Since 2015, consumer group Which! has calculated that up to 2,100 physical bank branches around the country have either been closed or have been lined up to be closed. To justify those closures, banks argue that most people do their banking online, and say that “fewer people visit branches and do fewer transactions when they’re there.”
It is true that online and other forms of banking have become more popular and allow people access to their banking services without actually going to a branch. However, an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability, which I chair, has revealed that the closures of physical bank branches are having a devastating and disproportionate effect on disabled people, for whom the alternate services are found to be both inaccessible and inadequate.
Disabled people are much more likely to use physical bank branches than non-disabled people: 90 per cent of those surveyed reported that their use of bank services had already suffered due to the branch closures. By far the biggest detriment reported was a need for increased travel. Some said that they now have to travel up to three hours to reach an accessible branch. Others reported now having to be much more reliant on others, and losing a sense of their independence: “My wife has to find time off work to take me [to the bank].” Those problems are only going to increase as branch closures continue to roll out. RBS and NatWest are to close 432 branches around the UK in this year alone, as the move towards technology-based banking is progressed.
According to the Disability APPG’s inquiry report, however, online banking is not an adequate replacement for physical bank branches for significant numbers of disabled people. Ninety-three per cent of respondees felt that online banking services are not a “sufficiently accessible and a satisfactory alternative.” Many elderly disabled people, for example, lack the internet connection or computer skills, and now face a much longer journey to a physical bank branch instead. For others, with visual, cognitive and memory impairments, and learning disabilities, the complexity of online banking and the need to remember passwords and “memorable information” make it overwhelming and difficult to navigate. While more and more services are being made available online, such as lending services, core functionality like paying in cash still requires an actual branch.
Others simply felt more comfortable and secure banking in branches, rather than over the internet, noting that the personal touch of face-to-face interaction is an important part of the banking process. Perhaps for that reason, some banks have also started to offer mobile bank replacement services – vans that travel around local areas providing a temporary replacement for areas without a permanent branch. According to the inquiry, however, only 12 per cent of survey respondents who had experience with the mobile replacements found them to be an appropriate replacement. Firstly, the vans used for that mobile service were frequently described as inaccessible, having large stairs that require individuals to climb into. Secondly, many respondees reported that the services offered by those mobile replacements are “extremely limited”, and that the vans did not stay long enough in each place. Due to long travel times and inconsistent pubic transport in reaching those replacement services, a 1-hour stint in each location was not considered enough to give people a chance to do what they needed to do.
Most strikingly, however, many respondents – who had been affected by bank closures – had no experience with those replacements at all. One respondee said that, after the closure of their local branch, they had simply “never been given an alternative”. All in all, the results of the inquiry indicate that the closure of physical bank branches is having a detrimental effect on the lives of disabled people, and, more importantly, that disabled people and their needs are being overlooked by the banking industry. For many disabled people, anything other than face-to-face banking is an impracticable and stressful experience, and the only real solution is to retain physical bank branches or provide accessible, well-located alternatives with the full range of services.
The failure to account for disabled people is not only a disservice to valuable customers, but might also breach the law. The Equality Act 2010 requires public bodies not to put disabled people at a “significant disadvantage” if they can avoid this by taking “reasonable” steps. The closures, for many respondees, cause extensive difficulties and have left them isolated and dependent, unable to access vital services which are important to everybody, and the alternatives provided are clearly insufficient for most.