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Banks queueing up for your call

Dido Sandler finds out what is persuading many to turn to banking by telephone
JANE STEADMAN doesn't like making mistakes or being on the receiving end of them. A freelance fashion designer, she offers style, accuracy and reliability and expects the same in return.

Ms Steadman, who specialises in knitwear, also looks for these qualities in her bank. When Midland Bank made one error too many on her account four years ago, she switched to First Direct, its independent telephone banking arm.

Since then she has been delighted: ``They are more friendly and helpful than my old bank. They answer the phone quickly, and the operators have enough responsibility to give you an answer immediately. You don't have to wait while they ask someone else.''

In recent years, about 8 per cent of people have chosen, to open telephone bank accounts. By the end of the decade, it is estimated that 25 per cent of banking will be telephone-based. Banks are pitching in to launch new services.

Last week, J Rothschild Assurance, a life insurance company, announced its own link-up with Citibank. A few months ago, Alliance & Leicester, one of Britain's largest building societies, launched a telephone-based current account.

There are two types of facility available. So-called "discrete" banking operations are available from First Direct and Bank of Scotland's Banking Direct. This is where the full range of banking services - including sharedealing and mortgages in the case of First Direct - are available from one source, by phone.

The others are integrated with regular current accounts. They have over- the-counter as well as telephone banking. Most phone facilities offer 24-hour banking, virtually every day of the year.

Simple transactions such as checking balances, setting up direct debits, or paying bills, are dealt with over the phone.

Telephone banking services target the more affluent, with First Direct and Banking Direct aimed at better-educated adults. NatWest Primeline requires a minimum salary of £18,000, and J Rothschild one of £25,000.

When choosing a telephone bank account, it pays to shop around. A 9 per cent overdraft rate is available from Alliance & Leicester, with similar charges at First Direct.

Check call costs: some banks offer free calls, others charge a local rate. Check the number of cash machines and the availability of ordering services for foreign currency. NatWest Actionline and the Nationwide Home Banking Service have a computerised system with voice or touch-tone responses - a system that is limited to more straightforward transactions.

Security is tight. Before access to banking services is permitted, PIN numbers, passwords and personal questions are used to establish identity. Alliance & Leicester checks suspicious movements on accounts.

Changing accounts is usually easy. With the Co-operative Bank, for instance, one needs only to complete an application form for an employer to be advised of the new account. The Co-op will then take care of transferring direct debits and standing orders.

What's at the end of the line

Bank/BS Services

Alliance & Leicester

0645 111111 ABCDEFGHI

Alliance & Leicester Giro

0645 365365 ABCDEFGHI

Barclays Bank Barclaycard

0800 222800 ABCDEFGHI

Bank of Scotland Phoneline

0345 801801 ABCDE*FGHI

Bank of Scotland Banking Direct

0800 805805 ABCDE*FGHI

Bank of Scotland HOBS

0131 442 7700 - 0171 601 6777 ABDE*FG

Britannia BS Careline

0345 616616 ABCDGH

Clydesdale Telebank

041 223 4553 ABDEF

Clydesdale Telebank Telephone

041 223 5550 AEF

Co-operative Armchair Banking

0345 212212 ABCDEFGHI

First Direct

0800 222000 ABCDEFGHI

Halifax Homebanking

0422 316316 AE*F

Lloyds Bank (Pilot programme)

Lloyds Line 0345 179179 ABCDEFGHI

National & Provincial Max

0282 831777 AEF

NatWest Actionline

071 782 9696 ABE*FG

NatWest Primeline**

0345 555000 ABCDE*FGHI

Nationwide Home Banking

0793 456888 AE*

Northern Rock Homebanking

Local branch A

Royal Bank of Scotland

Direct Banking 0345 222345 ABCDEFGHI

Fleming/Save & Prosper

0800 282101 ABCEFHI

TSB Phone Bank

0500 758758 ABCDEFGHI

A Check cleared balance, order statement

B Order cheque book, paying-in book

C Order replacement PIN for a card

D Notify change of address

E Pay bills

F Transfer funds between accounts

G Change standing orders, direct debits

H Stop cheque

I Cancel and replace stolen card

(* On written instructions **Open to those earning £18,000+pa)