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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 April 2007, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Banks stop account discrimination
By Jennifer Clarke
BBC Radio 4's Money Box

A carer holds the hand of an elderly person
An EPA gives the legal right to act on behalf of a disabled person
Two banks have told the BBC they will no longer discriminate against disabled customers.

Birmingham Midshires and Icesave refused to open accounts for people whose affairs are legally managed by someone else.

They argued their systems could not accommodate such arrangements, even though it is illegal to exclude customers in this way.

Procedures will now be changed to ensure access for all.

Withholding goods or services from people as a result of their disability breaches the Disability Discrimination Act.

The legislation covers people who can no longer look after their own financial affairs but instead rely on a friend or relative who holds an Enduring Power of Attorney or EPA.

This is a legal document which allows the friend or relative - the attorney - to act on behalf of the disabled person.

Under the law banks cannot refuse to deal with an attorney.

But both Birmingham Midshires and Icesave claimed concerns about verifying customers' identities and the risk of fraud stopped them offering high-paying internet savings accounts to people with enduring powers of attorney.

Similar complaints

Sarfraz Khan, Disability Rights Commission
A lot depends on how constructive the banks are going to be
Sarfraz Khan, Disability Rights Commission
Sarfraz Khan is a senior legal officer at the Disability Rights Commission.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme, he rejected the banks' arguments.

"The Disability Discrimination Act is quite specific about when a service provider can justify less favourable treatment of a disabled person," he said.

"From the explanations that have been given I am far from persuaded that those defences can be made.

"And if they can't be made then the chances are that discrimination has occurred."

Mr Khan said the Disability Rights Commission is currently considering two similar complaints against Halifax and the Post Office and has the power to take companies to court if necessary to force them to uphold the law.

'Urgent steps'

Birmingham Midshires told Money Box it takes its commitment to the Disability Discrimination Act "very seriously".

In a written statement it promised to make sure that customers holding powers of attorney will be able to open its online savings account.

Icesave told the programme that it had no wish to "unintentionally discriminate" against customers, adding that the bank was "taking urgent steps... to develop a solution to accommodate EPAs, whilst maintaining the highest levels of online security".

Safraz Khan said the Disability Rights Commission would continue to work closely with the industry to ensure the situation improved.

"A lot depends on how constructive the banks are going to be in engaging with disability access issues and ensuring that disabled people aren't deprived of the same level of services that everybody expects," he said.

"We will use all means at our disposal to achieve that."

The British Bankers' Association told Money Box that the situation was improving and insisted that its members were very aware of their responsibilities in this area.

It advised any customer holding an EPA who is denied access to a particular account to complain to the bank in question.

BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday, 21 April 2007 at 1204 BST.

The programme was repeated on Sunday, 22 April 2007 at 2102 BST.



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