I FOUND it hard to have much sympathy for the HSBC customers caught out by the bank’s latest online and mobile banking meltdown. “But it’s payday!” they complained. “I’ve got direct debits and standing orders going out!” they bleated.
Or, the worst-possible-case scenario: “It’s going to cost me money on my overdraft!”
Poor things. If they were self-employed like me and almost five million other people in the UK (according to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics), they might find that the luxury of “payday” is not one all of us enjoy. Unwarranted overdraft interest and bouncing council tax payments through no fault of my own? I could write a book, never mind an angry tweet to customer services.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy running my own very small business. I have 30 years of experience in journalism and I am lucky enough to work for a bunch of excellent editors, or ‘content commissioners’ as some of them are called these days.
I work from home, have no office politics to endure and I’m there for my children when they come home from school. I can’t think of many legal alternatives I could do which would earn me the same kind of modest salary. That’s if and when I get paid.
The concept of “payday” is an alien one to me, as it is to many of my entrepreneurial comrades. I know people attempting to run retail outlets who have had to shut up shop because clients and contacts simply refuse to meet their financial obligations. There is only so much credit to go round, and banks are less-inclined to be generous than ever. Sometimes ends just cannot be met. The result may be personal and financial catastrophe, but on it goes unchecked.
And yet the Government heralds the importance of the “small business” to British life, beating us up about personal debt at the same time of course. Is there not one individual on either the Government or Opposition benches who understands the very real plight many sole traders and business-owners find themselves in as they stagger from month to month?
As the furore about the proposal to increase National Insurance payments last year highlighted, there’s a nasty undertow to this. It goes along these lines: all five million of us who work for ourselves are somehow on the fiddle, claiming for school fees, fancy cars and expensive lunches on our company.
Anyone who has ever had any dealings with the self-employed branch of HMRC will realise the complete fallacy of such a belief.
The taxman might turn a blind eye to the likes of Google and Amazon writing off millions in income tax, but claim for one too many printer ink cartridges without a receipt and you’ll be off to the clink before you’ve had time to meet your deadline.
Some companies I work for, this newspaper included, pay on the dot, the same date every month. Some I have to threaten with the small claims court in order to obtain the paltry few hundred pounds they have owed me for months.
And these are often large organisations with proper accounts people, who presumably find their salary regularly dropping into their current account without fail. Unless they happened to bank with HSBC last week, or indeed Lloyds, NatWest, RBS or Halifax, which have also struggled with online glitches this year.
On more than one occasion, I have been moved to remind certain of these accounts people that if they found themselves with a mortgage to pay and direct debits for living expenses unmet because no funds were forthcoming, they would not like it one bit. At times, I have even cried in despair.
If, post-Brexit, this country is to become the thriving economy it promises it can be, fair treatment of small businesses must be made a priority. We are at the mercy of those who owe us money; too often payment is withheld for months due to onerous terms and conditions, or delayed to suit the ends of others, or not made at all. I’m not sure whether any legislation in the land could stop this from happening, but we certainly need more open discussion and debate. Surely, a fair and efficient flow of money benefits the economy across the board. And it promotes a stronger and more confident culture of entrepreneurship.
In due course, HSBC issued an apology and claimed that the problems were caused by upgrading a system or some such issue. Who knows what really happened? Customers just have to put up with poor service, or switch banks with no guarantee that something similar won’t happen again.
Perhaps all those who think we should depend entirely on financial technology in lieu of real live bank staff should be made to wait three months to get paid – they might then have a more enlightened outlook.