Laura Shannon, Financial Mail on Sunday
Britain’s financial firms are routinely letting down vulnerable customers hit by serious illness and ensuing money problems. The offenders – an unholy alliance of banks, building societies, investment managers and insurers – are guilty of abandoning tens of thousands of their customers each year. These individuals and their families are desperate for leeway while dealing with illness – anything from cancer, a heart attack or stroke, to debilitating mental problems.
But they are being left to fend for themselves. Often, they are given no choice but to fall into mortgage arrears, putting the family home on a path to being repossessed. Credit card debts are left to swell and bank charges accumulate, with little help from lenders.
The issue is now so extreme it has prompted cancer charity Macmillan to step in and make its voice heard. It has written to the body representing Britain’s leading banks and financial services companies demanding change.
‘Grateful’: Steve Lister with wife Sue, left, and three daughters
MY WORLD WAS RIPPED APART BY CANCER DIAGNOSIS
Claiming on an insurance policy led to crucial surgery for Steve Lister, thanks to a free benefit he initially forgot came with the plan.
Last year, the 55-year-old mechanical engineer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The surgeon said he could not operate because it was too risky to remove the cancer.
But he conceded other medics might be willing to take on the challenge. Steve, who is married to Sue, 51, says: ‘My world was ripped apart at that point.’
But while claiming on an income protection policy – which replaces salary when someone is unable to work – his adviser reminded him he had access to a second medical opinion service.
This was through Square Health, a benefit afforded by his £48-a-month policy with British Friendly, which now pays Steve £1,000 a month.
Within days he was matched with a London-based specialist prepared to operate. To avoid waiting any longer he paid for the surgery privately.
He used savings, generous donations from family and friends, and contributions made via online fundraising organised by his three daughters, Colleen, 29, Stacey, 27, and Danielle, 24.
The surgery did not eliminate the cancer, but Steve says: ‘A lot of life-saving work was done as a result of being able to get a second opinion. I am extremely grateful.’
In an impassioned open letter to UK Finance, backed by more than 20,000 people, Macmillan urges immediate action. Senior cancer nurse Miranda Benney is calling for financial institutions to provide the same duty of care as she applies to her patients.
She writes: ‘It’s enough to cope with the psychological impact of the diagnosis and effects of treatment, without having to worry about money as well.’
Campaign: Miranda Benney
Macmillan is now calling for the Financial Conduct Authority to step in. It wants the City regulator to insist that financial companies are legally bound to provide a uniform duty of care to customers. If such a requirement were to be introduced, the charity argues it would give people with serious illness the confidence to seek help – without fear of financial reprisal from banks.
The charity’s research shows that just 11 per cent of people with cancer tell their bank about their diagnosis. Benney says a duty of care would ‘help relieve the pressure’.
Moira Fraser, director of policy at the charity, adds: ‘Support from financial service providers for vulnerable customers is inconsistent and hard to find. When it is available, it is often when people are already in financial difficulty – in mortgage arrears for example – and the damage has been done. A change in the law is crucial.’
The Mail on Sunday looks at what help is currently available. It is patchy with a few firms providing better support than most. But in nearly all cases leading institutions do not do enough to make people aware of the help that is available.
Macmillan already works with Nationwide Building Society and Lloyds Banking Group in creating specialist teams that deliver practical help to customers with cancer.
Assistance includes the cancellation of overdraft fees, payment holidays on debts such as the mortgage and penalty-free withdrawals from savings.
Nationwide’s ‘specialist support’ service – which also assists customers with life-limiting conditions such as heart disease or stroke – has helped more than 5,000 people since its launch in October 2015. Free services can form part of a protection insurance policy paying out in the event of death, injury or illness.
For example, Royal London policyholders who bought via a broker can use ‘Helping Hand’ – where a nurse offers practical advice to a policyholder or their family. British Friendly customers with health issues can draw on support from Square Health – for a second opinion from a medical professional, virtual GP consultations, physiotherapy and counselling.
Insurance giant AIG offers Best Doctors – another second opinion – to life insurance customers. Aviva too offers this to customers who bought a protection policy through a broker. Parents should also be aware that many critical illness policies – which pay out a lump sum on diagnosis of ‘dread diseases’ such as cancer, a heart attack or stroke – cover children for free.
Meanwhile, anyone claiming on an AIG life insurance policy can access vital support for grieving children or siblings via charity Winston’s Wish.
Aviva tags children’s counselling service Grief Encounter to its life insurance. Contact: Nationwide (0800 917 2393); Lloyds (0800 0150016); Halifax (0800 0282692).
Ask your insurer about any additional policy benefits. For help buying a policy, find a broker at biba.org.uk or call 0370 9501790.
Llloyds recently introduced ‘Easy Read’ bank statements. These make banking clearer for people with learning difficulties – using pictures and simpler words.
Yorkshire Building Society has fitted all its branches with ‘care kits’, including pen grips and magnifying glasses for customers with sight loss, arthritis or restricted mobility. Banks will generally provide paperwork in large text, audio or Braille for blind customers.
It is also possible to order adapted debit cards – which could feature raised dots indicating whether it is a debit or credit card, or an indentation to show which end should be slotted into a cash machine.
Appeal: Research by insurer LV= shows that half of fire and flood victims go on to experience mental health issues
Deaf customers can arrange for a British Sign Language expert to attend bank branch meetings.
Contact: Tell your bank if you need communication to be adapted to your needs. Your nearest talking cashpoint, or one accessible by wheelchair, can be found using a smartphone app from ATM network Link. It has advanced search functions and can read aloud what is shown on the mobile screen.
Disasters such as fires and floods do not just destroy property. They can harm mental well-being and undermine self confidence.
A good insurance policy funds the rebuilding of a home, but homeowners are left to cope with the emotional devastation alone.
Research by insurer LV= shows that half of fire and flood victims go on to experience mental health issues. It now offers members free access to confidential counselling and puts its staff through fire and flood scenarios so they can empathise with victims.
Meanwhile, budgeting company Squirrel helps impulse shoppers hold back money to pay essential bills and save. It has launched Money Lockup to help those prone to overspending in weak moments. Its app only lets people access their money via their phone at a predetermined location.
The idea is that by choosing a location they would not travel to unless they really needed to, they will be less tempted to spend. The service is free to use. Contact: lv.com/home-insurance/fire-and-flood and moneylockup.com.
Members of LV= with an eligible insurance product can appeal to its ‘Green Heart Foundation’ for a financial boost during a difficult life event. Find out more at lv.com/greenheartfoundation.
Pet insurance customers with Tesco Bank can use Vetfone for free advice about their animal’s health and diet.
It’s a 24/7 helpline provided by nurses qualified with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.