In Focus: Vulnerability  

Why banks have a duty of care

Maxine Pritchard

Maxine Pritchard

We will all be vulnerable at some point in our lives.

For me, it was when my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I saw first-hand the impact that illness can have on a family’s finances and the huge amount of administration you have to deal with after someone passes away.

The way an organisation interacts with you when you’re vulnerable is so important. And that’s where banks can really make a difference.

According to the FCA, half of UK adults display at least one characteristic of vulnerability. Covid-19 has created challenges for many and highlighted vulnerabilities they weren’t even aware of. That could be a mental health problem, an abusive relationship or the effects of a recent bereavement.

All these can have a huge impact on a person’s finances and banks must ensure they have the right support in place.

But what does that support look like? We have a duty of care to make sure our services are accessible and suitable to the vulnerable. There are basic elements which most banks have, for example, hearing loops in branch or account documents in braille.

But that’s just the minimum. With the majority of High Street banks boasting hundreds of branches across the UK, a global digital platform and thousands of customer facing staff, they have the power to do so much more.

For HSBC UK that has meant making our branches dementia friendly, introducing digital processes for registering power of attorney and bereavement, and training 40,000 employees on how to identify vulnerabilities, such as financial abuse, mental health problems and gambling addictions.

Recently we launched our first ‘Safe Space’ for domestic abuse victims at our Southampton branch so those in the local community could seek help and respite.

All this relies on awareness of what vulnerable customers need. That’s why we have formed partnerships with organisations that can provide specialist support outside of a person’s finances.

It’s through these partnerships that we have been able to launch landmark initiatives such as Survivor Bank and the No Fixed Address service.

Although aimed at different customers (Survivor Bank helps victims of trafficking and NFA supports people experiencing homelessness), both services work with charities to provide individuals with a basic bank account.

These people would usually have been turned away because they didn’t have the proof of address or ID required to open an account. Without a bank account it’s extremely difficult to claim benefits, get a job or rent accommodation, hence people are trapped in their current situation.

That just simply isn’t fair. Working with the Salvation Army we devised a process whereby survivors of trafficking could be referred to us by their caseworker and use their safehouse address as verification.