Opinion: Free banking for charities, please...

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

The high street banks have announced Monopoly money profits in recent weeks. Record billions are being made, and record sums are being paid to their chief executives too.

I was at a books festival last week in Cumbria and one of my co-contributors to a stage debate on the criminal mind - intended to be a chat about detective novels - departed from the script to suggest that bank heads paying themselves such huge sums was more criminal than any of the things that normally get you locked up.

Side by side with these exceptional trading results, a small charitable trust I am involved with has been trying to do something very simple with our bank account. We have one account. We want to open another, subsidiary one. Nothing too hard? So you'd imagine. So far I have been in to present my passport on three occasions to show that I am a suitable person to sign cheques. And then I have been asked twice to present our trust deed before the bank will accept that we have changed from one treasurer to another (neither of them trustees, incidentally). To top it all, almost 12 months after the trustees decided to set up this new account, we are still waiting.

Everything is now dealt with not by our cosy local branch, but by the West End Business Centre. I have tried pointing out that we are not a business, but to no avail.

There has been talk of Gordon Brown imposing a windfall tax on the banks in the light of their current high levels of profit. It would make a good pre-election gesture, but might sit uneasily with his posturing as Mr Prudence. There are a few alternative measures I'd like to suggest. One, that the banks use some of their billions of profit to set up a simple system whereby charities can easily open and operate accounts. Two, that part of that process acknowledges that charities are not like any other business. Often, for example, the volunteer treasurer of a small charity does not want to spend the equivalent of his or her summer holiday on the phone to - no, I'm not going to tell you the bank's name, however tempting it is.

And, finally, that instead of taxing their profits, Mr Brown makes a small dent in them by insisting that all banking work (within reason) for charities be done pro bono. It's a modest proposal, but one that I suspect would attract me a few votes from the third sector electoral college.

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