Tony Bingham - Once upon a time, relations between banks and small and medium-sized construction firms was awful. Now all that has changed, say the banks. Oh yeah?
The Competition Commission reminds me of that television advert for "the listening bank". It listens to you moaning about the awful way banks treat small and medium-sized construction businesses. You moan, and rightly so, about bank charges that nobody can fathom and that arrive out of the blue, making you see red. You moan about the time it takes for that cheque you paid in last week to be credited to your account. The bank says it takes three days; it doesn't, it takes five. Why, oh why, three or five days? It should take three or five seconds by electronic transfer! Of course, the bank tucks that cash away in its coffers and sniggers at you; they think you don't know what's going on. They think, as do politicians, that you're daft.

But chief money wallah Gordon Brown, our revered chancellor of the exchequer, and Stephen Byers, secretary of state for trade, have set the dogs on the banks. Using the Fair Trading Act, they asked the commission to investigate for a monopoly. And lo, they learned that the big banks' behaviour towards your small or medium-sized building business "prevents, restricts and distorts competition" when supplying their services.

Be that as it may, the commission will now ask, if this is true does it matter? Does lack of competition between the banks work against the public interest? In particular, are you, as a small construction business, vulnerable to restricted competition among high street banks? Is it healthy to be in their grip? Are they too cosy? Are they too powerful? We know that the construction business is good at going bust – no other commercial activity has more insolvencies. Is this because the banking game is not competitive, or is it in breach of fair trading laws? The commission's view is that the well-known banks have produced what in law is known as a "complex monopoly". Lloyds TSB, Barclays, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale, Northern Bank of Ireland, Bank of Scotland, the Co-operative Bank, Abbey National and Giro Bank comprise a group which, together, supplies at least one-quarter of the money services in the UK. That is, they have huge control over money transmission, bank charges, overdrafts and business loans. This, then, is a complex monopoly.

We know that the construction business is good at going bust – no other commercial activity has more insolvencies

The truth is, they're well aware they haven't always hit it off with their customers. The truth is, too, that domestic/consumer folk and big business folk get a better deal than the business people in the middle. Barclays now swear they're doing much better, but admits that in days gone by: "We had relationships with customers that were awful." Giving evidence to the commission, Barclays recalled that in the days of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson it was lending galore. Then it all fell apart. "Quite frankly", said its witness, "there was a lack of trust on both sides." "We in Barclays are determined never to get in that position again." And let me add this, in those days, Barclays got an awful reputation; the impression I gained was that it was willing to pull the plug on its construction customers at the first sign of trouble. Things are better now.

The evidence given to the commission is that despite their monopoly, the banks are serving small and medium-sized businesses much better. They say that on rainy days, they don't put away the umbrella – they're the ones looking for signs of trouble to put it up early and stop you catching cold. The banks now brag about their ability to turn nine out of 10 businesses in difficulties back to financial health. They reject the jibe that all this is merely PR.