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Watchdog slams banks who 'fleeced' customers

THE Government's financial watchdog has slammed banks for treating their customers like "second-class citizens", forced to pay soaring interest rates to cover banking losses.

The Financial Regulator's consumer panel has also criticised the lack of positive action from the investigations by the Garda or the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement.

The comments come as Bord Gais and ESB revealed that they have signed up more than 110,000 families into special repayment plans in order to avoid cutting off their supply.

Bord Gais chief executive, John Mullins, described the crisis as "a middle-class recession".

"We are going into gated homes to switch off the gas," he added.

When taking all energy suppliers into account, almost 11,000 householders have been disconnected so far this year, twice the number in 2009 and the disconnection rate is rising to new alarming levels, running at almost 2,500 households a month, or 80 a day.


Separately, the consumer panel with the Financial Regulator said that Irish householders who do not have a tracker mortgage which mirrors the European Central Bank rate are being "mercilessly fleeced" by financial institutions.

The panel said that while consumers in other countries are enjoying historically low interest rates set by the ECB, many Irish consumers are now forced to pay higher rates than before the economic crisis hit.

"Consumers should not be disproportionately punished with higher fees and interest charges in order for the banks to rebuild their balances, especially while the Government is contributing substantial sums to them," the report said.

It recommended that remuneration policies in the banks must not allow or encourage excessive risk-taking in the future, in order to protect consumers.

If financial institutions are to offer staff any bonuses, these should take the form of shares that cannot be sold for at least five years, the panel said.

The Oireachtas committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources said the there was a "worrying trend" under way as thousands of mortgage holders in arrears on gas bills are renegotiating their payments, at the rate of one every five minutes.

Mr Mullins said Bord Gais was doing everything possible to help people but it had no option but to disconnect supply if the customer failed to make an arrangement.

On average, Bord Gais is now disconnecting 230 homes per month -- and the majority are privately owned properties.

In contrast, the ESB is now disconnecting an average of 900 Irish homes each month -- roughly 30 homes a day -- for the non-payment of their electricity bills.