View from City Road: Nasty letters from the bank manager's computer

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The Independent Online
The automated letter is one of the curses of the modern financial world. Every day impersonal missives from banks, insurance companies, credit card firms, the Inland Revenue, BT or any one of a dozen other large organisations drop on the doormat with an unpleasant message about money.

The letters are the product of cost- cutting and efficiency drives that make the personal touch far too expensive. They demand this, threaten that, on the basis of formulae worked out at head office. In many cases, a human eye never glances at the text, since the letter is despatched by computer.

This week a coroner blamed Barclays for 'tipping the balance' in the suicide of Steven Langley, a financial adviser. Mr Langley received two letters - one from a Barclays computer saying he was behind on payment of a pounds 780 loan and another from his branch asking him to return his cheque book and card because the bank wanted him to close his account, which was pounds 72 overdrawn. Reading the two letters together, Mr Langley may well have assumed he had to repay the lot.

A financial adviser, a man paid to know about money, perhaps had deeper problems on his mind if that was enough to tip him into suicide. And, given that Barclays had earlier given financial counselling, it is harsh to blame Barclays staff for hounding him to death, as some newspapers have done.

But the bank is looking into why the two letters went out on the same day. It should also ask itself tough questions about letter-writing policy: there can be few people without stories to tell about unpleasant letters from large organisations. And the banks do not have a monopoly on insensitivity. Ask the Inland Revenue's customers.