AS THE long-standing treasurer of a small village church in Norfolk, my ambitions under lockdown were limited to paying our parish share, while maintaining solvency. I did not aspire to anything beyond this.
To my delight and surprise, however, I achieved more. I took a large bank to the Ombudsman and won. After a long, protracted battle, absorbing considerable time and energy from our church officers, Barclays owned up to a mistake, apologised, and offered us £125 and 20 packs of colouring books in compensation; I then escalated the complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service, who doubled the cash sum to £250.
Both the substance of the complaint and the process involved say a lot about the problems that we church treasurers are facing.
Let’s start with an abbreviated version of the complaint itself. In March 2021, our church held its annual meetings: a long-standing churchwarden retired and was replaced with a new post-holder. We embarked on the deceptively straightforward task of replacing one authorised signatory with another: a mandate change.
A first indication of problems arose when we discovered that mandate forms could not be processed at branch level; current procedures specify that a central team based in Leicester must “pre-populate” the forms over the telephone. The new churchwarden and I separately spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a telephone call answered before we gave up in despair. I hit on the idea of complaining to Customer Services. That’s when the real problems started.
The member of the central Customer Services team who initially took our call went out of her way to be helpful. She “pre-populated” the forms based on the information we provided over the phone, and returned them to us. Our new churchwarden was not an existing Barclays customer; so she was obliged to visit our nearest branch for proof of identity — again, the staff member she met there was both friendly and efficient. The forms were completed and signed at our end, and returned to Leicester. We breathed a sigh of relief. Little did we know what was to come.
ON 30 JUNE 2021, we received a letter informing us that the Mandate Team had declined authorisation, since the form must be completed by “the chairman with two councillors”. Moreover, “Also, please arrange for the chairman and two councillors to visit a local branch of barclays [sic] with identification and address verification Documents [sic]…”.
We did not recognise these titles; we returned by telephone to the helpful Customer Services. In this conversation, which we noted at the time, we were told that our acceptance of the term “councillor” was essential if we were to progress the change and that Customer Services had been given this information by “Gary in the Mandate Team” — something later confirmed in writing.
At no stage did we find out whether Gary considered himself to be an expert on the Church of England, all Christian Churches, all Abrahamic faiths, or, indeed, all world religions. All one can say with certainty is that he was wholly wrong.
We were very fortunate that a regular visitor to our church, a retired bishop, the Rt Revd John Gladwin, offered to pitch in on our behalf and produced a letter, saying: “I . . . served . . . as Bishop of Chelmsford from 2003 to 2009. The latter Diocese was the largest in England outside London and contained some 600 Churches. The term ‘Councillors’ has no formal place in Parish Governance and, in all those years of ministry, I have never heard the term used to describe the role of Churchwardens.”
This did the trick. We received a somewhat grudging recognition from Barclays accepting that they had made an error: “This confirms that Churchwardens are acceptable titles for what we refer to as Councillors and this conflicts with what I have been told before.” The Mandate change was implemented, an apology was given, and compensation of £125 offered — together with the colouring books. This sum we regarded as insufficient; so we escalated the complaint by making a formal submission to the relevant Ombudsman. Here we were successful.
ONE of our requests was that part of the settlement should be a meeting with someone of director level at the bank. We wanted to put our case at this level in the hope that the bank would gain a greater awareness of the context in which a rural church operates, and show more sympathy in future.
Initially, Barclays declined this request, but, by taking advantage of holiday periods when subordinates were organising diaries, we managed to secure such a meeting. One of their senior managers came to north Norfolk in March. Like all the individual staff we encountered (though the jury must be out on Gary in Mandates), he was clearly capable, understanding, and wanted to do his best.
He recognised that local services had deteriorated as a result of branch closures — north Norfolk has suffered a lot in this respect. We, in turn, acknowledged that these were inevitable, but argued that the problems that we had encountered were systemic: a business process re-engineering had taken place without adequate consideration being given to the interface with the customer; in particular, discretion had been taken away from the remaining branches.
Our visitor from Barclays insisted that changes in processes should not be characterised as a deliberate attempt to reduce branch discretion. The problem was that customer needs were becoming increasingly specific. Specialist teams, such as Mandates, were part of an attempt to resolve client problems at first point of contact: this would cut back on error rates (“repairs”, to use the bank’s term). We, in turn, recognised that changing customer behaviour, and new delivery methods arising from technology, meant that different approaches were inevitable; this was common ground.
We also agreed that the most important issue was whether Barclays, given the changing nature of their business, genuinely wanted community organisations, such as a rural church, as clients. Our visitor responded with an unequivocal “Yes.” We welcomed this assurance. We said that, given that this was the case, churches would have to accept that new processes were inevitable, but they should be a party to that transition — their needs should be better understood, and the demands and consequences of transition be made far more explicit. All in all, the meeting ended amicably with an assurance that our views would be transmitted back to the relevant managers. We shall see.
GIVEN this outcome, the only issue left unresolved is the colouring books. We are a small village with a lively, albeit mainly elderly, congregation who have not yet reached the stage where they need to be given colouring books to fill in during a sermon.
Further, our register records that we had 13 individual church attendances by children under the age of 16 over the past year. Apart from the occasional baptism, these are usually visiting grandchildren of congregation members. It would be nice, however, to display at least one such book at the back of the church to remind us of a hard-won success at a difficult time. We have communicated this to the bank and the Ombudsman, and await developments.
Martyn Sloman is the treasurer of All Saints’, Sharrington, in the diocese of Norwich.