Something needs to be done about banks’ monopoly over the livelihood of older people

As a for-profit organisation, The Eldernet Group understands that making money doesn’t have to come at the expense of doing what’s right.

New Zealand banks have been increasingly taking a ‘profit over people’ approach to business as it slowlystrips away many of its core services. The closure of physical branches and removal of cheques is a particularly worrying trend for older people.

Across the country, councillors, community leaders, advocacy groups and support providers have been vocal in disavowing these moves, arguing that they unfairly impact vulnerable populations – particularly people who are not digitally savvy, who live in isolated communities or those for whom transport is an issue.   

The banking hubs and SmartATM’s that were rolled out in rural communities in 2020 – to provide support to those left behind by branch closures – were slammed by leaders and residents in those communities for not providing adequate service, with many describing them as ‘glorified ATM’s’.

In March 2021, Westpac – which provides banking services to an estimated 1.3 million kiwis – announced it is considering selling off its New Zealand operation, after turning over more than half a billion dollars in profit in the previous financial year.

Then earlier this month, National MP Andrew Bayly told a select committee that more than 1 million low-vision, elderly and “neuro-different” New Zealanders have been let down by the withdrawal of cheques and the closure of bank branches. And it’s not just the banks: government agencies such as Inland Revenue have also been implicated in making it harder for “vulnerable” people to manage their money matters.

Our own Eldernet community have shared their personal frustration and anger with us over the increasing loss of banking services too. One member told us they felt their mother was having her “basic human rights” taken away from her “slowly and insidiously”, as she can’t access internet banking, has no easy way to travel to physical branch without a driver’s license and can no longer pay people who help her with cheques. Another commented that “banks don’t care about old people.”

So, how many more people need to speak up before something is done to protect the livelihood of our older populations? In the 2016 Healthy Ageing Strategy, the Government states it is “committed to the goals of positive ageing, where older people age well and are healthy, connected, independent and respected.” Cutting core services to our most vulnerable populations is anything other than respectful: insulting, abusive and even dehumanising feel like much better descriptors.

Let’s not forget; the people that are now out in the cold are the same ones that have helped the banks turnover billions of dollars in profit during the previous decades.

The benefits of online banking, mobile apps and SmartATM’s in helping people manage their money is undeniable and for most kiwis they offer a decent service. For those who cannot access or embrace this type of technology, however, their options are incredibly limited. It is reprehensible that the banks hadn’t come up with tangible solutions before cutting off the supply chain; it is the equivalent of destroying a bridge without first building a road to provide an alternative route of travel.

This is certainly not the case globally. In 2018, Australia introduced the New Payments Platform (NPP), a collaborative effort between the country’s major banks to create an infrastructure that streamlines real-time payments and other banking features; for example, linking accounts to easy to remember information such as a phone number or email address. Importantly, NPP was announced in 2013 as part of Australia’s coordinated approach to considering alternative solutions that “match, or exceed, the attributes of cheques.”[i] After a public backlash in 2011 to the UK Government’s proposal to cease cheques – particularly from advocates of older people – the UK introduced ‘cheque imaging’ in 2017. This allows cheques to be cleared using a digital image rather than the physical paper, removing the need for cheques to be physically moved from bank to bank. In a report by ThinkPlace in 2017 (commissioned by Westpac), ‘cheque imaging’ is said to provide “more choice, but ‘nobody has to do anything differently if they don’t want to.’”[ii]

These may not be perfect alternatives to cheques but they certainly provide a blueprint for what could be happening here in New Zealand. If banks – including our very own state-owned Kiwibank – can so easily disregard the needs of vulnerable populations, what is the next core service they will lose? Access to supermarkets perhaps? It’s a scary thought.

[i] Exploring cheque use in New Zealand, ThinkPlace, Commissioned by the Westpac NZ Government Innovation Fund

[ii] Exploring cheque use in New Zealand, ThinkPlace, Commissioned by the Westpac NZ Government Innovation Fund

Photo credit: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

About Eleanor Bodger

Eleanor Bodger
Co-founder and visionary leader of Eldernet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *