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Bank Branch Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:37 pm on 30th June 2016.

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Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn 3:37 pm, 30th June 2016

I congratulate my hon. Friend Christian Matheson and the hon. Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on sponsoring this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on allowing it.

As has been said, the high street banks are the hub of our communities. Not long ago, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said, they used to boast that they were the local banks. That is not the case for those who live in north-west Wales. As indicated by other Members, Wales has seen one of the largest number of bank closures across the UK. These are the very same banks that the taxpayers of local communities helped to bail out only a few years ago. We took the responsibility, as a nation, to secure the banking system, but all we have seen is closure, closure and closure.

These closures have been implemented by stealth. There is a trend: first, we see a reduction in services—appointments only in centralised branches—and then hours reductions, when already those hours are not what communities want. If someone works from 9 to 5 and has to commute, their bank will not be open when they leave their home or when they return to their local community. The banks have not adopted the flexible working hours that businesses elsewhere have arranged. Then there comes closure. More often than not, when a bank writes to its customers, after deciding to close a branch, it will call it the most difficult decision it has had to make.

No. The difficult decision would be to work with the local community and keep the bank open. Closure is an easy option for many banks. They have been encouraging people to use online services. My local branch still pulls me up and says, “Would you like to use online banking?” That is not encouraging over-the-counter services; it is encouraging people to move away from their local banks. I do not buy what the banks say about the difficulty of closing branches. It is an easy option for them. Many have overheads that they want to reduce to make maximum profit for shareholders, and that is what is behind many of the closures.

I accept that IT services in the finance industries are evolving and that younger people are happy to use an app. As I said in an intervention, I carry my iPad and my cheque book with me wherever I go, but my ability to use those services is limited in rural parts of my constituency where I do not get a signal. Once, the bank got in touch with me to ask whether I had made a certain withdrawal and it took me hours to pick up the message because of the lack of a signal. I went to the branch to discuss it and got excellent service, but quite often people are not given the choice of going into the bank branch.

Banks have been closing in villages in my constituency for decades. Some have been replaced by a hole in the wall in another shop—the Spar or the post office—but the post office closure programme has compounded the problem in many constituencies, with mass closures of post offices across the country. Although many have extended hours, they are not there to suit small businesses and individuals.

In my constituency, the problem is not limited to villages and areas of low population; it is found in the principal towns as well. The five principal towns on Anglesey have all experienced reductions in banking services. Those services are vital to tourists: they come to the area and want to get money, but the hole in the wall may not be working; or they have an inquiry that they cannot deal with through their local branch. People visiting my constituency and other parts of the UK who want to go in and have a face-to-face talk about their financial circumstances are unable to do so.

The Government here in the UK, the Government in Wales and local authorities across the United Kingdom are working hard to regenerate town centres, yet many of the high street bank branches in principal buildings in those town centres are closed. It is difficult for regeneration schemes to counteract closures on the scale that we have seen. There is no joined-up thinking here. The present Government have rightly talked about how valuable high streets are, but the banking industry is not pulling its weight, even though we, the taxpayers, bailed out some of the banks.

The Holyhead bank branch has reduced hours and people have to go to Llangefni, 15 miles away, for an appointment. Fifteen miles may not sound like a great distance, but people who do not have private transport may have to take two or three buses to get there and make the journey within those reduced hours. Peripheral areas of north Anglesey have been hit hard by bank closures. Again, it is difficult for people to get to alternative branches and they usually have to make an appointment.

Market towns have been built on trade; the banks have played an important part in their development and infrastructure has in part been built around the market and the banks. Such towns have been ignored for too long. I know the banks are private institutions, but they have community responsibilities. They are letting down their customers, in particular those in rural areas.

Other speakers have talked about regulation and the many inquiries that have been set up, but I am making practical points about individuals in the 21st century who want to access services face to face. The social value of banks and financial services in local communities is important. We have heard about elderly people wanting to come in to a branch and talk to someone; let us not ignore them. We have a growing older population in our country and we and the banks need to look after them. The banks have a social responsibility.

This debate is timely and I appreciate that we are having it because it affects each and every constituency. It is time the House of Commons started to tell the banks that they have to be responsible to the communities they serve. Those communities, their customers and the taxpayers helped to bail out the banks when they were in trouble. Communities are now in trouble. We are asking the banks to pull their finger out and act responsibly.