Taking in an Iranian refugee was a simple process for Simon Neville. Opening an account for him was anything but
I have never considered myself a particularly selfless person. I regularly tell beggars I have no change, I can’t remember the last time I bought a Big Issue and I have taken to telling charity collectors I’m running late for imaginary appointments.
Yet when Donald Trump announced plans in January to ban people from seven countries — including Iran, Syria and Iraq — from travelling to America, my wife, Rachael, and I decided we should offer the spare room in our London home to a refugee. It felt good to be doing something to help.
The process seemed fairly painless. We got in touch with Refugees at Home, a UK-based charity that liaises with the Refugee Council and other organisations as a broker for households willing to offer a room.
Someone from the charity came to check us out.
We were told our family of four (plus cat, Cleopatra) in Brixton, south London, would be suitable.
A week or so later, the charity informed us that a young man fleeing Iran would, if we were happy, come to live with us. The 22-year-old had been in a hostel in Rotherham for a few months while awaiting a final decision on his asylum status. After a five-hour interview at the Home Office and lots of background checks, he had been granted permission to live and work in the UK.
He moved in with us two weeks ago and, with his limited English, set about signing up for benefits and, most importantly, trying to join the working world. He wants to become a dentist and needs a bank account to get a job. (At this point I should point out he still has family in Iran and revealing his identity publicly could put them at risk — which is why I will not name him in this article and why you cannot identify him from the photograph.)
And here is where the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the UK banking system reared its ugly, uninterested and uninformed head.
It does not surprise me that the House of Lords financial exclusion committee published a report last month highlighting the paradox of Britain being “a leader in the fields of financial services, technology and innovation” yet apparently unable to help many of the most vulnerable people in the country open a bank account. The committee referred to the “scandal of the poorest being excluded from even basic financial services and forced to rely on expensive and sub-standard products”.
We were told that, in order to start receiving benefits, our house guest had to get a bank account — not a prepaid debit card but a full-on bank account. So 10 days ago he and I set off to open a bank account. It turned into a seven-hour saga.
During that time, we visited six banks, made an abortive attempt to register at the local GP and spoke to the Home Office and HM Revenue & Customs. It was a truly extraordinary, jaw-dropping day.
We had all the documents…
I tried doing some basic research before we set off, but typing “refugee bank accounts” into a search engine turns up surprisingly little information (beyond the odd article reporting that dozens of refugees end up penniless and on the streets because of an obstructive banking system). Naively, I thought a biometric residence permit issued by the Home Office, a Home Office letter with his picture and details, four NHS letters with his name on them and a jobcentre letter with his national insurance number would be enough to prove his identity. I also took along a council tax bill with my address on it, along with my driving licence; I assumed this would be enough to verify where and with whom he was living. I imagined that now we could get started with the bank account.
How wrong I was.
…but the banks were not interested
Starting off at Barclays, I had high hopes. At 9.30am it was nice and quiet in the branch and I thought that if I explained the situation calmly but firmly — offering to write a letter, vouch for our guest and leave a vial of blood — that would suffice.
“Do you have proof of address for him?” we were asked by a member of staff — a refrain that would be repeated ad nauseam on our quest. We didn’t, I explained, but showed our array of other documents — to no avail.
We spoke to a manager, who reiterated that proof of address would be required. When I suggested I could draw up a tenancy agreement, I was told: “We don’t accept a private tenancy agreement as proof of address but other banks might be able to help in this kind of situation.”
Which ones? I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. You must have had a lot of other people in similar situations, I persisted. “Yes” And you turn them all away?
He didn’t like that.
HSBC — which I began banking with as a teenager because of the free young persons Railcard it offered — took things to another level of farce, telling us a passport was required to open an account. “It’s our policy,” we were told. Prepared for this, I whipped out an article from Citizens Advice saying the biometric residence permit is “a legal and valid form of identification, no matter what they tell you. If they don’t accept it, print this page out and take it along to the bank.”
That didn’t work. Our Iranian guest should have thought to bring his passport while he was fleeing the country, apparently, or he should apply for a refugee travel document — a wait of about four months, with no money. We left.
On it went. NatWest accepted the biometric card but said we needed a letter from HMRC with his new address on it. No exceptions.
Santander first told us we would need an appointment to open an account, and that would take two weeks, before adding: “Oh, and you need to have been in the UK at least six months and speak English.” That’s right: the Spanish-owned bank Santander apparently wants all its customers to be able to speak English. At that point, the refugee turned to me and said: “They all keep giving us different advice. In Iran we would just pay a bribe and it would be sorted.” Maybe there’s something to be said for a kleptocracy.
Only Nationwide seemed willing to make some effort to try to help us and, three hours into our mission, to offer us a seat. It is interesting to note, by the way, that it was the first building society we had visited. The branch manager was summoned because the adviser, using some common sense, had realised this wasn’t an average case.
Yet even then the helpful manager required proof of address. He suggested phoning the Home Office to ask for a letter with the new address on and let us make the call from his office. The government department’s call centre said we could expect a call in three to five days to discuss the matter — a dead end for now.
Meanwhile, I was posting regular updates about the morning’s events on Twitter, and was receiving a wave of advice and recommendations on where to try. Barclays and NatWest’s Twitter accounts also tried to help, perhaps sensing the negative PR they would get, and the former told me to go back to the branch and they would sort it all out.
Back at Barclays, the new manager we spoke to could not have been more co- operative, although I couldn’t help feeling this was all because they now knew I was a journalist tweeting the world what problems we were experiencing.
This time, he did at least take copies of all the documents and sent them off to a specialist department that deals with tough cases (something not offered to us the first time round). He took my phone number and promised me an update.
While all this was going on, however, the Home Office rang to say it could not help out with a letter for Nationwide because, basically, it had done its job and was not responsible for the banks and building societies.
I pointed out that it is part of the same government that sets the rules — but that was met with indifference.
The Home Office adviser suggested Nationwide send it a letter and it could then write back. I asked what advice I could give to a refugee trying to open an account but was met with apathy. “Computer says no,” as Carol Beer, the Little Britain character, might have observed.
In what felt like a final roll of the dice, we went back to Nationwide and I told the manager he could write to the Home Office. He looked incredulous: “Who should I write to?” I didn’t know, and he was right — it was beyond ridiculous.
Tired, frustrated and hungry, we stumbled home. I had given up.
An account at last
On Twitter, several people had suggested trying Lloyds, so we decided to give one last bank a shot — then Barclays called up suggesting a GP’s letter with an address on it would suffice. Off we went to the GP surgery. “Do you have proof of address — like a bank statement?” the receptionist asked. You couldn’t make it up.
At Lloyds, there was a rare outbreak of common sense as Kimberley behind the counter said: “Yes. No problem. You can write a letter confirming he is living with you; all the other documents should be enough. We’ll send them off to our checking department and you should hear from us within 48 hours.”
The next day we got a call saying the application had been approved, and two days after that we went in to sign the paperwork. Job done.
In the end, it was really that simple. After spending all day being fobbed off with different excuses, the last bank came good and our Iranian guest now has a Lloyds Basic Account.
Why is it so difficult?
As a journalist, I enjoy holding the powerful to account and exposing wrongdoing so the less morally ambiguous can thrive, but this farce seems so simple to solve.
Why can one high street bank open an account without proof of address, while others can’t? I understand banks are battling against a tidal wave of fraud and the checks are there for a reason, but if Lloyds can do it, surely everyone can?
Why are easily forged utility bills still held by banks to be articles of faith? Why isn’t the Home Office telling refugees it has agreed to shelter how to avoid ending up destitute? And how will those with limited English do this on their own?
I approached the banks we visited to get some answers. Barclays declined to comment. HSBC said: “In light of your experience in branch, we are reissuing guidance to our frontline staff to ensure all of our procedures are understood.”
Santander said basic current accounts can be opened by anyone, regardless of how long they have been in the country, adding: “We are very concerned to hear about the experience you had in our branch and can only apologise that you left without a satisfactory answer to your questions about opening an account.”
NatWest said: “We worked extensively with the industry last year to ensure we are able to help refugees in need of a bank account. Our staff are trained and assessed on account opening; particular reference is made to refugee account opening and identification and verification requirements.”
While all the banks also pointed out they offer a basic bank account — something none bar Lloyds got as far as suggesting — they admitted one couldn’t be opened without proof of address, which seems absurd when a refugee can move home every few weeks. As each new form of “proof” arrives, they might have moved on.
Rules set out by the Financial Conduct Authority state that banks must prove the identity of anyone wishing to open an account, but also specify banks should assist in this process by other means if proof of address cannot be provided.
I also spoke to Monese, the UK’s largest app-based bank, which offers current accounts without proof of address and uses a series of other checks to identify fraudsters. It pointed out that it follows the same rules as the banks and has not suffered an increase in fraud.
The Home Office said: “The UK has a long and proud history of granting protection to those who need it, and those recognised as refugees are entitled to support and services including the right to open a bank account. Those granted leave in the UK are issued with a biometric residence permit, which should be accepted as sufficient proof of identity.”
The department is understood to be liaising with the British Bankers’ Association about this problem but, with confusion over rules, unwillingness to help and banks seemingly failing to take responsibility, I don’t hold out much hope.