Leading Article: The greedy banks must not exclude the poor

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The Independent Culture
BARCLAYS BANK would like to charge a pounds 1 fee to customers of other banks who use Barclays' automated teller machines to take cash out of their accounts. There is a Yiddish word for this sort of effrontery: chutzpah. First the banks take our money to swell their ability to make loans, then they charge us for access to it.

But, annoying as this is for bank customers, there is an even more serious issue at stake. Such charges provide yet another deterrent to what the Government's Social Exclusion Unit calls the "unbanked" to avail themselves of necessary financial services. As the cash economy begins to be overtaken by electronic shopping and other automated payment services, the one-in- ten households in which nobody has a bank or building society account become further disadvantaged.

There is something of a paradox here. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has been encouraging the banking sector of "rip-off Britain" to use modern technology in order to become more efficient. Very nice in theory, but the beneficiaries are the reasonably well off. Online banking is of little use to those who don't have access to a computer, and although closing redundant branches may improve the bottom line, it also takes banking services out of poorer neighbourhoods. The same Gordon Brown is one of the Government's leading proponents of interventionist solutions to tackle social exclusion. The consequence is that last week a Treasury Policy Action Team (PAT14) published a 76-page report, Access to Financial Services, to deal with those people who are left out of the new, streamlined, hi- tech world of financial wizardry. But, as so often with this Government, the diagnosis is stronger than the solutions.

The unbanked, the report points out, "are disadvantaged when it comes to settling their bills, handling cheques and getting access to credit". Additionally, they find themselves paying more for personal loans, and miss out on savings and insurance products they might find useful. But, what does PAT14 suggest doing? Providing better information about banking services. That and pressing banks to offer "basic accounts", which supply automated credit cards for paying bills and obtaining cash and offer no dangerous overdraft facilities.

Yesterday the banks decided to delay deciding on Barclays' pounds 1 charge until February. When they meet again, they should resolve to make banking no more expensive, for their long-suffering customers. And they must take meaningful steps to bring the unbanked in from the cold.