The National Australia Bank (NAB) has been pulling a swifty on customers who have lost branches since September last year, using incomplete visitation data to justify its decisions.
NAB has been blaming a drop in foot traffic for the branch closures in documents now required under revisions to the (ABA) Australian Banking Association's branch closure protocol to explain why a decision to close a branch has been made.
As the reason for the closures of 59 branches – providing visitation figures for each branch as gathered from the previous year – NAB has said:
'Fewer customers are coming into branches to do their banking and foot traffic has lessened.'
A NAB spokesman revealed to this author recently, however, that the figures are only for over-the-counter transactions and business bag deposits, meaning customers coming into branches for general business are not captured in the foot traffic count.
General business is anything that does not involve a transaction, such as customers who have had to come into a branch to sort out IT issues, provide proof-of-identity documents, remove or add names to accounts, keep appointments for term deposit changes or speak to staff about loans, meetings with managers or any other activity that is not a deposit or withdrawal.
The deception was revealed when the use of the phrase “over-the-counter interactions” on NAB’s West Lakes' “branch closure fact sheet” was questioned, with information sought on what activities were being counted as foot traffic.
It is the only one of the 59 fact sheets that have carried this clarification.
The spokesman explained:
“We don’t use the term ‘over-the-counter interaction’, but personal banking/business banking transactions referenced in the fact sheets come from over-the-counter transactions in the branch and express business deposit bags.”
After being sent an excerpt from the West Lakes' fact sheet showing the bank had used the phrase in reference to visitation, the NAB spokesman said that “the methodology would have been the same for the use of this phrase on the West Lakes fact sheet”, suggesting the figures provided on all fact sheets only represent a partial picture of customer attendance at branches.
NAB West Lakes visitation
The information displayed on all other NAB fact sheets
The disclosure will be embarrassing to ABA chief executive Anna Bligh, who was doing the PR rounds last week promoting changes to the Banking Code of Practice’s Branch Closure Protocol, which was first published more than 20 years ago as the result of a recommendation of the Hawker Inquiry into regional bank closures in 1999.
The changes stem from recommendations in the 2022 Regional Banking Taskforce final report, an exercise dominated by the banking industry that gave the green light to continued branch closures and necessitated the launch of a Senate Inquiry into the issue that is now underway.
Bligh told the ABC last week:
“Banks will have to prepare and publish a document that explains why they’ve closed that branch, including some of the data about the usage of the branch.”
NAB, which held a seat on the task force and had a hand in the recommendations, began creating these “branch closure impact assessments” – which it calls “branch closure fact sheets” – nearly two months before the task force report was released in September last year.
If data cited for visitation by NAB is not a true picture of customer attendance at branches, it raises serious questions about whether incomplete visitation figures are also being fed into statistics quoted by the ABA on the declining use of bank branches.
Bligh and NAB have been caught out before, releasing incomplete information on branch usage, claiming in media interviews and government testimony that visitation at Maffra in Victoria had significantly reduced in the previous year but failing to disclose opening hours had been slashed and the branch hadn’t even allowed customers through the doors for the three hours a day it was supposed to for at least six months due to staffing issues.
Maffra is one of the 59 locations that has had branch visitation misrepresented in a fact sheet that was tabled as evidence at the first Senate hearing of the Bank Closures in Regional Australia Inquiry at Sale in March by NAB’s executive general manager, retail, Krissie Jones.
Providing a document that contains information presented in such a way as to mislead the reader into assuming a figure represents total foot traffic at a branch when it is only a partial sample may well be considered an instance of contempt of the Senate.
Locations that have had visitation data misrepresented
- Lake Cargelligo
- Sydney (Pitt Street & Hunter St)
- Sussex Inlet
- Warners Bay
- Baulkham Hills
- Kippa Ring
- Tin Can Bay
- Roxby Downs
- West Lakes
- Kings Meadows
- Melbourne (Queen Victoria)
- Ferntree Gully
- Port Melbourne
- Bunbury (131 Victoria St)
Dale Webster is an inaugural recipient of a Walkley Foundation Grant for Freelance Journalism on Regional Australia. She publishes independently through her own title, 'The Regional'. You can follow Dale on Twitter @TheRegional_au.
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