U.K. Banks Bids Long Goodbye To Checks

Britain's banks are waving a long goodbye to the humble check. The council that governs the country's bank payment systems has voted to go electronic. The council says checks will still be accepted until 2018, but many are concerned Wednesday's decision will hasten the check's decline.

In 1990, Britons were writing 11 million checks a day. Now, that number has fallen below 4 million, and it is plummeting fast as an increasing number of people pay online, or with plastic. So, the U.K. Payments Council argues its decision to phase out checks over the next nine years simply pulls the plug on a system already in terminal decline.

Concerns About The Elderly

Civic organizations oppose the move, raising fears it will affect millions of less well-off Britons, especially the elderly.

"It's going to add an extra tier of complexity to the lives of people who are struggling to live independently in their own homes," says Mervyn Kohler of the charity Age Concern.

Kohler says he worries many seniors will resort to carrying cash around, making them easy targets for muggers.

Many big businesses and store chains have already stopped accepting checks because credit, debit and online payments are so much quicker and cheaper to process.

Builder Roy Lilley is not among them. He says he trusts the human hand that writes a check far more than the unseen hands of cyberspace.

"I feel safe with the check," Lilley says. "I will never feel safe with online banking or anything. It scares me even to think about it."

That sentiment highlights the human fault line in the country.

Humble Check's Long History

Ever since trader Nicholas Van Acker wrote out the first known British check in 1659, Britain's small businesses, its corner stores, plumbers and builders have depended on checks for their lifeblood.

Stephen Alambritis, of the British Federation of Small Businesses, argues the decision to kill off checks was driven by the big banks, which stand to save more than $1 billion a year.

"The check is important to small businesses, to charities, to subscription-based companies, to the voluntary sector and to schools," Alambritis says. "And it does not behoove the Payments Council to entice the demise of the check: Allow things to happen organically."

Sandra Quinn of the U.K. Payments Council says checks are a 17th century invention — not a 21st century one. She says the long phaseout period was designed precisely to give people plenty of time to adopt new technologies.

"We completely accept that for some people this decision could come as a real shock," Quinn says. "So what we're saying is we're not phasing out the checkbook tomorrow. This isn't about that. This is about setting a long-term target date, and we want to make sure those customer needs are really taken care of."

Hoping For An About-Face

The pro-check forces aren't done yet, however. Parliament member Mark Hunter, a member of the Liberal Democrats, is pushing to make Britain's big banks reconsider. Banks are already under fire for their confusing fees and swinging penalty charges.

"After all, we've just bailed them out, literally to the tune of billions of pounds," Hunter says. "Now they want to charge us for accessing our own money from cash machines — and at the same time they're proposing to scrap checks. They don't understand what service is all about!"

But barring some last-minute reprieve, the last check in Britain will be written out on Oct. 31, 2018.

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