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‘Deceptive act’: NAB vows ‘consequences’ for staff shortcut

National Australia Bank has revealed new details about its problems with staff falsely witnessing key documents, telling an inquiry the issue had occurred 2000 times and there would be “consequences” for those involved.

Appearing before the government’s banking inquiry in Canberra on Friday, NAB chief executive Andrew Thorburn said 343 staff had come forward relating to the problem, which was revealed by BusinessDay in May.

The issue relates to the witnessing of declarations on forms that authorise who gets a client’s superannuation if they die.

It was NAB’s policy to have two witnesses, but in November last year the bank detected that some of these forms were being signed with only one witness present.

There were 275,000 such forms across the bank, Mr Thorburn said, and since earlier this year it had been reviewing its practices in this area.

Mr Thorburn said the bank would in the next month finish an investigation into the issue, which would lead to “consequences” for staff and managers involved.

Facing questions from several members of the inquiry, chaired by Liberal MP David Coleman, Mr Thorburn agreed it was “absolutely” a significant breach of the bank’s own policies, but not a breach of the law.

“We are taking this seriously because we’re doing a full investigation and it will be completed shortly, and there will be consequences for people,” Mr Thorburn said before the House of Representatives economics committee.

Mr Coleman put it to Mr Thorburn that the issue was a serious one that could not be presented as an accident by staff: “You can’t accidentally pretend to witness a document. That’s a deceptive act, and it happened 2000 times,” Mr Coleman said.

Mr Thorburn acknowledged the serious nature of the breaches, but added that customers had not been harmed by the issue, nor had bank staff stood to gain from the behaviour. He indicated the trustee would also honour the falsely witnessed forms.

It was in part a “convenience” issue for customers, he said, rather than a reflection of poor culture across the bank driven by an excessive focus on sales.

Mr Thorburn was also asked by Labor’s MP Matt Thistlethwaite why he didn’t reveal the issue when he appeared before the committee in March, to which he replied it would have been “risky” to speak publicly about an incomplete investigation.

Given NAB detected the issue last November, he was also asked why it did not report it to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission until May. Mr Thorburn said the bank needed a “complete picture” before going to the regulator.

Mr Thorburn, who appeared alongside chief operating officer Antony Cahill, was also quizzed about the bank’s move to hike interest rates on interest-only mortgages earlier this year, ATM cash deposit limits, foreign exchange costs and credit card interest rates.

Mr Cahill said that from next month, NAB was cutting how much it charged customers for foreign exchange transactions, saying the new system would be “significantly cheaper for customers and more transparent”.

He also reiterated the view of other senior bankers that the number of ATMs across Australia was likely to decline, amid talks among the banks about merging their machines into a “utility.”

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