My hon. Friend has a long, proud and honourable history of working within the co-operative movement, and he is an expert in this area. I intend to touch briefly on the role of credit unions as I progress through my speech.
Let me return to the problems faced by pensioners in accessing bank branches. I realise that this is not necessarily the responsibility of the Minister who is present, but at the same time as branch closures in the satellite districts are forcing people into the town centre, privatised bus companies are cutting the bus services on which pensioners rely more than any other group in society, this making it even harder for them to make that journey into the centre.
It is clear that local post offices have taken up some of the demand. Members, both current and previous, have fought long and hard against the closure of those post offices, whose continued existence has been aided by their provision of banking services. I am pleased that they have that role, but it does not constitute a suitable total replacement,
I suspect that Members may criticise the banks for the manner in which they undertake their closure programmes. I, too, am critical of the seemingly hasty and often desperate way in which those programmes are conducted, based solely on cost-saving and with no eye to service. Today, however, I want to be positive, and to propose a new solution which I hope the Minister will consider.
My suggestion is that high street banks should come together where they are closing branches to form local banking hubs. In other words, they should maintain provision on local high streets, as opposed to major town centre high streets, in shared premises and with shared costs. They could provide the automatic paying-in and cash withdrawal machines that we see in bank branches now, along with, perhaps, booths containing phones so that clients could contact bank call centres if necessary. As was suggested by Margaret Ferrier, it might also be helpful if staff were present to assist.
I accept that there are technicalities to be resolved—who would employ the staff, and who would own or lease the properties?—but today I am concerned only with floating the principle, and, indeed, it is not my role to be prescriptive to the banks about the specific business model. It is possible that various models could be tried and tested, and I wish to offer Chester as a test bed where the banks could come together and provide a model community banking hub. Perhaps Chester’s credit union could be involved as well.
Let me therefore throw down the gauntlet, and challenge the banks to take my proposal seriously. I invite them to come to Chester—or Wells, or Aberystwyth—to set up a joint hub, and give it two years to see if it works. That is a serious offer, and I will help the banks to make a success of it in my patch. Either that, or they should stop using advertising that suggests that they are more human and accessible, while continuing to close local branches and make access harder. Banking is a private sector business, but it is also an essential service. A bank is an essential part of the local high street ecosystem. There must be no more cavalier closures of branches which, in turn, damage the local economy: banks are too important for that. In 2008, we learned that some big banks were—apparently— too big to fail. Perhaps the message today should be that some local banks are too important to local communities to be allowed to close.