Alastair Hanton, who has died aged 94, was the inventor of Direct Debit, a founder of National Girobank, and a tireless campaigner for causes ranging from sustainable transport to Christian Aid.

It was in 1964, as an executive of Unilever, that Hanton came up with a solution to the problem of collecting variable payments from thousands of ice-cream sellers – by obtaining authorisation to retrieve the money direct from their bank accounts rather than waiting for cheques or relying on standing orders.

In this video recored in 2014 Alastair Hanton says that he had had ‘many meetings with stuffy bankers’ over his idea for taking variable payments from bank accounts, but he wore them down.

The high-street banks were reluctant to cooperate with what they regarded as an interference in long-established processes. “There was a battle,” Hanton recalled. “I had many meetings with stuffy bankers but gradually, by persistence, I wore them down” – and Direct Debits came into general use in 1968 (or, perhaps, 1970).

Hear Alastair’s story on how Direct Debit began in the UK

Obituary: Alastair Hanton, born October 10 1926, died May 26 2021.

It was all because of ice cream!

The original use case shared in the video by Alastair still rings true.

Unilever wanted to collect money from thousands of small retailers who were selling ice cream and thought that they could save costs, improve the collection of monies owing and make everything more convenient if they could be authorised to collect money direct from those that owed them money.

50 Years on

50 years on a Direct Debit has certainly become the embedded, hassle free, frictionless and pre-eminent way of making recurring payments. 

It was my privilege to lead Bacs as its CEO for over a decade – a time in which Direct Debit volumes grew from circa 2 billion to just over 4 billion transactions per annum.

What did Alastair invent?

– A trusted brand

A trusted brand, which has become synonymous with ensuring bills are paid reliably and without fuss, it is perhaps apt that the milestone is marked in a typically understated way, reflecting Direct Debit’s role in quietly moving £1.3 trillion behind the scenes, each year.

– A quiet revolution

With Direct Debit part and parcel of everyday life, it’s easy to forget that when it was launched in 1970 – a year that saw the first music festival held at Glastonbury – it represented a quiet revolution of its own. Put simply, the world of bill payments was changing.

Today, Direct Debit – which is now owned and run by UK retail payments authority, Pay.UK – is relied on by thousands of service users to reliably collect funds, and has a half-century of continued year-on-year growth. 

– Payments without fuss

Part of the growth in Direct Debits, inevitably, is down to the many more bills we pay today. 

Bacs – 6.5 billion transactions a year … and counting

In the 1970s, regular  payments were limited to mortgage or rent, and electricity or gas. Nowadays, we have mobile phone bills, broadband bundles, gaming subscriptions, in-app payments, and half a dozen different types of insurance; we spread the cost of major purchases from holidays to cars, and more mundane ones such as our TV licence or Vehicle Excise Duty, and settle dual fuel, water, and council bills without ever having to leave the house.

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Thank you Alastair

My time as Bacs’ CEO represents a very significant part of my career, I am proud to have played my part in the success of Direct Debit – all thanks to Alastair having many meetings with stuffy bankers and gradually, by persistence, wearing them down!

Thank you Alastair.