Disability: Banks and accessibility

The system of direct payments has highlighted how difficult it is for disabled people to open anduse a bank account. Now user pressure has led some banks to offer new facilities, says Mark Hunter

Last year Karen Morris* decided to make use of direct payments to help care for her 18-year-old son Kevin* who has cerebral palsy. There was just one problem. To use direct payments, Kevin would need a bank account. However, the local branch of the Halifax refused to allow him to set up an account without the appropriate proof of identity.

“But of course Kevin doesn’t have all the usual forms of identity. He didn’t have a passport, didn’t have a driving licence, none of the bills were in his name,” says Morris. “He’s also unable to sign documents, so it looked like we were stuck.” Another problem was that Kevin could not even physically enter the bank, which was inaccessible to wheelchairs.

In the end, after much negotiation and obtaining a passport that Kevin didn’t need, Morris could open the account.

“But it took a long time and I had to put in £100 of my own money first. Not everybody would have had that,” she says.

Leanne Owens, a wheelchair user from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, has also found it difficult to find an accessible local bank and cash machine. “Over the past three years I have changed banks three times,” she says. “My first bank had two massive steps to get inside, so I had to conduct my banking on the pavement, which was more than a little awkward. I changed banks, but on my first visit my wheelchair jammed and I took off half the wall and a leaflet display rack as I was leaving. I was so embarrassed.

“I’ve now found a bank where I can move freely inside, and it has a ramp. However, it shouldn’t be so difficult for disabled people to find a bank that meets their needs.”

In Hertfordshire, problems encountered by disabled people in accessing financial services persuaded the social services department to set up a meeting last year between social service users and health secretary Patricia Hewitt.

After the meeting Hewitt sent a letter to the British Banking Association (BBA) highlighting her concerns. These included:

* Problems of proof of identity, such as those experienced by Karen and Kevin.

* Lack of facilities for customers who are unable to sign cheques.

* Some banks using money from “direct payment accounts” to pay off overdrafts or charges incurred through the user’s personal account. This was of particular concern to Hewitt who pointed out that “a direct payment account is not money that belongs to the individual it is public money to be spent on the person’s care needs”.

* The difficulty for people without a regular income to open anything other than a “basic bank account” that forbids use of a cheque book or overdraft facilities.

BBA chief executive Ian Mullen responded by pointing out that most banks do already have policies to address the issues raised in Hewitt’s letter.

“All banks take seriously their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and keep the services provided to their disabled customers constantly under review,” says BBA spokesperson Brian Capon. “For instance the basic bank account initiative has resulted in the opening of more than two million accounts that are accessible through post offices. This has brought access to banking services to many people who were previously unbanked.”

Capon points out that recent amendments to money laundering guidelines allow banks to be more flexible with customers unable to produce standard documents. “In most cases, a letter from the Benefits Agency confirming entitlement to benefit and confirmation of identity from a social services manager should be sufficient when opening a basic bank account.”

Most banks will also allow customers who cannot sign cheques to use alternatives such as a rubber stamp, he says. Capon acknowledges that funds should not be taken from direct payment accounts to settle debts elsewhere. But he adds: “It is not always clear that an account is to be used solely for handling direct payments.”

Andy Rickell, an executive director at disability charity Scope, says that although most banks have made efforts at a central level to improve their service to disabled customers, the message has sometimes eluded local bank managers and staff.

“There are disability equality training gaps and instances where common sense is often superseded by red tape,” he says. “Scope would like to see banks publish guidelines for staff and disabled customers on setting up personal and direct payment accounts, which clarify other forms of identification to a driving licence or passport. These guidelines should also include examples of adjustments that banks can make for disabled customers who may not be able to sign their name, use a cashpoint machine or use the chip and PIN system.”

The difficulties many disabled people have in using chip and PIN are highlighted in a report published this month by disability charity Leonard Cheshire.(1) In a survey of more than 1,000 disabled people, more than half said they had difficulty using chip and PIN machines. Problems included difficulty in reaching the keypad, screens that are too small or poorly lit and a feeling of vulnerability when keying in the number. The charity also audited 200 cash machines. Some 57 per cent were inaccessible to someone using a wheelchair.

Lee Webster, the report’s author and a campaigns co-ordinator at the charity, says banks and financial services providers have a legal and moral obligation to improve their facilities for disabled customers.

“Shopping is an everyday part of life for most Britons,” Webster says. “There are 200 million cash machine transactions a month and 160 chip and PIN purchases a second. Yet disabled people are facing unfair and unnecessary barriers when it comes to accessing and spending their own money.”

Indeed, it is estimated that the 10 million disabled people in the UK have a combined spending power of £80bn a year. This surely presents a massive incentive for the financial services industry to provide a better service. Hertfordshire social services chiefs are pleased that the concerns of service users have been taken up so swiftly by the health secretary. The DH, in turn, has professed itself “encouraged” by the response of the BBA. But whether or not the correspondence results in a tangible improvement for disabled customers will depend on the well-meaning policies formulated in the banks’ head offices finally filtering through to their counter staff.

* Names have been changed

(1) L Webster, Spending Power? Leonard Cheshire, 2007

Counter points

At Barclays Bank there is a dedicated disability issues unit to help improve the company’s service to disabled customers and staff.

Recent developments include:

* Easy-to-use cash machines – all new cash machines will have easy-to-read screens and funnelled entry for cards. The keypads have Braille as well as standard text labels and large, bold numbers on raised keys.

* Improved access – wheelchair access, lifts to upper floors and car parking has been improved at several branches. Inside the branch, low-level tills have been installed, cash machines placed at a height to suit wheelchair users, clipboards and jumbo pens provided to make it easier to sign documents.

* Hearing aid users – all branches have induction loops fitted at the counter. Portable induction loops are also provided for discussions away from the counter or in an interview room.

* Signature alternatives – Barclays provides facsimile stamps for customers who find it difficult to provide a consistent signature. The stamp comes with a letter for retailers to confirm that they are a genuine customer.

* Brighter Future community partnerships – launched last year in partnership with charity Leonard Cheshire, Barclays has committed to support 600 disabled people to start their own business (www.readytostart.org.uk).

This article appeared in the 15 February issue under the headline “Credit where it’s due”

This weeks other feature articles

PRTL (post registration training and learning): How are agency and part-time social workers coping?

Welfare Reform Bill: dangers of reform to incapacity benefit rules. By Neil Bateman

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