Bank Branch Closures

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 30th June 2016.

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Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn 4:05 pm, 30th June 2016

I totally agree. When I go to a bank that is about to close, I want to know the exact figure. I want to know what the footfall is even if that means just clicking the numbers as people walk through the door. At least then there would be some raw data that could be used to justify a branch being closed.

There is also a social impact. Risca once had several banks and building societies, including branches of Lloyds, HSBC and Barclays. Lloyds and HSBC have now closed, leaving the town with one remaining bank, which is fortunate because people still have the option of moving to Barclays if they want to continue to bank locally. What happens if, as in so many communities up and down the country, Risca or Newbridge lose their last remaining bank as the long trend of bank branch closures continues, as predicted by fintech companies?

I say to my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn and for Clwyd South and the hon. Member for Ceredigion that I am lucky in Islwyn because we have good transport links. We have a trunk road that goes right through the constituency, the bus service is good, and there is a new train service. People can get from town to town. However, Ceredigion, which is a huge constituency that I know quite well, Anglesey and Clwyd South all have country lanes and one-track roads. How can people get from one branch to another? It is a major outing for many people.

Before a bank closes, it is imperative that a full assessment is carried out of the impact that the closure will have on the local community and that local stakeholders are consulted. Steps have been taken. In March 2015, banks published their access to banking protocol, which laid out their commitment to ensure financial inclusion and to undertake an impact assessment through community engagement when a branch closure was planned. I look forward to the publication of the independent review led by Professor Russel Griggs of how banks have implemented the protocol. In my anecdotal experience, however, they have not. They have been found absolutely wanting.

It is very clear that some banks provide a better service than others. For example, I compare the closure of Barclays in Newbridge with the way that HSBC was closed in Risca. When I see something good, I say so. The way that Barclays managed that closure was far better than what happened at Risca. Barclays had the raw data, there was a point of contact, it spoke to all the customers, and I pay tribute to its community relations manager, Jonathan Brenchley, who was fantastic all the way through that process. The great thing about him is that if customers have a problem, they can pick up the phone to him and he will deal with it. It is an example that many other banks should look into.

In May 2013 Barclays launched its Digital Eagles programme, which is designed to support and educate customers to help them feel comfortable with using digital channels not only for their banking, but in all aspects of their lives. So far it has trained over 16,000 Digital Eagles across the country and has held 5,200 learning sessions. The expansion of such programmes among other banks would be a very important step towards ensuring that nobody was left behind as banking changes.

However, switching to online or telephone banking alone will not be enough to ensure that nobody is badly affected by branch closures. The parents of my constituent, who have no computer or internet, should not be expected to buy a computer, and their hearing problems make telephone banking an obstacle. If they are to keep their independence as more bank branches close, banks must move towards a model whereby the bank will go to the customer if the customer cannot get to the bank physically, digitally or otherwise.

I pay tribute to NatWest for its service, which is akin to a mobile library. Its van turns up once a week in hard-to-reach communities so that people can do their banking there. A promising solution might be a vast expansion of mobile banks which, although they are not perfect, could at least dampen the impact of bank closures. Customers who seek the kind of banking and financial advice they would otherwise receive at a branch should have the option to request one-to-one meetings with bank staff, either at home or in a nearby public space, such as a library.

It is important to remember that among the biggest customers of local bank branches are small businesses, with regular trips to their local branches to make deposits. The closure of branches means that they have to go further and further and waste precious time when they could be chasing sales and business. If time is money, they are certainly losing out. As in the case of personal banking, I believe banks must change their approach so that they are the ones to come to the customer. In January 2016 Barclays introduced a Barclays Collect service, which will travel directly to business and corporate customers to collect deposits directly from their door. I welcome that news. Barclays plans to roll out the scheme more widely next month. I hope the scheme is successful and that other banks follow suit.

We have to consider other options, and credit unions must be part of the mix. Earlier my hon. Friend Mr Thomas said that in the new banking world credit unions must play a role. They will bring people to banking. I know that the Minister has been a champion of credit unions in the past. They bring people to banking, but very often they are the victims of their own success. Because they are voluntary organisations, when they get huge they get even more difficult to manage, as people do not have the necessary skills and experience.

Credit unions do not know where to go as they get bigger. I think building societies have a role and should offer back-up to credit unions, as should post office credit unions. There is much work to be done in credit unions, but there needs to be a next step for them, such as the opportunity to become a community bank, a post office-style credit union, or even a building society. I urge the Minister to look into this. Legislation is needed to enable huge credit unions run by voluntary staff to become the new banks or smaller community banks or building societies. I hope she and her officials will give some thought to that.

We need to start thinking about the social impact when a bank closes. The premises usually remain vacant or become a pub, for example, which is a waste.