FINANCE Minister Pravin Gordhan has promised significant changes in the way banks deal with customers after a meeting banking heads on Monday.

He told the media in Pretoria yesterday that the talks would lead to lower costs for consumers and increased competition.

He said: "The banking sector has done well during the financial crisis as we've had an excellent regulatory system compared to those countries that were worst affected."

He said despite the recent Greek debt crisis threatening financial institutions, South Africa was "fairly sound", but that the finance ministry would be watching developments.

He said in light of this, it was time that competition and pricing in the banking industry be addressed.

"It is of critical importance to consumers that we promote better competition and cheaper access to banking services, and importantly transparency of banking fees," he said.

Present at the meeting on Monday were chief executives and chairpersons from Absa, Standard Bank, First National Bank, Nedbank, Investec, African Bank and Capitec.

Also present was the managing director of the Banking Association of SA, Cas Coovadia, one of the strongest defenders of the banks' regime.

Issues discussed included the impact of the global financial crisis on the SA economy, the decline in credit extension and transformation of the banking sector. The remuneration of bank executives was also raised.

According to Gordhan, the banks had agreed to implement 19 out of 28 recommendations made by the Banking Enquiry Panel of the Competition Commission, whose report was released in December 2008.

"Fees charged must be lower than they are, whether for low-income or high-income accounts. Debit order cancellations must be made easy for people. Banks should detail ATM charges and be transparent on how much is involved. If you wish to switch from one bank to another, all the factors that make this switching difficult, must be made easy, these are the key changes," Gordhan said.

He said that the remaining nine recommendations would continue to be discussed.

Coovadia said the meeting was a step in the right direction as it would make the system efficient and transparent.

He said that while a lot of banks have complied with many of the requirements, there were still outstanding issues and these would be implemented according to time lines consistent with the various banks' systems. - Additional reporting by I-Net Bridge