First published in The Herald on 7 September 2019
EDINBURGH financial services giant Scottish Widows has come under fire after a potential customer was told he could not invest in one of its stocks and shares Isas because he is too old.
Isas – individual savings accounts – are Government-backed products that allow investors to save up to £20,000 each tax year without having to pay tax on any interest or investment gains. While investors must be 16 to open a cash version and 18 to open a stocks and shares one, the only product that carries an upper age restriction is the lifetime Isa, which is aimed specifically at those in the 18 to 40-year-old age bracket.
Despite this, Bob McFarlane of Bellshill in North Lanarkshire said he feels he has been discriminated against by Scottish Widows because it last month refused to sell him an Isa after discovering he is 76.
“I had a cash Isa which was maturing in August,” he said. “I could have put it back in for 0.6 per cent interest but I used to have an investment Isa with Scottish Widows so I phoned them and told them I was interested in a stocks and shares Isa.
“They said that’s okay and took my details but when my date of birth came up they said ‘we can’t do business with you because you’re over 74’.
“I was a bit speechless – why am I being discriminated against? The crazy thing is, I wasn’t asking them for a loan, I was giving them my money to invest.”
Scottish Widows, which is owned by Lloyds Banking Group, later confirmed its policy to Mr McFarlane in a letter dated August 19, stating “the maximum age of entry for our stocks and shares Isa is 74”.
“Our Isas are designed for medium to long-term investment (at least five to 10 years),” the letter said. “We have to consider the suitability of all products for our customers. There are a range of factors we consider regarding the suitability of products for customers at different stages in their lives. Products designed for medium to long-term investment may not be suitable for customers beyond certain ages.”
Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland, said the response was “very disappointing”, particularly as the Scottish Widows letter appeared to indicate that the company did not expect Mr McFarlane to live for very long.
“There’s absolutely no reason why a 76-year-old shouldn’t be able to make their own decision about investing in the short to medium term,” he said.
“We’re all living longer, healthier lives, and people in their 60s, 70s and beyond still want to plan ahead and invest their cash wisely.
“Unfortunately, this highlights the lack of age-neutral financial products available, whether these are Isas, mortgages, or insurance policies.
“With an ageing population, who often have significant savings, it’s extremely short-sighted of banks and other financial companies not to cater for them.
“We hope providers will think again about unnecessary age restrictions and offer products to all customers, regardless of age.”
This is not the first time Scottish Widows has been accused of refusing to sell an Isa product to a customer in their 70s. In 2014, a reader of The Guardian contacted the newspaper’s Your Problems section asking it to investigate why, when she had attempted to buy a Scottish Widows Isa via fellow Lloyds subsidiary Halifax, “to my astonishment I was told I could not have one as I was over 74”.
The company told the paper the claim had been “made up” by an employee, adding that it would “raise this mistake” to “ensure it doesn’t happen again”. It also made a payment of £1,850 to the complainant to cover the tax advantages she lost by missing the tax-year investment deadline and to compensate her for any stress caused.
Despite the letter to Mr McFarlane confirming that the company has imposed that age limit, Andrew Hagger of personal finance website MoneyComms noted that Scottish Widows makes no mention of the restriction on its website.
“It’s certainly not mentioned on the Scottish Widows website – a minimum age of 18 is but there is no maximum,” he said.
“There is no life insurance element to these Isas so I can see no reason why a maximum age would be imposed – there’s no additional risk to the company.
“It seems a little short sighted of Scottish Widows as many people in their 70s will have accumulated sizeable wealth, which would surely mean healthy fee and commission income.”
Scottish Widows did not respond in time to requests for comment.
Mr McFarlane has kept his money in a low-interest cash Isa from Bank of Scotland, which, despite also being owned by Lloyds, has not imposed an upper age limit on its products.