Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Let Them Kill off the Cheque

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Let Them Kill off the Cheque

Article excerpt

Next month I will break the habit of a lifetime and wait until the red reminder before paying my telephone bill. I will do so because BT has decided to charge me £33 a year for the audacity of paying my bill by cheque.

BT is penalising people who pay by cheque because it wants us all to pay by direct debit. As it happens, I'm happy enough to pay by direct debit for some things: namely bills which are for a fixed amount of money every month. I would be perfectly happy to pay my telephone bill online, too, so long as I was in control of the transaction. What I refuse to do is to open my bank account to BT and say: 'Here, take what you like.' If someone intercepts my phone line and fraudulently redirects all my calls via Moldova I want to know about it first -- not after BT has emptied my bank account.

Businesses love direct debits because they are cheap and because we frequently forget to stop them, meaning that we end up paying for goods and services that we really intended to cancel but never quite got round to doing so. But there is another reason why large firms are engaged in a war against the cheque -- Marks & Spencer is the latest retailer to say it will no longer accept payment by cheque, joining Asda, Boots, Sainsbury's, Next and many others. For large businesses, elimination of the cheque from the entire banking system would be a wonderful way of driving out smaller competitors.

The retail giants know full well that there are many small companies whom we would hesitate to ring up and read our credit card details. You see an advert for pot plants in the Sunday supplement: it is only a little business, which you have never heard of and which operates from a PO box in Lancashire. You would quite happily send it a cheque, but would you pay over the phone by debit card? You hesitate, of course, because you don't know who you're dealing with.

Some mail-order businesses are too small to justify the expense of setting up a merchant account and taking payments by credit card. For them, cheques are essential. Other than by cheque, how do you pay your B&B in remote Wales, miles from the nearest cashpoint? Or the local builder who put in your bathroom? There is PayPal perhaps; the electronic payment offshoot of eBay, but it isn't easy to use, it requires the setting up of an eBay account, and it's by no means immune to internet fraud. …

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