Banks are failing to support their disabled customers as widespread branch closures and the shift to online banking make it increasingly difficult for them to access cash and vital everyday financial services, Which? research has found.
The consumer champion surveyed nearly 1,500 disabled banking customers about their experiences. Despite some banks being highly rated by customers, Which? identified issues with accessibility of branches and ATMs, poor communication from banks and a lack of tailored assistance.
Branches can be a lifeline for many disabled customers, but 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 per cent cut in the network.
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 ten (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.
A third (34%) of respondents told Which? they find it difficult to use bank branch services.
Separate Which? research into the accessibility of individual banks found that wheelchair access is particularly limited at Barclays branches. Only eight in ten (85%) Barclays branches have wheelchair access, while deaf or hard of hearing customers can only access hearing loops at 94 per cent of branches. For all other banks Which? looked at, it was at least 98 per cent.
In addition to the challenges posed by branch closures, disabled consumers also face problems when trying to access cash, which has already been squeezed as a result of extensive cuts to the ATM network in recent years.
Only 3 per cent of Allied Irish Banks’ cash machines are audio-enabled, for example, and just three quarters (73%) of HSBC ATMs are accessible to wheelchair users.
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, which risks customers getting 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 two per cent.
Others, including Nationwide, NatWest Group and Santander, weren’t able to confirm full accessibility data at all. The Competition and Markets Authority told Which? that suggestions of banks not meeting their open banking obligations to provide data on ATMs’ accessibility would be taken “very seriously”.
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.
Individual banks were also rated by their disabled customers in the Which? survey. First Direct came top of the ratings, with more than nine in ten (95%) of customers saying they’re fairly or very satisfied with their bank. Nationwide, in second place overall, was the top-rated provider with a branch network.
Despite being parent bank to First Direct, HSBC received the lowest level of satisfaction from customers (62%), followed by TSB (65%). TSB earned just two stars for both online and branch banking, with HSBC earning an average of three stars across the board.
As a result of its research, 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 returned at a rapid rate, and the rush to digital payments continues to go unchecked.
Which? believes the regulator’s current guidance is not effective in protecting consumers who rely on these services, as its purpose is not to change or interfere with a firm’s decision, or specify a particular alternative to be put in place, but is limited to ensuring firms assess the impact on customers, and how firms communicate closure decisions with customers.
The regulator has said that it will now be reviewing its guidance for banks on branch closures and how it can be strengthened to protect reasonable access to cash and banking services. Which? supports this move and believes the regulator must act quickly to deliver updated guidance.
A range of solutions, such as shared banking hubs, could help provide the answer to branch closures. But the government, as part of its legislation on cash access, must ensure that the FCA is given the tools it needs to protect consumers who depend on services provided by a branch and can continue to access them locally.
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.”
Notes to editors
Which? surveyed 1,494 Which? Connect panel members and panel members of the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers in May 2021.
Right of replies:
In response to the unreliable data published through individual banks’ API’s, Lloyds Banking Group said it was “looking into the case”. Barclays told Which? it has “different ways of defining services and reviewing the data”, Nationwide said it can only provide data on internal ATMs; NatWest Group said it would need an accessibility expert to assess its ATM data; and Santander told Which? it is reviewing its ATM infrastructure and will update the API on completion. A spokesperson for the CMA said: “We take suggestions of banks not meeting their open banking obligations to provide data on ATMs’ accessibility very seriously, and will coordinate with the Open Banking Implementation Entity (OBIE) about this.” In response to their rankings in Which?’s accessibility survey of individual banks: TSB said it continually works to improve support available to disabled customers and has recently partnered with the Digital Accessibility Centre to review its mobile app and website. HSBC UK said it strives to ensure its products and services are fully inclusive, accessible and flexible for all customers: ‘We are actively engaging with customers with disabilities to enhance our digital experiences as well as ensuring our branches are fully accessible.”
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