Bank Branch Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:08 pm on 30th June 2016.

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Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Labour, Clwyd South 3:08 pm, 30th June 2016

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow Chris Davies, my next-door-but-one neighbour although 65 or 70 miles away. I congratulate my hon. Friend Christian Matheson and the hon. Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate.

I would like to begin with a totally nonsensical hypothesis, because I feel that after last week’s Brexit vote there is probably no hypothesis that is too nonsensical to contemplate. Let me suggest that a law was passed in this place which decreed that no community with fewer than 15,000 people should be allowed to have a retail outlet—not a single shop. People in communities of 15,000 people or fewer would complain and say that that was ludicrous. The people responsible for the law would then say, “We have thought of a workable compromise. Perhaps there could be a little vending machine with milk, bread, chocolate bars and fruit—let’s call it an ATM, for the sake of convenience. One might have to pay a little more for the privilege, but let us do that and then people in communities of 15,000 or fewer will nod their heads in gratitude and acknowledge that that is what the world is like now.”

Of course, that is absolute nonsense. We are not necessarily talking about a world where shops in small or medium-sized communities are closing, but that is exactly what is happening in the ecology of our banking sector. The survey reported by Reuters showed that HSBC, RBS, Barclays and Lloyds Banking Group are among the banks that have cut 600 branches between April 2015 and April 2016. Indeed, the hon. Member for Wells has said that 333 branches have been cut just this year.

My constituency provides an exact example of the crisis we face. The constituency of Clwyd South, which covers 240 square miles, has lost eight bank branches since 2010. The town of Corwen, Llangollen and north Wales’s largest village, Rhosllannerchrugog, which has almost 10,000 inhabitants, as well as the industrial village of Cefn Mawr and the towns of Chirk and Ruabon, have all lost bank branches—the last two just this April. In fact, my 240-square-mile constituency has precisely one bank left, in the town of Llangollen. The eight banks that have closed were run by either HSBC or NatWest, and it is only Barclays that has a single bank branch left. That is the scale of the crisis, and it is causing many practical difficulties.

Colleagues have raised the issues affecting many elderly people. When I contacted HSBC at the start of the year about the plight of elderly people as a result of bank branch closures in Chirk and Ruabon, I was intrigued by the response I received from Jonathan Byrne, regional director of the HSBC central region:

“I’m disappointed that the closure of these branches will affect elderly customers within your community. We are conscious of the impact a branch closure can have on our customers, in particular the elderly and those with mobility issues.”

Oh dear, is that the best they can do? I posed questions to him in writing about the bank branches that were closing: how many people used them; how much was held on their accounts; and if a bank branch had to close, would it be possible for us to keep one open? But, silly me, I had not realised that all that information was totally “commercially sensitive.” I was not asking for a list of how much everybody in the area had in their bank accounts, although I dare say that some of us might have found that quite interesting to read. I just wanted to know how much was being held in the accounts and how many people used the bank branches. This is a great crisis that affects—in particular but not exclusively—rural areas and small towns. As colleagues have said, its effect on businesses is a massive problem.

It is possible to open individual personal accounts with the Post Office, but, where there are post offices, there are huge variations in the financial services that they provide. We need to remember that. As the hon. Member for Wells and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester have said, business banking services vary hugely from branch to branch as well. I think we need a big sort-out. If we do not have something of the sort—call it a protocol or call it something else—we will be in an even greater crisis.

I turn to the points that several hon. Members and hon. Friends have made about ATMs. The way in which we are pricing people out—often, but not always, in poorer and more remote communities—is nonsense. It is nonsense that anyone should have to pay money to receive money from their bank account. That needs serious looking at.

The beautiful town of Corwen is in my constituency. You are nodding, Mr Deputy Speaker; I think you have been there. I am not sure whether you have been on the steam train—the heritage railway—that runs through tremendous places in the Dee Valley area of outstanding natural beauty. What a shame it would be if you arrived there one Saturday morning and found that the ATM had run out of money. That would reduce your enjoyment of that beautiful area, as it does that of so many other people when it happens. This affects not only tourists, important though they are, but people who live miles and miles away from the next ATM. It is not that we have more snow, ice or bad weather than anywhere else, but in the winter there are problems in that regard.

Many of us are trying to propose solutions to these problems. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester mentioned a good idea about community bank hubs in various areas, and he offered Chester as a pilot area. I suggest that it might be nice to have a pilot across the border as well, and then we could compare notes. I would like to offer a suggestion about how we use mobile banks. The idea that a mobile bank will come into a community for an hour a week is not good enough. We are not talking about an ice cream van; we are talking about basic access to finance. Some banks—I believe HSBC is one—do not even provide mobile banks. When mobile banks operate in my area, they tend to be run by NatWest. They do not provide the full range of banking services that ordinary bank branches have.

The Government should look at whether there should be statutory requirements covering access to finance in our communities. I am not suggesting that every bank that has ever closed its doors should reopen or that banks should all have to provide mobile services, so that we might have three mobile banks standing next to each other on the high street twice a week. I am suggesting that we think about what we consider to be a basic, minimum service for banking. Perhaps we should look at some of the supermarkets and stores that now offer banking and ask how we can bring them into the equation.

One thing I know is that we cannot allow the current situation to continue. In my constituency, eight banks have closed in six years and only one bank is left. The same thing is happening the length and breadth of our country. It is not fair on rural communities and it is not fair on small towns. It is not even fair when it happens in urban, built-up areas. I urge the Minister and the shadow Chancellor to consider these matters as they respond, because they are crucial for all our communities.