included the very basic one of opening a credit card account and getting an overdraft facility – two of the bare essentials that were at the top of the agenda for most.

The harsh reality in all of this is that in all corners of life some of us are better than others in dealing with paperwork. I know some members of my own family who have neither the interest nor the inclination to open a laptop to sign up for anything online, preferring instead to head to the post office with their trusty documents under their arm. This has been probably the most difficult part of the Ulster Bank closure process for hundreds of people.

The ordeal of having to even go into the bank scares many people and can bring them out in a ball of sweat at the best of times. To have to gather almost every important document of your life and head down the road of detailed administration to get the account closed or transferred has freaked out many people – of a certain age especially – and I know some are still putting it off as we enter September.

The Ulster Bank staff around the country have been flat out trying to deal with all this paperwork, and I know they have tried their best to resolve issues. Still, the banking unions are adamant there was a better way of doing this – a more ‘human’ 1:1 approach from head office that could have taken the stress out of it all. A better role for the Banking Ombudsman’s office in the whole process would also surely have been a better idea. Maybe it’s still not too late to try it?