Giving access and power to bank customers

Banks are in the process of closing hundreds more branches and blaming the pandemic for their decisions. HSBC is to close 69 more after 82 last year, but it says that they will all have a Post Office within 1.5 miles.

TSB is in the process of closing 70, Lloyds 48 NatWest and Virgin Money many more.

The loss of branches is damaging for people who rely on cash to keep within their tight budgets and for small businesses with takings to bank or business to discuss. And we still have more than a million adults who do not have bank accounts – often because they have been turned down when they applied.

But there is an even more serious need to keep branches open. The Lasting Power of Attorney system, which allows friends and relatives to look after the finances of someone who no longer has the capacity to do so, relies heavily on paper documents and access to bank and building society staff.

The Office of the Public Guardian runs the LPA system. When the legal document is registered with the OPG the attorney looking after someone else’s affairs needs to get the document copied and certified by a solicitor, notary or the donor (original owner). This requires the copying of a form of words on each page of the document, which may run to 10 pages, and for it to be signed and dated on each page.

Then the attorney has to get all the financial institutions to accept their role looking after the finances. Unfortunately too many sent through the post do not reach the right person and get the LPA in place. They get lost and when found can be regarded as out-of-date so the bank asks for a new one.

Then there are the banks that refuse to let an attorney have access to bank statements, a debit card or credit card. Telephoning to try to get it sorted out no longer works. Every phone call I make to a bank starts with a recording telling me that they are receiving an exceptional number of calls and that I am at the end of a very long queue. When I rang the OPG I was told I was 54th in the queue and 10 minutes later was still 51st. And then when the bank closes for the day your “important” call can be cut off.

If you are waiting in a bank for service it is unlikely that you will be pushed out of the door. And in an ideal world every branch should have a LPA expert who can help customers.

The Ministry of Justice has set in motion a consultation on how the LPA system can be improved. Financial institutions have a big part to play. There are currently six million attorneys looking after the financial and health and welfare needs of others. With an ageing population and long Covid demand will increase.

The easy bit is filling in the form either alone or with the help of a solicitor, who will check that the donor understands the process and talk through why they are choosing someone to be their attorney and how you want them to operate. But once they are in the hands of the banks, building societies, fund managers, insurance companies, local authorities, HMRC, landlords, credit card companies and anyone else who has a financial relationship with the donor they can find themselves stranded.