My hon. Friend is right. The House will recall the hugely important role that building societies played in local communities 20 years ago. We destroyed that important relationship as they all merged and became banks, and now we are left where we are. That local proximity and that different structure were lost and now we have to reinvent it. I hope that the hon. Member for Wells is part of that reinvention. The Government should think carefully about whether we need a review of such new structures. If we do, the man to do it is my hon. Friend Mr Thomas, who knows a lot about mutualisation and co-operatives. We need that back on our high street.
The access to banking protocol is undergoing independent review by Professor Russel Griggs—I am sure that the Minister will refer to it. In response to my written questions last month, the Government revealed their belief that
“banks should act in the best interests of their customers and continue to serve the needs of the consumer as well as the wider economy”,
“it is imperative that the banks live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the commitments in the protocol.”
However, the Government also revealed that they have not
“assessed the impact of the protocol or banks’ compliance with their commitments in the protocol”.
Perhaps the Government have not bothered to assess the protocol because they know that it is irrelevant. It cannot and does not aim to alter any decision and, as such, pays mere lip service to the idea of access to banking. The protocol states that after a bank has decided to close a branch, it will engage with local stakeholders in order to understand the impact on the community, businesses and consumers. What is the point of a consultation after the decision has been made? That is not a consultation in the proper sense of the word—it is a notification of the closure. May we change the wording from “consultation” to “notification”? Once the horse has bolted, it does not make a blind bit of difference how customers or local businesses will be affected, so surely it would make sense to have a proper, full and open consultation process in place when the bank is considering the future of a branch, before serving notice on the local community in question.
Another problem with the protocol is that there is no firm definition of adequate replacement services; it is left up to the bank to assess and even define those. Leaving the elderly and disabled with no choice but to take a 90-minute bus trip is not an adequate replacement service by any stretch of the imagination. It is clear that when banks make their decisions, they do not take into account the public interest or the likely damage that a closure will cause. I cannot see how the access to banking protocol is anything other than a woolly and inadequate attempt to protect the bank’s name.
The Government have not assessed banks’ compliance with the commitments in the protocol, I assume because their conclusion would be that there is no mechanism in place to police whether banks have fulfilled the commitments that they made in relation to closing down a branch. If a bank says that it is closing a branch but will work out an arrangement with the post office so that customers can bank there, or will move its ATM so that customers can still use it, are those promises worth anything if there is no way to enforce them? The access to banking protocol is merely being used as a Trojan horse on both sides. Banks can claim they have followed the protocol, no matter how meaningless it is, and that therefore their hands are clean and they do not need to do any more.
On that basis, it really is time the Government got a grip of this quiet scandal and tragedy that is taking place across our country and really hurting a lot of local communities. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester for bringing this debate to the House.