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Anger over Abbey's pounds 5 bill charge

"BLOODY CHEEK, excuse my French," bristled Winifred Blake, every white hair on her head twitching with indignation.

The 82-year-old was echoing the reaction of most Abbey National customers who learnt yesterday that they were now being charged pounds 5 to pay their bills over the counter.

Mrs Blake had survived the war and widowhood. No bank was going to "con" her into paying pounds 5 to settle her bills. "It's disgusting. It's not as if we get that much interest on our money as it is," she said.

Abbey National, the first bank to introduce such a charge to its own customers, has been at pains to point out that bills can still be paid free by phone,, by post, direct debit or via cash machines (ATMs).

"I don't have a cheque-book dear, I would just keep on spending. I pay for everything in cash. I am an old fashioned girl," explained Mrs Blake. Nor would she pay over the phone. "Pensioners don't use the phone - our old brains don't function that quickly any more."

And her nose wrinkled with disdain at the prospect of paying bills via "that machine".

So Mrs Blake, surprisingly swift in her shiny white trainers, was last seen tearing down St John's Road in Clapham, south London, in search of a post office in which to pay her bills.

She was followed swiftly by Michael Acuta, a 43-year-old production manager. "I only wanted to pay a pounds 16 electricity bill. It's a complete cheek, a rip-off. I'm going to the Barclays round the corner," he said.

Yesterday, when told they would be charged a fee to pay their bills, customers at Abbey National's Clapham Junction branch greeted the revelation (and it was a revelation to the majority) by folding up their bills and walking out.

"Forget it," said Sharon Brown. The heavily pregnant 26-year-old had struggled through the heat and crowds to pay her bill. "The woman said I had to pay pounds 5 and I just shook my head. It's ridiculous, really disgusting. I am not at all happy."

Only photographer Robert Lawson could see some sense in it. The 29-year- old, who pays his bills by post, said: "It's not great but the queues in there are terrible. If it gets the queues down then it's better."

"Are customers unhappy?" said an Abbey National supervisor. "It is no different for us. We all have to pay the pounds 5 as well." So was she unhappy with the new charge? Of course not. "We have offered alternative ways to pay which are free."

Tim Harrison, spokesman for the bank, said customers had been informed by post and in person. "There are three reasons for this: one, to remove the more mundane transactions from the counter staff; two, to reduce queues; and three, to make customers aware of quicker, easier methods of payments." He admitted it would also save the bank money.

The bank has seen a decline in payments over the counter. There are now 1,000 direct debits for every bill paid at a branch. The bank, he said, had brought in the fee to encourage the remaining customers to move to more modern methods. "The fee is deliberately high to put people off paying in the branch. We have offered incentives before but it didn't work," he said.