RBS may face 'further action' from regulator over small business turnaround unit

Britain's financial watchdog may still take action against the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) despite dismissing "serious allegations" about how the lender treated small business customers.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said it was investigating whether there was "any basis for further action" after publishing an interim report into RBS's Global Restructuring Group (GRG) following intense political pressure.

The state-backed lender has been dogged by allegations that it intentionally pushed small businesses towards failure in the hope of picking up their assets on the cheap.

In its report, the FCA said it had pinpointed "significant concerns" about how small business customers were treated by the bank.

It said RBS had failed to support firms in a manner consistent with good turnaround practice; had placed an undue focus on pricing increases and debt reduction without considering the long-term viability of customers; and had failed to identify customer complaints and handle those complaints fairly.

In a statement, FCA chief executive Andrew Bailey said: "As we reported in November 2016, while the most serious allegations were not upheld by the Skilled Person, the report did identify other concerns about the treatment of SME customers.

"We are investigating the matters arising from the Skilled Person's Report and are focusing on whether there is any basis for further action within our powers.

"We cannot comment any further on this."

RBS said it was pleased the "most serious allegations made against the bank have not been upheld", and had set aside £400 million to tackle complaints and compensation.

It said £115 million had been paid out to small businesses claiming mistreatment through an "automatic refund of complex fees".

It added that 939 complaints had also been lodged with a process overseen by retired High Court judge Sir William Blackburne.

RBS chief executive Ross McEwan added: "I am pleased that the regulator has confirmed the findings from last November and that the most serious allegations made against the bank have not been upheld.

"We have acknowledged for some time that mistakes were made and have apologised that we did not always provide the level of service and understanding we should have done for these customers in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

"The regulator has again confirmed that the remediation steps we announced in November to address concerns for customers are appropriate.

"Any customer who feels they were treated inappropriately whilst in GRG should make use of the complaints process."

It comes after Nicky Morgan, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, ramped up pressure on the financial watchdog to publish details of misconduct by RBS and threatened to use "formal powers" to demand publication of the full leaked report into the lender.

The FCA has so far refused to publish the report in full, claiming that it would reveal confidential information about individuals. Instead, the watchdog has offered a detailed summary.

Following the publication of the interim report, Ms Morgan said: "It has taken the FCA too long to publish its summary of the Skilled Person's report, so this is not before time.

"The committee has put in place an arrangement to ensure maximum possible transparency is brought to this issue.

"When its independent adviser reports back later this week, the committee will consider whether further steps are required."

A spokesman for the GRG Action Group, which represents more than 500 businesses, said the report confirmed the "systemic problems" within RBS leading to the mistreatment of customers.

"The procedures set out by RBS for obtaining redress are still inadequate," he added.

"Far from drawing a line under this affair, today's report is just the start of the long journey to justice for GRG's victims.

"RBS should be forced to relinquish the charges that it has over companies that went in to the GRG so that the victims can receive the compensation they deserve.

"The bank's complaints process also fails to address the issue of consequential loss that will have had a major impact on many businesses.

"If anything, today's findings solidify the case for having the FCA's report published in full so that the bank's misdemeanours can be properly scrutinised."

Shares in RBS closed down just under 1% on the London Stock Exchange.

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