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More than half of disabled bank customers negatively impacted by widespread branch closures

Nick Cheek
Written By:
Nick Cheek

The ever-increasing number of bank branch closures have negatively impacted 52% of disabled bank customers, limiting their access to vital banking services, according to a survey from one consumer watchdog.

The Which? survey of over 2,700 bank customers with disabilities revealed that closures meant some faced major obstacles while trying to manage their money. This is despite the Equality Act 2010 requirement that banks remove barriers for their customers to ensure they are not excluded.

In 2022, major high street banks announced a total of 600 bank closures. Barclays, TSB, Lloyds and Halifax, NatWest, Nationwide, and Virgin Money have also slated 132 further branch closures this year.

This year, Barclays announced its one thousandth branch closure since 2015 while TSB has closed 420 in the same time period. Consistent closures have raised concerns that disabled customers will be further excluded.

The survey suggests that this is the case, despite the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) setting guidelines for financial firms to follow when dealing with vulnerable customers, which are part of the incoming Consumer Duty rules.

The best and worst banks

As part of the survey, banks’ services were ranked on how likely customers were to recommend to others and satisfaction levels.  Services included online banking, mobile banking, telephone banking, branch banking and communications preferences. 

First Direct achieved the highest score of 82%. Five stars were awarded to its online banking services. Their telephone services received the most positive comments. One customers with a condition affecting their vision said the telephone advisers were ‘helpful and friendly’ explaining that they were the ‘main reason’ for staying with First Direct.

Nationwide scored highest for branch banking and was the only firm to receive four stars. The building society posted a Customer Score of 75% and also received five stars for its online banking.

Halifax came third, receiving four stars for online and mobile banking services. Santander followed with five stars for online banking and Lloyds came fifth also achieving five stars for online banking. Lloyds received only two stars for communication preferences based on the extent it respected customers preferred communication method.

Barclays and TSB received the lowest overall scoring of 48% and 47% respectively. Their automated phone systems were ranked poorly.

‘Nothing short of abysmal’ was used to describe Barclay’s telephone service and others were critical of how TSB call handlers manage Relay UK calls (a text-to-voice service for people with hearing and speech difficulties).

Consumer Duty and concern for customers

In addition to branch closures, 10% mentioned wheelchair access, hearing loops and accessible debit card issues over the last year. Respondents also noted that measures put in place to replace services lost due to closures failed to satisfy their needs. Speaking with the bank over the phone is fairly or very difficult for 35% and 21% struggle with security features such as remembering passwords.

Two-fifths struggle with strong customer authentication and a sixth (17%) say that they would need more time. Poor mobile signal affected the ability of 14% to receive security codes.

At the end of July, the FCA will introduce new Customer Duty requiring firms to set up systems enabling customers to disclose needs should they wish to and identify signs of vulnerability.

Worryingly, smaller of challenger banks such as AIB (UK), Danske Bank, Revolut, Starling, The Co-operative Bank and Virgin Money have admitted to not testing the latest version of their apps with disabled people. Starling said vulnerable consumer research is in progress.

Sam Richardson, deputy editor of Which? Money, said: “Bank branch closures can have significant impacts on local communities and in particular those living with disabilities, who are among the most likely people in society to rely on both cash and in-person banking services.

“Which? believes that banks must consider the impact on disabled customers’ ability to access vital face-to-face banking services before they shut physical branches, as our research shows alternative services often aren’t up to scratch.

“With new Consumer Duty rules less than two months away, the regulator must not hesitate to take tough enforcement action against firms who fail to meet the required standards of customer care.”