Bank branch closures: older people face missed bills and overdrafts

Telephone banking confusion

The systematic destruction of the high street bank branch network is leaving older people - and those who do their banking in person - at risk of making financial mistakes that cost them dear. Research has found that when they move from banking at a branch to doing it over the phone, they're at a much higher risk of missing bill payments and going overdrawn.

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See also: One in ten people never use the internet: does it matter?

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The claims come from financial services company Momentum UK. They highlighted that with more than half of the UK's bank branches shutting in the last 28 years, those reliant on face-to-face interaction are at risk of financial difficulties when their local branch closes.

The problem is that rather than heading online, they will still want direct contact with a human being, so will turn to phone banking. This means they are far more likely to fall behind on bill payments and be in the dark about their finances.

Phone banking disasters

Its latest Financial Wellness Index, produced by researchers from the University of Bristol, found that while 3% of people who use a computer to bank had been unable to pay a bill at the final reminder in the last year, this figure rose to 15% for telephone bankers.

Similarly, while one in 20 who bank using an app reported 'often' or 'always' missing the minimum repayments on credit cards, loans and other credit agreements, this figure rose to one in five among those who bank by phone.

When respondents were asked whether they knew their current bank balance, one in ten telephone bankers had no idea, compared to just 1% of online bankers.

Dominic Baliszewski, Director of Consumer Strategy for Momentum UK, says he wants to see banks play their part in helping older and more vulnerable people get to grips with online banking. He says: "There needs to be a concerted effort from the government and from financial institutions to help people manage their finances digitally, be it through education, helping people get online or other third-party assistance."

It seems he's pushing on an open door when it comes to training, as banks have spotted the same need. Barclays, for example, has rolled out Digital Eagles, who are available in-person at 'tea and tech' sessions, to help older people get to grips with the basics of getting online.

Is this enough?

Yet despite these efforts, and work on digital inclusion from the government, there are huge numbers of older people who remain offline. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 10% of people have never used the internet - almost half of whom are aged 75 and over.

The question is whether simply teaching people to go online is enough. According to a study by Nominet Trust, older people are held back by a huge range of things, from the cost of the hardware and the digital infrastructure, to fears of the dangers of the internet, and lack of recognition of any perceived benefits.

Overcoming all these barriers needs to go further than training, and embrace funding for hardware and infrastructure - something the government may not be terribly excited about at the moment.

Perhaps the only answer is to continue offering face-to-face services for those people who don't have the money or inclination to go online - at least for a few decades, until we reach the point where even the oldest people in society have embraced the internet.

The demise of the bank branch network would seem to demonstrate this isn't going to be something the banks can offer, so who else will step into the breach?

Will we see services available at the post office? Will there be a rebirth of the mobile bank? Will libraries find a new banking niche? Will supermarkets start opening mini branches? Or could your local publican help you manage your money? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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