A new report from Consumer Focus – ‘Counter Measures’ – argues that all UK high street banks should allow their customers full access to personal bank accounts through the post office network, to meet consumer demand.
The new research suggests that if such a service was available and promoted, the number of people who could use their local post office to access their current account could increase very significantly from the almost four million people who currently do so. Consumer Focus estimates the possible potential is for up to 18 million customers to use the service.1
The service would allow customers to make cash withdrawals, deposit cash and cheques and access information on their account balance at the Post Office. This would offer more accessibility and convenience to customers, particularly in areas where local bank branches have closed or are some distance away, and could also give the post office network a valuable shot in the arm.
Around four million customers, from across the vast majority of high street banks, are estimated to already use the 11,800 strong post office network to use some current account services (please see notes for a full breakdown).2 However, currently all HSBC and most Santander3 customers, totalling one in five UK current account holders, remain unable to undertake any transactions over the post office counter. Of the leading banks who do offer services at the Post Office many don’t offer post office customers the full range of transactions, for example they may be able to withdraw money but not make a deposit or check their account balance.4
Andy Burrows, post office expert at Consumer Focus, said:
‘Our research shows there is real consumer appetite to do everyday banking over the post office counter. Four out of five people were unaware they could access their account through a post office with two-fifths of this group telling us they would consider doing so if they knew it was possible.
‘Thousands of UK communities have only one bank branch or even none at all, with more bank closures likely in the future. Better current account access at the Post Office would be a win-win situation – customers enjoy the convenience of more face-to-face counter access and the post office network benefits from greater footfall. This should help lead to a more sustainable future for the post office network which many people rely upon.’
Extending access at post offices would particularly benefit rural consumers who have been hit hard by bank branch closures. Around a third of bank and building society branches have closed in the last 15 years, with more than a fifth of the total (2,200 branches closing since the year 2000 .5 There are now more post offices in the UK than bank and building society branches combined6 and the post office network offers nine or ten times as many branches as some leading banks.
The consumer watchdog’s research 7 shows that half (51%) of those who currently access their current account at a post office found the post office easier to get to than their bank. Around a third (31%) said their bank had no local branch in the area with five per cent saying banks where they lived had closed.
The research reveals low levels of consumer awareness of banking access at the Post Office with only 18 per cent of people who can currently bank at their post office aware that they could do so. It is challenging for the Post Office to promote current account services when not all High Street banks are signed up and it can’t offer everyone the same service.
Consumer Focus is calling for five steps to improve access to banking services at the post office for consumers:
- HSBC and Santander should join other major banks and allow all of their customers access to current accounts at post offices8
- All banks should offer full current account transactions at post offices, in line with the good practice demonstrated by Halifax, Lloyds TSB, Co-operative Bank, Smile, former Alliance and Leicester, Cahoot, Clydesdale and Bank of Ireland. While it is welcome that major high street banks including Barclays, First Direct, Nationwide, Natwest and Royal Bank of Scotland offer some banking transactions through the Post Office, we would like to see them all offering cash withdrawal, cash and cheque deposit and balance enquiries
- Banks should agree to promote awareness of post office access through messages on statements, ATMs and online banking services
- Post Office Limited must improve the service it provides in its branches – queues and poor quality of service could be disincentives for consumers wishing to access their bank accounts at post offices
- To make this service workable it will also be important that Post Office Limited offers competitive commercial terms to banks for services provided to their customers
Notes to editors:
- Consumer Focus has made estimates of the potential for increase in customer numbers using this service, based on actual customer numbers and percentage responses from Consumer Focus’s research, please see page 26 of the report for details. Of the 18 million consumers who Consumer Focus estimates could potentially be likely to use post offices to access their current account, 3.9 million use it already, 10.8 million would be likely to use if they knew they could, and 3.4 million HSBC and Santander customers could want to use the service but currently cannot.
- Table: Access to current accounts operated by major UK banks.
- Santander customers include those who opened their account with Alliance and Leicester, Abbey, Bradford and Bingley or since the Santander brand was established as the single brand for all accounts. This affects their ability to access current accounts over the post office counter – previous Alliance and Leicester customers still retain account access at the post office while all other Santander customers do not have post office access.
- For example, Nationwide and Bank of Scotland do not allow deposits by cash or cheque; Barclays does not allow current account withdrawals in Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland is still reviewing whether to allow its current account customers to make deposits in addition to cash withdrawals and balance enquiries.
- According to the Campaign for Community Banking Services, almost 1,000 communities are now ‘banking deserts’ having lost the last bank branch in their area. In a further 1,050 communities, only one bank branch now remains. Bank branch density in the UK is the second lowest in Europe, with only 196 branches per million inhabitants, compared to the European average of 475.
- Santander, Barclays, HBOS, Northern Rock, Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest had 9,496 outlets in 2009. A British Bankers’ Association report states that 187 branches closed last year. There are currently 11,872 post offices across the country.
- Consumer Focus commissioned a UK-wide online survey, undertaken by YouGov, of 2,116 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken in the first quarter of 2011 and results were weighted to ensure the survey sample was representative. Results were also factored in whether Santander customers had opened their account with Alliance and Leicester, Abbey, Bradford and Bingley or since the Santander brand was established as the single brand for all accounts (previous Alliance and Leicester customers still retain post office account access and were surveyed on this basis – all other customers with a Santander-branded account do not have post office access).
- 49 per cent of Santander customers and 39 per cent of HSBC customers said they would like to be able to access their account at Post Offices. 67 per cent of these customers stated that post office access would make it easier for them to undertake bank transactions. Twelve per cent of these HSBC and Santander customers said they would always use a Post Office branch and 35 per cent would likely to use one on a regular basis – only 7 per cent said they would rarely or never use the post office to access their current account. Almost three quarters of HSBC and Santander customers said they would envisage using the post office at least once a month.