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Carers and Online Banking

Volume 539: debated on Thursday 2 February 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

These days, we seem to talk a lot about banks and banking, and for many in the House it is nice that there is a profession slightly less popular than ours. Since notice was given of this debate, I have had right hon. and hon. Members ask me what it was about, and when I explained it, many of them gave examples of similar problems raised with them by their constituents. I am glad, therefore, to have been able to secure this debate.

All Members on both sides of the House value, and know the value of, carers in this country. There are almost 6 million carers in the United Kingdom—a staggering one in 10 people—and according to Carers UK over the next 30 years their number will increase by 3.4 million. That is about a 60% increase. Some 1.25 million carers care for more than 50 hours a week. Indeed, carers are estimated to save the Government between £67 billion and £87 billion a year, and a 2011 report by the university of Leeds for Carers UK estimated that the economic value of the contribution made by carers in the UK is £119 billion per year. Bearing in mind our current deficit, those are staggering figures.

Before being elected, I worked in the hospice movement, and time and again I would see carers’ hard work and dedication. I remember one father saying that if he got up for his child eight times in a night, he would think that he had had a good night’s sleep. As MPs, we know the value of carers and the challenges that they face, whether from those who visit us in our surgeries or from the visits that we make to organisations representing them.

Being a carer is about long hours and hard work, and because they are often caring for loved ones, it is sometimes deeply emotional. They are an army of people whose dedication and compassion we should cherish. It is in that vein and spirit that I asked for this debate. In a decent country such as the UK we should do all that we can to help improve the lives of carers and make things as easy as possible for them. I am delighted, therefore, that the Government have committed an extra £400 million to supporting respite support for carers, and I looked forward to that money reaching the people who need it.

A few months ago, two constituents of mine, Mr and Mrs Dransfield, came to one of my surgeries. It was their story and the fact that their experience is not isolated that persuaded me to raise this issue today. Annie Dransfield is the full-time carer of her 32-year-old son, who suffers from cerebral palsy and mental health issues. Like carers up and down the country, she helps and supports her son to manage day-to-day activities that I, for one, am fortunate enough to be able to do unassisted. For her son it is different. Annie has to help around the house, sort papers out and deal with other household issues. She also has to take management of his finances. In February 2009, she applied to be her son’s deputy through the Court of Protection. This was duly approved, and as a consequence she was given access to her son’s bank account at the local Halifax branch. The arrangement helps her son to be financially independent, as the money that he is given is paid into his account and she merely ensures that it is managed correctly.

As we all lead increasingly busy lives, so our daily activities have had to change. As a consequence, many of the services offered by various institutions have maximised the use of new technology to help us. Online banking is a good example of that; indeed, it is something that I have come to rely on. So it was that Mrs Dransfield decided to use online banking for her son’s account. She has explained why it is so important:

“As a carer, the ability to access my son’s accounts online is invaluable. It means I don’t have to make the journey to his bank to give him his money each day and it also gives me peace of mind. If he loses his money, or does not realise how much he has spent and has nothing to get home with or buy food with, he can call me and in less than two minutes I can transfer some extra cash into his account so that he can get home safely or get something to eat”.

To give him some independence and responsibility, Mrs Dransfield’s son has a cash card account that she keeps topped up from his current account. That helps him with his daily routine, giving him the motivation to get up, go out and walk to get some cash.

That arrangement worked extremely well, until one day Mrs Dransfield tried to access her son’s account and found that she was blocked from doing so. The cash machine also retained his card when they tried to use it. Naturally, she contacted the bank, only to be told that it was illegal to have two online usernames, despite Mrs Dransfield’s having the authority to manage her son’s account. This started a long and time-consuming battle with her bank to have her access reinstated. The bank refused to back down. As a result, the case was referred to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which concluded that Annie was correct. In November, the FOS ordered the bank in its adjudication to reinstate her online access. The ombudsman found that the bank has obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” and that the fair outcome would be for the bank to restore her online banking in full. In addition, the ombudsman said that the bank should pay £300 for “unnecessary distress” and that the only thing preventing access was the bank’s policy and systems. I am sure that we would all agree that that was a sensible verdict.

Staggeringly, the bank ignored the Financial Ombudsman Service’s verdict. Feeling desperate, Annie found that her only option was to turn to the media. Thankfully, The Mail on Sunday took up the story. It was only then that the bank took action and permitted her access to the account again. However, what is shocking is that, as I understand it, that resolution is not being rolled out to other carers: the actions that the bank took to authorise a second log-in will not be replicated for other customers who desperately need the service.

Of course, I am highlighting what has gone wrong—I am aware there are great examples of things that banks do—but this issue is clearly causing a problem to many carers around the country. I therefore wonder whether the Government might be able to raise the issue with the banks, to ensure that they act responsibly and provide an accessible service to all customers. They should remember that those customers are accessing their own money, and it is their legal right to do so. The practice of not allowing such access is bordering on discrimination, in not recognising the Equality Act 2010, in accordance with the FOS ruling. Carers spend hundreds of pounds going through the legal process of gaining power of attorney, or similar authority. Therefore, it seems illogical that the same legal document permitting access to a person’s bank account does not allow access to the service online.

The case that I have raised is not just an isolated incident. Even though Annie has resolved the issue with her bank, she has been told that it was a special allowance for her. She has therefore not stopped campaigning for the facility to be rolled out to other carers in similar situations. I have spent the afternoon with her and her husband. They are a great couple and have fire in their belly when it comes to their campaign—that is a warning shot to the banks, but perhaps also to my hon. Friend the Minister. Annie is also a member of the Carers UK Leeds branch and a governor of the mental health trust, so to say that she knows what she is talking about would be an understatement. As such, she has heard of hundreds of similar cases around the country. Changes to the current practice would have a huge impact on carers and the people they care for. It would be wonderful if a bank took the lead in creating a better system for carers and customers, but I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue in the House today, in the hope that the Government can assist. Carers should not have to spend their valuable spare time, when they are not looking after the people they care for, going through a complex bureaucratic complaints procedure.

In conclusion, banks should make better provision for carers and take into consideration the needs of their customers. They should therefore ensure that arrangements are in place to assist customers with mental health issues, and that staff with specialist knowledge of these requirements are available to assist when necessary. There seem to be a lot of good words coming from the banks, but carers up and down the country are still facing many serious problems. I believe, unless the Minister can tell me otherwise, that what we need is a stronger code of practice to assist carers. It would also be most helpful if he would be willing to meet a delegation to discuss this matter. After all, time is precious for all of us these days, but it is particularly so for carers.

I should like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for securing a debate on this issue and for setting out so clearly the circumstances that carers face and the problems that might exist with the banking system. I am also grateful to him for setting out the difficulties that Mr and Mrs Dransfield have faced and telling us of their determination to address them. I sympathise with the difficult circumstances that can be faced by many carers, who make an increasingly important and valuable contribution to our society by supporting those who may be less able, for various reasons, to live an independent life.

The Government are committed to improving access to financial services, and in particular to bank accounts. It has been amply demonstrated that having a bank account is an essential aspect of modern life for any individual. My hon. Friend set out those circumstances clearly in the context of his constituents. It is clear that many individuals might need the assistance of a carer to help them manage their money, including people with a disability as well as the elderly.

I hope that it will be helpful if I briefly set out the regulations that apply in this area. Banks’ and building societies’ treatment of their customers is governed by the Financial Services Authority in its banking conduct of business sourcebook. The sourcebook includes a general requirement for firms to provide a prompt, efficient and fair service to all their customers. That includes older people, the disabled, and those who lack capacity to manage their account on their own. In addition, like all service providers, banks and building societies are bound, under the Equalities Act 2010—which my hon. Friend mentioned—to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people in the way they deliver their services. This may include allowing for a carer or deputy to act for the disabled person.

It is of course right that banks and building societies have put in place measures to protect their customers and themselves from fraud. They clearly need to satisfy themselves of their customers’ identity, both for commercial reasons and to meet their obligations under the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. Before a bank or building society can let someone manage the account of another person, it must have proof of the name and address of the account holder and of the person who will have legal responsibility for managing the account. It must also see evidence of that person’s authority to control the account holder’s money. When a carer has been given formal authority to manage another person’s finances through a power of attorney or court order, or by acting as a deputy, this can be proven through official documentation. However, when a person does not lack capacity to take decisions about their affairs but requires assistance to access their account, the situation can be more difficult. I accept that the case described by my hon. Friend falls into the former category.

It is worth noting that most banks offer their customers a range of channels through which to access their bank accounts, including by telephone or in a branch. It might well be that these channels are better suited to allowing access to a bank account via a deputy carer or other representative. I also note that the British Bankers Association has provided on its website information on banking for those with less capacity.

I nevertheless agree with my hon. Friend that older people, the disabled and their carers should be able to benefit from the convenience of an online service. With online banking, it is even more important that security measures are in place to prevent unauthorised persons from accessing consumers’ accounts. There is no opportunity for a member of the bank staff to verify the identity of a carer or representative acting on behalf of a customer. Customers have a duty to protect the security details they are given in order to minimise the risk of financial crime. This may preclude sharing their log-in details with their carer.

My hon. Friend set out the unique difficulty faced by those who need the assistance of a carer to access their bank account. As with the application of identity checks more generally, there is a balance to be struck between maximising security for customers and facilitating access for customers who need the help of a carer. The services offered by banks and building societies are evolving all the time, and I would urge the industry to ensure that account is taken of this issue in the development of online services.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey once again for bringing this issue to the attention of the House and the Government. I have taken note of his comments about the campaign on this issue. I am sure this is not the last we will hear of this matter either from my hon. Friend or, indeed, from others. I, for one—and the Government as a whole—would be interested to hear from individuals facing some of these difficulties and from banks and building societies about how, in the course of improving their services, they are approaching the issue of permitting access for those who require the assistance of a carer. Treasury officials will pick up in their discussions with current account providers the very points that my hon. Friend has made this evening.

I am sure that our hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who leads on these matters but is unavailable today, would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, Mr and Mrs Dransfield and others as the matter develops to look at proposals to address this concern. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that we will continue to monitor this issue in the context of improving access to banking more generally and in the context of the Government’s actions to support carers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He has set out clearly and very well the concerns of his constituents. I assure him that his words have been heard clearly by the Treasury, and I am sure that they will have been heard clearly by banks and building societies as well.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.