Banks keep direct debits in the shade: It is virtually impossible to pay off credit card bills in full using automatic methods. Sue Fieldman asks why

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The Independent Online
IF you want to pay off your credit card bill in full by direct debit - a fairly simple facility - the banks cannot or will not do it.

You can pay virtually all your household bills by direct debit through your bank. But when it comes to your credit card bill, the banks, which are the main credit card issuers, cannot offer the service on their own cards.

Cynics would say it is because direct debits make it all too easy to pay off the bill in full. The banks would not then earn the huge interest they get on unpaid balances.

An elderly reader from Dorset has a Girobank account and a Girobank Visa card. She always pays off her credit card bill in full, and wanted to make life as easy as possible by using a direct debit.

'Not possible' was Girobank's response. She could pay the minimum balance only by direct debit.

She telephoned Girobank Visa, the credit card part of the bank, and explained the problem. A helpful person replied that she should cross out the minimum balance requirement on the direct debit authority and replace it with a request for payment in full.

It sounded too good to be true. If it was that simple, then surely everyone could do it?

A Girobank spokesman had a string of reasons why the full payment facility was not available.

He said: 'Seventy-five per cent of customers prefer to have the flexibility of varying their credit card payment. The second reason is that if the total balance outstanding is very large there could be insufficient money in the account to cover it. And we believe we already offer a wider range of payment methods than everyone else.'

He concluded that 'none of the other card issuers offer the facility' and 'there is no demand for it'.

The reason why there is no demand is because the facility does not exist. If it was on offer, then the demand could be monitored.

The Girobank spokesman did say that our reader's request to pay in full would be honoured, but 'we would prefer that she used one of the approved methods'. He also added that if there was a significant demand for the service from customers, the bank would consider implementing it.

If you have a Barclaycard the situation is even worse. There is no direct debit facility at all for paying anything off your credit card bill.

Barclays has got as far as a pilot scheme. A spokesman said that the reason the service was not yet available was that: 'Some people do not understand direct debit and do not like anything connected with it. We do not want to upset anyone so we are testing out all the options.'

National Westminster Bank is another with no direct debit facility. A bank spokesman said there was no demand for the service, but said the issue was under review.

Midland Bank issues Visa and Access and the Midland Gold card. A full payment facility is not available by direct debit, although customers can pay the minimum balance.

Midland said the reason for the lack of the facility is 'purely administrative'. However, there is one rule for UK Midland customers and one for overseas. If you work or live abroad you can pay by direct debit in full.

The spokesman added: 'If our customers at home started screaming at us we would listen'.

Firstdirect, the telephone banking arm of Midland, offers no full payment facility, and said that if someone did alter the facility to read payment in full it was unlikely to be met. 'We would probably get back to the customer and explain what the situation was,' a spokesman said.

Lloyds Bank also has a minimum- payment-only direct debit facility for its credit cards. Apparently it does not have a computer system at the moment that could deal with full payment direct debits.

However, if you have a Lloyds Bank Gold card it seems the system can cope and you can pay in full by direct debit. A Lloyds spokesman said: 'It is purely a question of expense. The Gold Card has a bigger annual fee and we felt we ought to offer the service to customers'.

Lloyds Bank also says that the Gold Card 'is a credit card but you can usually use it as a charge card if you want to make arrangements to pay off the full balance every month'.

(Photograph omitted)

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