17 Feb 2022
Photo of the New Start Westpac team

The New Start team from Westpac and Corrections visit Tongariro Prison.

Growing up in foster homes without any formal identification meant that even as an adult Cole* never had a bank account.

“I’ve had three different names which were pretty much made-up names. And I didn’t find out my real name until I was in my 20s. By then I wasn’t able to access bank accounts anyway because all I had was a birth certificate, no photo ID or nothing, and none of my names matched up to who I was,” he said.

“I was getting money put into other people’s accounts, and most of the time losing that money for whatever reason they took it for. So, I’ve pretty much just had to use cash through my daily life, and I’ve always felt that I was behind everyone else, and now with the new technologies I was really starting to feel outdated.”

Cole was in custody at Tongariro Prison when he was finally given the chance to open his first bank account through New Start - a collaboration between Westpac NZ and Ara Poutama Aotearoa Department of Corrections – aimed at helping prisoners reintegrate and driving greater inclusion in New Zealand’s banking system.

He heard about the initiative and thought getting a bank account would finally give him the opportunity to start again upon his release.

“I was sort of apprehensive that it wasn’t even going to happen because I’ve been turned down a lot of times before,” he said.

But this time when he filled out the paperwork and had documents signed by the in-house Justice of the Peace, he received a letter from Westpac confirming his account was approved.

“It was a good feeling knowing that I had a bank account to go out to. It changes everything for me,” he said.

The New Start scheme, which is the first of its kind in New Zealand, helps prisoners have a valid ID, debit card and online banking access at the time they are released, to make it easier for them to reintegrate into the community.

“It’s going to make a big difference in my life, that’s for sure,” Cole said.

Westpac NZ Head of Consumer Operations Jason Lock said New Start helps gives prisoners the best chance possible of resuming normal life.

“A bank account is like a passport to the economy, which is why inclusion in the banking system is so important. Without one it’s hard to get a job, pay the rent, receive a benefit or do many of the other things we take for granted in our lives.”

New Start became available in all 17 Corrections facilities in December 2021, following a successful pilot in which over 60 prisoners opened bank accounts.

Corrections General Manager for Case Management and Probation Darius Fagan is pleased the programme is being rolled out more widely to support all prisoners throughout the country.

“Individuals who have been released have enough upheaval to deal with in their lives. Being able to sort out an ID and bank account before release removes one more set of challenges,” Fagan said.

Setting up an account was often challenging for people in prison, who frequently lacked the required identity and address documents that a bank would need to open an account.

The New Start programme starts by providing someone in prison with the right ID, which can then be used to open a transactional Westpac NZ bank account with a debit card.

“The process has been made so easy and it can all be done before someone is released,” Fagan said.

“They simply need to fill out the paperwork, see the onsite Justice of the Peace to get their ID verified, then we send it all off to Westpac. When their account is opened, the individual receives a welcome pack with all the information they need about their new account. Their debit card is sent to the prison, and we keep it in their property.”

Westpac NZ still carefully considers all applications for bank accounts to ensure compliance with the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering of Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Act 2009.

“A small number of prisoners will have their applications declined for these reasons, but we’re taking a really open mind when we look at applications, as where possible, we’re keen to drive greater inclusion in the banking system,” Lock said.

Westpac and Corrections NZ are looking forward to sharing the process with members of the New Zealand Bankers Association and hope other banks will adopt the process.

*Name changed for privacy.