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Bank Branch Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 30th June 2016.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 3:44 pm, 30th June 2016

I do not own the bus or the train, I hasten to add. I have that luxury, but most of my constituency does not.

Two weeks ago, HSBC notified me—it sent me a letter—rather than consulted me of the fact that the Aberaeron HSBC would be shutting in September. They did not ask my opinion beforehand when they came to see me and the local councillor, Elizabeth Evans, to discuss the branch closure. This is a significant community and a tourist community—not on the scale of Glastonbury, but a significant community on the west Wales coastline. Local businesses need the bank—it is essential—in order to cash their takings. The closure is simply another nail in the coffin for that vibrant community.

In respect of the protocol, this is an instance of putting the cart before the horse. We were told that arrangements would be put in place before the closures happened, but we left that meeting still very unsure about whether the town of Aberaeron would have any cashpoint provision. In case HSBC is listening, if it is still intent on moving the bank to a local store there is a challenge: the pressure is on to provide us with at least a cashpoint machine in the town.

There have been two cashpoints in Aberaeron in the past. The hon. Member for Clwyd South mentioned the railway in her community. People can arrive there anticipating their railway trip for the weekend and find that they have no money and no means of accessing money. That happened in Aberaeron when the two cashpoints dried up. Visitors as well as locals found that they had no access to money in that community, raising the spectre of a long drive elsewhere.

With the continuing loss of bank branches, the importance of post offices has grown substantially, with more post office branches now providing banking facilities. We are told that 99% of the population live within three miles of a post office branch, with over 11,500 branches nationwide. All of those branches handle automated transactions, offering “cash-in and cash-out” banking services. Although the services provided by the Post Office are welcome and the initiator of this great idea should be commended—it is important and is providing more than a stop-gap—by the Post Office’s own admission, post office branches

“cannot offer the high value, complex and regulated financial services previously offered to the bank’s customers.”

Where can a customer receive financial advice or take out a loan in an area that has no local bank branches and a post office branch is the only access to banking? These are things that neither post office branches nor internet banking services can provide in the way that I think is still required—in a personalised and focused manner.

One of the successes of the previous Government was that the post office network was retained after years of decline, with a commitment to keep 11,500 post offices. However, that has not necessarily stopped closure. What has happened is that the word “closure” has been replaced with the idea of “movement to somewhere else”. If high street bank branches close and post offices follow, rural communities will be hardest hit. With relatively limited public transport making it harder to travel far and with rural areas having the weakest broadband speeds, our rural population is being financially left behind. As we have heard, there are age and demographic issues because not all people are capable of accessing the internet even if it is available.

When banks move into post offices and post offices move into shops, we need to recognise that those places were not designed with bank transactions in mind. There is considerable concern about privacy and security, which will be particularly off-putting for local businesses and elderly residents who rely on face-to-face transactions. Another positive move was the access to banking protocol, but I can only concur with the eloquent and passionate remarks of the right hon. Member for Tottenham on that issue. The protocol was good as far as it went, but it did not go far enough. It has not been monitored and I think it has been breached. I look forward to the review when it happens. When the protocol was announced, my former colleague, Vince Cable, said that

“banks have a duty to ensure that all their users and especially vulnerable customers, small businesses and those in rural communities can continue to access over the counter banking services.”

That is extremely important, and we look to the Minister for reassurance that a renewed protocol to address those concerns will be robust and will be enacted.

As well as the Aberaeron branch, we have lost a number of others. The roll call is significant. We have lost banks in Llandysul, New Quay and Tregaron. Tregaron is a particularly notable example, because following the closure of the Barclays branch there, customers face a 22-mile round trip to the nearest branch in Lampeter. It is not good enough for a bank to put a poster in a window, or on a boarded-up window, telling people that their nearest branch is X miles away. That closure has hampered local businesses, and local residents have felt the loss of face-to-face services. New Quay/Cei Newydd, in my constituency, has lost its last branch, although the town has a huge population in the summer because of all the visitors.

I could go on, but I will not do so. Others want to speak, and we want to hear from the Front Benches, including, of course, the Minister. Let me end by saying that rural communities are going through very challenging times. There is a characterisation of the high street in a small market town, involving banks, post offices, shops and readily available public transport—buses that stop and take people to their destinations. I do not want to be a Luddite; I do not condemn the march towards a digital economy, with services that can be accessed online and business that can be conducted by means of a call centre rather than face to face; but there is a universality in that, which does not currently apply to all rural areas. Perhaps it will in the future, given technological advances. Perhaps we will all be content to sit in our homes, not talking to each other and playing on computers. But we are not there yet.

Rural areas are being left behind. Broadband, and broadband speeds, are not equitable across the country. A generation of people, and certain businesses, depend and rely on physical banking. I sincerely hope that, if the way forward is the access to banking protocol review, the realities of rurality—the reality of the 20% of us who live in rural areas—will be considered.

The hon. Member for Wells ended his speech by using the phrase “fair play”. In Welsh the phrase is “Chwarae Teg”, and we demand that too.