I promised my hon. Friend before I stood up to speak that I would not say “Clwyd West”, but I knew I would get it wrong. My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones has been a good friend for a number of years. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, she cares about these issues. I thank her for her passion and for the strength that she has shown, especially this week, given the difficult circumstances.
Sadly, the debate has come at a bad time for me. Only last night I received the terrible news that yet another bank—Lloyds in Newbridge, a town in my constituency—is to close in October. That follows the closure earlier this month of HSBC in Risca, another town in my constituency. Sadly, such closures are not unique to my constituency. They are widespread throughout the whole country, and some sections of society are experiencing a considerable loss. The BBC reported in May that between April 2015 and April 2016, more than 600 bank branches were closed across the UK. More have closed since, including that HSBC branch in Risca, and soon there will be that closure in Newbridge and others across south-east Wales.
Local residents are being given the usual reason by their bank, namely that more customers are turning towards online banking and footfall at branches is falling. It is hard to deny that online and telephone banking are on the rise. Although I use bank branches from time to time, my own daily banking needs are usually met over the phone or through an app. This trend is underlined by Barclays, which says that on average its customers use mobile banking more than 28 times a month, but visit their local branch less than twice in that time. The banks say that it therefore makes commercial sense to close branches that are expensive and not being utilised enough to justify their cost. When I worked in banking in the early part of the 21st century, I noticed that footfall was going down, but the banks were not really very nice places because we would have a customer’s arm up behind their back trying to sell them as much as we could as soon as they walked through the door.
If we look only at statistics and reduce customers to numbers on a graph or spreadsheet, saying that they are only one of a minority who do not use online or telephone banking, we ignore the cost and the burden that closures place on the individuals who are left out. When we dig a little deeper to see who exactly loses out the most from the closure of a bank branch, it is almost always the most vulnerable in the community. I have spoken in the House about the perils of payday lending, legal loan sharks and doorstep lenders. If someone needs a loan, they will trust the person at the door if there is no bank at the end of the road to meet their borrowing needs. That is the danger. When a bank closes a branch, that person, who is usually unbanked, becomes even more vulnerable than they already are.
I have to make an example of HSBC and the branch closure in Risca. When I launched an online petition, which was signed by hundreds of residents, some of the comments truly summed up the problem with branch closures. One constituent said:
“My parents use this bank. If this branch closes they will not have a branch within a 5-mile radius. The nearest branch will be at least 30 minutes away by bus. Both of them are in their 70s and cannot use internet banking as they have no internet connection nor computer. They are hard of hearing, so telephone banking is also out of the question. How are customers like them supposed to deal with any issues if they cannot speak to someone face to face?”
HSBC’s closure of Risca’s branch was bungled, and the same goes for branches all over the country. The first I heard about it was in an email on a Friday night. I was told, “Do not say anything, because we have not told the customers or the businesses. Keep it to yourself.” I wrote to the bank and asked for an exact closure date and when it was going to be announced, but I was met with silence. It was only when I put it in the press and set up the petition that HSBC wanted to talk to me. Even then, it was like pulling teeth.
I asked to speak to the chief executive—like the hon. Member for East Lothian did with RBS—and I was given a regional director who popped by in Risca for the day. Guess what I found when I walked into the HSBC? Did I find a branch on its last legs? Did I find a lack of staff? No, people were queuing out the door to use the services. The average age of the people was 70s or 80s and they were complaining that the branch was going to close, yet the representative was in the office telling me that no one was using the service. Who am I supposed to believe?
Another thing that I have to say about HSBC is that when it did finally put out a press release, it told me that footfall had dropped by 70% in Risca. That was very good, and I accept that, but when branches were closed in the constituency of my hon. Friend Chris Bryant in Porth and Tonypandy and in the constituency of my hon. Friend Chris Elmore, the bank said exactly the same thing: footfall had fallen 70% as well. I am sorry, but I do not believe that figure.