Royal Bank of Scotland boss issued with ultimatum to explain branch closure plans

Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Ross McEwan.
Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Ross McEwan.

Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Ross McEwan is being urged by MPs to explain his plans to close five branches in the Borders and another 47 nationwide this summer.

That ultimatum follows repeated requests to Mr McEwan by the UK Government’s Scottish affairs committee for answers to outstanding questions about the proposed closures.

If the 60-year-old snubs that latest invitation, the committee can use its formal powers of summons to compel him to attend one of its hearings.

Mr McEwan declined to attend the committee’s last inquiry hearing on the planned branch closures in January, instead sending Les Matheson, the bank’s chief executive for personal and business banking, and Jane Howard, its managing director for personal banking, to give evidence.

The New Zealander was happy to answer questions about the closure programme at a Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce business lunch in Peebles the week before, however.

Westminster’s select committees have powers to formally summon witnesses, and failure to comply with them is contempt of the House of Commons, an offence punishable by imprisonment.

Those powers are only rarely used, however, the only recent examples of note being summons issued to Newcastle United and Sport Direct owner Mike Ashley in 2016 and media moguls Rupert and James Murdoch in 2011.

Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP John Lamont, vice-chairman of the committee, has welcomed that ultimatum to Mr McEwan, saying: “To even consider issuing a formal summons is a really serious matter.

“It shows the huge level of frustration about RBS and their failure to engage in this process.

“Some of the branches are due to be closing their doors in three months’ time, and it is time the bank stop their delaying tactics and face up to public scrutiny.

“As the head of the bank, Ross McEwan should have already appeared before the committee to answer the many concerns that I am hearing from my constituents in the Borders.

“The bank should view this as an ultimatum. If we do not get a quick answer, I will not hesitate to push for a formal summons.”

Among the questions the committee wants to put to Mr McEwan include how the 10 banks, including Melrose’s, to be given a temporary reprieve were chosen out of the original 62 facing the axe.

It also wants to know how RBS would respond to a request from the UK Government, as majority shareholder, to reconsider its closure programme.

The letter requests that Mr McEwan provides dates when he will be able to provide evidence in person before the committee.

Committee chairman Pete Wishart, MP for Perth and North Perthshire, said: “RBS is a company that is still owned by the taxpayer, and we still have many questions about the decision-making process that will lead to so many communities in Scotland being left without vital banking services.

“We also want more details on the branches that have been given a reprieve.

“On what basis will they be judged viable in the long term and why wasn’t this opportunity afforded to all affected branches?”

In his letter to Mr McEwan, he writes: “The committee is disappointed that you have not engaged meaningfully with previous requests to find a suitable time for you to appear to discuss these matters.

“Should you not respond positively to this letter, the committee will have no alternative but to consider using its formal powers to summon you to appear before it.”

The five Borders RBS branches to be shut are tose at Selkirk, Hawick, Jedburgh, Eyemouth and Duns.

Mr Lamont and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP Rachael Hamilton are holding three more meetings this week to rally opposition to the proposed branch closures.

They will take place on Thursday, March 8, at Eyemouth Community Centre at 11am, Selkirk’s Victoria Halls at 1.30pm and Jedburgh’s Kenmore Hall at 4pm.