The Royal Bank of Scotland is facing claims that it used incorrect figures to justify a wave of branch closures, playing down the number of customers coming banking in person in rural areas.
RBS has been fiercely criticised since announcing the closure of 62 branches across Scotland, many of them in isolated towns and villages.
A cross-party campaign has secured a temporary reprieve for 10 of the branches, but RBS executives remain under pressure to reconsider, and the bank’s chief executive is likely to be called before MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Now it has emerged that the footfall at some of the affected branches could be dozens of times larger than claimed.
READ MORE: RBS announces stay of execution for 10 local branches
RBS said branches at Melrose and Beauly had an average of 53 and 27 customers per week, respectively.
The Sunday Mail sent reporters to watch how many customers arrived to carry out transactions in person, and found that 85 banked in the branch at Beauly and 151 at Melrose in a single day.
The figures were even higher when people using ATMs at the two branches were included. It suggests weekly footfall at the RBS outposts could run into four figures.
After announcing a £752 million profit for 2017 last week, campaigners and politicians have renewed calls for the bank to rethink the sweeping closures, which will remove the ‘last bank in town’ in 13 communities.
However, despite all parties calling for the bank to find a solution, the issue has become the focal point of a political row, with anger directed at the SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford by his opponents over claims that he jeopardised a deal to save branches by seeking his own agreement with RBS. Mr Blackford has denied doing anything to put a deal to save branches at risk.
Lesley Laird, the shadow Scottish Secretary, said: “We have continually asked RBS to justify its closure programme, and indeed to halt it in the light of its return to profit this week.
“Labour wants RBS chief executive Ross McEwan to appear before the Scottish Affairs Select Committee so we can quiz him on the closure rationale – and these figures today suggest that is even more imperative.
“A bank is the last place you expect to get its numbers wrong, but going on this evidence that might be the case.
“This whole closure process has been shrouded in secrecy – not helped by back-room deals done with SNP politicians – and it’s time the public who bailed out RBS when it was in crisis, and currently own more than 70 per cent of the company, get the answers they deserve.”
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader who introduced rules to try stop banks closing the last branch in town when he served as a minister, told the Sunday Mail that RBS’ customer figures were "grossly dishonest".
"It does sound very manipulative, doesn't it?” Mr Cable said. “It's as if they've made up their minds they were going to shut these branches and they are finding excuses even though your research directly contradicts it.
"It does suggest that they are being grossly dishonest or they are just very, very incompetent."
He added: "They most certainly should apologise and backtrack. I think they should publicly apologise for getting it so badly wrong and they must reel from the decision to close these branches.
"I have very strong sympathy with the people who are fighting to stop the closures. The savings are trivial. This is a question of being pound foolish, penny wise.
"I established the last-bank-in-town policy, which we were quite tough on when we were in government. I think since the Conservatives took over they've just let that go.
"I think it is actually a responsibility of the UK Government to enforce the last-bank-in-town policy and not just let it drift the way they have."
RBS stands to recoup just £8.7 million from selling off the affected branches. It has pledged to pass on its property to local community groups if possible where branch closures do go ahead in the 10 communities given a reprieve until the end of the year.
A spokeswoman for RBS said: "Royal Bank of Scotland has listened and engaged with customers, communities and elected representatives from all parties and will now keep 10 branches open until the end of 2018 and provide an additional support package for customers across Scotland. Beauly and Melrose are included in these branches.”