Death of the bank safety deposit box

By Catrin Nye
BBC Asian Network


Barclays is among several big name high street banks which are no longer offering safety deposit boxes and customers are being left with few options to store their valuables such as legal documents, jewellery or other precious objects.

At Prakash Palicha's home in south London the security is now tighter than ever. He has had a new alarm fitted and every door has three locks.

Mr Palicha's house was broken into and thieves made off with more than £100,000 worth of gold jewellery. It had been taken out of the family's safety deposit box, only briefly, for a wedding.

"More than the loss of the jewellery, I think the family were shocked by the invasion of our privacy," said Mr Palicha.

"Personally I don't think we'll ever recover from what happened. If banks take this kind of approach and remove their boxes, it leaves people vulnerable because we don't have anywhere to keep valuables."

Prakash now never keeps any jewellery out of his deposit box, but this is a diminishing service.

On the high street Lloyds, HSBC, Natwest and RBS are no longer offering safety deposit boxes for new customers.

Barclays is now going one step further and asking customers to remove their goods from boxes. The Co-op bank has already done this.

Safety deposit boxes have traditionally been used to store a range of valuables and keepsakes - from artwork and legal documents to expensive jewellery. Some people in the Asian community use the service to store gold jewellery which has been handed down through the generations or given to the family as a wedding gift.

'I could not sleep'

Raxa (who did not want us to give her surname) has just been asked to take her jewellery out by one high street bank. She is incredibly nervous about even talking about it. She had used the service for more than 30 years.

Image caption,
An old photograph of Prakash Palicha's wife, Nisha, shows some of the jewels that were stolen

"I received the letter from the bank saying you need to remove your items from the box," said Raxa.

"It was very upsetting. When I picked it up I had nowhere to keep it. I don't feel I can trust anywhere else. I don't want to go to a private company and I can't keep it at home because I'm working."

Raxa says she could not sleep when the box was in her house and does not want to disclose where she has found to store it.

Many customers are reluctant to trust their valuables to private companies, admits Vikram Naik who owns a vault in north London where customers can rent deposit boxes. But he has been getting a lot of business from people who used to rely on the high street banks.

"Some have had lockers in the bank for 20 years and now suddenly they're stopping [the service] so they panic about where to go and what to do."

Barclays, like many banks, has found the service had become expensive to operate.

It has been phasing out the service since last year and expects to have fully withdrawn by December 2013.

'Peace of mind'

Natwest explained that though it was still offering the service for existing customers, its branches were totally full and so no new customers could be accommodated. The bank also said it does not buy new branches.

HSBC said it only has around 10 branches still offering the service and again, that no new customers could be accommodated.

Image caption,
Vikram Naik's vault is getting new business from former bank customers

Conservative MP, Paul Uppal has heard countless stories of Asian jewellery theft in his Wolverhampton South West constituency. He says banks need to think past the financial implications of the service.

"It will put people in a situation that creates uncertainly and a great deal of worry," says Mr Uppal.

"If you've got gold which you need to store, if you can't put it in a safety deposit box, where are you going to store it?

"I would think the banks should perhaps revisit this and look at it again. They will look at a cost analysis but it's important they take a long term view on this. These are their customers and customers need to have peace of mind."

Of course the other option is to get rid of the valuables, but Prakash Palicha says British Asian families in particular would not do this any time soon.

"I think it does leave us more exposed because people recognise that Asians have this jewellery, but I don't see that changing. It's just tradition."

Listen to the full report on Friday 16 MarchonBBC Asian Network.

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