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Disabled customers suffer as bank branches close

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Written by: Emma Lunn
27/07/2021
Widespread bank branch closures and the shift to online banking make it increasingly difficult for disabled customers to access cash and everyday financial services, according to Which?

Research by the consumer champion found that four in 10 disabled consumers are suffering as accessibility of branches and ATMs, poor communication from banks and a lack of tailored assistance.

Which? says the widespread closure of bank branches across the UK appears to be significantly impacting disabled consumers. By the end of 2021, almost 4,300 UK branches will have closed since 2015, a 44% cut in the network.

Accessing bank services

Four in 10 (41%) disabled consumers in Which?’s survey said these closures had a negative impact on their ability to access bank services, rising to more than half (54%) of NatWest customers and nearly six in 10 (58%) Barclays customers.

In response to branch closures, banks generally point people towards digital banking. However, among disabled consumers who bank online, one in 10 (11%) told Which? they find it difficult to navigate their bank’s website. One in five (18%) people find it difficult to use their bank’s security measures, rising to one in three (30%) of those with memory difficulties.

The findings also highlight issues with telephone banking as a quarter of disabled consumers in Which?’s survey (36%) said they find it difficult speaking to their bank over the phone.

Even branches that remain open often lack comprehensive accessibility for disabled consumers, according to the research.

Separate Which? research into the accessibility of individual banks found that wheelchair access is particularly limited at Barclays branches. Only eight in 10 (85%) Barclays branches have wheelchair access, while deaf or hard of hearing customers can only access hearing loops at 94% of branches. For all other banks Which? looked at, it was at least 98%.

Disabled consumers also face problems when trying to access cash. Only 3% of Allied Irish Banks’ cash machines are audio-enabled, for example, and just three quarters (73%) of HSBC ATMs are accessible to wheelchair users.

Accessibility data

Which? also found that public data supplied by the nine largest UK banks, that should display how many branches and cash machines are accessible to disabled people, was unreliable. This means customers could get false information if they are searching for a suitable location through their bank’s app.

For instance, Lloyds told Which? that all branches have hearing loops, yet the data published through its ‘public application programming interfaces’ (APIs) states this figure as only 2%. Others, including Nationwide, NatWest and Santander, weren’t able to confirm full accessibility data at all.

While banks have a legal obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers, and should also anticipate disabled customers’ needs, one in seven (14%) respondents in Which?’s survey rated their banks as ‘poor’ at respecting their communication preferences.

Which? is concerned that access to banking services is being severely curtailed by the rapid rate of bank branch and ATM closures, and this is hitting the most vulnerable in society hardest.

The Financial Conduct Authority issued guidance asking banks to reconsider branch closures during lockdown, but after being on pause closures have now restarted at a rapid rate. Which? believes the regulator’s current guidance is not effective in protecting consumers who rely on these services.

Jenny Ross, Which? Money editor, said: “It’s very concerning that disabled customers are reporting such a wide range of issues with banking services. The rapid closure of bank branches has had a negative effect on many, and it seems some of the online systems people are being encouraged to use instead have been built with the needs of these consumers as an afterthought.

“This shows how a lack of oversight of changes to the banking system risks causing harm to consumers who would struggle without access to a local branch. The FCA’s current guidelines aren’t sufficient to protect them when a branch closes.

“As part of its legislation on cash access, the government must make the regulator responsible for ensuring that consumers aren’t cut off from essential services they depend on. Given the threat posed by the rapid shift to digital banking, it needs to do so at the earliest opportunity.”

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