NatWest accused by disabled customer

A blind and partially deaf pensioner is threatening legal action for discrimination.
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A Blind and partially deaf pensioner is threatening to take NatWest Bank to court over an alleged breach of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). She says the bank has consistently offered her a lower level of service compared with that provided to non-disabled customers.

Patricia Parsons is 72 and lives in Bayswater, west London. She was told by the Spring Street, Paddington branch of NatWest that she should not come to the bank between 11am and 3pm - its busiest period - and that if she needed to come during that time, she should call in advance.

"I'm terribly angry and bitter," Miss Parsons says. "The last straw came when I was out one day and didn't have the chance to call. I needed some money and got into the bank queue at 2pm. A member of staff told me no one could see me until 3pm. But I had a hair appointment at 3pm." Miss Parsons walked out, and is currently in the process of switching accounts to Barclays, which she says has a far more enlightened policy.

Miss Parsons and her father have together given the bank 80 years of continuous custom. She says the Spring Street branch had told her she was too slow and that they did not have the staff to deal with her needs during peak periods.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) is backing Miss Parsons and may pursue a test case, aiming to prove that NatWest's service levels are unlawful. Alun Thomas, the RNIB's parliamentary officer, says: "If the DDA does not cover this case, it does not cover anything at all."

The Disability Discrimination Act came into force late last year and makes it illegal for banks, building societies and other service organisations to unfairly discriminate against the UK's 6.4 million disabled. Companies may not refuse service to disabled people, provide it on less favourable terms, or offer service of a worse standard simply because someone is disabled.

The act includes specific changes banks should make over time to aid the disabled - for example, using Braille - although disabled charities say that banks will be able to get out of many such requirements, particularly on the grounds of cost.

For example, if a bank can show that installing a Minicom system for the deaf is too expensive, it may decline to do so. It can also refuse to serve disabled people if other customers lose out or if health and safety laws are compromised - say, if wheelchairs block access.

A spokeswoman for NatWest says the bank would never knowingly contravene any legislation: "NatWest takes any customer complaints seriously and we are particularly concerned over Miss Parsons' recent visit to one of our branches." She adds that the bank aims to provide a wide range of services to blind and partially sighted customers, but "on this occasion, unfortunately, the staff were not able to attend to Miss Parsons as we would have liked."

In the meantime, disabled groups encourage and cajole banks and building societies to improve their services. With pounds 33bn of income earned by disabled individuals, campaigners have a powerful commercial argument to persuade them to change their ways.

Goldfish, the credit-card company partly owned by British Gas, has said it is looking at providing statements in Braille, following pressure from blind people. The Northern Rock building society has also been persuaded to publish its transfer document, and related material concerning the society's flotation, in Braille and on cassette.

Mr Thomas says financial institutions are, in general, quite good at providing statements in Braille, large print or tape form. They fall down more often with credit-card statements, letters and general bumpf.

Scope, formerly the Spastics Society, says that among financial institutions Barclays stands out for the work it has done to promote service for disabled people, with training courses for staff, ramps at half its branches and deaf aids at all branches by the end of the year.

Scope says one of the most pressing problems for the disabled has been discrimination from insurers in the form of inaccurate underwriting or plain refusal of cover. Under the DDA, insurers have to be able to justify their underwriting and premium decisions by virtue of statistics showing greater accident levels.

One notable recent victory for the disabled lobby was the last-minute passing of the Building Societies (Distributions) Bill. The new act allows the elderly and disabled who are second-named account holders to receive windfall shares. However, it only covers windfalls that are yet to be announced.

q Dido Sandler works for 'Financial Adviser', a specialist publication.

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