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Barclays ducks Qatar questions, takes $1.6 billion mis-selling hit

A logo of Barclays bank is seen outside a branch in Altrincham, northern England April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Phil Noble
A logo of Barclays bank is seen outside a branch in Altrincham, northern England April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Phil Noble

By Steve Slater and Matt Scuffham

LONDON (Reuters) - Barclays bosses ducked questions on Tuesday over funding for its rescue by Qatar four years ago, as another big charge for mis-selling showed how past problems continue to dog the British bank.

UK authorities have been investigating the bank's fundraising from Qatar at the height of the 2008 financial crisis since July. The Financial Times reported last week that they were looking into whether Barclays had lent Qatar money to buy shares in the bank itself.

Asked if there was anything linked to the Qatar fundraising that could cause embarrassment in the future, Barclays Chairman David Walker told lawmakers that he could not comment due to the continuing investigation.

Walker and his chief executive Antony Jenkins faced a grilling during a sometimes tetchy 2-1/2 hour session before a parliamentary inquiry into banking standards. Lawmakers accused the bank of aiding "industrial scale tax avoidance" and said it needed to shake up its board, including getting a new head of its remuneration committee.

"It doesn't seem to matter what the scandal is, Barclays seems to have a finger in each pie, quite a big one," said Andrew Tyrie, the inquiry's chairman.

Barclays earlier set aside a further 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion), including an extra 600 million to compensate customers for payment protection insurance. PPI mis-selling alone has now cost UK banks over 12 billion and could end up more than double that, industry sources estimate.

Unlike Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds, which had to take government bailouts during the crisis, Barclays avoided a rescue funded by British taxpayers after Qatar bought its stake.

However, the wider banking industry has come under fire for a series of scandals including the mis-selling of financial products to clients who did not need or could not use them, and over the rigging of a major interest rate. This, along with public anger at big bonus payments, has put the spotlight on the culture of bankers before, during and since the crisis.

Walker and Jenkins said they were confident they can improve the Barclays culture by reforming pay structures and putting greater focus on ethics.

"We should shred some of those behaviors of the past, we should shred situations where we were too short-term focused or too aggressive. To the extent that those things were prevalent in our culture, we are shredding that legacy," Jenkins said.

He said bonus awards for last year would be cut due to the past problems, with the payment pools for business areas "substantially" adjusted to reflect events.

Jenkins announced last week he would not take a bonus for 2012, saying he should "bear an appropriate degree of accountability" for the difficult year the bank endured.

The UK banking inquiry was launched after Barclays was fined $450 million last June for rigging Libor interest rates, and it has also been hit by mis-selling in retail banking, the area that Jenkins used to run.

REVIVAL STUCK

Jenkins, who took over as CEO in August after his predecessor Bob Diamond was ousted over the Libor fine, has warned that his turnaround plan, to be unveiled on February 12, could take 5-10 years to fulfill.

Nigel Lawson, a former finance minister and member of the inquiry, said the lawmakers had been told privately that the bank's structured capital markets unit had been one of its most profitable areas - posting annual profits in the "high hundreds of millions" of pounds.

This unit, which sets up complex tax arrangements for wealthy individuals and companies, has attracted criticism from lawmakers. "This was industrial-scale tax avoidance," Lawson said, noting that its business was not illegal but was inconsistent with promises by the bank to be more ethical.

"We will be materially changing the way we run that business," Jenkins said. Walker said the scale of the business "is much smaller than suggested".

PPI has developed into the biggest mis-selling scandal for British banks, and Jenkins said he supported setting a time limit for customers to claim so that a line can be drawn under the payouts.

Barclays' latest provision, its fourth since UK banks lost a court case in May 2011, means it has set aside 2.6 billion pounds to settle claims on the product, which was loan insurance to protect borrowers who miss repayments due to illness or redundancy, but which was often sold to people who were not eligible to claim.

Barclays said it had paid out 1.6 billion in compensation by the end of December, or 62 percent of its provision.

Last month, the head of Britain's Financial Ombudsman Service said banks only had themselves to blame for the spiraling costs of the scandal, which she said could have been contained if they had addressed the issue earlier.

The bank also set aside 400 million pounds more to cover claims for mis-selling interest rate hedging products (IRHP), almost doubling its provision to 850 million and firing a warning shot that other banks face big bills too.

Britain's financial regulator said last week that a pilot study showed banks had mis-sold complex interest-rate hedging products to small businesses which did not need them or did not understand the risks involved, opening the door for billions of pounds in payouts.

"This (Barclays' provision) is by far the highest among UK banks and suggests further provisions by RBS, Lloyds and HSBC," said Shailesh Raikundlia, analyst at Espirito Santo.

Barclays said it had paid out only 36 million pounds on IRHP by the end of last year. It had about 5,000 IRHP products.

By 1420 GMT Barclays shares were up 0.8 percent, lagging a 1.5 percent rise by the European bank index.

(Additional reporting by Kate Holton and Sinead Cruise; Editing by Mark Potter and David Stamp)

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